Youth leadership should never be taken for granted. It is one of the most challenging roles especially in the context of Pacific communities with their traditional settings.
My name is Rae Bainteiti, 28, youth worker and currently studying towards a Bachelor of Social Work at Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand. I have at least 7 years work experience in the youth sector, local government, and community engagement. I have founded various youth movements in Kiribati on Climate Change, Human Rights and Corruption.
In June 2018, I had the opportunity to be part of the ERASMUS + Youth Exchange at Yavulo village in Fiji. Yavulo is located on the outskirts of Sigatoka Town, well known as the Salad Bowl of Fiji because of its extensive vegetable farming. Sigatoka is about a two-hour drive away from Nadi International airport towards Suva city. The indigenous people or the I-Taukei of Yavulo are landowners of most of the town area and are also famously known as pottery makers.
The Erasmus+ exchange programme is funded by the European Union and coordinated by the Centre for Intercultural Dialogue which is a civil society organization in Macedonia working to promote intercultural acceptance and active citizenship through capacity building processes, education and youth work. The organization’s activity focuses on many aspects which are of interest for young people: from provision of services and information, to research and support for policy-making and networking. Its Pacific counterparts were the Pacific Youth Council who collaborated with the National Youth Council of Fiji to plan out the Fiji exchange programme.
This was a year-long programme which began in South Africa in May. The NGO Partners for this year long programme were NGO React – Estonia, Istituto Morcelliano – Italy, Youth for Exchange and Understanding International – YEU – Belgium, Project 2020 – UK, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation – South Africa, Young Diplomats of Canada – Les jeunes diplomates du Canada – Canada, Blogosphere Gomatracienne – DRC, World Vision for Education and Development (WVED) – Cameroon, Development Perspectives and the Pacific Youth Council – Fiji.
This was an excellent opportunity for sharing youth leadership experiences from each of the countries that were represented. For many it provided moments for deep reflection, sharing lessons learnt, learning and appreciating traditional leadership and structures.
The Yavulo community is a well structured village of permanent houses with a semi circular gravel road that allows you to access the village from the main tar-sealed road. At the center of the village is a church and opposite it is a huge community hall. All the houses are intentionally elevated to about a meter or so; a safe height from the flooding from the nearby river which the villagers says happens a lot particulary during the cyclone season – from November to April.
I arrived in Yavulo on a Friday evening and was taken straight for dinner at the community hall. Women were in the kitchen rooms preparing dinner while the youths sat in the hall drinking juice out of a basin as an alternative for kava, a traditional root-based drink. The food was delicious.
The programme throughout the week was enriching. I had three key highlights of the exchange that I found most educational and personally rewarding:
Understanding traditional settings and the importance of Gender
I had a moment of self-reflection where I was able to assess myself in the environment, a traditional setting, and how it played a crucial role in youth leadership. I was able to share how as young leaders, it is important that we observe basic protocols to get the attention of the whole village on issues very important for young people. We need to be respectful in our approaches and not lose simple basic protocols because of imposed western ideologies. You don’t just see women sitting in the kitchen or providing meals and judge that they play no role at all in community affairs. You don’t see young people participating in village meetings because they are excluded but because the elders have enough practice wisdom to preside on community issues so young people can learn from such examples and grow as leaders with wisdom when it comes to their turn. My time in Yavulo made me see things with different lens and made me more appreciative that Pacific young people are in fact fortunate that they still have manners instilled in them which make them good Leaders. I recognise that this is my worldview and belief system that may be different from others.
Challenging theories and worldviews
With different worldviews packed in one room, the feeling of being intimidated was common. But it does not mean that you needed to be validated. You needed to really challenge different theories in the context of your community and your country as well as the worldviews that each of the youths brought together in the space. My particular attention was on gender roles which although was acceptable in structured communities like Yavulo; it became unacceptable for many who held feminist views and beliefs for example. The fear in all of this is simply this – when Western ideologies take full control over important norms and values of Pacific Island communities, what do we have left that will constitute our identities as Pacific island cultures?
Importance of youth engaging in civic spaces
Finally, we talked so much on how to change things or perhaps how we could change things. Across the globe, youth leaders face similar problems of disconnection and exclusion but the aspiration is the same, to thrive. Engaging civic spaces was therefore key in addressing youth issues. With enough wisdom and blessings of the village; we can actually become change makers in our own right and we can start by engaging civic spaces – running for elections, influencing policy cycles through our engagements as interest groups with policy makers and parliamentarians. The real change can only happen if we direct our energies towards engaging civic spaces meaningfully and in full force.
I found the first few days of the exchange very important for self-discovery and appreciating different worldviews and beliefs. It provided a space for self-reflection and appreciation that for me, every young person should start leading with appreciation of where they come from so that they know where they are heading.
Sincere acknowledgements to PYC, NYC and their European Counterparts for organizing this exchange.