Ross Volunteered on a Community and Environment Project in Fiji
Four months with the National Trust of Fiji is not an experience anyone is likely to forget. Even so, I struggle to believe looking back on it, how many lasting, emotive memories I have from my time there. From first moving into my new Fijian flat to my last day the Sand Dunes National Park, every day was different and a world apart from day to day life in Scotland.
The average morning involved patrolling the paths and beach front of the park. As well as sweeping the paths and cutting back the vegetation, there was always something to see and investigate. Whether it was people illegally cutting down trees for firewood, excavating sand from the dune system or grazing their animals in the forest, there was always something that needed following up or checking on.
We also hosted eco workshops for school children to educate them about the park and its role in the conservation of Fijian plants and wildlife as well as its archaeological importance. For me this was one of the most worthwhile parts of my time in Fiji. The children who attended were generally incredibly enthusiastic to learn about the park and its history.
Working in the park also allowed me a great opportunity to use some of the skills I learnt during my history degree at university to do some research for the park about the archaeological work which has taken place there. Sigatoka Sand Dunes is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Pacific. Research carried out there has given us tremendous knowledge of the earliest Fijians and how early civilisation developed in Fiji and the South Pacific.
One aspect of work at the park which I found particularly interesting was the process of creating a management plan for the park. This was being created during my visit by the National Trust of Fiji with help from other international organisations. The idea of the plan is to outline the direction of the park and its priorities in the coming years and decades. Not only did the staff have to decide what the purpose of the park should be, what it should protect and how they should do it; they also had to consult the local population to get their input. Being involved in this process was one of the most important aspects of my work at the park. It gave me the opportunity to see how official government organisations can work closely with local communities through complications of language, protocol and customs to learn things about the area which would otherwise be impossible
Volunteering with Lattitude Global Volunteering allowed me to learn a huge amount about Fijian culture; in Fiji it is family and village life which is by far the most important thing. I found it made me think outside my own viewpoints on national identity and society as a whole, when in Fiji tribal traditions and local chiefs are just as important in laying down the law or running things as the state. With Fiji being so geographically remote, and having a more family oriented traditional society; deadlines and time constraints are far more laid back. The enthusiastic apathy towards punctuality is wholeheartedly embraced, with people there referring to ‘Fiji time'; basically meaning ‘what’s the rush?’ I don’t think I ever got used to waiting for things to happen or really understood it. But when I left my placement I definitely appreciated that our obsession with time is not really necessary, the world doesn’t collapse when someone is ten minutes late and I think it helps to keep things in perspective.
Most of the time ‘Fiji time’ was not a major inconvenience but sometimes it could disrupt your plans. Waiting eleven hours at the end of a pier for a ferry is a bit of a nuisance but at the end of the day, sitting watching the Pacific Ocean in a tropical breeze is not a bad way to while the hours away.
Although the work at the Dunes was physically demanding and could be genuinely hard work, the chance to be a volunteer definitely helped me get a lot more from my time in Fiji.
Working in Fiji meant I had a responsibility to make an effort to fit into society and not just remain a tourist. Although it was great to live a completely different lifestyle, I found it one of the most challenging aspects of being a volunteer. There was always a new Fijian or Nadrogan (the local dialect of the region) word to learn or a particular part of village custom to understand. When visiting a Fijian village it’s first necessary to present a Sevusevu or welcome gift. This normally consists of Kava, a mild narcotic made from the root of yaqona plant. The experience of Kava sessions in the local villages was a great immersion into Fijian culture and meant you became accepted in the community.
Some of the things that stand out most from my time in Fiji are:
1. Staying with one of the national trust workers, Mika in his home village in rural mountainous Vanua Levu.
2. Meeting the Nadroga rugby team and getting to hold the national cup the day after they won it
3. Spotting the bush fire in the park. It went on to burn down a significant part of the park and shows how much work needs to be done to break the fire regime which has developed.
4. Meeting Paul. The crazy local surfer who was bitten by a shark.
5. The metallic ringing sound in the still evening air as Yaqona roots are pounded into powder to make Kava.
6. Making all the children at the eco workshop run up the sand dunes and try to get the fastest time on the ‘assault course’. The look on their faces at a Scottish guy shouting motivation at them was priceless.
Although volunteering in Fiji with Latittude Global Volunteering was hard work, I had a great time and felt like I was able to do something worthwhile. I made great friends who made sure I adapted to Fijian culture and made my time in Fiji particularly memorable.