VEPA – Vavau Environmental Protection Agency – part of Waitt Institute has been active for years providing education to kids about the health of our environment and oceans. Yesterday I had the special honor to join the “school team” – Lisa and Sisi – at a couple of school presentations. As the delivery was in Tongan for younger kids, I was able to follow through with the slides and also show the kids the daily items we had picked up the previous day from the beaches. And of course, capture the photos of the kids’ lovely smiles and interested faces as well as Lisa’s enthusiasm. 
The schools here in Vava’u are poor and primitive. They are very low tech buildings without even proper windows or netting. The windows here are glass sliders – each window with about 6-7 horizontal glass panels they slide open to allow for airflow, without any netting to keep the bugs and flies out of the classrooms. Explains why the driver reassuringly handed over a bottle of bug spray as I was getting out of the car. There are no fans available inside the classrooms, most appear to have received electricity very recently – the power lines are external and seem to be pulled through the three or four classrooms with our regular orange extension cables hanging from the ceiling/roof. Each classroom is boxed as a separate section in the building, accessible only through the door facing the big shared yard. In one classroom the wall separating it from the other class was a mix of cloth and clean looking white cardboard.

Backpacks and raincoats are left outside on the hooks by the door, the classrooms are too small to hold anything additional. Kids, generally, wear nice looking uniforms. But that is generally – the poverty is too real – sometimes they can’t buy the uniform, and sometimes they can’t wash them. There is an understanding culture in school. Kids without uniforms are accepted just the same, no bad feelings, it’s life and it happens. Most are bare foot. It’s more comfortable they say. Some have flip flops, they don’t like the feel of the dirt under their feet or the cement is too cold for them. Girls’ hair are neatly braided- going well with their knee length uniforms with a proper light colored shirt, some uniforms are deep red, and others blue – depending on the school and the religious affiliation of the school. Many schools are tied to the Church – except a couple of private schools. The influence of the church is immediately visible in the class room’s “The Ten Commandments in the Classroom” (thou shalt not be late). Classroom projects hang across the walls in a mix of Tongan and English – raising bilingual kids from a young age, though they are very shy to speak English prior to the age of 12, I’m informed. Familiar quotes like “No pain no gain” and “Try, if you fail, try harder and try again” are used as a humbling reminder of shared dreams, goals and challenges. 

Just as any child at 9-10 years, they greet me with a huge shy smile and an exceptional spark of curiosity in their eyes. “Byeee Berna!” One of the best sounds I’ve heard during my stay so far. So friendly, so loving, so full of energy! They’ve learned to say BYE whether you’re coming or going. 😃 I say “Hi!” and immediately a shyness takes over those beautiful faces – trying to turn their gaze away but unable. 
Throughout the presentation I catch glimpses my way from almost each student – so curious this very white lady with the big camera is visiting our little island and is in our class. They are used to seeing the same people day in and day out here. Strangers ARE “strange”rs, aliens. Especially when we look different – whether our hair, our color, our outfits. Their imagination starts working in full gear, you can tell. 
These curious minds are looking to learn from every word that Lisa is speaking to them in Tongan. They try to understand. They want to know more about the oceans and the environment. They respond well to the questions Lisa asks them. Some of the material a little too complicated for their child minds – they get fidgety. I think to myself a few props, a little toy coral, turtle, a few model fish and rocks would make this interaction so much more memorable for them. But it’s not a possibility they have on the island, there are no toy stores, many kids just play with rocks and sticks – some occasionally receive a plastic toy from their relatives living overseas. Perhaps if we could tell people who are coming here to visit – they might be able to bring a few things in their luggage, even sailboats who come into the harbor to dock for a few days. It should be a quickly solvable problem, but it is proving to be more complex on this small speck of island in the middle of the south pacific ocean. 
When Lisa pulls out the sample plastics that we had just collected the previous day from the beach – they light up, their minds start going again. She shows the little blue plastic part with a clear turtle bite mark on it – a “ooohhhh” rises from the students – then she asks, “What would happen if the turtle was able to eat this” and all unanimously say “DIE!” in Tongan with a sad look on their face. They want to see the other things that we found. Lisa asks, “How do we keep the turtles safe?” and all unanimously answer, “Throw garbage only into the bins, never on the ground.” Next lesson might be about the effects of plastic and avoiding using plastic products – specifically bags that are so abundantly found on the island and used everywhere. Teach the kids, they’ll take it to their parents too.  
This might even be a great way to promote the boomerang bags initiative. Have the locals make them from old clothes. Much of the clothes on the island are second hand anyway, hand me downs sent by relatives who live overseas. By the time clothes are deemed “old” by locals they have holes. Materials can be gathered from old clothes and use specially purchased ones only when needed to keep the costs low. 
VEPA is a god sent to this island – being the voice of what is extremely low on the locals’ radar due to other more basic priorities – but what has a tremendous impact on their livelihoods, health and future. Their biggest issue being the lack of funding if we can help them in any way they will be able to focus more on completing what needs to be done locally, rather than searching for funds to continue their efforts on the island. 

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