NWU Students Return From Service in Fiji

Global Service Learning members and their advisors try the traditional dress of Fiji: colorful skirts called sulus.
This year's international service project involved building drainage ditches following heavy rains.
GSL members enjoy the breath-taking view of Fiji.

Members of the student organization Global Service Learning (GSL) had planned for months to travel to Ukraine for an international service trip. Their plans changed in early 2014 when political unrest forced the group to explore other service options.

After some research and discussion, they agreed to travel to Fiji.

Each summer GSL travels abroad for an extended international service experience. In recent years they have traveled to Guatemala, Malawi, Nicaragua, Swaziland and China.

“We chose Fiji because the tiny, remote village would be a deep cultural immersion with the chance to really get to know the people and work together with them on a meaningful and tangible service project,” said Kelli Wood, GSL advisor.

To prepare for the trip, members educated each other on the history, culture, customs and religions of the Fiji people. And while they read the research, heard the stories, and looked at photos of the beautiful island, the group still did not know what to expect when they arrived.

It didn’t take them long to get comfortable.

After an orientation session and tour, they quickly began working alongside the natives to build a drainage ditch to divert standing water. When they were not getting their hands dirty in the mud and water, they were keeping busy helping Fiji women cook and clean and play with children.

“It is important to remember that service has so many different forms and it is also a reciprocal process,” said Rachel Pickerel, a recent NWU graduate from Hickman.

When the working day was over, the group settled down and spent time with the locals. They participated in a traditional nightly event known as “Grog.”

“Grog is made from the kava plant they grow on plantations around the village,” Pickerel said. “It is basically a drink they make for a social time every night with the whole community in the community center.”

When the locals gathered to drink Grog they would sing, dance, tell stories, and enjoy each other’s company. Even though the entire community was invited to join, many women did not participate — mainly by choice — but some were not given their husbands’ permission to participate.

“We also learned a lot about the gender roles and strict customs of the people and how they exist within those,” said Wood.

The group said they were both intrigued and grateful for the locals’ ability to remain self-sufficient. They live off a scarce amount of electricity, and practice traditional medical procedures. The native Fijians are conservative in their daily routines, and their dress. The women wear “sulus,” colorful-wrapped skirts that cover their knees. Their religious services are two hours long and held three times on Sundays.

Students said their biggest lessons came from respecting the traditions and knowing when to start new ones.

And no one will forget the beauty that surrounded their service.

“We were right on the coast and went to sleep to the sound of the ocean,” said Wood. “At night we saw more stars than we ever imagined existed.”

Now when the group looks up to the sky and sees those stars they remember Fiji, the people they met and the experiences they had helping the communities remain self-sufficient.

“They opened their hearts, homes, and changed their daily life to welcome us,” said Madi Davis, a junior from Lincoln. “Fiji seemed like a dream, not only because of the beautiful landscape, but the experience as a whole was productive and fulfilling.”