Updated: Jan 14
The 7th October 2019 marked the beginning of my Fijian journey and the most memorable 6 months of my life. After weeks of visa delays, I finally got the go ahead to board my flight to Fiji.
I embarked on a trip of a lifetime as part of Australian Volunteer's International, a government funded program.
My role was with AFL Fiji and the objective of my assignment was to help develop and grow the sport in Fiji.
I liked Fiji immediately. I found the people light hearted, easy going and always willing to offer a smile. During my first few days, I explored the capital city of Suva in the same way I like to explore all new places I visit - by running!
After a few miles and a few wrong turns I quickly realised that it was a relatively small city and easy to navigate. The rest of the week consisted of some formalities and inductions after which it was time to get to work with AFL Fiji.
My first taste of Australian Football
I got my first taste of Australian Football in Fiji when I attended the Vanua Challenge. An important date in many of the players diaries as teams from the east and the west of the country compete in the hope of preforming well and earning an invitation to attend trials for the men's national team, known as Fiji Tribe. The day proved to be a great day of football with a huge amount of talent and athleticism on show.
November came around and preparations for the Oceania Cup began - an under 15 tournament where Vanuatu, Tonga, Nauru and Fiji compete for the Oceania crown. Boys from all over the country were eager to represent Fiji in this special tournament.
The team was to be coached by Loata Vakausausa, a promising young coach with a strong passion for Australian Rules Football. Players travelled hours on buses and walked from miles around to attend training, many of these tough young boys choose to train in their bare feet and didn’t see the need for a pair of football boots.
It was a memorable experience and again highlighted the amount of unbelievably talented kids on this small pacific island. The tournament was won by the tiny nation of Nauru in which Australian Rules is their national sport and Australian Dollar is their currency. The tournament was a great success and very well organised by Ben Drew from AFL South Pacific with the help of Matelita Tuilevuka and AFL Fiji.
My role as an AFL Development officer gave me the opportunity to travel to many fascinating parts of the island. We regularly travelled to rural communities to introduce Australian Rules Football to the young men and women of the village. The enthusiasm and energy these young athletes showed for a sport they had never heard of constantly amazed me. Their laughter and smiles made these sessions lots of fun and for me, a very rewarding experience.
Upon our arrival into these rural villages all over Fiji, we were always given a warm welcome and the people of the village seemed excited for our visit. After our initial greeting we were brought into the main building of the village where we were introduced to the people and we talked a little about the basics of the sport. Next we headed out to the local field and started on some fundamental skills. Everybody loved to get involved, the older adults watched with great interest from the sidelines while the youngsters had lots of fun on the field.
When training was done for the day, we were then treated to a big feast which some of the locals had been busy preparing all day. It was a great honour to be in their company while enjoying wonderful Fijian meals.
On one occasion we spent three days on the island of Levuka, off the coast of the mainland. We arrived on a boat and then jumped into the back of a truck to be transported into the middle of the island. We were welcomed into the home of a lovely local lady, where we stayed during our time on the island. We were looked after so well and those three days living closely with the people allowed me to experience the Fijian village life first-hand - a very memorable experience indeed.
We also attended a church service while we were on the island, which was full of life and fantastic singing. Unfortunately the trip ended on a bit of a dampener for me when I became violently sick after mistakenly drinking some of the local water. I will always have fond memories of that trip regardless.
From a coaching point of view, the lessons learned in Fiji have without a doubt made me a better coach and communicator. I had to adapt my coaching greatly to ensure that the instructions were understood as some Fijian's spoke less English than others. This lead to less talking but more precise instructions and getting straight to the point. When Fijian language lessons were offered to me as part of the assignment, I didn’t even need to think about the decision and got started straight away.
I worked hard and eventually started to pick up some sentences. I often attempted to strike up conversation with the Fijian people as I gradually learned more of their language. Most importantly, I think this really helped me to develop stronger relationships with the local people but it also gave them plenty of laughs as I struggled to get the correct words out. In training, I was better equipped to give simple directions such as left, right, kick, run and there was a noticeable improvement in areas such as movement around the field.
The most rewarding part of learning the language was being able to join in with the post training hymns. It is tradition for everyone to sing together after the majority of training sessions and games and now I was better equipped to join in too. Some of my favourites were (and still are) - Mo Ravi Vei Jisu (Lean on Jesus), Noqu Masu (My Prayer) and Eda Sa Qaqa (We shall overcome).
My love for Running
Due to my love for running it didn’t take me long to find the local athletics track where I was once again greeted by smiling faces. It was here that I was lucky enough to meet a very passionate coach named Bola Tafoou.
I helped Bola with some of his middle distance runners as Fiji is not known for its distance runners, sprints and jumps seemed to be the more popular events.
At the time, the athletes were preparing for the Coke Games - the premier high school competition in the country. Unfortunately this event ended up getting cancelled due to COVID 19.
Prior to this however, I got the opportunity to attend one of the lead up qualifying events known as Zone meets. The atmosphere the schools created was unlike anything I had experienced before and this unforgettable day was topped off when Ama Masau, a young athlete I had been helping to coach, put in some impressive performances over 800m and in the final leg of the 400m relay.
My time spent at this event and working alongside Bola and the many talented runners in Fiji was definitely one of the highlights of my time on the island.
'Seek first to understand before being understood"- Simon Covey
Some Final Words
In my opinion, it is vital to immerse yourself fully into a new culture as it is truly the only way you will understand the people you are working with. From this you will be better equipped to forge strong relationships and have an amazing learning experience.
Fiji is a beautiful country full of great people and amazing sporting talent, I hope one day that I can return to work with these fascinating people.
Vinaka Vaka levu