Chaney, Bethany, and I returned to Vita's house and slumped onto the floor, unaware until static of just how tired we had become from the sun and water. The boys all disappeared and swiftly returned fresh and clean. Unable to do much more than relax, I sprawled on the grass mat floor in the living room, lazily looking out the doorway until the kids returned from school.
Bridging the gap with toys
The most dedicated students of The Nakavika Project were young boys around 9 or 10 years-old. They were some of the least self-conscious and most inquisitive students of the village. Now these same boys are fully immersed in their teenage years and face more barriers in communicating with us. Thankfully, they still had a desire to interact with me and reconnect as much as I did.
Two days into our trip, Samu was still quiet around me, so I tried sparking something with an iPad. I showed him how to first type his name and then full sentences. His pointer finger took time locating the appropriate keys on the QWERTY layout, and his shyness made it difficult to decide on the next sentences without the help of his brothers. Tongue flicks indicated mild embarrassment and reminded me of how the kids used to battle discomfort in our English speaking classes. Independent thinking and standing out aren't part of village culture.
When the older boys left for rugby practice, it was just Samu, Paterecio, and Waganu, the now 5 year-old who was born to Moji during Cyclone Mick. They were all eager to poke around on the screen, so I taught them how to draw with Paper 53 and to use one finger at a time.
As I instructed their use of my borrowed Apple device from work, my mind drifted to the day I held Waganu as a newborn. They started working together on a digital watercolor when I spotted Waisale outside in a sea of kids.
He waved me over with a smile, and I knew to grab my camera. We were nearing golden hour. I could see it on the leaves.
A slaughter takes me back
White hens sat nearby like little clouds in which the kids took quite an interest. When I reached the crowd, an assembly line of women called to me, "Bula!" One plucked the wet feathers; another handled the peeling skin on the chickens' feet; yet another grabbed the little prickles and leftovers to achieve pimply softness before the final woman washed each still-twitching carcass in a basin of water. It had been ten days since an elder of the community passed away, an occasion that called for a chicken feast as per tradition.
Waisale was the one chopping the heads off and getting splattered by the subsequent reaction. His white polo and bare feet needed serious scrubbing to rid of the new coloring and odor. Under the noise of the mourning ceremony, I said to him:
This reminds me of the pig.
Waisale gave me a knowing smile and stuck the machete in a tree branch.
Filming this bloody moment, I had a sea of questions flood my mind. How am I back here in Nakavika? How has it been five years? How was this trip possible during a week off work at TGS? Could Waisale or Samu ever go to TGS? Would their families manage without them? Would they have the desire or ability to handle such a different community? Would they miss their siblings or chopping off chicken heads? Am I really just here to reconnect? Is that a realistic view of this trip? Is that a selfish and lazy view of this trip? Am I able to (and should I) do something more constructive here than just snap a few photos?
Deep in my photographer's squat with ten kids at my back watching the camera screen, I was in the same physical position, looking at the same kids, but in a very different mental state. I came here wanting to reconnect and gain perspective on the previous trip. I'm thankful to say I have changed a lot in five years. It was only clear to me in retrospect that I needed to acquire broader and deeper knowledge of the world in order to better understand this village and my role in it, to put aside my reservations for humanitarian work around the world and realize I developed a unique connection with a place previously "foreign" to me.
Regardless of my self-perceived missteps, that previous trip resulted in real connections. I still feel a draw toward these soon-to-be adults and to this community based 7,347 miles as the crow flies from where I grew up. Samu and Waisale feel like long-lost little brothers who fit into this bigger context of the world I can now visualize. Nakavika feels like my South Pacific community – equally as frustrating and fulfilling as my other ones.
As well, I feel equally as indebted to its people and obligated to advance its vision. The realities I can see – that the women still remember me, the students still connect with me, the adults still confide in me about their visions for progress, and the young kids from after my time know who I am – tell me they have invested energy and trust in me. Five years of reflection on this place (and this trip) tell me the feeling is mutual.
Gaining perspective on community
Now stationed at this traveling school, I am the recipient of more opportunity than I feel one person should be afforded. There in that photographer's squat, I wondered how these boys would face such opportunities. With wonder? With fear? With indifference? The boomerang was starting to come back into view, five years later. I was starting to get my altruistic groove back. I wanted to shower these kids with opportunity and education, but this time of their own choosing.
One little boy lifted the silver bowl of chicken heads to receive its next occupant, and I snapped out of my time-traveling thoughts. I stood up and returned to Vita's house to find that the iPad had locked away its contents from the curious kids indoors. When I unlocked the iPad, I found the following paragraph, scribed by Samu:
Hi. Samu. I play rugby. I am very good at it. I wish I play rugby when I go to high school. I am 14 years old. My favourite food is chicken curry with rice. I love my family. My favourite drinking is juice. Their is 5 of us in the family. We have got only one sister. We love her so much. My best subject is math. I go to school every school days. I normally go to school by foot. I have a lot of friends at school. I miss you guys very much :( I hope I will see you again.
Nakavika is a place I know I can return to and feel welcome; this is thanks to the incredible hospitality of its inhabitants. What makes me want to return now is a deeper sense of community and an appreciation for what they value and do best.
In the village, I'm constantly forced to rethink what I once held dear or thought I knew; essentially, I'm challenged by the best of travel every single day there. I'm able to see now that they've given me invaluable life experiences and an education unmatched by any book or course. Nakavika helped me redefine my concept of "community" and sharpened my vision for affecting meaningful change moving forward.
I didn't just finish this trip with a new definition of a word, but the impact of that revelation has made ripples already in both my life and theirs.