In 2012 I travelled to a small village in Fiji to volunteer at a primary school and build a footpath through the village. My time volunteering there was the best and most influential few weeks I have ever experienced. I could provide you with reasons why volunteering abroad is an amazing and beneficial experience, and then I could try to persuade those of you who have not done such a thing yet to do it, as those of you who have already done so, I am sure, do not need much persuading. This having been said, I would rather share with you a bit of my experience, as I believe that this will be much more interesting.
My understanding of happiness has shifted and been shaped through my life. As a child I loved the complete and beautiful simplicity of all that was around me and never found fault in anything. Upon entering my teenage years, my assurance shattered and my view of the world became distorted. I fell into a dark, black, empty hole of never-ending complaints and irritability. I chose pessimism over optimism and I was negligent of the fact that my life is pretty phenomenal. Indeed, I am on a daily basis given plenty of opportunities and am surrounded by such truly wonderful people, of whom I now realise I previously took advantage. This self-realisation was delivered to me through Landwa, a young Fijian girl in a small Fijian island village on Beqa. Upon my arrival in the village, as I got off a crowded boat with only a backpack and a sleeping bag in hand, I was given the warmest, most genuine welcome I have ever received. After the welcoming ceremony held by the elders of the village, I put my stuff down in the hut in which a mother and her son had generously agreed to board me. I then walked out into the village’s main field where there were young children running around whilst kicking a soccer ball; these children were too young to be in school, so they spent their days basking in the beautiful outdoors. I could not easily communicate with them as they were too young to understand or speak English, but this had little to no importance. Indeed, we actually understood each other in another, much deeper way. Later in the afternoon, the older children returned home from school; every day their walk back led them through the forest and along a seemingly endless beach, yet it was shoeless and with the brightest of smiles that they returned right before the evening. This image put things into perspective for me; I used to complain when I had to walk fifteen minutes to get home from school and these children walked hours with not a moment of grievance or self-pity.
As I stood there in the field and introduced myself to these children, a young girl sitting on an old tyre in her school uniform caught my eye. I walked over to her and introduced myself, and after she simply replied with a giggle, I told her it was nice to meet her before turning away to return to the other children. As I began to walk away, she ran up to walk beside me and grabbed my hand. She motioned for me to bring my ear to her lips and she whispered, “I am Landwa, and you?” “Victoria”, I replied, and then she whispered again, “Victoria, you are my friend.”
As easily as those words had reached her lips, she had decided to trust me and declare me to be her friend. This friendship that had been bestowed upon me was incredibly raw and real then, and continues to be so despite us living on opposite sides of the world.
After meeting Landwa, my days became bittersweet. The bitterness was a consequence of my own awareness of my limited amount of time left on Beqa, and the sweetness stemmed from the fruitfulness of the time that I had spent there up until then. The realisation of my limited time left there came hand in hand with a growing and overwhelming motivation to spend every remaining minute wisely.
Most days, I would wake up at six in the morning to begin work, which consisted in constructing a concrete footpath through the village. The work was blissful, and was rhythmed by the singing of songs and the sharing of stories. I worked with eight other volunteers and a few of the older boys from the village, and plenty of the younger children would sit watching us working attentively for hours. After the day’s work was done, I spent the rest of the day hiking through the forest with the children, visiting exquisite and enormous natural waterfalls, swimming peacefully in the clear blue ocean or playing soccer, tag and duck-duck-goose. Whilst these days had a routine, they did not feel ‘routine-like’. Indeed, each day brought a new sort of happiness and set of experiences. A couple of days were spent teaching the young children at the only primary school on the island instead of building the footpath, and it was not only learning the English language that these children found exciting, it was my life experiences and stories of home, my school, my pets; anything and everything. I had never seen anyone as excited and willing to learn and have definitely never met a group of people who have taught me so much and made me feel so alive. It is so important to go out and see the world, to step out of your comfort zone in any way that you can. Expanding your horizons and altering your outlook on life are crucial in understanding other people and other modes of life. Volunteering in another place gives invaluable lessons that will always remain, and relationships that wouldn’t have been made in other situations. The work done and the help given is often vital and being given the opportunity to experience a culture from the inside, to use your skills to benefit others and to give something back, is truly unique. If you do have the opportunity please take it; I promise you, won’t regret it.