CHILDREN singing are guaranteed to bring even the most hard-hearted person undone.
But when they are Fijian children singing My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean in a tiny village school with not much in it apart from a half-dozen scarred 1950s school desks, a few torn exercise books and a sad collection of stubby pencils, there are tears.
On the Fijian island of Waya Sewa at the Namara Village School, the children have been lined up in messy formation to sing and dance for us. We have been seated in rows in front of them on the school’s shabby veranda, like the Queen and her entourage on a royal visit.
The boys wear smart grey sulus (sarongs) topped with spotless white shirts. The girls wear crisp blue smocks.
The children’s sizes range from the tiny to the gangly. The boys have closely cropped hair, while the girls show off tight black curls. All the children have large, round eyes brimming with the innocence and purity of youth.
We are on the island as part of the Captain Cook Fijian Cruise on board the Reef Endeavour. The children entertain us with songs in English and Fijian, their sweet voices in complete harmony with each other. They’ve learnt all the English words to their songs and although they might not know quite what they mean (who does know why Bonnie lies over the ocean?) they sing them sweetly and enthusiastically.
Then some of the children sit down and chant while a group of boys, dressed in grass skirts brandishing long poles and bamboo fans, do a jovial war dance.
When it’s all over, the children rush to us, take us by the hand and steer us into their sparse classrooms with the old worn desks. The paucity of the rooms is in shocking contrast to the tropical island setting, where a large grassy area leads to a palm-lined beach of white sand and clear water. Poverty in paradise.
The children proudly show us their work, opening their tattered exercise books, sharing their few stumpy pencils to write down their addresses for us so we can later correspond.
Their mothers, aunties and grandmothers sit patiently outside on the grass, their hand-made shell trinkets and handicrafts on mats before them for sale at embarrassingly small amounts.
The Republic of Fiji has about 700 primary schools but only 150 secondary schools. School attendance is not required by law.
“Captain Cook sponsors the schools we visit in Fiji,” our purser had told us before our visit. “If you have any pens, notebooks or pencils you would like to give the school, they will welcome them.”
After spending time with the children, giving them the hats off our heads, the few pens we have in our bags, we leave feeling energised. When we return to Australia, we send a parcel: pens, pencils, books, stickers, rulers, sharpeners.
It’s a small gesture for a captivating experience.
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