Why I started Vunilagi

The volunteers of Vunilagi Book Club have grown steadily since founder Mariana Waqa started with her book reading earlier this year. Picture: SUPPLIED

“I HAVE been asked a number of times  why I started Vunilagi Book Club and to be quite frank, the reason behind it started from my own love of  reading as a child and the ways it has churned my imagination and capacity to think,” says club founder Mariana Waqa. “I believe that Vunilagi has been a seed of love sown and nurtured over the years which is only now beginning to come into fruition.

“In 2017 I spent a number of weeks in Nanuku settlement on behalf of the Indian Division of Fiji’s Methodist Church.

As a Fijian who had been raised away from home, Nanuku was a big shock to the system. I had often spoken so proudly of Fiji and its beautiful
islands, peoples, and cultures while abroad, and indeed, Fiji is all the above and so much more!

However, Nanuku awakened me to the realities which existed at the ground level and played as a reminder of the everyday struggles of poorer communities.

The social issues I was bleakly confronted with in Nanuku made me question how I could possibly give back after many years away.

“I found that there were many settlements like Nanuku around Suva and they were often associated with high levels of drugs, crime, violence, and unemployment, which led to generational cycles of poverty.

Assistance was given through religious, government, or charity organisations which would provide help through small business initiatives, the provision of school items, and medical services.

I of course did not have the means to do anything of the sort, but what I did have was a passion for books and a vision to empower young Fijians towards a better future. I saw the kids in Nanuku last year and thought that despite of where they had started in life, things could change for
the better if the time was taken to invest in their future through the simple act of reading.

“That is how Vunilagi Book Club began, as a simple love project for settlement communities in Suva and more rural communities
with time to come.

As a child, I was given the privilege of experiencing the gift of reading and its opening up of doors to new worlds and ideas. Now as an adult, I want the same opportunity for children in communities like Nanuku.

It is true that we read books from the four walls of a tin-iron church, but from there the doors are opened to the continent of Africa and countries like Australia, Indonesia and Afghanistan.

The children are taken on adventures to the beach, the jungle, and oftentimes to imaginary places with talking dragons, cats, and goldfish.

Vunilagi works to instil courage in the kids to dream beyond whatever circumstances they may face in their young lives while building up their capacity
to think and imagine.

“My volunteers and I believe that the children we read to are just as intelligent, capable, and hopeful as any other child and it is our imperative to help them understand this about themselves through the gift of reading.
We encourage the children to speak up, ask questions, and engage with the volunteers actively so that they build confidence in speaking publicly.

We want to teach them that their voice matters so when they grow older they’ll be able to form and express opinions thoughtfully.

“Reading is such a vital lifeskill, which is why we are very passionate about books; we believe in the adage that says — ‘a child who reads will be an adult who thinks’. As we work towards the future of the next generation of young Fijians, Vunilagi just so happens to carry the auspicious meaning of ‘horizon’ in the iTaukei language.

This perhaps is a sign, that in the hopeful words of CS Lewis: ‘There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind’.”