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Our children are valuable and we have the responsibility to ensure that they are educated;  that they have the basic needs to go through school.”

That’s the firmly-held belief of Vunilagi Book Club founder Mariana Waqa, who for four years has worked with a group of volunteers to bring high-quality books and literacy programs into a sprawling Suva informal settlement.

The settlement in which they work, Nanuku, is just three kilometres from Suva’s city centre and a stone’s throw from the University of the South Pacific. USP academics Nicholas Halter and Anawaite Matadradra have written of the challenges that face the people of Nanuku: most live below the poverty line and suffer social stigma and discrimination for that reason. Few residents have toilets, running water or electricity. “The settlement can also be dangerous,” they write, “with regular instances of substance abuse, violence and criminal activity. In some cases, families can leave the settlement suddenly, forced by financial difficulties or domestic crises to move.”

While Fiji’s literacy level is high, estimates range between between 91% and 99%,  the story is different for many children in informal settlements. In  Nanuku, “in some cases, children above the age of six were struggling to recognise phonics, and children as old as fourteen were unable to read independently,” Halter and Matadradra write, attributing this to overcrowded classrooms, inadequate school libraries and the children’s living conditions.

Mariana Waqa started the Vunilagi Book Club after she spent seven weeks surveying the settlement for Uniting World. “During that time I saw not only the poverty within the community, but I saw so many children not going to school, being at home. I didn’t see one children’s book in any of the homes that I went into, so that was just something that was in the back of my mind.”

Back in Australia where she was studying at the time, she realised “my time here wasn’t finished.”

She started Vunilagi Book Club  with the idea that “books take you places. It’s not just about reading so you can pass your English exam, but that reading is actually a key to information.”

Initially Waqa got the support of her community in Melbourne to help buy high quality books she had selected and plotted on a spreadsheet. ”Then we began in February 2018.  The idea was really simple, it was just to spend some time reading to the children,  with the children,  and  it evolved from there.”

The initiative required perseverance. The initial uptake was slow and some community members told her, “look we know you have good intentions, but this kind of stuff is just not going to work in a community like Nanuku. The children are not interested in what you’ve brought;  we don’t want to waste your time and their time as well.”

Waqa asked for more time, and after a few months, “it just caught on.”

“I wanted to  create a safe space where the children are welcomed despite whatever ethnic group religious group they came from;  that when they entered into the Vunilagi space in that church that they were welcomed , valued and that they could understand they could come even with their limitations and it wouldn’t be an issue, we would just take them.” 

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