Development, Arts, culture & society | The Pacific

27 November 2020

A book club in Fiji provides lessons on how to engage effectively with the Pacific’s most at-risk citizens, Nicholas Halter and Anawaite Matadradra write.

In 2018, an ambitious grassroots community project emerged in the Nanuku informal settlement to encourage reading amongst children. A core group of three indigenous Fijian women established the Vunilagi Book Club in response to community concerns about declining literacy rates amongst the children of the settlement. 

Nanuku is located in the suburb of Vatuwaqa, three kilometres from Fijian capital Suva’s city centre. The settlement’s dwellings are small and in close proximity to one another, connected by makeshift footpaths of tyres or cement blocks. Few homes have toilets, running water and electricity, and access is limited to those who are able to afford the high cost of utilities 

Within informal settlements like Nanuku, children are some of the most vulnerable and at risk. The harsh living conditions of high crime, limited electricity and poor sanitation places many children at risk of disease and discontinued education, leading to diminished opportunities in life. 

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The educational reality faced by children in the Nanuku informal settlement is one of the reasons why a children’s book club was set up there in 2018. Observational evidence suggests the children in Nanuku settlement do not have the same levels of literacy as other Fijian children. In some cases, children as old as 14 were unable to read independently. 

The reasons for this are complex. For example, Nanuku children are often forced to attend multiple schools throughout their upbringing. In some cases, classrooms are overcrowded, and school libraries are inadequate. The living conditions of Nanuku settlement also present challenges for the supervision and support of children. 

The first reading session of Vunilagi began with five volunteers and 15 children, meeting in a 30 square metre corrugated iron shack that is used as the local Methodist Church. A handful of donated books were shared with the children, who were encouraged to look at them and listen to a story being read aloud by one of the volunteers on a Saturday morning for an hour. 

Today this has improved somewhat, with children assembling in the church space on a Saturday morning every two weeks arranged into smaller groups, usually by school level. Individual volunteers spend 15 to 20 minutes reading with each group. Older children read aloud independently, while younger children are guided with the aid of translators. Afterwards, children explain to the whole room what they read, before fruit and water are served to the children and they are then escorted home.

Vunilagi has a number of assets that have assisted in its success. Nanuku’s proximity to Suva’s urban centre means that supplies such as books and stationery are easy to access. Notably, books have been donated in large amounts by local groups, as well as by donors around the world. Nanuku’s location in the capital also means that there is a larger pool of available volunteers, community groups, civil society organisations and donor groups nearby who are willing to contribute. Vunilagi also has a strong base of children participants, which on average number 30, but have increased to almost 60 at times. Most are from Nanuku, but other children have also visited from nearby informal settlements like Wailea. 

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The other asset that the Nanuku community possesses is its women. Vunilagi demonstrates how Pacific women can successfully create community change within traditional gender roles and spaces. In the Nanuku settlement, most of the community leaders are male, whilst women are disproportionately disadvantaged. By operating outside of formal school or village committees, Vunilagi is able to develop and experiment without outside interference. And yet, the cultural awareness of the women leaders and their position within the community ensures that Vunilagi is sanctioned and social harmony in the settlement is maintained.

The success of Vunilagi can be partly attributed to the involvement of two local women from the Nanuku community that go by the pseudonyms Mele and Losalini. Both women attended schooling up to secondary level, and their initial interest in Vunilagi was prompted by Mele’s concern for the education of her own children. 

Vunilagi’s development has relied on Mele and Losalini’s in-depth knowledge of the families in the informal settlement, as well as of the local community leaders, teachers and parents. In particular, their detailed knowledge of the languages and cultural norms and customs of both the iTaukei and Fijians of Indian descent families has been invaluable.

Also important to the group’s success has been Fijian-Australian woman Adi Mariana Waqa, an iTaukei woman, born and raised in Melbourne. Whilst volunteering for Uniting World Australia and the Methodist Church of Fiji in 2017, she met Mele and some months later discussed the idea of a book club with members of the local community. 

Waqa founded Vunilagi in Melbourne in December 2017 when she first created a Facebook page to generate interest, network and receive donations from Fijian diaspora communities in Melbourne and Sydney. Capitalising on social media, Waqa promotes Vunilagi’s cause and garners support from the diaspora, largely in the form of book and cash donations from Australia and the United States.

Though it has only been running for two years, Vunilagi has made a lasting impression on the Nanuku community. When schools were closed for months due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Vunilagi continued to run reading sessions while practising social distancing. It also organised homework sessions and private tutoring on a weekly basis. When the Fiji government stopped the free school lunch program after the outbreak of COVID-19, Vunilagi mobilised a team of mothers from the settlement to provide daily lunches to the children.

Urban poverty is a persistent challenge within informal settlements in Fiji, and residents of Nanuku face a number of difficulties in their daily lives, ranging from insecure control and access to land, unaffordable housing, and limited access to state utility services and clean water. These tenuous living conditions make the lives of children and the pursuit of education difficult. 

However, the efforts by Vunilagi show the potential for improving the education of children in informal settlements through grassroots initiatives which encourage the participation and leadership of local women. Vunilagi also illustrates the possibilities of grassroots approaches to make small but significant progress in addressing complex social issues by capitalising on social relationships and informal networks. 

This piece is based on a journal article published in the November 2020 edition of the Small States & Territories Journal. Read the full article here.

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