Recently I left the cold and dark of a Sydney winter and journeyed north to the warmer climate of Fiji. A jewel dropped in the warm waters of the Pacific, Fiji is a popular holiday destination for those looking for a tropical escape. This trip was very different from the norm. There would be no resorts, no five-star dining and my company was to be a group of 24 Year Nine students. It was to be a journey full of learning and insights into the challenges facing education.
For the students, this trip was a part of a 'school service’ that encourages them to take positive action for a better world. Charitable donations of cash are an easy and painless step for those from a privileged community; giving of your own time, energy and sweat requires a far greater contribution. While in Fiji the students visited villages, a women’s refuge and threatened coastal environments and spent days in the hot sun making a genuine contribution. Our tour provider was Rustic Pathways, a company whose "mission is to empower students through innovative and responsible travel to positively impact lives and communities around the world.” Rustic Pathway provided the students with opportunities to engage with the true culture of Fiji, to experience life in a village through homestays and to give back by participating in projects that were identified by the local communities.
The cultural learning for the students was a highlight of the trip. This was at its peak while in the Highland village of Nasivikoso. Nestled in the remote highlands and accessed by dirt roads and four-wheel drive ‘carriers’ the village exists on the boundary between the world of the 21st century and a traditional way of life. Technology is slowly creeping into Nasivikoso; mobile phone access exists in parts, a limited electricity, a satellite dish at the school and flushing toilets. There is a feeling that even these remote places the reach of the connected world of information technology is not far from having a much greater impact. The true story of life in Nasivikoso lies in the stories of its people. The community is welcoming and open. We were invited into homes and became members of the families with which we lived. it quickly become obvious that the usual boundaries between families does not apply here. Children come and go from the houses and all have an open door to visitors. No one goes without a bed or a feed and it is harder to be alone than to be part of a group.
Perception is everything but when it is biased by our cultural understanding it can serve our understandings poorly. The people of Nasivikoso live a life with very few of the luxuries we take for granted. We complain mightily if we must do without hot water or electricity for a night, here this is the norm. Clean clothes, a comfortable bed, a kitchen with a fridge and a stove are novel ideas in Nasivikoso. It was a shift in mindset for our students to understand how the children of the village could be so happy despite what seemed to be missing from their lives. This was the moment when the learning really kicked in. That moment when you recognise that your world view doesn't fit with the evidence in front of you. Our students started to understand the complexity that exists for westerners looking to enhance the lives of people in developing nations. The easy response is to seek a path towards rapid modernisation, an imposed process of bringing them with us into the 21st century. The flaw in this process is that it is based on a misunderstanding of what the community needs most. Only partnerships and programmes that never diminish the agency of the community can hope to bring meaningful long term change.
The children of Nasivikoso are its most powerful ambassadors. They are joyful balls of energy, naturally curious and always ready to play. A favourite game is to use a halved plastic 25 litre cooking oil drum as a makeshift toboggan to race down the grass slope in the centre of the village. The strength and physical dexterity of the local children was remarkable and put to good use as they claimed the walls of the nearby waterfall with ease and a total absence of fear. Such experiences of exploration and risk taking are for the most part filtered out of the lives of children in Australia in the name of safety, but what is the cost of the “Nanny State” to the lives our children live.
An instant bond was made between our Year Nine students and local children. A highlight of the visit was watching the children play together with paper planes that had been made together as part of a lesson taught by our students. The delight on everyone’s faces was a reminder that happiness is best found in the simple connections between people engaged in play. The final evening was filled with dancing and song and not just a few tears as farewells were made.
The visit to Nasivikoso left us all questioning our priorities. We are all less likely to complain the next time the WiFi goes down, we will all cherish the little things that genuinely matter to us a little more; the people we care about, our friendships and loved ones. This is where service programmes rather than charity drives make a real difference. The powerful contextualised and situated learning that the tour offered our students has changed their perception of the world. They understand that they live a life of privilege and that there are others who live happy lives full of love and joy with much less. They became members of a community and understood what life is like for children in a remote village where fun is found playing with their mates. Back home they might notice how few are the opportunities to play with the other kids in their neighbourhoods. They are unlikely to spend their afternoons climbing a cliff, catching a baby goat or sliding down a hill in a barrel. They might well find they miss a life where such simple pleasures are missing.
Time will continue to change Nasivikoso. Technology will creep further into the life of the village. There are great benefits to be had and opportunities to do things better and smarter than what is the norm elsewhere. Solar powered lights are already bringing light into the dark huts reducing the reliance on kerosene lamps. Larger scale solar projects could have a significant effect and the expansion of digital networks and mobile internet cannot be far off. The impacts to the changes soon to wash over the people of Nasivikoso will be challenging and great empathy will be required if the best parts of village life are not to be replaced with the downsides of the modern western world.
The challenge for education systems as they confront the pace of change is immense. The methods used traditionally struggle with the pace of change and scale poorly and yet the challenge will be to develop a system that is at once agile and able to scale and millions if not billions of new learners turn to education as the doorway to a brighter future. In a country like Fiji with a need to increase its capacity to provide for the needs of its citizens, education must be rooted in the realities of the skills needed for building infrastructure and meeting basic needs. Beyond this there is a need here as in countries like Australia for an educated youth capable of finding better solutions to old problems and new opportunities for growth in markets yet to be created. The positive message from the children of Nasivikoso is that they are naturally inquisitive and wanting to learn, all they need are the right tools.
By Nigel Coutts