by Libby James
Photos courtesy Audrey Moreng
There is no school bus on Beqa.
That is because there are no mechanized vehicles at all on this tiny Fiji Island of 14 square miles and containing nine small villages. Instead of a school bus, the children who live too far away to walk get to school on the school boat.
Audrey Moreng of Fort Collins was just past the halfway mark of her second year of Peace Corps service on the island when her life changed suddenly and radically. She was helping a couple of students get familiar with a new computer when she received an email from Peace Corps headquarters. It was short and simple and told her that she was to return home, that because of the COVID-19 threat, her Peace Corps service had ended. She became one of seven-thousand Peace Corps volunteers serving all over the world who got the same notice. Their service had been closed with no guarantee that it would resume.
Moreng was stunned. She had been home for 10 days at the time of this writing. “I’m okay,” she said. “It’s getting a little easier.”
A graduate of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky where the emphasis is on becoming part of the global community, Moreng majored in international studies and got a taste of what Peace Corps service would be like when she spent time in Ghana working on a water filtration project during her college days. Right after she graduated, she entered the Peace Corps.
As the time came to begin the first term of school during her second year in Beqa, she felt prepared and confident. “I had a plan for literacy and reading,” she explained. “I developed a reading tracker that had the kids writing small book reports after every book they read. Comprehension is a big issue here. The student with the most verified book reports was to be rewarded.” On a recent visit her dad had brought chocolate which she stashed away to give as the prize at the end of the term. But that never happened. When Moreng left, she gave the chocolate to a neighbor.
She had become deeply involved with the village she served. In addition to teaching in the kindergarten through eighth-grade school which served 60 students from two villages, she worked in the library, worked with a youth group, and conducted an island-wide women’s health workshop.
“It’s a patriarchal society,” Moreng said. “I became interested in empowering the women.” At the time of her departure, she was on the verge of getting a grant to support Pretty Taledi, (translates as talents) a group of single and young mothers, ages 17-52 she had formed. The grant was to establish an outlet for marketing their handmade crafts in Suva, the capital of the Fiji Islands.
Physically helping to reverse the erosion of the local seawall, damage related to climate change, was another of Moreng’s projects. Through all these efforts she endeared herself to the people of Beqa.
Moreng had come a long way from her first days on the island when, as the only Peace Corps volunteer on Beqa, she felt lonely. “Learning the language helped,” she said. Fijians speak three languages, Fijian, English and Fiji Hindi. At one time the islands were a British colony, accounting for the English language. As the days went by, Moreng began to feel at home on the island.
Her experience on New Year’s Day let her know for certain that she had become an accepted member of the community. Her friends shared drinks with her, then drenched her with water, then flour and water again, fulfilling an unlikely New Year’s tradition among them. Even more meaningful, Millah, her good friend and the wife of a teacher she worked with named her newborn daughter after her. “I now have a yaca, someone named after me,” she wrote home, expressing her pride in the honor she had received.
Moreng was so attached to the community that twice when cyclones were predicted and the Peace Corps ordered that she move to the safety of a hotel room on another island, she felt guilty. “It’s a terrible feeling to ditch your village when you hear a storm is coming,” she said.
Today she is grateful that she had a place and a family to come home to. She’s enjoying her family and little things like hot showers and catching up on favorite television programs. And soap. “It was not always accessible where I lived and that was a reminder to me to be thankful for it,” she said. These days she makes daily phone calls to her boyfriend Bilo, the person who took her under his wing and helped her to acclimate during her first days on the island.
Future plans are on hold for now. She remains passionate about empowering women and hopes to contribute to that effort in some meaningful way. While it doesn’t look likely that she will return to Beqa to complete her Peace Corps assignment, she will never forget her time there and the people she came to know and love on the little island.