The sky quickly turned pitch black and unleashed heavy rain. Ordinarily I would just take shelter but I am in a kayak in the middle of the ocean in Fiji.
As the wind smashes into my face I stop because it is hard to see the others and the relatively calm waters have risen to a one metre swell. Although we only had to paddle 25 kilometres that day it took seven hours to reach the uninhabited Vurolevu Island where we spent a rather muddy night in our tents.
I remind myself that I came to Fiji as part of a challenge, not a holiday. I am with ten other (nine women and one man) Australian Building Society and Credit Union employees for the 2012 Credit Union Foundation Australia (CUFA) Fijian Leadership Challenge. We are undertaking a physical, financial and intellectual challenge to help people in Oceania and were lucky to spend 12 days in Fiji in late February and early March.
The physical challenge of kayaking some 66 km around Fijian Islands was tough, particularly that stormy afternoon, but my training on Newcastle Harbour stood me in good stead. The training also gave me a real appreciation of my own backyard.
As well as improving my fitness, this challenge taught so much about humility, honesty, tradition and leadership in such a short space of time.
An important part of the trip is to gain an insight into Fijian village life. We lived with villagers for several days as they do. The hospitality was humbling. They don’t possess many material possessions but are very happy to share all they have with you. They are grateful for the food they obtain from the land and the sea. One afternoon I got to go spear fishing to provide fresh fish for the evening meal. We learned to make food baskets from palm leaves which we then used to gather different food types from mountain top plots.
We are there to help them to set up a savings club but I learn so much from them. So much of what we worry about is trivial in comparison. They are not motivated by money but by family and celebrating life. We have great fun. Our kayaking takes across the bluest of blue waters to beautiful canyons and waterfalls. We take part in Kava (a drink made from the root of a plant) ceremonies. I was made an honorary chief (Ratu) one day because the village chief thought I must be a very powerful man as I had nine women with me.
I am taught the value of friendship in the challenge of raising at least $3,330 in less than six weeks to go on the trip. I am amazed by the generosity of friends, work colleagues and business houses. My gamble to hold a trivia night and raffle off a bottle of Grange Hermitage as well as other donated items paid off. My colleagues at Greater Building Society did their own fundraising for me too. In total I raised $8355 which all goes to the Oceanic Confederation of Credit Union Leagues (OCCUL) based in Fiji to provide better access to financial services for Pacific Island people. Fijians earn a couple of dollars an hour, yet petrol is more than $3 per litre and parents have to pay to send their kids to school. With better access to financial services that we take for granted, Fijians can send their children to school and have better nutrition.
While in Fiji we meet with a number of local credit unions and with OCCUL to share our expertise in financial management (the intellectual challenge). OCCUL supports credit Unions in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Timor, Tonga, Tuvala, Samoa and Vanuatu. There are total of 171 credit unions with 232,258, less than the total number of Greater Building Society members. The challenges are great but OCCUL is doing a great job.
I highly recommend taking the CUFA challenge and my Fijian experience will stay with me forever.
Kevin is a Regional Manager with The Greater. He is about to commence the final part of his challenge - volunteering 100 hours for a community organisation back at home. He has chosen to help Cancer Council NSW and Heal for Life Foundation.