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Ahndree is Arieta

By Geraldine Panapasa
Friday, February 06, 2009

Her Fijian family calls her Arieta because her name was too difficult to pronounce and ever since she came to Navunibitu in Ra as an American Peace Corps volunteer, Ahndree Conn has learned to live off the land.

It's hard not to miss Ahndree when you enter the Catholic Church compound in Navunibitu.

She'll either be helping out at the primary school down the hill from the church or weeding out creepers around the compound.

The 23-year old volunteer is originally from Minnesota in the United States and came to Fiji one and a half years ago to help the community conserve their natural resources.

Her cottage sits right next to the church but she's hardly ever indoors. Instead, she enjoys the company of friends and neighbours in the small settlement around the church.

She grew up in a small town called Alexandria and is sixth in a family of nine siblings.

Her father, Dennis Conn is a pilot instructor while her mother, Junelle Gustafson is an occupational therapist.

"My mom helps old people move again. The town I grew up in is something like Nausori Town," she said.

"Since there were a lot of siblings in the family, we didn't have much money. But my mom wanted us to do well especially in education."

She attended primary school at Lincoln Elementary and later completed high school at Jefferson.

She said both her schools were named after two former US presidents, Abraham Lincoln who was the 16th President and Thomas Jefferson who was the third president of USA.

Ahndree continued her education at the University of Minnesota, completing a Bachelors degree in conservation biology including the study of fisheries and wildlife.

Living off the land was something she always found interesting and even as a young girl growing up in urban Alexandria, Ahndree wanted to live in the jungle.

"I love being outdoors and I just wanted to live in the jungle. Growing up in America, we don't live off the land. We don't know how to," she said.

"We don't know about plants or how to survive in the jungle.

"During college, one of the return Peace Corps volunteers shared his experiences in Russia when he lived there for two years.

"I wanted to travel to the jungle to see how I could live off the land. This is my first time to travel overseas.

"The only time I've ever heard of Fiji is from the Fiji Water bottles," she giggled as her Fijian mother, Akeneta Bui played with her golden locks on the steps of the boarding house.

Coming to Fiji was a different experience altogether for Ahndree.

She found it difficult at first adjusting to the Fiji weather and of course culture.

But her heart was in the right place and she knew her experience would be one to remember for a long time.

"I was surprised with how big the families and the communities are in Fiji. Back home, our doors are closed all the time," she said.

"Here, the doors are always open and the whole community shares whatever they have. The communities and families are very close. In America, there is only one family and whenever some one finds a job, they move out.

"It took me a long time to learn the language. I struggled at first but I could tell what people meant because when they speak, there is so much expression in what they are saying."

She works under the environment sector of the Peace Corps focusing on the conservation of natural resources.

In between her volunteer work, Ahndree has also spent time teaching and reading English and computing to students at Navunibitu Catholic School.

During her time at Navunibitu, Ahndree has learned how to catch crabs, collect coconuts and cook.

"Now when I get lost in the woods, I know I can survive. I can start a fire with wood and I know I can keep myself happy," she said.

"I've learned so much here but I still miss my family back home. Everything I do here, I want to share it with them.

"I'm more comfortable with the people here but I miss my family because I grew up with them.

"I will miss this place when my two years end in July and if I have enough money to come back for a vacation then I would come back."

Once a week, she travels to Rakiraki Town to use the Internet to email her family and friends back home.

No matter what, Ahndree says as fun as the luxurious life may seem, her family is her most prized possession.

"Never forget your family no matter what," she said.

Later that day, dressed in suwai clothes and with a cane knife, she strode merrily towards the garden to continue weeding.

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