Most architects, if fact, most people would like to find themselves taking part in a project to help underprivileged societies at least once in their lifetime, so when I was invited by another local architect to join them in taking part in a project run by a small Australian charity, ‘Books Over The Sea’, to build a new library for the school children of Vacalea Primary School in Fiji, I jumped at the opportunity.
The project was created by Andrew Verus who is a senior firefighter in the NSW Fire Brigade. When he was 25, along with friends, they cashed in their savings and bought a small piece of land on the island of Kadavu in Fiji and built a traditional styled accommodation for small groups of backpackers and scuba divers. Throughout the seven years that Andrew ran the accommodation, a lasting friendship was built with the people of the nearby village of Vacalea. Now, more than a decade after the accommodation has been sold to new owners, Andrew continues to support the village and its people. Following discussions with the people of the village about the needs of the village, the idea to build a school library was born.
Vacalea (pronounced va-tha-lay-a) is a small village of less than 100 people and is located on the Eastern side of Kadavu Island in Fiji. Despite being the fourth largest island in Fiji, Kadavu is quite remote and one of the most under developed parts of the country. The school has 80 students with three simple classrooms and very limited resources. In remote villages like these, families combine their very modest finances to build schools so their children don't have to walk five to six hours to attend one of the few Fijian Government-built schools on the island. The government does however provide the teachers as well as the syllabus.
Whilst Andrew went about making plans to realise his project, he enlisted the help of Sydney architects, Couvaras Architects, who provided plans to be submitted to the Fijian authorities for approval as well as plans for construction of the library. The library was designed as a simple 6 x 8m structure that could be built with local materials using construction methods that the local Fijians were familiar with. The plans were provided by Couvaras Architects at no charge and whilst Andrew has applied for financial aid from the Australian High Commission, he has funded all the work done to date from his own pocket.
We set out from Sydney on the first of June taking a flight to Nadi, the main island in Fiji, then the next day a flight to Kadavu Island on Fiji Airways smallest aircraft, a plane so small that in order to be given the safety briefing the captain simply turned around and spoke to all 12 passengers before we barrelled down the runway in this tin can with wings.
From the airport we rode across the small town in the back of a ute to the water’s edge where we were picked up by two longboats to take us to the village. Our captains possessed an uncanny knowledge of the waters as they navigated the beautiful reefs, with waters of constantly changing hues of aqua, blues and greens as we passed countless islands with nothing to see but forests, ocean and endless sky.
The morning we arrived at Vacalea village to begin construction of the libraries foundations we were greeted by a few local villagers and some curious children who all took turns to shake our hands as we stepped ashore. The school is located just outside the village and comprises of a block of three classrooms, a toilet block, a dormitory for the children from other villages who go home just on weekends, a teachers quarters and a rugby field (what Fijian school would be complete without one?). Most of the buildings were timber framed structures lined with corrugated steel on the walls and roof, except for the classrooms, which were located in a concrete block building. Despite all being quite simple structures, most were painted bright colours of blue or green and had a certain charm about them, set amongst their lush setting of long grass and palm trees.
As we commenced making plans as to where the building would be located, a few cheeky children strayed from their classrooms to have a look at the “kaivalagi” - a Fijian word meaning someone from the land of the foreigners. As the location of the building was confirmed by a few sticks stuck into the ground, a workforce of about 30 or so boys and men from the village turned up - these men had taken time away from their farms or other duties to lend us a hand in building the library, an unexpected, but welcome, surprise. As a few of us went about setting up string lines to mark out the location of each foundation post, the rest of us struck up conversation with the Fijians who had come to help, exchanging names and asking one another questions, “Where in Australia are you from?”, “Do you play rugby?”, “What do you farm?”.
When the call was made to start digging we all set to work furiously digging a hole for each of the foundation posts to be located in. We later learned that Fijians quite like to work in large groups like this (we also learned that the Fijians could dig holes a whole lot quicker and better than we could!) and the whole thing is treated as a bit of fun: telling jokes, singing songs, stirring each other up and if anything needs to be passed along a line, like buckets of concrete, well that’s just a good opportunity to get a bit of rugby practice in.
At the end of each day’s work we all sit down in a group together and a few key men of the village express their thanks to us for offering our time and resources to provide their children with something that most remote schools don't have: a dedicated library. After the thanks and some prayer, the men begin to sing songs, each man joining in the harmony where his voice best fits. Sitting amongst them all, I realise this is quite a special moment. As the singing continues some women arrive from the village with necklaces made of fresh flowers for each of us as a traditional way of honouring guests. Next some musical instruments arrive as well as the kava (kava is a Fijian specialty, drunk at all kinds of occasions and leaves your mind relaxed but tastes distinctly like muddy water). The kava is served in quite a ceremonial fashion, first to the chief, then to the guests and then to everyone else. As the party gets into full swing, we are invited to dance and serve the kava to the women. The singing, dancing and laughing continues until we leave, when we are again thanked, as every member of the village takes the time to shake each of our hands.
Thanks to the extra help we complete the foundations of the building in a little over two days, bringing the first phase of the construction process to a close. We have set out the building's location, dug 36 holes and set in concrete a timber footing post in each. On the 12th of August six fire fighters from Kogarah Fire Station will travel to Vacalea to build the floor, walls and roof. Once the building is complete, Andrew will ship to the village donated books, shelving, desks and a computer to transform the simple structure into Vacalea Public School's first ever library.
More photos to come as construction of the library progresses…