Fiji: Much more than our fair share

By Diana Clement

"Why can't the kids in Fiji buy their own toys?" asked one of my children, when I suggested we'd fill a bag with toys to give away to village kids.

We were off for seven nights at the Shangri-La Fijian Resort and I didn't want my children, aged 4 and 6, taking such luxury for granted.

In a huge complex such as the Shangri-La - with its swimming pools, tennis courts, state-of-the-art gym, manicured golf course and abundant restaurants - it's very easy to stay within the confines of the hotel and think that the fake-but-fun fire lighting ceremony is real Fiji.

The Fijians the kids met at the hotel, even the man with the insecticide pack on his back, all smiled and greeted us with "Bula" as if they didn't have a care in the world. Yet the local Fiji Times newspaper reported families were facing starvation and root crops were being stolen straight out of the ground.

The toy exercise was designed to plant the seed of empathy in my own children for less privileged youngsters.

If I had any delusions at all about my motivation, they were to be shattered by Leesa Roy, communications adviser for Save The Children New Zealand, who didn't mince her words when she said charity often benefits the giver more than the receiver.

By providing education, however, the child, their family, the local community and even the wider society all benefit, said Roy, whose organisation provides free mobile play groups in Fiji, textbooks to under-resourced schools and support to primary schools in squatter settlements.

With that in mind, we made a point of choosing educational toys such as jigsaw puzzles and wooden toys. Bit by bit in the months leading up to the trip, my little people overcame their resistance and started bringing toys to me "for the poor kids in Fiji".

Our collection of good cast-off toys, books and clothes was supplemented with more from the Devonport Junior Op Shop. By the time we actually made it to the Shangri-La, carrying 20kgs of kids' stuff to give away, I was more than a little apprehensive that the exercise would go pear-shaped - although the locals we'd spoken to were enthusiastic.

We set out by taxi for the Davetalevu Kindergarten, recommended by hotel staff, arriving to a warm welcome from kindy teacher Makereta Ranandi, who immediately invited us in to look around the spartan one-room establishment.

The village, a ramshackle collection of concrete-block and corrugated-iron homes, overlooked the sea, the coral reef and - across a narrow stretch of water - the Shangri-La resort. There was no doubt that these villagers were poor. What was worse from my point of view was at such close proximity to the hotel and with most people actually working there, they know how the other half lives.

The kindy is one of four in nearby villages that are sponsored by the Shangri-La, which pays the teachers' wages, and regulars at the hotel also provide financial support.

The children, when they spotted us and our bulging bag, were clearly pleased. They know, it turned out, that when visitors from the hotel show up, something good is likely to be on offer.

Makereta told us the children have to make many of their own toys from whatever they can collect from the environment, such as shells, coconuts and driftwood. What was in shortest supply was not toys, but consumables such as chunky crayons and paper.

Sometimes, said Makereta, hotel guests donated such materials. Otherwise they did without - at which point I pulled out my purse and handed over a sum of money to spend as she saw fit. There's nothing like a good dose of guilt to open the purse strings further.

Although the Davetalevu kindy to our eyes had very little, the children of Rukurukulevu and surrounding villages sponsored by the Shangri-La actually have much more than most in Fiji, and Makereta told us that she often shared what they had with less fortunate villages.

The visit, it has to be said, wasn't an entire success. My kids had woken that morning with colds and despite the best efforts of the excited Fijian kids, mine weren't going to engage.

Something did sink in, however. As we left, my 6-year-old daughter commented that the kids had just a "few bits of Lego and some broken toys". She compared that with the Playcentre she'd been to and her little brother's private kindy.

Parenting guru Ian Grant of Parents Inc, who I enlisted to give me some ideas before leaving, said the best way of communicating these things is by example.

Grant says statements such as, "In our family we help the less fortunate", can help young children begin to understand.

The visit to Rukurukulevu village wasn't the end of the story. The day before leaving for Fiji we'd acquired 10 pairs of lightly used rugby boots - mostly in children's sizes. We squeezed them into our bags and once there, we made a Saturday morning excursion on foot to a nearby rugby field to watch teams from nearby Cuvu and Lemo villages playing.

With the help of the Lemo number 3's wife, whom we'd befriended on the sideline, we distributed the boots to the coaches of both teams, who thanked my rather embarrassed children profusely.

Rugby boots cost around $90 a pair in Fiji, a price many can't afford if the duct tape holding some of the players' boots together was anything to go by.

It may seem like a win-win situation. Cast offs from wealthy countries finding their way to poorer people who need them. Unfortunately, it's not that simple when you scratch the surface.

In Zambia, for example, when tariffs on clothing imports were lifted a number of years back, all but eight of 140 small clothing firms were driven out of business, says author of A Game As Old As Empire, John Perkins. These businesses found themselves competing not with cheap imports, but free imports donated by well-meaning westerners.

In Britain, only 20 per cent of the clothes given to good causes are sold at charity shops. The rejects are collected and shipped overseas.

In part, the reason for collecting the items was to avoid the staged "village tour" that I somehow always end up taking. I've been to pygmy villages in Uganda, Karen villages in Thailand and a tribe of Amazonian Indians, none of which were satisfying experiences.

But, in the light of Makereta's assurances that the village kids loved these visits, I changed my mind.

We did, after all, join the weekly busload of tourists from the Shangri-La, to be greeted by a throng of children at the nearby Yadua village. The tour involved a short guided walk, a Kava ceremony and an hour or so of games followed by juice and lollipops, which transcended the cultural and wealth divide.

My son, who was caught short halfway through the walk, was directed into one of the nearest homes, which allowed me to see what local dwellings looked like inside. It was virtually empty, with a few mats on the floor, a dilapidated fridge and a wood-burning stove.

From the moment we arrived, the local kids couldn't contain their excitement. The village tour was quick and the Kava ritual carried out in a way that was fun for all ages. Then the kids, both locals and tourists, got down to doing what kids do best - playing together on the village's dusty road.

After the kindy visit, it was a relief to see my 4-year-old laughing his head off as he was tackled to the ground by a local child he'd befriended.

For the record, the Yadua village kindergarten also received $70 from the $1116 collected by the hotel from the 56 adults and children on our trip.

Although I had mixed emotions about the exercise, it had the desired effect: My children now have an inkling that others aren't as fortunate as them. At least I thought they did until my son commented: "Why can't poor people just get money out of the money machine, Mummy?"

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand has nine direct flights a week from Auckland to Fiji, plus two each from Wellington and Christchurch, from $343 one way plus airport charges and government taxes. See www.airnz.co.nz.

WHERE TO STAY
Shangri-La Fijian Resort is on the web at shangri-la.com/en/property/yanucaisland/fijianresort.

FURTHER INFORMATION
The Fiji Visitors' Bureau website at www.bulafiji.com has general information on visiting Fiji.

- NZ Herald

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