One of the reasons that I wanted to visit the Yasawa Island group of Fiji was because of their remoteness. With no roads, no shops and only intermittent electricity, I liked the idea of truly getting away from the trappings of modern society.
Small traditional villages are scattered throughout the Yasawas and unlike much of the main island of Viti Levu, not a lot has changed in these villages since the arrival of tourism. A big reason for this is that tourism has been present on Viti Levu and the nearby Mamanuca Islands for nearly 60 years and in a big, brash, all inclusive resort type of way. Tourism only started in the Yasawa Island chain 15-20 years ago and has been on a much smaller scale, with only a few small resorts with a lot fo them having links to the local villages.
Despite the villagers of the Yasawa Islands now having another source of income in tourism, their lives haven’t changed much from before tourism came to the islands. They still fish and grow their own food and their culture and customs are still largely intact, which is why I was so interested to get a look into their everyday lives.
We organised through our resort on Nacula Island to participate in a village visit during our stay, as you are not allowed to visit a village unless it is through a tour or if you are invited there. You can’t just turn up and hope for the best. The Fijians may no longer eat people (cannibalism was practiced before the coming of Christianity in the mid nineteenth century) but they wouldn’t be impressed and I didn’t want to see an angry Fijian, although it is hard to imagine these smiley people ever being angry.
Blue Lagoon Resort has a co-dependant relationship with Nacula village, and the majority of the staff from the Resort call this village home, strengthening ties further. As well as the village receiving proceeds from the tours, there is a program where guests are invited to bring gifts for the school kids such as lunch boxes and clothing, which we also did. The Resort also sources a lot of their produce and fish from local village farmers and fishermen, helping the villagers further.
Our tour began with a short boat trip, taking us further around the western coast of the island.
It was very quiet when we landed on the beach. We didn’t see any of the 300 residents as we were lead through the village. There were rows of tidy huts and small concrete houses. Everything looked very well cared for: the grass was trimmed, there was not a speck of rubbish to be seen and there were small gardens and other decorations outside a lot of the houses. Tall coconut palms and breadfruit trees punctuated the spaces between dwellings. The only noise we heard was the crowing of roosters as we played follow the leader with our quiet guide.
There were two churches that we saw in the village which isn’t that surprising as religion is very important to the Fijian people. In fact, nearly all of indigenous Fijians are Christian, with the most common denomination being Methodist.
After doing a loop of the central part of the village, we circled back and sat on the coarse grass outside a large white church, waiting for the villagers to welcome us.
We waited about 45 minutes but I enjoyed sitting in the shade of the trees, a welcome respite from the heat of the day. Our guide was quite serious and quiet but when we were sitting there, plucking at blades of yellowing grass, he began to open up and was happy to answer our questions. He wasn’t from Nacula village, but from a smaller village further around the coast. Trav and I had seen his village from a viewpoint above Safe Landing Resort when we had been hiking the previous day.
There was no school at his village so he had boarded during the week at the Nacula Village School. He told us that he left school when he was only 13 to help his family be fishing and growing food. When the small resorts on the island were established it gave him another way to support his family and opened up a lot of other opportunities to him, including being able to spend three years living and working in Wisconsin which was made possible by guests that he befriended. He seemed very grateful for that.
Finally the villagers were ready for us and we were ushered into a large community hall where we sat along the elevated stage. The village elders performed a ‘meke’ for us, which is a traditional Fijian welcome and includes multiple songs accompanied by traditional dance. The villagers had big smiles on their faces while they performed and their happiness was infectious. A group of young children sat at the side of the Hall and watched the performance, laughing and joking around. Big smiles plastered on their faces.
The villagers pulled us up to dance with them a couple of times which I really enjoyed as they made us feel so welcome and included. They seemed like they genuinely enjoyed singing and dancing together. They placed leis of shells and flowers around our necks as part of the meke.
After thanking them for their wonderful performance we waited around while some of the women spread blankets along the ground outside the church hall and placed shell jewellery, batiks and flax weavings on them for us to peruse. We bought a couple of necklaces and bracelets as well as a beautiful polished shell. We wanted to support them so they can continue to live their lives in the village they were born in, rather than having to move to the main island to make ends meet like so many have done before.
The last stop of our tour was to the outskirts of the village, to the school. The boarding students welcomed us as we entered the building and sung us songs. I felt a little bit uncomfortable as it looked like most of the students didn’t want to be there, and I can’t say I would either if I was a pre-teen. After singing a couple of songs, the students were curious about us and swarmed around us asking questions or just hanging back, watching. I would imagine that most of them have never left the island and were naturally curious of people from another place that looked different to them. They were especially interested in the people in our group taking photos; they wanted to see the photos of themselves.
The boat picked us up at the beach near the school and took us back to Blue Lagoon Resort from there.
Overall I really enjoyed the tour. I got the opportunity to see a traditional village and experiencing the meke was really fun. I did have some misgivings about what it would be like and whether the villagers actually wanted to greet tourists into their village every week, or if is something that they feel they have to do out of necessity. It did seem genuine to me. Of course they would be doing it for the money, at least partly, but it certainly didn’t feel like they hated having us there. They seemed proud of their culture and their tidy village.
And so they should be.
I never participated in a favela tour in Brazil, a township tour in South Africa or the mine tour in Potosi, Bolivia because I don’t believe that poor people should be a spectacle and I don’t think it is right to treat their homes as a zoo. The reason I felt differently about doing the village visit is because I don’t see the villagers as being ‘poor’. They are not the poorest people of a city or town, they are living their lives in the traditional way and how they always have. I doubt whether they would see themselves as being poor.
But then, I can’t help but wonder if it is different than visiting a favela or a township. They put on a show for us because we had paid them to, basically. It definitely seemed as if they had fun doing so but maybe it was all fake?
On the other hand, when I think about it, I go into an office five days a week and sit under freezing cold air conditioning that makes me sick, doing a job that I don’t mind but I by no means love. I sit under fluorescent lights rather than the natural glow of the sun and I miss the best part of the day by being stuck inside. I would much rather be making a living by showing people from other countries about my culture and where I live.
I don’t regret going on the tour and I hope that the money that we paid for it, as well as the additional money we contributed to the school, can help the villagers stay in the home they love.
I am going to believe that the smiles and laughter were real, because they certainly seemed to be. I don’t believe the islanders are being exploited.
After my experience, I would definitely recommend participating in a village visit in the Yasawa Islands. The big smiles on the friendly faces of the villagers made my day.