CUFA Leadership Challenge 2015

Kayak for a cause

The CUFA Leadership challenge was an amazing experience and I am extremely grateful to NGS Super for providing me with a scholarship and supporting this program. Living in a first world country, it is easy to forget or ignore the fact that many others across the world are doing things a lot tougher than us – and that some of the ‘problems’ are merely trivial issue that shouldn’t concern us at all.

Prior to departing, I trained relatively hard, swimming running and of course kayaking 6-7 times per week. In addition to training, all participants had to raise money for CUFA – a not-for-profit organisation that has the goal of helping people lift themselves out of poverty in the Asia Pacific region by developing and supporting financial cooperatives in communities that have little or no access to financial institutions.

The challenge is designed to be a real test physically, emotionally, intellectually and culturally – and it certainly ticked all these boxes for me.

Paddling a kayak in Fiji and visiting villages sounds almost romantic as idea, but in reality it is very different. There are no white sandy beaches or crystal clear blue water – you are paddling in the open ocean and visiting people who live in poverty to experience a day in their lives and gain a greater appreciation of their culture and challenges.

Our kayaking adventure took place on the eastern side of Vite Levu – Fiji’s main island. This area is one of Fiji’s least visited and also least accessible as several of the villages are only accessible via water. Each day we would paddle up to 20kms in the open ocean and visit a village and stay there overnight.

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A lot of the villagers in this area are subsistence farmers in addition to earning very modest income by selling fish, produce or items they have made such as brooms at local markets. Many live in corrugated iron shacks with their families – sometime only marginally larger than the offices many of us work in or the bedrooms we sleep in. Villagers traditionally sleep on small mats on the floor and also eat there meals sitting this way as well.

Although they are living in poverty, the villagers themselves are amongst the friendliest, happiest and most accommodating people I have ever met. In every village we were welcomed and fed copious amounts of food and also provided with the best accommodation they had on offer.

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In each village we visited, we presented the village elders with kava and participated in the sevusevu – a traditional kava ceremony to welcome guests into the village. It was at these ceremonies that we were able to discuss a range of topics with the locals, including the importance of maintaining the traditional Fijian culture and passing this on to future generations.

In many villages we also discussed the benefits of saving money and setting up ‘savings clubs’ or mini credit unions’ to help the community save money. These discussions centred on trying to save $1 per week over the course of a year and then purchasing something more substantial for their families or community.

In addition to paddling, our ‘kayak for a cause’ adventure started in Suva where we visited several industry based credit unions (e.g. Nurses, Teachers, Police) to grain a greater understanding of the Fijian Credit Union movement and share information and ideas.

These meetings were very informative and highlighted the difference between Fijian Credit Unions and those in Australia. Fijian Credit Unions operate by deducting a small amount of funds from Member’s payroll; and once this reaches a certain amount, they are able to borrow funds – usually up to $500 or $1,000, which is paid back at an interest rate legislated by the government. On retirement, their deposits are then refunded as a retirement benefit. In contrast, Credit Unions in Australia largely offer the same products and services as traditional banks.

One of the toughest parts of the challenge was spending almost 2 weeks away from my 2 young children. You realise how much you miss your family – especially when you see other children running around playing with each other. Additionally, you also miss all the creature comforts from back home that we take for granted – such as a bed and clean sheets, familiar meals, electricity, hot water and flushing toilets.

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Having said that, it was a great experience as you realise how lucky we are to be live in Australia and how many opportunities we are afforded. It also helps put things in perspective and makes you realise what the important things are life are – and also not to stress or worry about things that are in essence trivial.

Some of the highlights for me included:

  • Visiting a boarding school that is only accessible for water and presenting the children with gifts. They were very excited to see us and each class performed a song and dance to welcome us.
  • Trying to do a video diary and being inundated by the local children who all wanted to see the iPad and take photos and look at themselves.
  • Getting a village tour by local children and giving them all balloons to play with.
  • The amazing scenery we were able to take in, while paddling.
  • The wonderfully friendly and accommodating people that were always happy to see us.
  • Visiting the Fijian museum in Suva to learn more about Fiji’s history and culture.

Some things I won’t miss:

  • Kava – It was great to participate in the kava ceremonies, but I won’t be in hurry to check if anyone stocks it back here in Australia.
  • Coral – I received a nasty gash while trying to launch the kayak one morning, but luckily there was medical centre in the next village, where I was able to get some penicillin.
  • Travelling at high speeds in cars without a seatbelt or a door that closed properly – with tanks of petrol rolling around in the back.

Information provided in this blog may have changed since the time of writing. You should confirm the information is current before relying on it.

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