Reflections on the first year of service

On Thursday, September 3rd, a new group of 35 volunteers will be arriving – and we will pass our one-year milestone in Fiji, our nearly-halfway point to COS. So it’s time to reflect on this past year of barefoot, grog-swilling Fijian village life. The first, most important thing to note is that this has been an overwhelmingly positive experience so far. That’s not to say it hasn’t sometimes sucked – but those moments have never lasted beyond a few days, and there has always been a lesson to learn from them.

To be honest, I don’t feel like a whole lot has changed over the past year – but that’s mostly because the changes have been small and difficult for me to personally notice. One thing that has, though, is my previous certainty about not extending for a third year of service in Fiji.

Up until a month ago, my response to questions about extending was a firm “no” – not because I dislike Fiji, but because I get tired of being in the same place and enjoy moving to new ones. But recently, as support has started solidifying around my TatavaSabeto dictionary, I’ve realized that I would love to stay a third year if I could help the iTaukei Institute of Language and Culture with their Cultural Mapping project (which handily starts Jan 2017 in my area, two months after my current COS date).

Or really, any work with preservation of TatavaSabeto and the Sabeto culture and history. I could move into an apartment in a nearby town (i.e. get out of my storage closet) and experience more of Fijis urban culture, having at that point become fairly adept at both TatavaSabeto and VosavakaBau (the main dialect). That would be awesome.

Another thing that has changed, and is continuing to change is my attitudes to personal ownership. Western culture teaches us to keep track of what is “mine” and what is “yours”, to balance them and to keep tallies of whom owes whom what. After a year of kerekeres, these notions are being slowly torn apart. Master Epeli, a young male teacher known locally as being a jokester regularly asks me what I’ve got for him to have for tea – and he will open my fridge and help himself to whatever is in my house, except the foreign liquor my parents brought.

This is not a one-way street, nor is it even a two-way street – it’s a community, where I go to Master Jim’s for dinner at least once a week, where I always offer to Mela to pick up anything from the store, where Lu bought me an expensive tub of peanut butter after her son robbed mine. I tell people that I feel safer in this community after I was robbed, and I mean it – the response was overwhelmingly positive, and I lost nothing I didn’t get back except a few tins of tuna.

When I think about what I was doing for the first six months at site, I struggle. Not because I wasn’t doing anything – but none of the larger “projects” ever came to fruition. The covered walkway I was helping school management with fell victim to a USAID funding shortage. The Sabeto museum Don and I were planning has been put on a backburner due to both land issues and the massive funding shortfall. This TatavaSabeto dictionary is a direct result of those two – the dictionary requires no funding and no land, only that I spend time with my community and get to know the language, goals which are already front and center to my vision of a successful Peace Corps service. Though we would like to publish it in paper form, having the TatavaSabeto dictionary as a free online resource is excellent in and of itself – and totally free to do.

I still struggle with the language, though. We were initially taught the main dialect during the two months of training, which is grammatically very similar to Western, but it’s been like replacing the entire vocabulary to switch over.  I would say that I speak both, and

If I were asked for what I am proudest of from this first year, I would just say last Thursday – when I engaged in four hours of conversation with linguists and professors at the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs and USP in only VosavakaBau and TatavaSabeto alongside my man Don. It was a struggle, but I largely understood what was going on and made myself understood.

My TatavaSabeto has been improving in leaps and bounds over the past two months, though I feel its shortcomings every day. I’ve been getting to know all of the local shortcuts between the main three roads in the area, as well as the people living in those areas. I’ve recently met and hung out with a highly political old-school reggae band, a very ambitious farmer/tour operator and some Vanuatuan Seventh-Day Adventist college students. There are a lot of interesting folks living, working and studying in the Sabeto area, and I’m very excited to spend my second year working on language with Don and environmental issues with the Sabeto Environmental Club, as well as various English-language side projects with the school and organizational efforts in the village.

Loloma yani!


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