Interview with Caitlin Lyons: Life and Gymnastics in Fiji

Prompted by an ardent Gymnastics Federation of Fiji Facebook follower, Oceania Development Manager Brooke Kneebush recently interviewed Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) Volunteer, Caitlin Lyons, upon return from her assignment in Fiji.  The AVID program is an Australian Government initiative which program offers a range of opportunities for the Australian community to share skills and foster linkages with people and organisations in developing countries to make a difference as part of Australia's overseas aid program.

Brooke:  You were based in the Cricket Fiji office – how does a Fijian work day/week differ from an Australian work day/week?
Caitlin:  The Fijian way of life is very differently paced to the Australian work life. While many people see this as a negative, I sought to understand why this was so. What I learnt was that Fijians place a lot of importance on family, conversations, sharing and food. The significance of these in the every day life of Fijians directly impacts on their work life. Often family and cultural events can be many days in length, plus preparation. This meant that some staff members would be out of the office for over a week at a time. Furthermore, kana (food) breaks were vital. These were opportunities for all staff members to have a break and share food together and would often happen numerous times a day. While I can see that to many Australians, this would seem an unproductive working environment, to me it showed that back home many work places and people have forgotten how important things as simple as family life and conversations with people are. I’m not suggesting that everyone takes weeks off at a time, but I do think taking the time within the work place to eat together and have a conversation with your colleagues is vital. 

Brooke:  What did you find most rewarding about your AVID experience?
Caitlin:  It is difficult to choose one thing that I found most rewarding about my AVID experience. There were so many occurrences and events that made an impact. In saying this, the thing I found most rewarding was the pure joy and excitement of the participants or those I worked with. The Fijian people are some of the most happy and grateful people that I have ever met. Whether I was taking a class, a workshop, presenting at a meeting or just talking to people about our program, I was met with excitement, joy and thankfulness. One occasion stands out in particular, in which I was at a Special Needs School in Suva and had just taken a class and handed out some t-shirts to the participants to thank them.  All of the students and the teacher thanked me with such sincerity and so genuinely. Following the class, as would often happen, a student led the class in prayer. During this pray they prayed for me, for my family, thanked me for my kindness and promised to never forget what I had given them. Being thanked and acknowledged is not the reason I volunteered or something that I expect, however, to be shown such continual and genuine kindness, joy, happiness and thankfulness is something that I will always remember and found extremely rewarding. 

Brooke:  What surprised you most?
Caitlin:  The thing that surprised me the most was the influence of culture in Fiji. When I arrived to Fiji it was described to me as a country that is moving towards the future with it’s back to it, always looking at the past. This is the simplest and most accurate way to describe what life is like in Fiji. When I was told this I understood the concept, but could not truly appreciate what it meant until I started work. Culture influences work, family and personal life. It dictates what is happening in the present and what plans will be made for the future. It is absolutely everywhere. When I arrived, it took me at least 6-8 weeks to fully understand how culture influenced every aspect of life and how I could achieve my outcomes in this environment. This was considerably longer than I had thought, but made all the difference in the long run. 

Brooke:  What are some challenges you faced?
Caitlin:  As with all volunteers, I faced a lot of challenges. However, it was through these challenges that I learnt the most. The biggest challenge would have to be the relaxed attitude and ‘Fiji time’, as it is fondly referred too. Although I was much better equipped to handle this towards the end of my placement, it was still a challenge and something that I found constantly frustrating. Things rarely (if ever) happen the way and when you want them to happen. You constantly have to be flexible and not take it personal when people are perceived to have let you down. Even in a professional setting, there is limited communication, little adherence to deadlines and meeting times and everything is constantly in flux. This can make it very challenging to create timelines and meet outcomes. On the other hand, there are many things that can be gained by this challenge. For instance, if you are flexible, sometimes spontaneous and fantastic things can happen at a moments notice. For instance, with little more than an hours notice, I spoke to the major stakeholders for youth and sport within the Central Division about the AeroGym program. This was purely because I was in the right place at the right time and had a can do attitude. You have to say yes whenever you can and be flexible.  

Brooke:  What was it like to be in Suva the day Fiji won their first Olympic medal – GOLD!?
Caitlin:  Incredible. Absolutely incredible. Rugby is religion in Fiji. Everywhere you go there are fields. You could be in the middle of absolute nowhere, in a place with no running water and electricity and there will be a full-sized rugby field with goal posts. It is amazing. This medal meant so much to the Fijian people. It is actually their second Olympic medal, the first being won at the previous Paralympics in high jump, but to the entire nation, this medal meant everything. I would be walking to work and pass a tiny fruit and vegetable store with four sticks and a tarp as shelter, but even they had somehow managed to get a television to watch the Rugby 7 matches. I stood with at least fifty other people on the side of the road to watch a qualifying match. The energy and passion was unbelievable. As the final match approached, flags were everywhere. The nation literally stopped to watch it. And what a match it was. When I walked out onto the street afterwards there was noise everywhere. People were setting off fireworks (that no one could see as it was 11am), beeping their horns, screaming and crying with pure joy. This continued for days. They were then welcomed home like heroes. Suva shut down and a public holiday was called to celebrate this win. This was a reminder to me of what sport can do. It has the power to bring a nation together and create joy at a time when it was so desperately needed (following the effects of TC Winston). The other brilliant thing was the pure devotion and thankfulness Fiji had for the full coaching team and support staff, not just the players. These are things that are taken for granted in Australia. I read so much during the Olympics about how poorly the athletes performed and how unhappy everyone was with the medal count, while I was in a country that won only one medal and celebrated as if it was the greatest accomplishment that they had ever reached. It was just incredible. 

Brooke:  You arrived in Fiji only a few months after the devastating Cyclone Winston – were there still effects evident?

Caitlin:  Although it was a few months after Tropical Cyclone (TC) Winston, I witnessed many of its effects. There was a lot of poverty, unemployment, illness and desperation. Food stocks were limited and there was much fear. Many people had lost their entire village and had moved to the capital in hopes of support. This lead to a lot of homelessness and desperation and, unfortunately, a greater risk to general security and safety. I was fortunate enough to work on some outreach programs that took sport and wellbeing to some communities affected. In the lead of to the next cyclone season, which started in November, it was clear that there were still many emotional scars from TC Winston. People were scared and concerned with what the months ahead would bring. Some had lost everything and taken the year to try and rebuild and now believed that they could lose everything and so much more again. It was a difficult time and I think it was take many years to recover. 

Brooke:  What is your favourite food to eat in Fiji?
Caitlin:  This is a tough one. There is so many delicious and fresh food options in Fiji. So many things have coconut in them, which I really loved. I enjoyed drinking bau (coconut water) and then eating the coconut flesh with friends. The pineapples and pawpaws were the best I’ve every had and fantastic. If I had to choose a particular food, I would say any Indian curry (the Indo-Fijian community make fantastic food) or lovo, which is vegetables and meat cooked under ground. 

Brooke:  Do you think Fijians have potential as gymnasts?

Caitlin:  Yes I do! Fijians are naturally strong, athletic and have fantastic rhythm. Furthermore, they are always eager to learn new things and have very limited fear. 

Brooke:  Did you get homesick?
Caitlin:  Yes I did. The most difficult time was when I first arrived and was unlucky enough to catch a nasty virus. I was quite sick for about two weeks and didn’t leave my room for at least half of this. During this time, I was quite homesick. I was in a new country, didn’t know where anything was, didn’t really know my housemates yet and had little understanding of the medical area within Fiji. I was, however, determined to not come back to Australia after two weeks! I was also really fortunate to have very supportive people surrounding me. I had my family, fiancé, friends and managers back in Australia who were always contactable. I also had a circle of volunteers who were experiencing the same things I was and were always there for me. All these things made it easier for me to manage missing home and the comforts that come with it. 

Brooke:  Are you missing Fiji now?
Caitlin:  Whilst I am happy with where I am right now, a part of me will always miss Fiji. When you live somewhere for a number of months and gain such a deep understanding of it’s culture and the beautiful people who live there, it is very difficult not to miss it. I also miss the Fijian lifestyle. Whilst it was frustrating, having such a laidback and in the moment approach to life was really good for me and meant that I had to figure out how to stress less and ‘go with the flow’. 

Brooke:  What was the highlight of your experience?
Caitlin:  It is nearly impossible to pick just one highlight, my time in Fiji was filled with so many! I will narrow it down to two (very broad) ones. The first one is my experiences with the Fijian people. The welcoming nature, friendliness, joy and appreciation of Fijians was incredible. The opportunity to work and meet so many lovely people was a highlight and something that I will always treasure.  My second highlight is closely linked with my passion – witnessing firsthand the impact that sport can have. I feel so fortunate and privileged that I had the opportunity to take gymnastics to so many villages and communities and demonstrate the importance of physical activity, the need for inclusive programs and the ways in which sport can empower women within society. Working in the field that I am so passionate about is something that not everyone gets the chance to experience. Not only did I get this, but I also got to do it in Fiji. 

Brooke:  And what is in store for the future?
Caitlin:  To be honest, I have no idea. Working in Fiji made me realise that sometimes the best way to be is without a plan. It also made me understand that I am capable of more than I had previously thought and have other areas within sport that I am interested in as well. I would really like to continue to work in sports with a particular focus on the empowerment of women through sport and inclusive programs. How I will achieve this, I am not sure. However, I plan to go with the flow, work hard and see what incredible things come my way. 

In a pleasing post script to this interview, we are thrilled to congratulate Caitlin on the news that she will be taking on a new position with Tennis Queensland as a Participation Leader.  Well done Caitlin and best of luck for the future!