Volume 1 Number 7
Practical Physics in Fiji
01 March 1988

My wife, Lyn, and I had just arrived in Fiji, where for the next five and a half years I was to teach physics and maths at a large part-boarding high school run by the Methodist Church.

Bright, smiling students, immaculate in carefully ironed uniforms, applauded at the end of my first lesson. My wife, Lyn, and I had just arrived in Fiji, where for the next five and a half years I was to teach physics and maths at a large part-boarding high school run by the Methodist Church. Only two weeks before I had completed my retraining as a teacher at Homerton College, Cambridge. We moved into a tiny two-bedroomed staff house on the school compound, which had previously housed 11 people. I was the only non-local person on the staff and we were to live on a local salary.

Cockroaches scurried into dark corners as I poked around in the equipment store of the school laboratory. Some ingenious predecessor had cobbled together equipment using motorcycle parts, jam jars, Meccano and wire. Burned-out ammeters, ex-army voltmeters, a spectroscope (amazingly), a few blotchy mirrors and a heap of spare parts. After an experiment using a coil from a car, coconut oil and grass seeds to demonstrate electric fields, two girls thanked me `for making physics so interesting'.

All the same, I felt my students were being deprived, because physics is fun when it is practical. We set about raising money to buy equipment through letters and articles in teaching journals. Badminton-thons in a Bedfordshire school, baked cakes and sponsored walks organized by Life Line in a school in Northern Ireland, donations from a Parent-Teachers Association (PTA) in Ely, UK, special collections in a Wesleyan school in Melbourne, gifts from trade unions and firms in Australia and New Zealand, and generous personal donations, especially from the USA, brought the money flowing in.

Ordering the equipment from overseas was not straightforward. Glossy leaflets deserved the schoolmasterly reply, `A lot of useful information, but no marks. You have not answered the question.' Some items travelled from Britain to Fiji and back, and back again - by sea. But slowly we began to collect some useful equipment.

We felt pleased about the equipment and the way students and people overseas were broadening their horizons by helping. But students from our school were being sent home because they had not paid their fees - all secondary education in Fiji is fee-paying. Some students never returned, others lost several weeks of lessons.

The problem was brought home to us while we were in the process of adopting Julie, the first of two six-year-olds whom we adopted from a nearby girls' home. A widow with seasonal work in the rice-fields came and asked us if we would also adopt her 15year-old daughter, Shashi, because she could not afford her fees.

We offered Shashi a bed with us to save her bus fares - almost as much per term as fees - and a fellow teacher chipped in. We got in touch with the Save the Children Fund, who found her a sponsor and eventually trained her as a secretary. Some 150 other students came to us with similar problems and we were able to find help for them all through the SCF and other charities. We made many friends. Our 24-year-old blue Volkswagen and later our yellow Cabvan became so wellknown that students were always saying, `Sir, we saw your car last night. Why didn't you come in for a meal?'

Over a meal in his home, the School Manager said, `Rob, the $600 (£350) a month interest we have to pay on our loan account is the killing thing. Do you know of friends who could help us?'

School bazaars bring staff, parents and students together to raise money, in our school and in every school in Fiji. Our PTA decided to give a prize to the form which raised the most. Each form teacher was told to raise $1,000 as a minimum. Shashi, now doing her secretarial course, word-processed hundreds of letters for me. The other forms were rather put out when our first reply, from the USA, contained a cheque for US$1,000 - and a further US$250 towards the fees of two fourth-form girls. The bazaar was a great success. Wearily we agreed to repeat the process the following year. By last Easter the loan account was paid off. Others now felt, `It is possible'- as we had all found.

Only weeks later the first military coup took place. Uncertainty about the future brought unspoken fears in all communities to the surface. Students informed on staff to the police, and staff on staff. Students' families were harassed by the much-enlarged army. We all had a 15 per cent pay cut, while prices shot up 40 per cent with the 35 per cent devaluations. Most students owed fees by the end of last term, but the Board decided not to send any students away before exams.

Fear aged some teachers ten years in a few weeks. A Fijian member of staff who maintained his Indian friendships was told to `go back to India with his friends'. He did leave - but for the USA.

There is a risk of total breakdown between Fijians who want to return to pre-colonial times and Fijians who say they want a multiracial Fiji. Thousands of Indians hope to get permission to go to neighbouring countries. Some 600 doctors and teachers have already left, and so have many businessmen.

By transplanting Asians to a totally different country and culture without asking permission of the indigenous people, we British left a time-bomb in Fiji. As I write, this timebomb has not yet exploded into violence, despite the anguish of it all. The Pacific Way - of talking, talking, talking and, to our Western minds, fantastic turnabouts in position - is still at work. The situation is grim, but miracles can still happen in a country where prayer is a way of life and people expect to solve things by talking and listening to one another.