Fiji. What comes into your mind when you think about this country? Gorgeous beaches, tropical fruits, palm trees, hammocks and resort life.
I was very lucky to have had the chance to enjoy these faraway islands during my travels. And I must say, it is far from paradise when it comes to everyday life of the Fijians. Objectively seen, it is not a rich country and help is needed in many areas. Being a tropical country, the islands get hit by severe cyclones all the time and some places have to be rebuilt annualy.
So a thought came into my mind while I was making my travel plans: rather than lying on the beach for several weeks I can also do some volunteer work while I'm on the island. My first idea was to volunteer with the Red Cross helping with their Disaster Management program. However, at this time of the year it is quite dry in the country, so they didn't need any volunteers in this area. Besides, I chose not to use the assistance of big commercialized volunteering companies. They are certainly better organized and everything goes smooth: you get placed in a project and your daily program, meals, activities - everything is very well taken care of. Is there a real need for it though? These companies print out alluring expensive brochures showing local schools, nature conservation sites and shelters etc and get a lot of attention from foreigners but, frankly, it didn't quite resonate with me because it seemed like a business...sort of.
I'm in no way underestimating the work they do, no, of course not! I absolutely admire people who give their time, energy and money to do something helpful without getting anything in return. But if you knew the cost of volunteering through these companies...you'd be very surprised. And the help doesn't necessarily go where it is genuinely needed. So, after doing my research several months ago, I found a little company run by an Australian couple and decided to work in the school for disabled kids in Lautoka, the second biggest city on the main island.
It wasn't until the day before the start of my volunteering that I was informed that it wasn't possible to be placed in Lautoka school - it was a school holiday time. I was surprised that they didn't let me know beforehand.. But then again, it's Fiji :)) Everyone is pretty relaxed and things just happen last minute quite frequently. Anyhow, I had three other options: either to go to the animal shelter, orphanage in the city or the orphanage in the remote village area between Nadi and Lautoka. I went with the latter because I knew it was the one that doesn't get volunteers often.
The first few days I stayed in the orphanage itself and later I moved to Lautoka. There in Lautoka, I was staying with the Fijian host family, Masi and Mary. They were incredibly welcoming and friendly, just like us, the Kyrgyz :) So to get them acquainted with my culture, I cooked a Kyrgyz dinner one night, Plov. They loved it! And I was happy to share part of my culture with such a distant country like Fiji :) They made my stay in Lautoka very pleasant! Also, the lady who works for them, Lesi was so friendly to me as well. When I was leaving, she had tears in her eyes saying how I was her favorite out of all people who stayed at the house. And as a gift she gave me a little Bible, saying, God bless and protect you, you should know you are such a special person. I didn't know what to say or how to react, because I'm not Christian but I accepted her little gift with gratitude for I knew she acted from the bottom of her heart.
So from Lautoka I was commuting 3 hrs a day to get to to the orphanage - since it was in the remote area it wasn't easy to reach it. Lots of walking, a bus and then a taxi would get me to the orphanage. Daily commuting was quite pricey too, but the money was the last thing on my mind. I knew how much they really needed help and you couldn't put a price on it.
The orphanage is also a crisis center for abandoned mothers and their kids. The majority of the mothers in the orphanage were of Indian ancestry - it was because of their traditions that allow men chase the women out of the house and there's no way they can go back. Just like that. And they're left on the street with a child(ren) and nothing but whatever they have on them at that moment. Sometimes men leave kids to themselves and so mothers will never see their children again unless they start the lawsuit, which they rarely do. They don't have any money for that - hence no justice. And I kept asking myself, why does this happen? Why??..
There are 15 kids in total, aged 9 months to 16 years, five mothers with kids and four homeless women. They said I was the first volunteer to actually stay there, the Australian lady who worked with kids a couple of months before me was coming from Lautoka.
The orphanage is run by two ladies and unfortunately, they don't get any support from the government yet, hopefully very soon though. For now they live on their salaries and donations...to feed almost 25 people. Living conditions are very, very basic, if you can imagine. I had the luxury to have my own "room" - a bed that was separated from the rest of the room by a curtain. No showers, just a cabin outside of the house with a big bucket, which you can fill in with cold water.. One of the hard parts for me was bed bugs. The first morning I woke up with 20-30 bites on each leg. Despite everything, I felt very warmly welcomed by everyone in the house, they tried their very best to make me feel like home. Everyone had his own chores to do around the compound, there's always lots of washing and cleaning going on. The kitchen is busy most of the time - to have the breakfast ready by 7.15am, the mothers wake up at 5am. As soon as they're done with breakfast and cleaning after it, they carry on with the lunch ready, and then dinner. Some meals were prepared outside on the fire. All in all, very simple, yet made with love.
Kids of the orphanage were unique. In the beginning they had to get used to me but this phase was very quick and in a day I got quite close with them. I could feel how much they strive for care and human warmth. They need parents to make them feel loved but unfortunately not everyone is lucky to have one. It made me think once again about my childhood and all the love I got from our parents, all their efforts to bring us up, give us a proper education and investing in us so much. And I felt really grateful for having them. Raising one child is a lot of work and with three (I've got two lovely sisters) must have been really hard, especially in very economically and politically challenging years after the USSR collapsed. Do you agree when I say how often we take things and people in our lives for granted? Let's change it! Let's appreciate each other more, let your loved ones know how much you love and care about them. Would only make you and them happier :)
Ok, back to the orphanage. My activities with kids involved reading for them, teaching them how to read and write, drawing, coloring, math lessons. Interestingly, their favorite was reading. That's where they wanted to show and prove how good they were! Some kids were really good with the others being slower. One of my favorite kids, a 11-year girl named Liti, didn't know how to read. She felt so embarrassed about it, so one afternoon she just started sobbing because one of the kids made a remark on how slow she was reading. I had to explain to her that there's nothing to be ashamed of and I promised her she would learn reading eventually and that she just needs to be patient. Later on, I was teaching her the difference between two letters, "b" and "d" for almost two hours, and she still couldn't tell them apart. I wish I had more time with her so that she would feel more confident about herself. She, as well as her sisters, was the victim of cruel domestic abuse, so they were brought to the orphanage two years ago and hidden from their father. Sometimes Liti just wanted to sit and hug. And I'm happy I could be there for her. Each kid had his/her own story and some of them were heartbreaking. So these days made me think a lot.
First of all, on how it is absolutely different to read and hear or see documentaries about people in places like this one and to actually be in that environment and see everything first hand, be part of it. We know that there are people out there who need help yet after thinking about it for a couple of minutes we forget about it until we get reminded by media once again. But don't you also think we shall remember about others and give a hand if we can? Every little bit counts, we say with my TAA friends and it is true.
I also realized how shallow our "problems" are compared to really sad things some people have to go through. Like these kids and the mothers of the orphanage. There is not much they can do at the moment to change the situation for better so they try to live their lives with what they've got and even be happy about it. And here we are, thinking we have a major problem because our boss was unfair to us or we've had an argument with someone, or we don't have enough money to go on a certain holiday..and the list goes on. So think twice before you put yourself into the grumpy mode! I am convinced that you probably know it all yourself - so did I - but just try to remember is as often as you can.
Life is simple and it is lovely (and delightful as Jack would say:)). I know it now for sure :)
Much Love :)