By Madeline Kirsch
It’s a tropical island that seems worlds away from Schenectady, probably because it is. But it’s not as blissful as it appears, because 31 percent of Fijians live in absolute poverty.
Though Union has a study abroad program to Fiji every other year, some students might be looking to stray from the beaten path.
Volunteering with the Naqaqa Giving Foundation in northern Fiji, according to Program Developer Ben Mones, is “something that nobody’s ever done before.”
Pronounced Na-gahn-ga, the Giving Foundation has been officially helping to provide access to healthcare, food and education for eight years.
“It’s not a place where you’ll see people who are starving on the streets, or horrible war or famine,” Mones said.
Instead, Fiji’s high poverty rate is due to more subtle factors: underdeveloped education and infrastructure, plus the country’s legacy of British colonization. Being such an isolated nation doesn’t help, either, since Fiji “pretty much relies on exports and tourism for all of their gross national product,” said Mones.
Multinational corporations like FIJI Water are significant players in the country’s economy.
Despite external factors, one of the foundation’s major principles is sustainability. They aim to give people and communities the tools to identify and change their problems, instead of providing what a quick fix, which Mones referred to as “Band-Aid aid.” This, he told me, empowers people, letting them go forward and teach their lessons to others.
Luckily, there’s no food shortage and Fiji’s tropical environment is conducive to lots of natural growth, which helps the two farms the foundation runs.
Another focus of Naqaqa is healthcare. Though the organization provides complete funding for a medical center that includes the community’s only pharmacy, their goal 10 years out is to have the center be a “self-sustaining institution [as part of the local town].”
In the meantime, they’re also trying to reduce the presence of diabetes among Fijians. The disease affects a shocking four out of 10 people there.
To do so, they’re partnering with doctors in Fiji for a nutrition nurse program, and training villagers in nutrition, exercise and awareness of how to prevent diabetes.
Even with such beautiful scenery and people eager to do good, change isn’t so easy. Mones told me about the organization’s early challenges in figuring out how to organize and dispense aid.
On a personal level, he said he’s often asked about “why he doesn’t help [victims of] the tsunami in Japan or [of] the floods in Indonesia or Pakistan.”
His responds, “There are a lot of poor people in Fiji, and getting the word out is tough,” which he attributes to both how rural the organization’s area of operations is, and how “off-the-map that part of the world is.”
So far 27 Union students have expressed interest in volunteering, and four are fundraising right now.
Interest has been highest with students from small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, because Mones says, “The students are very creative and independent, often interested in service, and understand the larger world community.”
With options to spend two, three or four weeks in Fiji, this program is easily doable in spite of Union’s unique schedule.
Pre-med students can even get International Medical Center credit hours.
One of the major qualities Naqaqa looks for in its volunteers is the willingness to step outside of one’s comfort zone.
If a student can do that, then they’ll be in for a life-changing experience in one of the most beautiful places on earth.