In the far-flung Yasawas, Sue Baxalle finds adults and kids toiling hard to revitalise their cyclone-ravaged village.

When asked by one of our group whether the village chief would have time to meet us, the answer came easily: No one has "no time" in Fiji.

As a side trip from our cruise on the Fiji Princess, we landed at Kese Village on Naviti Island, the largest of the Yasawa group of about 20 islands northwest of mainland Viti Levu, to see the work of charitable foundation Vinaka Fiji.

We tourists see it as a South Pacific paradise, but the reality of life for the villagers is harsh. Not only is there the logistical difficulty of distance from the mainland to cope with for supplies, a lack of fresh drinking water and healthcare services, but the islands were hit badly by Cyclone Evan in December 2012.

Ratu Mesake Nasilasila was happy to meet us despite the village being a busy place, having at long last gained funding from the Fijian Government for seven new houses, at $15,000 each for building supplies and $3000 a house for labour.


Our guide for the visit, Elenoa Nimacere, the operations manager of Vinaka Fiji, explains that Kese is also a key example of the success of rainwater harvesting. She shows us the 40,000 litre water tank in which precious rainwater is collected from the steep roof of the village church.

Kese is also host to one of Vinaka Fiji's cultivation projects, where agricultural co-ordinator Lemeki Koroi looks after the sustainability programme. In a greenhouse made of local wood and coconut fronds and surrounded with netting brought from the mainland, Lemeki oversees the cultivation of tomato, eggplant and capsicum plants, along with papaya seedlings.

The aim is not only to increase the range of food available, but to improve the islanders' diet, Elenoa explains.

The only edible plants native to Naviti Island are breadfruit (used as a substitute for potato and as fruit for breakfast), mangos and jackfruit. Lemeki has tested soil next to the nearby school and discovered it will be an ideal site for growing fruit. His plan is to plant 1000 papayas, pineapples and banana plants. School students will help -- gardening is one of the chores for boarders and agriculture is on the curriculum too.

Vinaka Fiji has been helping Yasawa islanders since 2010.

It began when Awesome Adventures Fiji, a sister company to Blue Lagoon Cruises, decided to say thank you -- "vinaka" -- to the archipelago for allowing tourists access to their slice of paradise.

Schools on Naviti suffered major cyclone damage. Photo / Sue Baxalle
Schools on Naviti suffered major cyclone damage. Photo / Sue Baxalle

The aim was to help Yasawa communities eventually become fully sustainable and self-supporting. The Vinaka Volunteers programme was set up, with Awesome Adventures, Blue Lagoon Cruises and South Sea Cruises as major sponsors.

Tourists from around the world can sign on for a week or longer to help locals in three main categories of projects -- agriculture, including rainwater capture and crop cultivation; education, helping teach English or maths; or assisting in marine research and conservation.


The volunteers stay at Barefoot Island Lodge on Drawaqa Island. Also on Naviti is Yasawa Secondary School, the only high school for the archipelago. As well as catering for the local day students, it is a boarding school from Monday to Friday.

On the day we visited, we saw how hands-on life is for the Yasawans. Students and staff were conveying timber from a barge for the next step in repairs to the school. It, and the primary school next door were badly hit by Cyclone Evan.

"We don't have much manpower so the children come in useful," joked teacher Ifereimi. Woodwork and tech drawing students also have practical work helping fix the damaged classrooms as part of their classwork.

The 135-student school is staffed by 12 teachers and many of the students board during the week, returning to far-flung island homes at weekends.

Ifereimi explains that the students rely on local food, growing their own vegetables. As fresh water is an issue, they learn how to collect rainwater, too.

The boarders are up before 6am each day, rostered to help with cooking and gardening -- planting the likes of cassava and taro -- before breakfast.

"We rely on government assistance, but the important thing is that we have the land for planting. The only things we buy in are chicken, sugar, flour and rice."


Getting there: Air NZ flies daily from Auckland to Nadi. One-way fares start from $309.

The writer visited the Yasawa Islands as a guest of Blue Lagoon Cruises.