Posted by: Alicia Phillips | May 12, 2012

A Day in the Life of…….

A village environment volunteer!

A while ago I posted about a work exchange I did with fellow volunteer, Sam, in her village on Ovalau. During my visit there I was so aware of how drastically different our service is. Her day to day life is so completely unlike mine. And I thought you all may be interested in hearing about that side of Peace Corps Fiji too. So, I conducted an interview! Get ready to be blown away….because Sam is what one might call a “super” volunteer!

So….this is Sam:

Sam lives on Ovalau:

Let’s get to know Sam. Here are the basics:

-Sam is 23, grew up in California but claims Washington State, where she went to college, as her home.

-She studied marine ecology in school.

-Back home she spent most of her time mushroom hunting, fishing, and making herbal medicines.

-She is a self-proclaimed hippie to the max.

-She joined Peace Corps 7 weeks out of college…..this is the first real job she has had other than working in coffee shops.

Peace Corps placed her in a village on the small island of Ovalau. This village has about 480 villagers, is right on the coast, and is about 30 minutes from the only “town” on her island. Sam is an environmental volunteer.

When we first came into the country a year ago Peace Corps had two main focuses: Health Promotion and Environment. Now Peace Corps is only focusing on Health Promotion. So, Sam is one of the only environment volunteers left in the country.

Let’s talk about work!

Here are a few projects Sam is working on at the moment:

Compost Piggeries. What in the word is that, right? Basically it is converting pig waste into compost that will become fertilizer. In Fiji it is the law to have piggeries at least 100m away from any water source because it pollutes the water so badly, resulting in killing the reef and fish close to shore. She is working on getting a grant from the UN development program to help move her village’s piggeries to a better place.

Health and Nutrition. Our work exchange covered this. She is going to keep a 3 month aerobics program going with the womens group. And then I can come back and re-test the women’s progress.

A Village Library. This is attached to her house and will have books for the children to come over and read. She has gotten book donations from numerous libraries here in Fiji and one in the states, providing the village children with books they would never have access to otherwise. Hopefully in the future she can get funding to get computers donated to the library for the village children. She has also started a homework club and is getting the rest of the village involved in the running of the library, so that when her service is over it will be sustainable.
















Hopeful Future Projects:

Working on the Ovalau rubbish dump. It needs to be moved and the new location needs to have proper lining to prevent leaching in to the ocean. It needs to be properly maintained.

Mangrove and Coral planting

Reef Monitoring with the crown of thorns.


Now you may be wondering: “What type of environmental threats is Fiji facing these days?”

Well let Sam tell you:

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). These are ”no take” areas. No fishing allowed. Why? Because the abundance in fish is steadily decreasing and the MPA, or tabu areas as they are called, are where the baby fish grow and mature. It is where the seaweed and coral reefs grow.

A lot of people still go out there and fish though. They can be harshly punished for this. But, a lot of Fijians think like this: You eat what you can today, because you don’t always know what you will get tomorrow. Which is exactly why MPA are so important, to make sure there is enough for everyone to eat tomorrow.

Rubbish on the beach. With the increase of untraditional foods in Fiji, an increase in litter has happened. You can walk along the beach and see water bottles, plastic bags, tuna cans, chip wrappers, and all other kinds of crap.

There are 3 ways people in Fiji get rid of waste.

1) bury it at the dump

2) burn it. A lot of people burn all their trash, even the plastic. Which is a big no-no.

3) throw it in the ocean. And we all know this is bad.

Another way to get rid of waste is to compost, and that is slowly becoming a common practice in Fiji.

Mangroves. Mangroves are the big bushes that live right on the waters edge. Why are they important? Because they help prevent erosion, they act as a storm break and protect the land during storms, they act as a nursery for fish, they clean the ocean because they filter the sediment that comes from the beach.

So, simply put, they are AWESOME for the health of the ocean. And another big plus is that they are super easy to plant. So why aren’t there mangroves all over the place? Because the ground they grow in is super fertile so people cut down the mangroves and plant other things like sugar cane. They also cut down mangroves for firewood and the resorts cut them down so they can have nice beaches for the tourists.

Endangered sea turtles. The “Vonu”. These gentle animals are on the endangered species list but people still hunt and eat them. You get in a lot of trouble if you are caught hunting, selling or eating them. Another reason these turtles are endangered is because of littering. To them a plastic bag floating in the water looks like a jellyfish. When they go and eat it- the bag gets stuck in their throats and they end up drowning. Sad panda….sad vonu.


Life in the village is quite a change from life in the city. I asked Sam what some of the biggest challenges she has faced while trying to get work done in the village.

-realizing that her projects and things she believes in can and will be overshadowed by a village event such as a wedding or a funeral. Eventually you have to stop fighting it and accept that what the village deems the most important event is what the village is going to do.

-getting people motivated and to care about the projects. Most of the time, it takes so long to get a tangible result and the people working on it lose their motivation and sense of the projects purpose when they don’t see immediate results. Trying to get other people to come up with the ideas for a project has helped with this. The village will come up with the projects and Sam will host the workshops and trainings. This way the village has a sense of ownership and is more likely to see a project through to the end.

A big success she has experienced has been:

Getting the respect and the trust from her village to do her work. While I there visiting and doing my work exchange someone told me “Ruseli always tell the truth”. That just goes to show how highly she is viewed in her village. It takes a long time to get to that point, and it seems like she is there. Which is a HUGE hurdle to overcome, especially considering we are only a year in to our service.

The thing about village life and city life is that in the city you can leave work and come home and have a life outside of work. Being in a village you can’t really do that. Your work and your personal life and intertwined.

So let’s get personal.

I asked her what she has learned about herself so far. How has she grown as a person and as a volunteer? She said that she surprised herself by what she could handle. She is stronger than she originally thought.

It has been a struggle for her to be comfortable being the ONLY white person around, being the minority. Sometimes the trust people will put in you just because of the color of your skin is heavy. People assume since you are a white American- you will have all the answers and you know how to do things even though you may have never done them before.

Another lesson she has learned is not to be too proud to ask for help. Whether she is asking for help with a work project or asking for help in dealing with a personal problem; admitting to herself and others when she can’t do something and needs help with it has been an important lesson learned.

She learned this the hard way. She received some really sad news from home one day. She knew she couldn’t handle it on her own and didn’t want to be alone so she went to her neighbor for support. The response she got from the village amazed her. Some of the women sat down with her and held her and cried with her. They told her that in the village they live, die, suffer, and cry together. That is why the doors are always left open.

Back home she says she never cried. But since coming here she has found the release that comes from crying to be hugely beneficial to her emotional well-being. She has learned that you need to pay attention to yourself and your needs, and sometimes you just need a good cry. And sometimes you need to pamper yourself. To soak your feet, light a candle, lay in bed and read a good book, and to not feel guilty about it.

Another big challenge she was faced with when she moved to her village was living in the shadow of a previous volunteer.

Peace Corps had previously put another volunteer in that site and she only lasted 3 months. There was a little drama with this volunteer. In short, she was a lesbian. Now remember, this isn’t America, homosexuality is still very tabu here, especially in a village setting. However, this volunteer was very open about her sexuality, she told people outright when they asked. She wore men’s clothing. And she had a girlfriend in town so she was always gone. Sometimes she would bring her girlfriend back to her house in the village to stay the night. And at one point one of the villagers witnessed them having relations. That is what caused her to go home.

Not the fact that she was a lesbian, but the fact that it was widely known about. It became a huge security risk. In a lot of places in Fiji, if a woman is a lesbian people think if she is raped then she will become straight. It’s horrible and unfair, but that’s the way it is in some places.

When Sam first arrived in the village she had a difficult time showing her village that not all American women are the same and she had to prove that she came there to do work. She said she did this by staying in the village for months straight without leaving. She made her village her priority. It was hard at first, staying in the village week after week without seeing other volunteers. But after a while she made good friends in the village, and now the only time she leaves is when Peace Corps makes her come in for trainings.

This is probably also why she is so fluent in the language. I am amazed every time she talks to someone in Fijian, or when she answers the phone and has a 15 minute conversation in Fijian.

Another reason why she is fluent in Fijian is because she drinks grog.

Grog, as I have mentioned before, is a NON-alcoholic drink, pounded yaqona root mixed with water and it is drank socially and also during ceremonies. Tastes like muddy water, makes your tongue numb. Eventually it just makes you sleepy and spacey.

Drinking grog in her village is the basis of the entire social structure. Everyone drinks it, every night. It is their way of relaxing, a type of communion with each other. It’s where they come to talanoa (tell stories) and play music and spend time with friends and family.

Sam uses these grog sessions to her benefit, not only to make friends and to learn the language, but to raise awareness on some of the projects she is there working on. It is a less formal setting than the village meetings or workshops and people feel more comfortable asking her questions or discussing important issues. She can go to different groups of people drinking grog and bring up different issues and how they it relates to them.

Since Sam has so many close friends in the village I asked her if she has had any romantic relationships since being in the village. And indeed she has, turns out she had a boyfriend for almost 4 months. This boyfriend (we shall refer to  him as dude) lived right outside of her village in a settlement. In the beginning they agreed to keep it secret because Dude didn’t want to be hassled by the village for dating “the volunteer”. But later on she said she realized that maybe she started dating him because she was lonely, and decided to end it.

Being lonely kind of comes with the territory when you are a Peace Corps volunteer. A lot of volunteers choose to get involved with host country nationals. Because dating a local not only cures the loneliness but it is also a great way to get involved in the culture, the best way to learn about a country and learn the language.

Eventually the village found out about the relationship but they were totally fine about it. When they broke up a lot of the village men were happy. Once they found out that she was willing to date a local the marriage proposals started rolling in.

I asked her if she would ever consider getting married and staying in Fiji. She just smiled and said “Yes, absolutely!”

We are already a year in to our service, which means we only have a little more than a year left before we come back. I asked her how she felt about that and she said that the 2 years Peace Corps gives us to do our work is not long enough. She has so many projects going and it takes a long time to change the mindsets of people. If she left after 2 years she would feel like she was cheating her village. She has already decided that she is going to apply to stay a third year, and if necessary a 4th and a 5th year.

Wouldn’t she miss home, I asked? Miss the Washington she has pictures of all over her house? Of course she would. She started telling me all the things she misses most about Washington; the snow, the cold, the different seasons, sweaters and long socks, hot drinks on cold days, coffee dates with friends, the diversity in landscape from lakes to forests to meadows to the ocean shore. She misses coffee shops and hunting for wild mushrooms and berries. But the work she doing here, the relationships she has formed, the life she is living is what makes her happy. She says her village is her heart and soul.


What did I tell you? “SUPER” volunteer, right? Sam is a great friend to have and I always learn so much when I visit her! She is so passionate about the issues she is facing in her village and in Fiji. I can not wait to go back to her village to visit!!


So there ya go, a little expert on the life of a village volunteer. What do  you think?












  1. You know Alicia, seeing things from the perspective of a foreigner is very interesting. Been following your blogs diligently because I know that the culture shock of a person travelling from an urban to rural life is much more detrimental than rural to urban life much like in my case.

    I can tell you’re adjusting well to the life in Fiji and slowly starting to live like a local. I’ll hit you up when I get in. BE READY!!!

  2. […] […]

  3. Thank you for sharing. I always love to read Sams blogs. You confirmed what we already knew… Sam is awesome!

  4. Hi Alicia! It’s Sunny, Thanks for your comment on my blog. I just browsed through yours and it sounds like you’re having a wonderful time! To be honest, the idea of PC Fiji sounds so much cooler than PC middle of nowhere kalahari! 😉 I wish you the best in the rest of your service! It’s amazing, a lot of the challenges you guys face over there are similar to the challenges here!

  5. Wow….go super Sam!

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