Weaving between houses, sprinting, jumping ditches. I’m not barefoot, but I feel I am. Like a scene out of The Jungle Book, I duck beneath branches, calling Bula, hello! to my village friends. I’m a village child myself when I’m running through the dusty dirt. Because in Fiji, in my adopted village of Raviravi, the children are so irrevocably independent, that I can’t help but want to be one of them.
I had come to Fiji to spend a month in community service and cultural immersion, ten days in Raviravi, 20 of us among less than 200 villagers. When we arrived, the village elders welcomed us. Watching were pairs and pairs of big, brown, long-lashed eyes. They peered out from laps or from behind their naus, their mothers, with big, brown, curious eyes. The traditional sevu-sevu welcoming ceremony concluded, but the inquisitive eyes continued watching from afar, through doorways, behind sulus, sarongs.
Then the school children came home. Their skin was milk-chocolate brown, and all, girl or boy, wore their rough, curly, deep brown hair cut close to their heads. Changing into their single outfit of play clothes and tossing off their shoes, they came to meet us; within five minutes we were all playing ball. I met Mere, NayNay, Inise, Mella, Anna, Pauliashi, Singa, Leno. It had just rained, so the small field was so muddy we couldn’t take a step without squelching in our shoes or slipping wildly. With the unanimous decision that our feet would never be clean again – and that nothing could matter less – we became honorary village children.
Over the next few days, we began to see what village life was like for our new Fijian friends. The youngest were free to play, the elder travelled hours to school. Most often, the village children travelled in packs, responsible only to each other, for each other. They giggled and followed us on impulse, holding our hands and asking if we remembered their names. We played “TakiTaki”, a children’s game consisting of singing and embarrassing a chosen dancer. If one child refused to dance, every other would turn to face him crossly, calling out a reprimanding, “Hey!” Then, just as quickly, every face grinned widely once again.
The children were physically adept as well, more so than us. They seemed to gain skills young, not so much out of necessity, but because they were allowed to.Playing alone in a ditch was an acceptable form of amusement.Most surprising was to find a small child playing casually with his older cousin’s machete.These children learned from experience.They could swim from under the age of two: if they felt like taking a dip, they would cannonball off the bridge into the river, fully clothed or suddenly naked, and their heads would pop up in seconds, bursting in a grin.They would soon tire and run out of the water, dripping wet and shivering, to skip sun-heated rocks – at this too, they were better than us.
At night, the children accompanied us no less relentlessly, even waiting behind our shower curtains. While we ate, they drummed and sang for us, and tried in vain to teach us to keep a beat. After dinner they sat with us to listen to old village stories, or danced at the mekke to four endlessly repeating reggae songs.
Yawning, the youngest fell asleep in their naus laps. NayNay would spread her wide, close-mouthed grin at me before running off into the village darkness. Inise, rubbing her big, brown, curious eyes, would tell me goodnight; she can’t wait to play again tomorrow.
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