There’s a list of virtues written on a chalkboard at a humble Fijian school nestled among spindly coconut palms.
Neat writing reads that children must show respect at all times, be polite, punctual to class, study for exams, put rubbish in the bin and keep noise levels down.
Spending a day in Soso Village on Fiji’s remote Yasawa Islands, it’s clear they’ve perfected most responsibilities. I’m not sure they manage the last task, though.
Walking into the village, the shrill of squealing youngsters echoes through the silky air. A group of friends is playing a game on the school field. Others are singing. Mothers and children laugh together. Young and old chat while unloading a canoe on the water’s edge.
I’ve travelled to the Yasawa Islands, a scattering of 20 smaller islands north-west of Port Denarau on Fiji’s mainland. I’m here to spend time with village children through the Vinaka Fiji volunteer programme. The initiative was established in 2010 for volunteers to help maintain and restore remote villages by looking after children, planting crops, installing water tanks and working in clam nurseries.
A local woman and retired school teacher, Tema, hears I’m en route to the village and offers to make the hour-long walk with me from Botaira Beach Resort where I’m staying, over a hill and along the coast. I welcome her company.
A thin dirt track weaving through long grass is guarded by a canopy of trees – the perfect shelter from the potent sun. Tema is dressed in a long sarong and sandals. I’m wearing a singlet and sneakers, yet I struggle to keep up with her in the heat.
Reaching the top of the hill provides a much-needed break to catch my breath, swig on some water and take in panoramic views of the ocean framed by soothing green bush. Trekking down the other side leads us to a clearing opening onto a beach. Tema’s and my footprints, side by side, are the only marks rippling through smooth, yellow sand. I spot some movement among foliage on the edge of the beach. Flimsy wire netting twisted around four iron stakes makes up the foundations of a pen, home to several plump piglets.
Approaching the village, it’s clear just how self-sufficient these locals are. Canoes filled with hand-woven nets line the shore and open fires expel smoky, mouth-watering scents.
Principal of the village school, Don, greets us. He says there are 300 residents living here and more than 60 children from ages six to 14 attend his school. He gathers the youngsters and leads us into a classroom where we introduce ourselves. I’m taken aback by the goals of the children. One by one, they stand up and share their dreams. I’m in a room of future policemen, teachers, nurses, builders and flight attendants.
The children treat me to a special vocal performance. The small classroom with thin walls and wooden floors creates the perfect acoustics, cocooning their voices and echoing sweet melodies through the village. The day is spent reading stories, completing puzzles, more singing, dancing and burning energy out on the school field. I join in a game of duck-duck-goose. When a small boy lightly taps the back of my head, I leap up in an attempt to catch him. He’s too fast for me. I don’t recall anyone saying they wanted to be an Olympic runner earlier, but perhaps we have one in our midst?
The villagers seem to really enjoy sharing their world with others. I chat to the young girl who wants to be a flight attendant and tell her that my sister is in the profession. Her eyes light up as she tells me she wants to wear a uniform and is excited about the places she’ll get to experience. It’s special to see how the Vinaka Fiji programme broadens their minds, just as much as ours, as volunteers.
When it’s time to leave, I walk back along the beach, tracing my earlier footprints. I feel enriched and enlightened.
The setting sun catches the ripples of an incoming tide and I reflect on how life here is modest yet full. People aren’t distracted by technology or pressures of the outside world but are focused on what’s important; caring for one another, learning, gathering and preparing food.
It proves effective as everyone in Fiji seems to adorn a contagious grin. You can’t help but approach everything with a smile yourself and wear the brightest, most genuine one you have to offer.
The writer travelled to the Yasawa Islands with Awesome Adventures Fiji and Vinaka Fiji Volunteering.
Reported by Monica Tischler for our AA Directions Summer 2019 issue