The joy of Fiji’s Yasawa Islands

Published: NZ Herald Travel – June 2016

In exchange for opening up to tourists, villages in the remote Yasawa Islands are getting education, labour and help protecting their environment, writes Debbie Griffiths

The three year-old with huge brown eyes is examining my fingers as I chat to two ladies. When I notice, I turn her palm over, trace circles with my nail and sing a nursery rhyme to her; “Round and round the haystack runs the teddy bear …” Her mother leans forward and asks me to repeat the words. “We should learn this,” she tells her 11 year-old daughter. This is a community determined to glean as much as possible from those who visit.

Soso Village on Naviti Island is the biggest Fijian village in the Yasawa Islands, Fiji Picture credit Debbie Griffiths

The word Vinaka means thank you – so the name of the Vinaka Fiji volunteer programme is self explanatory; it’s a way of giving back.

The Vinaka Fiji Trust was established by Awesome Adventures Fiji and South Pacific Cruises. It has, for the last five years, worked to ensure that any changes brought by tourism are beneficial to the 27 villages in the Yasawa Islands. It’s a remote archipelago that takes around two hours to reach by fast ferry from Port Denerau on the main island, Viti Levu. It’s that amount of time again to reach the northern-most island. The clear water, colourful coral and simple beach life may look like idyllic, but the locals struggle with shortages of clean drinking water, health and education services and the sustainability of their eco-system.

It’s taken me and my guide, John, about forty minutes to walk over a steep, dusty trail pockmarked by black volcanic rock and then around the edge of a stunning horse-shoe shaped bay to get from my resort on Naviti Island’s Botaira Beach to the village. The first signs of life are children whooping in the warm gentle waves and then animal pens can be seen scattered in the shade of the palms at the edge of the yellow band of sand. The jungle suddenly thins and I can see houses. In respect of tradition, I’ve already tied a sarong around my waist to cover my legs and now John asks me to remove my cap. In Fijian villages, only the chief is allowed to wear a hat.

Simple houses made of plaster and wood are painted soft pastel colours – mint green, yellow and beige. Many have palm-frond shelters attached and all have wooden boards over open windows that are held ajar by poles. Bedding and clothes hang on washing lines in the heat and chickens scratch in the dust beside the concrete path that criss-crosses the village. We see a handful of locals going about their chores – all wear welcoming smiles and call “Bula” as we pass on our way to the school.

Debbie Griffiths relaxes in a hammock on the beach, Yasawas, Fiji Picture credit Debbie Griffiths

The children at the primary school in Soso Village – and, as I’ve just discovered, their parents and siblings too – are among those benefiting from the programme. They’ve welcomed international volunteers who help with reading recovery. The programme has seen its students go from significantly below national average in literacy to leading the way in test results among their peers.

Tema Savu is a former teacher who was asked to come out of retirement to lead the local education program. She is the mother-figure to the volunteers who come from around the world to work with the kids. Tears well up in her eyes and she takes a moment to get her voice under control before she tells me about them.

“I get quite emotional when I think about this. I’m just touched we have some amazing young people taking part in the programme.”

One of them is Brit, Sarah Ashton. This remote Pacific island is both physically and culturally a long way from her home city of Manchester. She first came for a week about 18 months ago and kept returning.

“I’ve done all three programs,” she tells me. “Education, sustainable community and marine conservation.”

The village is below world standards of health and poverty and Sarah was initially shocked by the lack of resources.

“A lot of the teaching is done on basic blackboards,” she says. “Some of the kids didn’t even have pens or pencils.”

The experience had such an impact on Sarah that when she returned home to the UK mid-way through last year, she worked through her church to raise enough money to buy pencil cases for four classrooms.

Fellow Brit, Amelia is halfway through a two-week stint with the volunteer programme. It’s her first time travelling alone and she admits her parents were shocked by her decision to work rather than relax in Fiji.

“I want to be a teacher when I get home so this is really valuable experience. It’s really nice to be able to give something back. It’s nice to have a purpose rather than just travelling around.”

The school’s principal, Eremasi Donu, takes a break from trimming the grass on the school grounds to sit with me under the shade of a tree and tell me about the difference he’s seen in the students.

“It’s very important. The programme has helped with their reading literacy and they are so much more confident.”

Vinaka Fiji volunteers have clocked up more than 20,000 hours teaching groups or providing one to one teaching to locals of all ages from youngsters to adults. The results speak for themselves. Yasawa High School has gone from one of the most under performing schools in Fiji to see a pass rate of 71% in Form 7 last year.

Tema Savu is working with Primary-aged children and is thrilled with their progress.

“When I got these children at the beginning some of them couldn’t even recognise a word.”

She tells me of one particular child who didn’t know the alphabet or the sounds the letters made.

“The other day she read a book – The Three Pigs. I had to stop myself from jumping up and hugging her. But she knew. She was happy.”

But it’s not just the academic achievements. The children are more confident and more expressive. Even though it’s school holidays, they jump out of the water to proudly sing me a song they’ve learned from the volunteers. It’s a rollicking, loud version of “Swing low, Sweet Chariot” punctuated by hoots of laughter. They end it with a yell of “bula” before scampering back into the warm waves.

What feels better than a holiday in paradise? Volunteer work in the remote Yasawa Islands not only soothes the soul, it puts our “first world” problems into perspective.

The guest bures among the palm trees at Botaira Resort, Naviti Island, Yasawas Picture credit Debbie Griffiths

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