Vinaka Fiji’s volunteering programme educates and inspires in a beautifully symbiotic relationship between volunteers and locals in the remote Yasawa Islands, Fiji. Angie Aspinall finds out more.
The word ‘awesome’ is somewhat over-used but, every now and then, it is the most appropriate word to use to sum up a person or a situation. Take ‘The Awesome Lady’ from Fiji: if ever there was someone to inspire awe, it has to be Elle. Elenoa Nimacere is a truly awesome lady.
She was instrumental in assisting the owners to set up Awesome Adventures Fiji in 2002, offering independent travellers access to some of the most beautiful, remote places in the Fijian Islands but, her contribution to tourism and the local people of Yasawa doesn’t stop there. This inspirational woman is leading projects in sustainability, public health, housing, education and in securing solar power and clean water for the villages of the islands. She manages so many projects, it would make the average person’s head spin.
I was fortunate enough to meet Elle whilst on a Blue Lagoon Cruise. The cruise company is a partner of Vinaka Fiji – The Yasawa Trust Foundation and there’s a genuine ambition to introduce visitors to the real Fiji, whilst also giving them opportunities to help tackle poverty.
Blue Lagoon Cruises has had a partnership with the people of the Yasawas, since the business was established in 1950. And, in 2010, The Yasawa Trust Foundation and the Vinaka Fiji Volunteer program were established as a way of saying thank you (‘vinaka’) for the pleasure the people of the Yasawas have brought to so many people’s lives in sharing their beautiful islands with visitors.
The aim of the Trust is to improve the provision of basic needs, taken for granted in modern society, yet lacking from life in the villages. The volunteer programmes cover areas of education, sustainable communities and marine conservation and guests on the cruises are given a brief taster of some of the work of the Foundation and its volunteers.
Elle showed us round Yasawa High school and primary school and told us about her vision for a new library block, her dream to introduce computers into the school and her ambition to create a space for one-to-one tuition for pupils with extra needs.
There are over one hundred primary school aged children from the five islands on the village. They travel to school by boat every day – one boat serves the three villages on one side of the island and another services the remaining two. The high school students – also over a hundred of them – come from further afield and they board at the school from the age of fourteen.
And whilst the entrance to the school is from a pristine white coral sand beach, and the walk to the classrooms is between two lush green sports fields, looks can be deceptive: in this idyllic setting is a woefully under-resourced school in need of investment. And this is why Blue Lagoon Cruises brings visitors every Thursday throughout the season; as with the visitors comes the much-needed resources – pens, pencils, reading books, sports equipment and generous donations.
On some tours, such cultural visits can make visitors feel uncomfortable as though they are on some kind of ‘human safari’ with all the discomfort that voyeurism of the lives of people less well off than you can bring. Thanks to Vinaka Fiji and the nature of their enduring partnership with Blue Lagoon Cruises, this was not the case. Elle explained that there was genuine excitement amongst the pupils each Thursday – Visitors’ Day. (They don’t call us ‘tourists’ but ‘visitors’ and I think the distinction was felt in both sides.)
Visitors’ Day is an opportunity for the school to welcome visitors from all over the world and for the pupils to meet with us, chatting informally in small groups or one-on-one, learning about where we come from and practising their English. On our cruise there were people from the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Croatia. That’s quite some melting pot of cultures with a wide variety of accents for the children to experience.
We were invited to wander round the school and speak to pupils and teachers. Some pupils positively encouraged interaction with beaming smiles and greetings of ‘Bula’ (hello). Others quietly got on with their studies. Much of the learning in the high school is self-managed study, something we don’t often see in the UK until college. The maturity and the confidence of the pupils was astounding: it was a humbling experience.
I met a group of boys of about eight or nine who were having extra tuition in English. One read to me shyly from his reading book. He was word perfect. Another (Jim) was keen to write his name for me and for me to write mine and those of my mother and father.
In the high school, where students board from ages 14 to 17, I met a girl in the middle of her history lesson. She told me that when she leaves school she’d like to be an air stewardess and that the place she’d most like to visit was New Zealand. Other students may take vocational lessons in agriculture and farming. They are involved in another of The Awesome Lady’s projects – sustainable food production.
Elle arranged for us to visit the community gardening project a short boat ride away at a nearby village where the Chief and the farm manager greeted us and led us through the village, past an array of colourful shacks and more comfortable-looking bungalows, (with even more colourful washing billowing in the breeze) to one of the two agricultural projects.
Our tour was of the garden tended by the local community. The village Elders had given the land to the community for food production. All 72 men in the village participated in clearing the undergrowth beneath the coconut palms and other trees and they planted crops of cassava, beans and aubergines. The women’s role is to fetch the water: this is no mean feat – which is why Elle is on a mission to find them a water tank to make tending the plants easier.
The Chief then led us to the greenhouse. In the same way that their plot is not like ours back home in the UK, neither is their greenhouse. Unlike ours, which is made of glass to keep in the heat, theirs is covered in fine green mesh to provide shade to tender seedlings. The staging for the seedlings was just the same: unmistakable to any gardener back home in the UK.
Our hosts were as keen to learn about our growing and foraging experiences as we were to learn about theirs. It’s obvious that they see every new meeting as a possibility for new ideas, contacts and support. And this is why Bula Maleya (the welcome song) sung from the shore by the pupils of Yasawa high school was such a warm and friendly greeting. They are genuinely excited to meet visitors (and some of our fellow passengers were on their third and fourth visits) – and why the Head Teacher and The Awesome Lady are always keen to meet new people.
Vinaka Fiji invites volunteers to share the magic of Fiji whilst helping the people of the remote villages of the Yasawa Islands. Their volunteer programmes cover key areas of need, from helping children learn, to planting crops, installing water tanks or working in baby clam nurseries. Programme length is flexible from 1 to 26 weeks, and the range of opportunities to help means there is something for everyone.
If a holiday in Fiji, combined with the opportunity to become more involved in the island life of the Yasawas, to genuinely ‘give back’ and lend a helping hand, and to make a difference through your travel sounds like a good idea to you, then Vinaka Fiji Volunteering will be a highlight of your travel experiences.
Further information To find out more visit www.vinakafiji.org.fj/volunteer-programmes. To donate online, please visit: http://www.vinakafiji.org.fj/donations. You can support projects in each of these areas: creating sustainable communities, education and marine conservation. Please note: Awesome Adventures Fiji is now a trading brand of South Sea Cruises, a wholly owned subsidiary of Fijian Holdings Ltd. Awesome Adventures Fiji is managed in conjunction with Marine Tourism Management, who also manage: South Sea Cruises, Blue Lagoon Cruises and Coconuts and Coral in Fiji.
About the author Angie Aspinall is a freelance journalist and travel writer living in the UK. Like her husband, fellow journalist and professional underwater photographer, Richard Aspinall, she is a member of The International Ecotourism Society. Angie is interested in sustainable tourism, agrotourism and different food cultures. She writes for a range of travel websites and has been shortlisted for the UK Blog Awards 2014 in the Travel category. You can follow her on Twitter or visit the Aspinall Ink website and Facebook page.