This will likely be an earnest, though potentially infrequently updated, account of my adventures, tribulations,
and everyday experiences as I spend two years working as an environmental Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji

Monday, April 9, 2012

Going to School Like a Good Volunteer

I guess I didn’t really initiate the church-roof-ladder-building project so I obviously am not claiming it as mine, but since it meant I was doing something instead of nothing I’m going to be brash and say it was work anyway.

Outside of all the aforementioned work I have been doing, I have had the most success doing projects with the primary school that serves our village and the surrounding settlements.

The start of term for schools in the southern hemisphere is in January; they get two weeks off in May and September then summer vacation begins in the beginning of December. At the start of this year’s term I took the 40 minute walk down the beach to the school compound to speak with the headmistress. Apparently, I timed it wrong and school wasn’t over yet, so I tried to loiter innocently outside the headmistress’s classroom. I was just in the midst of a determined examination of the closest piece of cracked concrete, trying my best to be inconspicuous when the headmistress stormed out looking harassed and annoyed. Crap. 

The walk to school.

“Yes?” All the kids ran to the windows and were giggling and staring and being normal obnoxious 8 year olds. “I umm was just… umm, well could I speak with you?” She glared at me, warmly inviting me to continue. Right, so I plowed on. I told her that I was thinking about starting and environment club for the older students (primary school includes classes 1 – 8, which is about equal to our grades 1 – 8) after school and was wondering if I might be able to use one of the classrooms. Her demeanor changed, slightly, and she told me she liked the idea and said we could do it every other Friday starting at 1:15 pm or once the kids put all their bags away.

Success! I gushed my thanks and enthusiasm and she wished me goodbye by spinning on her heel and marching back to her students. I was stoked! Now I had two afternoons every month where I knew what I would be doing! Structure! A plan! I’ll actually be doing something! I went back home and began planning for the first club meeting.

I arrived that Friday a little bit early and was sitting on the porch outside waiting for school to get out. When it did, one of the teachers came out and greeted me and told me I would be using his classroom. All the kids were running around and pushing desks against the wall to make room. Then a few more kids showed up… probably just to help, right? Then the entire classroom next door filed out and into the one we were standing in. The teacher started shouting over the din and demanding that the children sit down on the floor in line and be quiet and to pay attention; apparently they had a Peace Corps volunteer coming to teach classes on environmental education.

…wait what? Somehow, in our lengthy conversation the other day, the headmistress and I had a miscommunication. What I wanted was some space after school where interested students from classes 7 and 8 could come and participate in an environmental club for fun. She interpreted that as the Peace Corps volunteer will be teaching environmental lessons between 1:15 and 2:00 pm every other Friday to every student in classes 5, 6, 7, and 8 and it would be obligatory for them to attend. Sigh. I decided to make the best of it and went ahead and did my prepare club plan for that day with all the students. Some of it was a big flop and it was difficult controlling 35 twelve year olds. But other parts of it were fun.
Since then it has become a bit more class-like but it’s definitely a fun class! We go swimming in the ocean and watch movies and draw pictures and, naturally, eat candy. Write now all the focus is going into learning about the coral reef ecosystem and one of our future projects will be coral farming and building fish houses.

We're reviewing some information about coral reefs that we learned from an environmental movie we watched at the previous meeting. BFC stands for Big Fantastic Club, which is our name. I tried to get them to pick a name for our environmental club, since I was still adamantly calling it a club, but they wouldn't. So I said we're going to be the Big Boring Club unless they change it. Fantastic was the best we could do. I should say too that starting in class one all they speak in school is English.
Drawing pictures of what a coral reef ecosystem and the surrounding environment looks like.
The group with the best picture would get stickers on their cards. The students with the most stickers at the end of term get prizes...I have no idea what I'll give them for prizes though. Suggestions??
One of the completed pictures.
After the first club/class was done I wiped a whole lot of sweat off my brow and took a breath. That was way more overwhelming than I wanted it to be. But we all had fun and I couldn’t help but feel a little exhilarated. The last thing that day (we weren’t even the last period of the day) was sports hour. All the kids ran out and started screaming and yelling and all I could think was it couldn’t possibly have been this loud when I was having recess at this age and yet I fully believe it was…maybe your hearing doesn’t fully develop until you turn fifteen? I was going deaf. A bunch of girls ran over to me and were begging me to teach them one of the endless games I apparently know.

Right, ok. Think back to recess…what did we play? The first thing I thought of was red light/green light. So we tried that but it failed several times because the girls couldn’t understand that the first time I spun around and said red light wasn’t the end of the game and meant to start over.

The next thing I thought of was red rover. I was hesitating on this one though because I feel like I remember hearing that schools in the US have banned it as a game at recess because of how many injuries the children would sustain. So I approached the teacher overseeing sports hour and explained the game to him and asked what he thought. “Yeah, that sounds great Tina, vinaka.” …ok, guess we’re a go.

I told the girls the basic rules of the game and had them split into two teams of about 12 girls each and spaced them about forty feet apart. They were holding hands preparing to start. One team shouted, “Red rover, red rover send Salome right over!” The girl they chose was in class one and clearly had no idea what was really going on. She just knew that she was playing with all the girls and that she had to run at the other team as fast as she could.

Away she went, sprinting her little heart out and grinning the whole time. As she approached the line she didn’t slow down. I can’t really be sure what exactly happened next. Either the two girls holding hands pulled away at the last second thus stretching out their arms causing them to literally raise the bar higher…or Salome was just a short little girl whose height was just the right unfortunate tallness so she managed to fully clothesline herself in the face at such a speed that she was forced completely horizontal in the air and continued to fly forward until she landed hard on the ground about a foot behind the line.

Oh lord. I ran over to her and she was still smiling ridiculously, clearly completely baffled at what was going on but pleased nonetheless at being able to play. I asked her if she was hurt but she just got up. It took her realizing that everyone was staring at her for her to get upset and start crying, as if she needed to be told that she should be crying after such an event.

Brilliant. The Peace Corps volunteer is beating up children. They’re never going to let me come back to this school! What do the teachers think? I glanced over to them and they were all just standing there smiling. No big deal. This is Fiji after all where a person could slice half their shin off while cutting in the bush and just tie a T-shirt around it and keep working. Anyway, it seemed to be a situation of no harm, no foul as Salome was fine. The girls kept playing and eventually the entire school got involved in this monstrous game of red rover. I stopped cringing when each child was about to break through and we didn’t have any more eventful take downs. Glad I could be the volunteer to bring another violent sport to Fiji. …well, at least they’re having fun! Mission accomplished.
Most of the school at the end of term celebration last year. This is on the front porch of the main building.

So You Thought You Could Sneakily Work On Projects Behind My Back, Huh?

So, really I think it must seem that all this time I’ve been here all I’ve done is lollygag around the village or get myself involved in some silly adventure but surprisingly enough I do manage to get some project work done every now and then. 

Getting work really! Read on...

By now, I hope that I’ve given you a fairly painted picture of the pace of life and work in the village and consequently how much I, though raring to go, am usually hindered in progressing steadily in projects.

Yet there are those days that make me wonder whether I woke up somewhere other than a small village in Fiji. A week or two ago, I opened my front door in the morning and was confronted by all the men in the village scattered about in front of my house hacking chunks off great lengths of bamboo, beating thick ropy vines with knobbly clubs, and marching around with various tools carrying out various and apparently necessary tasks. I sort of stood there dumbly for a moment, mouth half open, hair frizzed nicely from sleeping in a swamp of humidity, and racked my brain for some special even that this could be revolving around and that I had just forgotten about.

Beating the wadamu to separate out the strands to use as rope.

Shaving down the ends of the mangrove sticks so that they'll fit into the appropriate slots in bamboo.

Tying it together.

But no, let’s be serious, the villagers don’t deign to tell me about the regular village events like this and they only tell me about the important events as they are on their way to it themselves (and be sure to prepare a sevusevu and a speech!)… So this couldn’t be that big a deal or I would’ve probably sensed it coming.

I meandered out and discovered that they were in fact making giant ladders. Two of them! Tall enough to climb close to three stories… I stood there and did a quick scan of the houses in the village, all of which are roughly one story tall give or take a story. Curious? But no! Of course, I should have just turned around – the church roof is obviously the intended target. As I reached this conclusion a villager confirmed my thoughts, telling me that they were going to repaint the roof.

I was waking up bit more at this point and I my brain was functioning slightly faster but I was still baffled, not so much by what they are doing but by the fact that I was standing in the midst of nearly the entire population of our village and they were all steadily and efficiently working together early in the morning to construct ladders for a church renovation project.

See! A real group effort ;)

One of the ladders with sides made of wide bamboo posts, steps made from mangroves, and it's all tied together with a type of vine called wadamu, which means red string.

What?! You are can organize and work like that?? Look at how much work is being done in such a short amount of time! And such coordinated efforts! I was feeling considerably flustered. Why then is it so very difficult to get even a few people to show up to a planning meeting or to go out for an hour to look at a certain fishing site? Well, they’ve made a crucial mistake. Now I know how strongly they can work on a project and I’m going to be on their heels from now on.

It was rather fun climbing up and joining a group hangout session on top of the church roof and taking some aerial shots of the place!
That's my house on the far left there. :)

The other half of our village center.