The Derry optometry student who had the ‘vision’ to help create a better life for Fijian children
09 Aug 2019 6:00 PM
A Derry student has spoken of her volunteering trip to Fiji this summer and has urged others from the city and across Northern Ireland to follow in her footsteps to help the young people of the South Pacific nation. Orlaith Duffy (20) is about to enter her second year of study at Cardiff University’s School of Optometry and Vision Sciences, but this year decided to act on a long-held desire to volunteer to help those a lot less fortunate than herself. And, a charity called Think Pacific provided the young woman with the vehicle to fulfil her ambition. “I’ve always wanted to go away to help people, because my degree involves quite a degree of caring for people. One of my friends at university did it last year, so I spoke to him about it and then we had a talk about at university and I looked at the Think Pacific website as well. Then I had a phone interview and got accepted for it. “After I was accepted into the programme, I just read up on it and became more interested in doing something,” Orlaith said. Think Pacific allows volunteers to sample life at the heart of remote Fijian villages far removed from what normally passes as backpacking trips in students gap years. Each team of volunteers stays in a different community and they are immersed into every aspect of the life of the country’s customs, values and traditions. “We had a welcome ceremony when we entered the village and were given a traditional Fijian drink called Kava. It’s a sedative drink derived from the pepper plant and it’s used for ceremonial occasions. “The Fijian’s believe in sharing everything so no one ever goes without. They are a very traditional people and we had to dress very modestly so as not to show any disrespect. Our shoulders had to be covered and we had to wear long dresses called Bula dresses and skirts called Sulu’s,” Orlaith continued. The charity was founded in the early 2000s and adopts a bespoke approach to its volunteer work in the South Pacific country. Often, teams of volunteers are the first top have ever worked in the communities they visit because the trips only take place if a Fijian community agrees to invite them there in the first place. Rather than focussing on just a single school or location it means that Think Pacific can reach thousands of children each year and spread the message of education, sport and health. This model means that the overall project is sustainable, especially as volunteers train local leaders to carry on the work after they have departed. It’s also a programme that has been fully embraced by the Fijian Government. Orlaith, a former student at Lumen Christi says that Think Pacific have taken specific steps to avoid what’s become known as ‘voluntourism’. The term refers to the growing phenomenon of individuals travelling to developing countries to carry out volunteer work. Recently, there have been increasing concerns about voluntourism and in particular gap year projects that some have suggested that can cause more harm than good to host communities. Primary concerns are that some charitable organisations are running volunteering trips along business lines and can result in the institutionalisation of children. Orlaith Duffy’s month long stay in Fiji was on the country’s main island Viti Levu at Muanaira village- a remote rural setting around two hours from the national capital Suva. Orlaith told the Derry News: “Think Pacific have moved away from voluntourism because they know that a lot of organisations take students money and students are staying in hotels and then spending a small amount of time helping people. “So, it’s a bit contradictory. Think Pacific want you to live with villagers then every day from 9am until 4pm we would go to the school. We would teach from 8am until 1pm they do sports in the afternoon.” In fact, teaching in the in the village school where the pupil’s age range runs from six to 14-years of age is a vital component of the volunteering work Orlaith continued: “Think Pacific have different key learning aims. Schooling in Fiji is very basic, so I noticed that children at the same age over they compared to our own children here had very different levels of education. “Their education is so far behind because teachers just don’t have enough time or resources to focus on the children that are falling behind. We would have sat in the classroom and noticed if there were particular children falling behind. Then we would take them out and do one on one’s with them. We tried to strip it back to basics and do basic maths with them before moving on to the more difficult stuff that they were getting taught in class. “We also did a lot of letter phonics with their sounds and their grammar because sometimes they didn’t understand why certain words were put in front of other words and sentences. And we did a lot of work with past and present tenses because they weren’t sure about that either. We got to choose what age group we wanted to work with as well so the one on one sessions would have been with primary one’s up until primary sevens. So, I chose ‘kindi’, like nursey, which was five-year-olds. They were learning their alphabet and numbers and arts and crafts. We did a different letter with them each day. They would practice how to draw the letter and practice their numbers.” In the classroom the children are expected to converse in English-something which presents another educational challenge. Three main languages are used in Fiji-English, Fijian and Fijian Hindi. Fijian is spoken by most indigenous Fijians who account for almost 55 per cent of the country’s population. Fijian’s of Indian descent make up another 37 per cent of the population and mainly speak Fijian Hindi. The English language is a remnant of British colonial rule and was the sole official language until 1997. English is widely used in government, business and education circles, but business is also widely carried out in Fijian, especially in rural areas. A small number of other Indigenous West Fijian and East Fijian regional languages are spoken on the islands, standard Fijian belonging to the East Fijian group. Chinese and Rotuman are also spoken by immigrant populations. Orlaith said: “In school it’s all English. The younger children find it more difficult and the teacher would speak Fijian to the nursery children-so half in English, half in Fijian. But everything else is done in English.” Viti Levu is the largest island in the Republic of Fiji and is home to 70 per cent of the entire population-around 600,000 people. The island is just over 90 miles long and 66 miles wide. Its rugged terrain is explained by the fact that it was created largely as a result of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Territorially, the island is divided into roughly equal halves by a mountain range running from north to south. The island’s centre is covered by forest and is dominated by Fiji’s highest mountain-Mount Tomanivi which stands at 4,344 feet. The eastern side of the island experiences heavy rainfall, while the western side, also called the "burning west" is noticeably drier in the range's rain shadow. Similarly, sugar cane production thrives in the west, while a dairy industry is being built in the east. Fiji's biggest cattle ranch is at Yaqara, with 7000 head of cattle on its 17,000 acres. Orlaith Duffy said: “Living with the villagers gave us a better idea of the culture. Living standards are very basic-a lot of mornings there would be no running water to wash or brush teeth. The water pressure was a lot better at night. The houses only had a single tap so the man of the house would spend time filling a lot of buckets with water so that would be used for cooking. The shower we had was a bucket with holes in it, so we just used that to wash ourselves. “In Fiji as well, the diet is very carb heavy and very sugar heavy. There’s a need to encourage children to brush their teeth so we took toothpaste and toothbrushes out there. The school I went to was already quite well developed in that way so that was good to see. “There was a man in our village and because he had severe diabetes he had to have his leg amputated. So, we carried out a health workshop and spoke about strokes and heart attacks and how to spot the signs, prevent them and what to do if you see someone taken one. We also did basic teaching on how to clean cuts and not to leave them exposed. We left first aid kits behind in the village as well. Like the domestic dwellings Orlaith said that the school buildings were also basic consisting of concrete and corrugated roofs. “If there isn’t enough room to accommodate all of the children they would add on a couple of Portacabins. “Some of the villages are remote, so people make their living from fishing. But where I stayed, because it was around two hours from the capital, I noticed that a lot of the Fijian’s who are my age where at university. When we lived with a family, we referred to the parents as our mum and dad. “My Fijian dad was in the military, so it was interesting to talk to him because he was very well travelled. The mum has a degree in accounting, but she has given it up because she’s looking after the children. But, a lot of the islanders don’t work at all because they were the ones that fell behind at school. “Luckily, our school was only a 15 minute walk from the village but I know that other school’s are about 45 minutes or an hour’s trek every day. I also noticed that sometimes the children just aren’t encouraged to go to school by their parents because some of them would have just stayed in the village during the day. I think us being there did make attendance better and the teacher noticed that the behaviour was a lot better too,” said Orlaith. The Derry News put it to Orlaith that she could have easily spent her summer backpacking in the region as opposed to volunteering-so why did she become involved? “I just thought whenever I was reading on it that it made feel how lucky I was to come from here and because Cardiff University gave us the chance to go and do something-I just really wanted to help then. “Some of my friends went to Africa this summer to test eyes, but I couldn’t do that because they are a year ahead of me in their studies. When I looked into Think Pacific I thought that it would be a good idea and I can always go back there if I want to because now that I’ve volunteered there will be an opportunity to go back as a leader next year. “So, I could lead a group of people that were in my position this year. Then you can go on to be a project manager and oversee a few different teams. “When I got there at the start I thought ‘what am I doing here on the other side of the world?’ There was no Wi-Fi, barely any signal to call home. I actually bought a ‘brick’ phone so I could call home, but it was very limited, I had to stand in certain parts of the area to get a signal. “But, once I settled in that you saw how rewarding this was because the children improved each day and the people are so friendly. They have nothing, but they never complain or never in a bad mood. The people are very community based so if I was walking through the village at night different families would be calling me in to eat dinner with them. “It was very rare for my and my family to be eating dinner alone because there was always loads of other people in our house eating with us because they invite everyone in. Even when we were getting a bus to the village, if you shout ‘bula’ that means hello, but it also means ‘be given life’. “Everyone says hello to everyone else. I thought it was quite similar to home because we say hello when we walk past someone in the street, but at university in Cardiff people don’t do that. They put their heads down and walk on. I found that the Fijians are quite similar to Irish people because home and family are close to them, but they take it to the next level by inviting everyone it and checking how people are.” Anyone wishing to volunteer for Think Pacific must be between the ages of 18-35. You can apply when you’re 17 but must be 18 before your expedition begins. Full details of how to apply and what it involves can be found at
CAPTION: Orlaith Duffy pictured with one of the native children on the island of Viti Levu in Fiji.
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