Heyington to Highlands 2016

“Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life.” Paul Theroux

When someone mentioned Fiji, my mind was filled with images of beautiful beaches with white sand and bright blue water, palm trees full of coconuts and other picturesque postcard scenes. That was until I had the privilege of joining the Year 9 students on the Heyington to Highlands program.

By stepping completely outside our comfort zones and taking part in this incredibly rewarding, inspiring and life-changing experience, we saw a side of Fiji that very few people will ever have the opportunity to witness.

After a short flight and an overnight stay in Nadi, we split into our three groups and made the long journey up into the Fijian Highlands. The bumpy ride in the back of a truck was full of laughter, singing and tentative conversations about the times ahead. When we finally arrived at Kenani, our new home, the adventure truly began.

Kenani was one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. There were 360 degree views of mountains and you felt as though you were on top of the world. There was a touch of ‘culture shock’ for many of us as we settled in to the traditional bures. A bure is more or less a square house made out of thatched bamboo walls. I quickly learned that the wildlife also enjoyed the comfort of our bures and it became a common occurrence to find a frog or two hopping around the room.

Soon after we arrived, our tour leader took us on a short walk to collect firewood and gave us the first glimpse of Nasivikoso; a small and secluded village, enveloped by cascading mountains and lush green forests. The girls were quite keen to see the school, but were not quite as excited when they saw the steep hill it sat on top of. The next morning, we made our first, of many, ‘hikes’ from Kenani to the Nasivikoso School – excitement levels were at a peak! Not just for our girls, but also for the children bursting out of the classroom windows and doors waiting to welcome their new friends.

The Nasivikoso School is home to 250 students from grades one through to eight. The school consists of four classrooms, one library and four incredible teachers, who managed to create inspiring and effective lessons with the bare minimum of resources. I had the pleasure of observing our girls assisting, teaching and learning with the zestful Fijian children. The classrooms were full of enthusiasm and a true passion for learning. There was an ever-present sense of belonging and connectedness that spread right through the whole community.

The connections the girls made with their new Fijian friends were authentic and astonishing. From the moment we arrived at the school, our girls felt welcome and comfortable. There was certainly a language barrier, particularly with the younger children, but the Fijian children eagerly listened to every word our girls said. Our girls became the story tellers, the music makers and the assistants that were unquestionably necessary in these busy classrooms. Some of the girls found the classroom experience a challenge initially, but by the end of our time at the school they had found confidence in themselves and were standing at the front of the classroom singing and leading the children in games outside.

During our group reflections, it was clear that the girls had gained an incredible amount from the school experience. Beyond the skills they had developed in understanding and assisting younger students, they had learnt many of life’s golden lessons. The common themes during reflections were on the passion the students had for learning, the pride they took in their work, the respect they had for one another, how resilient they were playing outdoor games and of course, the fact that they were so happy even though they had so little. We recognised there was a lot to be learned from these young children and began to truly acknowledge the differences between what we want and what we truly need.

One warm afternoon we ventured up to the local waterfall – a journey that took a lot of stamina and plenty of teamwork. None of us really knew what we were in for, all we had been told was that it would take us ‘awhile’ to get there and it would be worth the effort. I can assure you that there is no way I would have made it up to the waterfall if it wasn’t for the team of Fijian children who willingly, stretched out their arms and pulled me up the steep muddy paths. Even though the journey was a challenge, it was exhilarating to reach the top and provided another opportunity for relationships to strengthen between the girls and the Fijians, as they gained trust for one another and worked as a team to conquer what seemed an almost impossible task.

On the Monday of the second week, we journeyed down the other side of the mountain, crossing through farm lands and nine rivers to reach the Village Games. This was the first time the whole group had been reunited since we arrived in Nadi and there was a lot of excitement around seeing one another and sharing the experiences so far. What unfolded was somewhat surprising. After the initial moments of reuniting with the other Villages, our girls returned to our area and stayed together. It became very clear that we were no longer just a group of travellers, we had become a small community where each person felt completely accepted and respected. The Village Games provided an opportunity for some healthy competition in spear throwing, nu-put (shot put with a coconut), wading relays and a hundred metre sprint that would have rivalled an Olympic final. The final event was a ‘sing-off’, which the Fijians, who had come to support their Villages, found absolutely hilarious! You couldn’t help but smile as the girls and teachers, performed some very creative and original music. Watching the girls, alongside their new Fijian families, participating with enthusiasm and energy to take home the prized Kava Bowl was an incredible sight. Even though the Kenani Kings were not the best Team on the day, the truck ride home was filled with laughter as we reminisced about the awesome efforts of our Team.

There was a tremendous amount of learning and personal growth that took place up in those mountains and many positive partnerships were formed. From learning about life growing up as a girl in Fiji, to discovering the natural medicines and the many traditions, we walked away with a very rich understanding of the Fijian culture. The girls reflected on how incredibly lucky and privileged our lives are, with all that we have and challenged themselves to be more grateful. We are so fortunate and take many things for granted in our lives; clean water, the comfort of our homes, electricity and the technology that stems from it and of course all the material luxuries that we have the opportunity to own. We did reflect, however, that the Fijian people may be among the wealthiest and luckiest in the world with the natural beauty of their land, the simplicity of their lives, their unbelievably strong connections with their families and the rich culture that has been passed through the generations. The Fijian people that we met on our travels were some of the happiest and most generous people I have ever met. They welcomed us into their lives and were eager to help us in every way possible.

On a personal note, this journey taught me so much about teaching and learning. It highlighted the importance of living in the present moment. It reminded me to make time each day to slow down and appreciate the world around me. I learned a lot about myself; as a global citizen, as a teacher and as a person. It also reminded me of something I have known all along ‘the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.’

Miss Kirrilly Wootton

Year 3 Teacher and Heyington to Highlands Supervising Teacher

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