In Which I Discover How Fijians Grow Up to be so Wonderful – Fiji Newsletter 3

Bula !

I am still marvelling at my day spent at Togo Primary School in the hinterland of Fiji’s Nadi outskirts amongst the rich green sugarcane fields. But first I must introduce how I got there, and introduce a few new characters.

It begins with an organisation called Pacific Connect, a federally funded program to forge strong and enduring people-to-people links between the Pacific and Australia across all sectors – public, private and community. It was through Pacific Connect thatI was introduced to Shurti Kumar. Shurti is the hub coordinator for Pacific Connect’s Nadi and Latauka region and is engaged in various country dialogues, workshops and online information sharing sessions. She is passionate about women’s health, an enduring issue in Fiji, and has years of experience as a physiotherapist, currently working for the national airline in corporate wellness. She works both on the ground with staff but also on flights to help with any passengers who may need medical assistance.

As if she weren’t busy enough, Shurti immediately reached out to me, delighted to show me around, and if I liked, and we were lucky, perhaps receive a special invitation to visit a local a primary school near Nadi? Would that be of interest?

Would it? ‘Of course!’ I replied, ‘A million thank yous!’, and extended a visit to our boat beforehand.

She arrived on the Nadi marina a few days later, carrying a large white box with a profusion of green leaves sticking out of the top, laughing and chatting, and bubbling with enthusiasm and instructions. The box she held overflowed with vegetables: tiny twisted purple eggplant, bok choy which she referred to as cabbage, and green ‘spinach’, the mud still clinging to it.

‘My mother just picked all of this from her garden this morning’, she explained. ‘So you have to clean it first of course.’ She fired off the Hindi name and the Fijian name and the English name for each of them and then began the instructions.

‘First, you must fry butter, yes butter, not oil, with garlic and onion… and when they are nice and soft, you then put in the spinach – you have to clean the mud off of course – and simmer, for seven minutes till it is just right. You can simmer for ten minutes but no more than that. You must then roast the kumela (kumera) – with oregano, salt and olive oil – and then, oh my goodness, you must eat them together – mmmmmmm, they are sooooo delicious, I am getting hungry just thinking about it!’

Her enthusiasm for these vegetables was infectious, and I felt the significance of following her instructions exactly. I wrote this recipe down, noting the emphasis she put on the specific timing, and relationships, of cooking them and hoped to try it that evening.

I looked down at my sad, all too expensive ‘French’ pastries I had fetched from the local Hilton to have with tea while we chatted, now soggy with humidity, and felt rather inadequate presenting these to Shurti in return.

But she didn’t bat an eye, and very politely ate them; however I am sure both of us would have prefered some sauteed spinach.

‘I am soooo sorry, she exclaimed when we sat down, but the reason I didn’t answer your messages till so late last night was I was flying home from Australia and the flight was delayed.’

‘I know I don’t have a traditional schedule but that lets me pursue my other passions on my days off.’  This was when, she said, she continued to upskill her knowledge and skills as a physiotherapist and work with several different charities!

Such a full life, I was moved by her generosity; so grateful for her taking a morning off to visit the school.

‘Oh, it is my pleasure. It is my primary school and will be wonderful to see it again.’

‘And please don’t get me wrong’, she said, waving her hands expressively. ‘I don’t want to glamourize busy!’ And she flashed a big smile. And then she moved her head from side to side to emphasize that she really didn’t want to glamourize her busy life.

‘I really don’t, but I do have a lot to do.’

Luckily we had some time for a chat, because there were so many things I was curious about. Until then the Fijians I had met so far were indigenous Fijians. It was time to understand things from another point of view. We spoke of the pandemic, misinformation, social media, her childhood, racism in Fiji today (and the lack of it she experienced in her youth). What Indian Fijians are referred to is hotly debated and has been for years, but currently, the politically correct terms for the Indigenous Fijians is Itaukei, or the traditional owners of the land, and Fijian Indians are referred to as Fijians of Indian Descent, or FOIDs. It is embedded in the Fijian constitution that all citizens of Fiji shall be known as Fijians and all Fijians have equal status. This was a complex, fascinating and multi faceted issue and surely one in which I am only scratching the surface.

Eventually we parted, again with more instructions, on where to meet her the following morning to go to the school.

Passing through Nadi (pronounced Nandee) town you come to the Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple, built to worship Lord Murugan the god of seasonal rains, in the elaborate Dravidian style of southern India, a profusion of colour and shapes.

‘You cannot miss it. (And I coundn’t!) From there, pass along till you turn off the road which soon becomes unpaved.’

The twenty minutes to reach the temple in my half electric car, that has seen better days, was doubled once we reached the unpaved part. Although only five kilometres, it took us another twenty minutes to navigate the goats, dogs, potholes, and at one point a man sitting cross-legged in the shade, in the middle of the road looking at his iPhone. It was sugar cane country and the only shade nearby was from a tree that cast its shadow in the middle of the untarmacked road.

‘I can’t believe I used to walk eight miles to school along this road, even when it rained!’ Shurti  had said the day before. ‘We have become so soft!’  Then she laughed. ‘We had to walk whether it was sunny or torrential rain – and we used to be so frightened of the lightening, that we would hold our hands over our ears in case it was attracted to strike our gold earrings!’

We continued on past rolling rich green hills of sugar cane, banana and coconut trees.

‘At one point’, she had said, ‘We will come to a small bridge. Don’t worry, it can carry lorries full of cane, so it will hold us.’

It was one way only, built of wood, with long boards for each wheel track. She was right, it held us fine. On we went, very slowly, to not damage the cars, until we came to the school.

The school was cement block painted a soft yellow, the same yellow as the school the children showed me in Yalobi, Waya and which I drew from our boat and the stairs a deep brick colour. We walked up the stairs to the entrance where the headmaster greeted us formally and warmly. His wore plain navy pants but I could not help remarking on his spectacular shirt. It was turquoise and lime green with marvellous palms printed all over it, a work of art in itself, bright even for Fiji. Mrs Nadan, his wife, who also ran the school, had on a deep yellow dress splashed with hearts. All indications for a happy visit and a happy school. And, indeed, that was the case.

Staircases were open to the surrounding green rolling volcanic hills. Classrooms were lined with desks made of wood worn shiny with children’s hands, and the contents were crammed full with paper notebooks. No computers. A map hung on the wall next to leaves that were glued onto paper and marked as complex and simple. The primary school, out the back, was full of a rich variety of things to learn about, a display of the beach with sand, trees, fish, and plastic umbrellas, all manner of things hanging from the roof, and blackboards with chalk markings and colour.

   

Togo Primary school was created as a community project, the local village getting together to build the school in 1935, as many communities have done across Fiji. It is now managed and funded through the department of Ministry of Education, Humanities and the Arts (MEHA) and community pride is strong. Our visit was originally meant to be about an hour, but as it often does in Fiji, an hour turned into a whole morning.

First I was welcomed into the kindergarten.

The room was dark and cool. The floor was wooden, and all the children were waiting for me, cross legged on the floor, the only sound hushed whispers. I was invited to introduce myself by the wonderful Mrs. Shireen Lata, their teacher. She explained they had not seen any visitors since Covid and they were still getting over their isolation experience. I am not sure who was more shy, me or them.

‘It has been a particularly difficult year for these children. They need so much stimulation in their early years’, she explained. ‘Much of this they get through play, conversations, interactions… and because of the isolation due to COVID, there was so much time spent at home – rather than if they were in school, exploring their world, learning all sorts of new things. Coming back it was like a completely new environment for them!’

She added, ‘It takes a village to raise a child – well they have not had their village around them, to stimulate them.’

Mrs Shireen spoke to them in Fijian Hindi (a Fijian version of several Hindi dialects from India), English and the local Fijian dialect. Everything they learned they learned in three languages. This week they were learning the number ‘2’, and everything she said, she repeated three times. I introduced myself, trying to use ‘2’ a lot (two hulls on our boat, etc.).

They were painfully shy, and so I crouched down, and took off my shoes to sit on the floor at their level. Shurti sat down too and asked them questions in Hindi and Fijian and translated my story. I was an artist travelling in a boat throughout Fiji. I told them of the islands I had visited and some funny shark stories. Only one or two had seen a shark but they were quite sure they would not be frightened if they met one. I told them about the animals in Australia – they all knew a little. The very smallest girl insisted she would not even be afraid of crocodiles, although she was so tiny a crocodile could each her in one gulp. After we laughed I think she reconsidered. I showed them my concertina sketchbooks and how I used them.

   

They loved the way they opened up, like a story, and loved the idea of turning paper into long books. (I made a mental note to pass on my recent blog on how I made mine.) Eventually their shyness eased. I took out my oil pastels and coloured pencils and Mrs Shireen handed out papers and chunky crayons. I suggested they draw something they each loved about their home, and then tell the story of the picture. They dived in, drawing for all they were worth, sharing crayons with one another. The classroom filled with stories and chatter.Although we took lots of photos of the children, we were asked not to share them (for the same reasons all over the world!) but welcome to show their artwork. I am sure kindergarten children draw the same the world over, but I loved these.

  

 

Then Mrs Shireen told me the secret of the FELTS.

‘We are learning ‘2’ today but everything we teach them has to be aligned with the felts. If we teach them ‘2’ we must teach them ‘2’ using all six felts. It’s part of the curriculum. It’s part of the official Fijian curriculum.’

‘The felts?’ I asked, confused.

‘Yes the felts – the Foundation Areas of Learning and Development. The ministry sets these areas.’

‘Ah, the FALDs!’ Shurti and I nodded and understood finally.

And she handed me a list of the FALDs.

I found this list amazing. Was their schooling one of the reasons why Fijians are so wonderful, so gracious, have such a strong sense of community, are so welcoming. Here they were learning, indeed being directed by the government, to develop strong character, to learn to share, they learn to respect their religion, to value it, to cultivate their heritage… Are topics of morality, wellness, social cohesion and culture taught in kindergartens around the world? Or is this just in Fiji?

And of course, it also begged the question: are Fijians like this because they are taught these FALDs or are they taught these FALDs because they are like this? (More about these amazing FALDS can be read here.)

It is currently a question which I will continue to ponder. There is a distinctive way of being in Fiji. It is less materialistic, richer in conversation, engaged in relationship, embedded in humour, grace and gratitude, and always with good manners. As the travel guides remark, as naturally beautiful as Fiji is, the biggest asset of Fiji is its Fijians.

Eventually it was time for the children to have their midmorning snack. Fridays were fruit day so at least one day  a week they would get some fresh fruit with vitamins. They opened their lunch boxes  and said grace in unison before they ate.

‘In the school we have Christians, Hindus, Muslims, but we all have one Lord’, Mrs. Shireen said wisely.

From kindergarten we moved on to other grades, 4, 5 and 6 and I got confused after awhile which grade I was speaking to. No matter what the grade, all the children seemed to enjoy the interruption of having a visitor and all of them enjoyed getting to draw in the middle of the morning. Drawing is part of the official curriculum in Fijian primary school, and children move from chunky crayons, to finer crayons, to more refined pencils as they mature.

 

Time flew and the morning passed quickly till it was lunchtime.

Despite the fact she was so busy Shurti stayed all morning, cancelling meetings to stay with me. At the end of the visit we made a donation, the gesture of which of course required a photograph of Shurti and me with the Headmaster, Mrs Nadan, and the carpenter of the school, without whom, all agreed, there would be no school.

They asked what we wanted the money to go towards and Shurti and I agreed – it should go towards more fruit for the younger ones.

We said goodbye to the school and Shurti gave her beloved school a very big hug . We separated, me to my hot and salty boat, and Shurti to her jetset career.

That night I followed Shurti’s instructions on how to cook the spinach, of course with the kumala. It was so good the next day I texted her to make sure I knew how to ask for it at the markets. She texted back – from the USA this time – to apologise for being late in replying as she had just landed.

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