Sunrise. High-tide, an ocean as flat as an emerald table-top laps quietly at the island shore.
From the trees two of the boys emerge, roll out a matt and place the tanoa (kava bowl). More join, sit down cross-legged and a ceremony begins.
Giles is leaving today after a year of leading the Tribewanted project and working closely with Team Fiji, as they’re known here on Vorovoro. Lots of feelings hang in the bright sunlight, as two days of cultural celebrations are coming to an end.
The next hour or two we spend with Giles as the boys and tribe sing a collection of island classics, some of which we all now know well – Daru Mai Lele, Dula Lewa, Lomai Galoa and Giles’s favourite on which he confidently solo’s to the ukelele – Susi.
It is an incredible scene.
Eventually Giles makes his final goodbyes and we all sing the teary Fijian goodbye anthem, Isa Lei.
As the boat disappeared behind the headland I expected the boys to roll up the matt, wipe away their tears and begin a new day of work, this had, after all been a long goodbye. But no, I was wrong.
Instead they started mixing another tanoa, pounded more grog, and spent the next 15 hours rooted to the kava matt, only moving down to Tui Mali’s veranda later in the day to continue.
I was a little angry. I’d told the boys only a week ago that as numbers were less on the island at the moment it meant funds were tighter for the project.
That didn’t mean we were going to cut back on budgets or workforce as we all want the great momentum of the project to continue. But, I asked, please be resourceful as we develop.
As far as I was concerned after two days of celebrations, another full working day sitting on the kava matt was not what I would call resourceful.
I just couldn’t see how the people (Fijians, tribe members) or the island was developing in any capacity that day, all I could see is a lack of activity and even an unnecessary wallowing in sadness – surely the best the thing was to get on and work. Get the energy back.
So at the end of the week I made the decision not to pay the team for the day they sat on the grog matt and I explained the reasons for doing so.
The following Monday meeting was particularly subdued and we’ve learnt that lack of eye contact and general whooping usually means something is up.
It took a whole day of chatting to different members of the team to find out why. Eventually I sat down with Tevita, the community manager, I was leaving Vorovoro the next day and I wanted to depart on a good footing with the team and the project.
Tevita explained that the boys felt that the deducting their wages that day was unfair. He had told them the reasons that I’d already explained about development but it still left a bad taste.
He went onto explain that this was development for the team, that without it they would not have have closed off the relationship in the right way with Giles and that wounds would have remained open.
It started to make more sense. The process of development comes in different shapes and sizes and Team Fiji are the pulse of Vorovoro – without the right energy coming from them the project does not work on the high level that many of us have come to expect.
Along with the kitchen team and the family they open themselves and their culture up at great length to those of us that come and go. It is our privilege to be part of that. They have welcomed each of the 700 of us who have now visited Vorovoro, unconditionally.
I apologised to Tevita with a bundle of kava. He suggested we should take the grog and present it together to Team Fiji. We did. Epeli, the village elder, received it with more tears, and handshakes and hugs ensued. We were all united again.
That night we took a boat of tribe members, grog and guitars down to the western beach for one of the best Vorovoro sessions I’ve been part of. ‘Development’ has been flying ever since.
We are doing this project to learn about a different culture and to build a better life. Two years in almost all of the experiences and decisions now are the right ones, but sometimes we (still) make mistakes. I don’t see apologising as a negative thing – it is a communication process, humility is an integral part of life here and even when you try to be sensitive you can get it wrong.
So can a business and cross-culturally sensitive project really work? Yes, but there will be days when we get it wrong. And when we do it and correct it will make us stronger, more united and happier.
This is why I love Vorovoro – it is the best form of education anyone could wish for.