This will likely be an earnest, though potentially infrequently updated, account of my adventures, tribulations,
and everyday experiences as I spend two years working as an environmental Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Coral Farming with Kids!

So last I had updated you about our environment club at the school (the umm Big Fantastic Club), we had been having sessions to learn about and explore coral reef ecosystems. Well, this was the final trimester of the year and my last chance to work with the class 8 students who, beginning in January, would be moving on to board at secondary school. So as a group, we decided to apply our newfound knowledge of coral reefs by initiating a coral planting project.

This is a fairly inexpensive and straightforward process and if applied on a larger or more professional scale is an efficient method of recovering damaged coral reefs. For our purposes, however, I just wanted the students to get a more tangible sense of what coral looks like up close and that hopefully, by nurturing their own small bit of coral to grow they might gain a better respect for coral reefs and a better understanding of why they’re important.

First meeting of the term where we talked out our plan for the next three months.

Step 1: Making the sand plot

In order to plant bits of coral, we needed some kind of base that the coral could grow from and that could also be used to attach it to the reef when the coral was ready to be replanted. The bases that we decided on were cement pancakes with a little divot hole in the top (to attach the coral fragment to using a marine epoxy) and a stick like appendage extending from the bottom that can be used to secure the pancake to the reef.


To make the pancakes we needed a nice open sandy area where we could pour the cement. The students took to the task with gusto – clearing and preparing a nice sandy patch close to the beach. Once we had the area set up, we poured water onto it to make it damp and proceeded to make small shallow holes that would serve to create the stick appendage. 

Digging our sand plot, where we would create our cement pancakes.

The sand needs to be smooth in order to create nice even pancakes!

Working together as a team

The class 5 and 6 teacher helping out on pancake making day. The sand needed to be moist in order to keep the form of the cement.
Using a stick to push small shallow holes into the wet sand. These would create the stick-like handle on the cement pancake that will hold it in place in the cage and then later when it is placed on the reef.
 
Finally, we mixed up the cement (cutting it with a bit of sand) and poured it into each of the little holes the students made, adding a little extra at the top to serve as the pancake. Once they were set a little bit the students carved their names into them.

Students pouring their own pancakes

Batch number one cooking in the sun!

Step 2: Placing the cage

Having our pancakes prepared we needed to set up our nursery in water that was shallow enough for the students to reach but deep enough to substantially cover the corals at low tide. It took nearly 20 minutes of walking into the water but eventually we reached an appropriate area. The students had carried out a large sheet of mesh that would serve as our nursery structure. We also carried out a flag to mark the location so we could find it again!

Signing our BFC flag that would mark the location of our cage in the water - the spot where the corals would go to grow

Marching out to place the flag and the cage

This is our cage or rather its a bit of hurricane mesh that I acquired from another Peace Corps' house. We elevated it up on some rocks and placed more rocks around the borders as weight so that it would remain stable in rough weather.
Step 3: Harvesting a bit of healthy coral

Class 8 students that had received permission from both their parents and the head teacher were allowed to participate in the field trip out to the reef break to harvest our healthy coral stock. It would take one person all of 5 minutes to acquire enough appropriate coral for our purposes but none of these students had ever been out to the reef before and had never seen a coral reef ecosystem in person. I wanted them to have that experience. 

Taking the class 8 students out to the reef break at the nearest passage. The location we chose is particularly healthy and a good site for harvesting a few pieces of coral to use in our project.
The site we had selected was ideal as well because it was nice and shallow with an excellent selection of healthy corals and then it led to an abrupt drop off leading into a wide passage – it looked just like the drop off in Finding Nemo. Having a bit of blue water like that allowed the kids to see some big fish as well including a few barracudas and a shark! Altogether, we collected appropriate pieces and gently piled them in a bucket for transport. 

Collecting corals
Back on the boat - we filled the bucket with more water and kept the corals nice and covered until we planted them promptly afterward

Step 4: Planting in the nursery

Finally, we had everything we needed to plant our corals. Each student had a pancake and would receive a small piece of coral fragment (broken off the larger healthy branches that we had collected) that would be glued to the top of the pancake using a special marine epoxy that hardens underwater. Once each student had his or her fragment attached, we marched as a group to our cage nursery and planted them!

Showing off their pancakes!
Attaching pieces of coral to each pancake using a special marine epoxy. The students brought their pancakes one at a time and I glued on the coral fragments. Once they were set, the kids took them to the water to keep the corals underwater until everyone was ready to march out to the cage for placement.

Sadly, however, a lot of students lost their coral fragments because they were playing a bit too much on the way out and in the end we placed a mere five pancakes in the nursery! Isa lei. But the point wasn’t to establish a highly efficient and productive coral recovery farm but rather for the students to go through the hands on process and in doing so attain a better connection to the marine environment. 

Showing off their corals and looking like little rock stars in my swim goggles.
A few of the successfully placed corals.
Step 5: Celebrate!

Now usually, at this point in the coral planting process you would let your corals grow in their nursery while carefully tending to them and keeping them free from harm. Once they reach a good enough size to ensure a fighting chance of survival on the reef, they would be transplanted. However, we finished our project just about the same time as term ended and the students would be leaving on break. So sometime during the next term we’ll take a trip out as a club again (without our class 8 students) and see if our few corals have survived and grown big enough to transplant.

Once again, I’m mostly just pleased with the kids’ enthusiasm during the project and that they were able to have this experience. Naturally, the last thing we had to do was celebrate the completion of our project and the end of term! So what kind of fun water related activity could I get the students to partake in? Something they’d never done before? Water balloon fight anyone?

Balloons and students - both ready to go!
The kids went absolutely nuts having a water balloon war! We filled up around 300 balloons (a far cry from the amount that I was hoping for but all the more reason to do it again) placed them in basins on the steps of the school and said go! Everyone was completely soaked, bystanders included and it was all over within 5 minutes but the kids loved it! We’ll definitely be bringing this activity back. 

The fight begins!
 
All in all, I hope that my year with the kids and our environment club has left them with a little more knowledge and respect for their own environment and I hope (though I feel pretty sure about this one) that they had fun during the learning process. Until next term!


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Wait...What?!


Sorry it's been so very long! My longest stretch yet! But I have this fun little story that I just wrote for our in country volunteer newsletter and will hopefully be following up with a post about our coral farming project with the kids. 

~~~

We’ve all been there. Whether you’ve been serving in Fiji for two months or coming up on two years, I can just about guarantee that you’ve experienced a moment like this. It starts, for instance, when you’re sitting enjoying a nice cup of sugar with a friend when something happens or something is said that is either: a) surprising, b) confusing, c) urgent, or d) all of the above. Naturally, this also takes place in rapid Fijian probably at a high decibel with lots of gesticulation making you wonder if a tidal wave of molten lava is rapidly descending upon the village when your Fijian catches up to you and you realize they’re yelling about there being too many flies so we better hang a plastic bag full of water.

Wait… (you pause with a look of consternation on your face trying to figure it out but fail miserably)… what? Being that that made no sense whatsoever you perhaps are hopeful enough to ask for clarification. They repeat what they were shouting. You sigh and decide to just give up and accept that you will never know why hanging a plastic bag full of water will have any relation to the number of flies in the immediate vicinity or why it warranted apocalyptic shouting and gesturing. These instances happen with varying frequency for each of us but the real ‘wait what’ situations are the ones in which you are not simply a bystander to the baffling behavior but rather the focal point of it.   

One fine Sunday I was peacefully zoning out in the back section of our church during the morning service. It was youth day apparently, which induced more people to appear in their Sunday best than I even knew we had living in the village. Naturally, service extended on for another good hour but I was aware when the preacher had finally reached the last stage and fresh air was just another minute or two away.

As the man was waxing on about some other thing the people were doing wrong, the girl (my age) sitting next to me abruptly leans in and begins to whisper to me in rapid fire Fijian in a very urgent manner. Snapping out of my reverie, I stared blankly at her not having taken in a word she said, arched and eyebrow and replied, “a cava??” All the while wondering what the hell could have happened during the two hours we sat next to each other in silence to make her absolutely need to speak to me two minutes before we would be outside and free to speak anyway.

She began whispering at me again with such vehemence that it sounded like there was a small tank of helium being slowly reprieved of its gas nearby. Meanwhile everyone in the three rows in front of us and the three rows behind had stopped what they were doing to listen in and to nod their heads in agreement (we were sitting in more or less an all women’s section). This time I picked up what she was saying:

“Tina, as soon as he finishes speaking you have to get up and run outside to Mita!”

“Wait…what? Why? Where’s Mita?”

“She’s standing outside waiting for you!”

“Why do I have to run to her?”
“Because they’re going to be running after you.”

She says this and gestures towards the section on the other side of the aisle where all the men are sitting. When I look over I notice with some concern that they’re all shuffling and twisting around and looking antsy. I can tell that some of them are overhearing our conversation and don’t look happy about it. What the hell is going on?!

I tried once more to say “Wait…what??” but just as I got the words out the man up front finished speaking.

“Go Tina! Quick! Quick!” They all start yelling, no longer trying to be discreet. They shove me into the aisle and as I start to speed walk along I turn around looking at them for confirmation that I’m doing what they want and catch a glimpse of the group of men charging at my heels. Holy hell! What is going on?!

I get out the door and pick up my pace when I see Mita standing some twenty feet away with a dish in her hand, perched on a hill like Vana White. I make a beeline towards her and manage to get to her first. She then hands me the dish, which is mounded up with all sorts of holiday type food, and as she does so I notice all the men that were seemingly seconds away from a tackle cut their momentum and slink away looking dejected. The women just making their way out the door all cheered. Then everyone went back to being normal and I was left standing there with a mountain of food completely lost and having a heart attack.

Assuming that the plate of food was mine for whatever reason (though I’ve learned not to assume much in Fiji), I began to make my way home. On the way, I was stopped by an old man who told me a bit sternly that that plate was mine and that I had to take it to America. At first I thought he meant with the food on it but either way I just nodded and agreed with him – of course that’s what I was planning to do all along.

I was called over to my friend’s house for lunch so I brought the giant dish of food to share hoping to ask my friend about it. When I broached the topic trying to convey my confusion, she explained it to me in a ‘duh why don’t you know this’ sort of manner:

“Tina, don’t you know Merelita?”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“It’s her newborn’s first church service.”

“Ok…”

“Us Fijians are like that Tina.”

She was done talking having explained it fully.

“Wait… what?”

But I didn’t get anything more coherent than that out of her. It took me a while to figure it out on my own but I think I got it. My assumption is that in Fiji, there’s a tradition that if it’s your newborn’s first mass, then you have to prepare a dish of nice food and give it to the first person to exit the church, probably for good luck. I’m also assuming that the women just wanted me to get out of the door and over to Mita first so that I would get the food even though everyone else was eligible had they arrived first. That’s my best guess anyway. It’s also the most baffled I’ve ever been in Fiji, though it wasn’t the first time and certainly won’t be the last. It’s those ‘wait…what?’ moments that really remind you sometimes that you are serving in a completely different culture than your own and though it can be frustrating it can be thoroughly entertaining as well!