I was in Fiji for a two week volunteer project, living and working in a traditional Fijian village and helping out at the local kindergarten.
It was a short flight from New Zealand but the heat slapped you in the face on arriving at Nadi. It was their winter season but still in the high 20s.
Dratabu, the village where I was staying, was about 10 minutes outside the main town of Nadi. Nadi itself was a noisy, dusty and busy town full of shop owners encouraging you into their shop and home to the largest Hindu temple in the Southern Hemisphere.
By contrast Dratabu was quiet although a village of 500 people. The houses were of all shapes and sizes made from concrete and tin. There was a real sense of community governed by the Chief. In the morning one of the head men would walk around the village shouting out instructions for the day such as clean the community hall, cut the grass in the cemetery or attend the health screening.
In the village women had to wear sulus ( a type of sarong) with your knees and shoulders covered. You weren’t allowed to run or wear a heat, so as not to be higher than the chief.
My host family’s house had electricity but no running hot water, no shower (a bucket and bowl instead), no fridge, with cooking done outside on a wood fire. Food was basic with mainly large quantities of carbohydrates such as rice, taro or cassava with a little meat but very rarely any vegetables. Fruit was mainly paw paw and pineapple. Although the house was kept clean there were the biggest cockroaches I ever saw! I nicknamed them “tippy-tappies” for the sound they made across the floor at night!
The village kindergarten had two classrooms for 4-5 year olds catering for about 34 children. However they didn’t always attend and may wander in well after 9am. Whilst waiting for everyone to arrive the children would entertain themselves by drawing on individual blackboards. For some reason they loved my very simple drawings of cats and dogs! The rest of the morning was very unstructured as there was no national work programme to follow and no specific routine. Once a week, songs and rhymes were sung along with getting to know the sounds of the alphabet. The children were divided into about 4 groups and given things to do such as playing with plasticine, threading beads or cutting our pictures. A mid morning snack was had with the children bringing in from home often huge meals of rice, friend eggs, cold potato chips – again very little fruit or veg.
Ofter this it was play time outside, a beautiful setting with tyre swings and roundabouts and a tree to climb. Health and Safety went out the window but it was great to see kids just being themselves.
Following this they would come in and have a ten minute rest on the floor before waiting to be collected by their parents. At times the teacher would cut their nails, send notes to parents suggesting cleaning of wounds or treatment of scabies or to bring a handkerchief as they were full of colds (it was their winter).
For a few days there was a national theme of saying no to drugs and abuse. The children cut out shapes of hands to stick on lollipop sticks and hand painted a banner. We then marched with the older children to the community hall where the chief sat alongside guests and proceeded to sit through two hours of speeches.
The best bit was when the Fire Brigade arrived and the children could have a go at sitting on the fire engine.
The children were delightful, exuberate, noisy but often having a short attention span. There were a few bright kids there but there were no specific development activities for them.
I was able to introduce a few additional activities but in a very simple format. There is a quite a contrast in educational development between Fiji and Western Europe however Fijian kids have more freedom to explore and run around and be kids.
I found my time in Fiji to be challenging yet interesting and increased my appreciation of what I take for granted such as a mattress, a shower and good healthy food. I loved the people of Fiji for their friendliness and passion for rugby and hope that their basic health care and education continues to improve for the following generations.