Why did you choose this program?
When browsing the many volunteering opportunities available, I noticed that most included a variation on the phrase ‘you will also spend some time teaching English in the local schools’. The idea filled me with dread as I knew, despite English being my only spoken language, I would struggle to teach it. I enrolled for an online TEFL course and decided that I needed to experience teaching immediately or I would forget all that I had learned…. but where to do this?
Many placements tempted me, but ultimately the images conjured by the name ‘Fiji’ – white sand, turquoise seas, palm trees, sunshine, sealed my decision. I wanted to choose a project on which I could spend a long period of time, really experience the culture and get to know the people; GVI offered a six month internship, fully supported by their staff and best of all didn’t consider me too old to be an intern.
So I signed up, told my family and friends I was going away for 6 months to probably the furthest place it was possible to go, and watched their faces turn green with envy when I told them it was to Fiji.
What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?
GVI provided information about the project, a suggested kit, and medications list and had a travel insurance scheme you could join if you wanted though you were free to find another provider if one suited you better.
They also gave you advice about visas - how to obtain an initial tourist visa on entry to the country, then as soon as you arrived they did the necessary applications and work to upgrade it to a volunteers visa. It was up to the volunteer to ensure necessary vaccinations were obtained before travel, book flights, etc.
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
Go with a completely open mind, living in rural Fiji is slightly like stepping back in time and living there will be so totally different to your own home life. Obviously you will be sharing all living areas with other volunteers and you will be part of a rota and have to do chores. The Fijian’s knowledge about things such as health and hygiene is far behind that of the western world (one of the reasons the community project exists) so it is important you do take medications for upset tummies with you – the majority of volunteers needed this at some time during their stay.
But don’t let this put you off as it is just a small negative amongst such a wealth of positive experiences that you will have and,..
no matter what you think, you will not be prepared for the parting at the end of your visit, leaving your new family and friends in paradise is so hard and as the villagers gather and sing Isa Lei, the Fijian song of parting, you will be a very rare volunteer if you are NOT in tears (yes even the guys, and even if you have only been there for two weeks).
What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?
If it is your day for kitchen duty you will be up at 6am preparing breakfast and packed lunches for all the volunteers, if not you get to lie in a little longer and join in the later battle for the showers. After breakfast you will gather your drinks and other essentials, grab your group’s lunch box and head off to your school.
After the children have had their teeth cleaning session you will join them in their classroom and either help the students with the lesson the teacher is taking, or take struggling students out for 1:1 sessions of English or Math. Depending on your timetable you will at some time during the week take the whole class for a lesson in Art and Craft, Music, and PE. The students love these lessons as they are subjects that they do not experience in their normal curriculum and you will find the children await them eagerly.
Back in the village at the end of the school day you might cool off in another shower or head off to the beach for a swim in the sea. Chores need to be completed, either cooking the evening meal for the volunteers or various cleaning duties of the communal areas. After this you might be running an after school kids club or youth club, otherwise you will be free to visit your Fijian family or join the adults in the community hall or their houses for singing and Kava or religious evenings, or simply chilling out with other volunteers in the GVI common room.
If you are on the project as an intern, the second half of your time in Fiji will probably be spent living with a Fijian family and working as the only volunteer in a different school. Then you can plan your own days in conjunction with the school staff in order to meet the schools needs as well maximize use of your own strengths and interests.
On my placement I worked mainly 1:1 with the class for years 3 and 4 but also spent some time doing fun class sessions with the older years as well as setting up a library for the school and initiating regular class library times where I read to the young children, middle ages were allowed to come and read the books themselves and the oldest years were allowed to take books home with them for a week at a time.
This may sound routine, the books were mostly really old – many even older than I was - but for the children it was wonderful, most would have no books other than a bible in their homes so this really was their first opportunity to choose something they might be interested in for themselves; just touching and looking at the pictures was really special for them.
Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it and/or how did your views on the issue change?
I was looking forward to most of the ‘adventure’ but was nervous about living with a family rather than the other volunteers. Being in someone else’s home full time might be very stressful if you had little in common or were unable to successfully communicate; the difference in cultures might prove challenging and it might be very easy to offend your hosts.
However living the previous 3 months in the first village with volunteers and my adoptive village family gave me plenty of time to learn and understand Fijian values and customs, and hard though it was to say goodbye to them all, my new family were lovely, welcoming and did everything they could to make me feel at home. I was very lucky as being teachers they spoke excellent English and we shared a sense of humour, consequently we laughed and joked constantly and my time with them flew by.
The experience hasn’t necessarily removed that fear should I do the same again, I do realize how lucky I was to found such a wonderful family. Sadly no intern followed me to their school and I worried that the progress I had made would not be carried on, but I kept in touch with them and they assured me that having gained their confidence, the children all carried on speaking English.
Is there one experience or memory that stands out above all others?
I really can’t even begin to say what a wonderful experience this was, so many amazing memories. Speaking to other volunteers we all agree that generally it is the people who make your travels memorable; I can honestly say I found the Fijians to be the most joyful people I have had the pleasure to meet. The welcome they give everyone, their open doors and open hearts - they have so little but what they do have is willingly shared with everyone along with a smile and a laugh. Add to that:
- Bus journeys with music playing, babies, animals, and luggage being passed in through windows, and the person in the seat next to you offering to share their food and drink with you.
- Snorkeling over tropical reefs whilst staying on tiny almost deserted islands.
- Watching the local pod of spinner dolphins leaping.
- Swinging into the pool by a waterfall on a vine.
- Watching children shinning up palm trees to pluck you a coconut for your evening meal.
- Watching the sunrise over the ocean and distant islands from your bed every morning.
- Not only being allowed to attend the wedding of someone you had never met, but being given a place of honor - front row seats during the ceremony.
I could go on as the memories are endless and all of them wonderful. All I can say is go! Meet the people and have the adventures for yourself, I am confident you will be glad you did.