Study Abroad Africa Blog

An Open Thank You Letter to Team Fiji

Gabriela Hayes

Senior from Montgomery, AL, Major: Laboratory Sciences, Minor: Hunger Studies

Call Me IshmaelA blog dedicated to the kind people who made Vorovoro feel like home.

This summer I journeyed to Fiji and New Zealand with Auburn University to study sustainability. While traveling through New Zealand was an incredible experience full of majestic sights and thrilling adventures, the Fiji leg of the trip captured my soul. I lived with twelve other Auburn students on an island about a mile long. Vorovoro. Before we left for the trip, our professor, Kate Thornton, told us that the island would “harden our feet and soften our hearts,” but none of us could understand the significance of this statement until we witnessed it ourselves.

Our little home sat just off of a larger island, known as Mali. It was the Mali people who stayed with us on Vorovoro and made our time there so memorable. Eighteen Fijians dedicated four weeks of their time to expose us to their culture, teach us countless lessons, and work along side us to complete projects. The most significant project of the trip was the Grand Bure, a central meeting place for the village. Under the guidance of an amazing carpenter named Nemani, this remarkable house was built; it will benefit the community for many years to come. As we worked and played, I grew to love the Fijians more than I ever expected. They were a constant source of laughter, safety, and friendship. Two weeks in to the trip I knew that we needed to do something as a symbol of our appreciation. I approached the group with an idea to purchase a new shirt for every member of Team Fiji. Much to my delight, they all agreed! We combined our funds and bought a new bula shirt for all the men and sulus for the women. It was decided that we would give their gifts on our last morning before we said our goodbyes; I was asked to give a thank you speech before we presented them. The following is what I read:

Tui Mali and Team Fiji,

Call Me IshmaelOn behalf of myself and everyone from Bridge the Gap and Auburn, vinaka vaka levu, or as Wise and Api taught us, Na’a! Thank you for welcoming us into your home, culture, and hearts. From the moment we arrived on beautiful Vorovoro, you have filled our lives with so much happiness. These past four weeks we have been blown away by how kind, loving, selfless, and generous everyone on the island is. It never went unnoticed how early the kitchen staff woke up, the number of hours the guys spent working on the Grand Bure with no complaints, and all the planning and meetings that were needed to keep us safe. No matter how much work there was to be done, you all took the time to get to know us, answer our hundreds of questions about life in Fiji, and make us all laugh until we couldn’t breathe. If I had a dollar for every time Api called out Abby’s name so loud you could here it from the beach to the village, or Bale had a sassy comment to one of our silly questions, I would have enough money to build three Grand Bures. I could spend the next thirty minutes listing the amazing qualities in each one of you. Please know that every member of Team Fiji had a part in making our trip so special, and memories of you will last in our hearts forever. Thank you for all the laughs, hugs, delicious food, and beautiful music. We were so blessed to be accepted into a culture that treats everyone like family and will make saying goodbye so hard. There are not enough words in the English and Fijian languages combined to say how grateful we are for all you have given us, and we have been so truly humbled by this experience, but we hope this small gift will bring you joy and remind you of us whenever you use it. Au domoni iko (I love you).

As I think back on Kate’s original statement, I realize it was the people that caused our hearts to soften. Without their constant outpouring of hospitality, generosity, and love our time on the island would not have been the same. The genuine nature of the Mali people taught us more than we could learn in any classroom, and for that I am forever grateful.

For more information about the Fiji/New Zealand Study Abroad program, come by the Office of Global Education located in Spidle Hall room 232, or e-mail Kate Thornton.

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