Structural Engineer Zoe Sparks turned to QUEST for funding when the opportunity came up for her and fellow engineer Louise to join a Think Pacific charity project following Cyclone Winston.
The island of Batiki, in the Lomaiviti region of Fiji, was hit by the devastating Cyclone Winston in 2016. Louise and I had heard about the Think Pacific project to rebuild key infrastructure and we wanted to be a part of it. Part of the reason for becoming engineers for both of us was the ability to be able help people and the work of the charity offered a great opportunity to do that.
As part of a team of 20 volunteers, we spent a month in the village of Naigaini rebuilding the community hall – an essential space for the Fijian culture which is regularly used for traditional ceremonies, as well as health facilities, as a kindergarten and as a permanent shelter.
On 26 July 2018 we travelled to the islands of Batiki. Situated in the Lomaiviti region of Fiji, the village of Naigani, one of the four communities on the island, was completely washed away. Our Think Pacific team worked alongside the Fijian Ministry Health to directly address the needs of the community. This project contributed to the ‘Towards a Healthy Fiji' (TAHF) program, as local tradesman and construction leaders were hired, allowing skill development and supporting future employment.
Over the one-month period, we successfully completed the timber framed structure. We started with clearing the existing rubble of the previous village hall from the site. We then set out the foundations using string and dug out the holes in which to position the timber piles.
Once the timber posts were in the ground, we manually mixed the concrete and poured it into the void. From there we began to build the up the main primary timber frame. Once the major structural elements were in, we constructed a floor level and nailed the metal roof on top. The last job was to put up the cladding and paint the structure!
We saw that civil engineering in different countries is executed in unique ways; using their own accessible resources and tools available. We even witnessed a ceremonial blessing before the first foundation was poured! We learnt practical construction techniques from sawing and hammering panels efficiently and how to think about construction in terms of the reality of specially putting all the piece together – a thought process we believe to be invaluable to our future careers.
Living the Fijian way
The exposure to the Fijian culture gained by living with local families for three weeks was indescribable. From communicating in basic Fijian on a day to day basis, to abiding to their traditional conservative dress codes, we learnt the importance of respecting a community and their beliefs.
Being on a secluded island meant that all resources were shared and were limited - the food we ate would often be caught the night before by the village fisherman in their night spear fishing trips. With no contact with our friends or families back home, we spent evenings and weekends enjoying the company of our new families. One Saturday we hiked to one of the highest points on the island where we learnt about the origins of the first village on Batiki. On another Saturday, we went snorkeling in the reef and had a traditional lunch cooked in an underground pit. Sundays are a holy day to rest and worship so that gave us some respite from the physicality of the build project.
Overcoming project challenges
The first major challenge was adjusting to the new environment including constant pestering by mosquitos and the sweltering heat. An unexpected challenge was coping with attitudes about gender roles on site. Female volunteers were often expected to stick to lower effort tasks, such as painting, when male volunteers were encouraged more to mix concrete and carry heavier objects. As kindhearted as the Fijians were, myself and the other female volunteers wanted to be treated equally and given the opportunity to try all tasks as a team. I felt that our group attempted to challenge some of these gender stereotypes, whilst being sensitive to cultural differences. Another notable challenge was the approach to health and safety. Having both worked on construction sites in the UK, we have understood that work should not start unless all safety precautions have been carried out. We used our knowledge of personal protective equipment and safe manual handling to educate some of the other workers on site and included this in our feedback after the project was completed – hopefully to make future building projects safer and fairer for the volunteers and local workers. Daily meetings on site, in which we tracked progress and discussed the tasks to be undertaken, helped to motivate us though the build and keep morale high.”
Another notable challenge was the approach to health and safety. Having both worked on construction sites in the UK, we have understood that work should not start unless all safety precautions have been carried out. We used our knowledge of personal protective equipment and safe manual handling to educate some of the other workers on site and included this in our feedback after the project was completed – hopefully to make future building projects safer and fairer for the volunteers and local workers. Daily meetings on site, in which we tracked progress and discussed the tasks to be undertaken, helped to motivate us though the build and keep morale high.
The best bits - project takeaways
The absolute best bit of the project was receiving the outpouring of immense gratitude from the villagers on finishing the building. On the day of completion, the space we created together was used to hold a large celebratory ceremony which signified the beginning of the journey to rebuilding Naigani. Religion is a large part of the Fijian’s daily lives, and locals would pray often asking for safe guidance and protection as we completed the construction. We realized that it was not just our new families who would be using this new space, but also those in the future generations to come. This cemented our understanding of the full extent of our volunteering work and its lasting impact.
This experience gave me an amazing insight into the lifestyle of a rural community, who opened their hearts and homes even when they had so little to give. The construction of the timber framed building also gave me first-hand experience of following a project from the beginning to the end, giving me more holistic understanding of the different phases and how the stages of a build can be worked on simultaneously with forward thinking. We have both learnt how to communicate with many types of people and respond patiently and logically to issues that may arise on site even when unable to speak in the same language!
The QUEST Travel Award provided Louise and myself with the opportunity to make a real difference to a rural community, whilst developing personal skills and furthering our engineering knowledge base. We would like to thank ICE for the support on this journey and we hope our story will encourage others to do similar activities.