Volunteering as a teacher at a school in rural Fiji has been a life-changing experience for Shakira Branch, who openly admires the warmth, happiness and community spirit of the Fijian people. Shakira has recently left Port Macquarie to follow her university dream in Melbourne, but plans to continue her volunteer work with youth into the future …
Hi Shakira. Tell us about yourself – are you a born and bred Port Macquarian? What’s your family background?
I surely am! I was born into this beautiful town 19 years ago and have been living here since then. Both of my parents, Deborah and Gary Branch, also have grown up in the Port Macquarie region, and when I turned four we moved onto a 100 acre property out at Upper Rollands Plains, were my Dad runs an organic farm.
I completed high school at St Joseph’s Regional College in 2013 and since have been working part-time at Coles to pursue my university dream.
You recently had an amazing experience doing some volunteer teaching in Fiji. To begin with … when did this happen? How long did you stay overseas?
Yes, I did! In August last year out from Sydney International Airport to embark on a 3.5 month volunteer placement in rural Fiji. I spent one Fijian school term (14 weeks) in the wonderful country and returned home in early December. How did this experience come about? How did you discover the opportunity?
For the past 4.5 years I have been volunteering with St Vincent De Paul as a Youth Worker attending Buddies Days, Kids Camps, Mentoring and running a youth group at the local Birpai Lands Council.
The opportunity to volunteer overseas with Lattitude Global Volunteering arose in 2011, and I always kept the idea in my mind that this was how I wanted to spend some of my gap year before I ran off to uni.
In 2012, I decided that this was exactly what I wanted to do, so I attended interviews and went through the process to be accepted as a Latitude Global Volunteer in 2014.
What made you decide to accept this position – it must have seemed like a bit of a challenge at the time?
One of my strongest passions is volunteering with children, and the idea of living in another country while doing it was tempting enough. When the opportunity arose, I jumped at with arms wide open.
Latitude Global Volunteering opened up the options for us, and allowed us to choose from many countries to volunteer in; however, my heart drew me towards Fiji, as many people told me how happy and welcoming the people are. The situation didn’t become realistic until the moment we were in a carrier travelling to our placement, and that’s when I knew I was about to experience one of the most amazing and challenging experiences of my life.
Describe the school/s and students you were involved with. What towns/villages did you get to work in?
There were 12 volunteers from Canada and Australia, and we all arrived in Fiji to begin our placements in late August, and I was luckily enough to be paired up with a lovely Perth local, Torri Van Nellestyn. We were placed on the Eastern side of the mainland, about 2.5 hours from Suva, in a small rural village, Naivicula. The village was located 30 minutes from the nearest town, Korovou – a small town with a market, a little supermarket, a post office, a police station and of course … a Vodafone store.
We taught Monday – Friday at the school in the village with 126 local Fijian kiddies (on a good day, 90 would turn up). As the school was very rural, resources were scarce; however, we still managed to run art and craft lessons EVERY day.
The way of teaching in Fiji vastly differs from what we are used to in Australia, and therefore many challenges arose. We constantly had to use our initiative to implement tasks in the classroom and to brighten up the way of learning. We introduced remedial English lessons three times a week, ran dance lessons every Friday afternoon, taught art and craft and assisted in preparing, writing and marking exams.
Every day came with its challenges and struggles; however, waking up to big beautiful smiles every morning made it seem more than worthwhile.
What were a few standout experiences from your time in Fiji?
As we began our time in rural Fiji, the first time we travelled to Suva was one of an overwhelming and confronting experience. The divide in the country is incredible; we came from living as traditional Fijians, harvesting our own food etc. to travelling to the capital of the country, where we saw Fijians living just as we do in Australia. But mainly, it was the feeling of the most pure form of love I have ever experienced. The happiness and joy these beautiful children will bring to your life is something you cannot merely explain in words, but something that everyone should experience with their own heart. What did you most enjoy about Fijian customs and culture?
Imagine going from a society where they find it perfectly acceptable to pay $4 for a bottle of water and where my job was to literally throw out last week’s magazines down the garbage chute just because “they are not the latest goss”, to living in and amongst a community where their food source relies on what they and their family grow in a plantation as opposed to running down to Coles to buy tonight’s meal, where the children entertain themselves by playing with nuts from trees instead of playing Candy Crush on their iPad and eight family members live in a small, one roomed house, while we can enjoy a room to ourselves in our family home. The Fijian culture is simple, humble and sustainable. The way they live and come together as a community is something I will always remember.
If you could have the time over again, is there anything you’d do differently?
I don’t think there is anything I would necessarily do differently, but now knowing exactly what resources the school needed, I would feel more equipped. Everything happened in the trip for a reason and has made the experience in itself, and I wouldn’t want to have had it any other way or experience it with anyone else. Why would you encourage others to volunteer, as you did?
I strongly believe you receive more than you give when you give up your time to improve someone’s life. Since volunteering with youth, locally and overseas, I have learnt so many life skills, and the children have brought more love and happiness into my life than I could ever put into words.
What’s next on your agenda? You’re in the process of moving to Melbourne for study … what do you hope to achieve?
I have recently moved to St. Kilda, Melbourne, to begin my studies at RMIT. My passion has always been with photography and writing, so I hope to pursue a career in photojournalism, as difficult as it may be! However, I will always have an undying passion for volunteering with the youth of our society, and I hope to continue to do so after moving to Melbourne.
Thanks Shakira. Interview by Jo Atkins.
This article was from issue 116 of Greater Port Macquarie Focus.