The Master of Magodro
The schoolmaster was a fearsome looking man. His shoulders spanned the width of his small office like an iron girder, and behind a thick, storm cloud of a beard hid a mouth that I guessed rarely broke into a smile. I got the feeling that the pupils at his school were extremely well behaved.
He stretched his trunk-like arm out for a handshake, and like most Fijians I’d met, he didn’t show any signs of releasing his grip until he knew my name, nationality and occupation. “How is the motherland?” he asked. “Rainy,” I replied.
I sat myself down in the only available chair – a small child’s chair that appeared dollhouse miniature compared with the schoolmaster. I was squeezed between several piles of organised chaos and a few tatty textbooks, in an office that looked suspiciously like a school stationary cupboard.
Visiting the school was one of the few things to do in Bukuya; this was not the sort of destination that most people associate with Fiji. The village, high in Fiji’s Vitu Levu highlands, was home to assorted hunters and farmers – their animals freely wandering around breeze block buildings grazing between pineapples and palms. Steep green slopes surrounded the village like an army, delivering a deluge of water during the regular afternoon storm, a downpour that also turned the dirt roads into small, kava-brown streams.
Life here is very basic, the villagers surviving on what they can farm or trade in the city; and the only escape route was through the school. At age fifteen, the pupils here sit the ‘Fiji Eighth Year Exam’, covering subjects such as English, Basic Science, Vernacular, and Gardening. A pass mark means further education in a high school in the larger towns of Nadi or Lutoka, a fail, however, means a life spent in the village hunting, cooking, and growing kava.
It was this information that I was interested in hearing from the schoolmaster, and noticing that my attention was waning during a detailed description of the the school committee, he suddenly grabbed the notepad from my hand as quick as the whip of a switch. In a scrawling cursive he began to compile a thorough set of notes for me. Magodro District School. Roll: 255, Teachers: 10, Head Teacher: Kolinio Takali. Inside me lurked the childhood fear of a test at the end of his lesson.
Upon its completion he carefully folded the paper and passed it back, “Yes, you may take some photos,” he said, “but I would like a million pounds donation.” I still couldn’t tell if there was a smile hidden within his wiry beard.
The children, all dressed in white shirts and blue sarongs or dresses, cheered and shouted as I entered their classrooms with my camera. The youngest class seemed particularly excited to see me, and rushed up to jam the door frame with beaming smiles and waving arms; singing their favourite song between repeated requests for lollies.
Children give me hope. They are exactly the same the world over. They are too young to have formed prejudices or to have become corrupted by greed, too young to be afraid of strangers and too young to have the dread of singing, running and learning that so many adults have. These children may only be starting their education, but we shouldn’t forget that they are not too young to teach us a few lessons.