As you may know, I’m spending this year living in Suva, Fiji volunteering at an NGO. The transition from my home town of Sydney to my new home in Suva has been quite smooth. The limit of my displacement has felt more like moving interstate than moving countries. Suva is the largest city in the south pacific, and in day-to-day life I have a lot less comforts than home, but I could fool myself into thinking I have moved to Townsville (This is easier because I’ve only been as far north as Gladstone).
Fiji is a country that is doing pretty well in a few of the really important MDGs (Millenium Development Goals), Suva especially so. Most people have access to food and shelter, as well as some level of education. There isn’t any malaria and a few of the things to do with HIV and kids etc. are better than some other places people go to help out. Fiji is not Australia though. Life here can be difficult for volunteers and especially the people that live here. The work people are doing in Fiji is based around water and sanitation, gender equality, Non-communicable diseases and Infrastructure. This is a simplistic summary of why people come to Fiji to volunteer.
The volunteer experience in Fiji is varied depending on who you are and your role. I am lucky because my personality fits in well with the Fijian culture and values. They appreciate my laid back style and my focus on relationships, and I’m always up for a bowl of kava, or at least to sit around the bowl while everyone else drinks. Many people working here who are wonderful motivated people can get stuck in the wrong role and find that people are actively working against the stuff they are trying to do to help Fiji. If I was in a place where my natural tendencies were contrary to the culture of the workplace I think it would be very draining to try to operate. This is something many volunteers have to face every day. I feel fortunate to be in a place where I mesh well with my boss and colleagues, and try to support people who are struggling with these issues as it can be hard to deal with day after day.
Socially, Suva provides a bit of a haven from anyone suffering from professional struggles. Volunteers leave behind their social support structures and come to an unknown place with strangers, but socially Suva has quite a big expat population so the fall is cushioned, and personally I have some great friends here. The psychology of this is cyclical for most people. There are weeks when home is really all you are thinking about, and that can get very depressing and demotivating. This happens about once every three months. Then there are times when you are walking down the street with some wonderful friends from about seven different countries and it feels like a nice dream. Regular reality is somewhere in between the two, and different people have different experiences. Some people get so well integrated they stay longer, and others find it very difficult to integrate. It’s a similar social change to say… starting high school.
In the city we experience only a few developing world problems. The water goes off sometimes for a few days, usually just after you have exercised yourself into a sweaty mess, and we all seem to get sick more often than back home. There are random outbreaks of diseases like typhoid and one person even got parasitic brain worms. The city is fairly sheltered though. When you go to rural areas for work, the conditions change drastically. The villagers go to a lot of effort to try to give you every comfort you would have in the city but even for the drastically naive it is easy to see there are needs that need to be met. Most people in Fiji wear second hand clothes from Australia, and the condition of these clothes in rural areas is low. Some villages you have to walk for a couple of kilometers to collect fresh water, and many places don’t have power except for a few hours by generator. Cyclones and flooding are common and hit hard because the houses aren’t always built to be disaster proof. The standard of living varies village to village but healthcare, education and facilities are sporadic. These are also some of the most beautiful places in Fiji, absolute pockets of natural beauty and wonderful people. Suva city actually has the worst weather in Fiji. It’s a peninsula and catches all the rain. It rains in Suva most days, whereas almost everywhere else there is a beautiful mix of rain and sunshine.
There are many wonderful things about my life in Fiji, the people and I get on well, everywhere is close to the ocean, there are some cheap and beautiful backpacker places to go for a weekend away when Suva becomes a bit too crazy or rainy and it’s always warm. This year has still been challenging for me though, it would definitely have been safer and easier to stay in Sydney. Fijians have taught me well about Fiji, and how it is both a beautiful, amazing place and a developing country in need of love, prayers and support. I hope I have conveyed those lessons accurately to you in this blog, and as I get closer to finishing up my assignment here, thanks for the support you have shown Connie and I while we have been away. It has been important to us especially when life is in a difficult period devoid of hammocks and cocktails.