Trio of native Fijians share culture, love for Auburn University on recent visit

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The Auburn Family is well known across the globe, even on a remote island in the South Pacific.

No one on the tiny Fijian island of Vorovoro attended or graduated from Auburn University, but members of the Mali tribe, who call Vorovoro home, are well aware of Auburn and its family.

For the past five summers, the tribe has welcomed Auburn University students to Vorovoro for a study abroad trip through the College of Human Sciences.

Auburn returned the favor this year, welcoming three Fijian natives—Apenisa Bogiso, known as Tui Mali, or chief of Mali; his grandson, Bale Uate; and a sugar cane farmer, Nemani Baleinayaca—to campus in April as part of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It was the first time any of them had been to Auburn and the first trip to the United States for Bale and Nemani.

Kate Thornton, director of global education for the college, developed the Fiji study abroad program to provide students with the opportunity to study sustainability from a cultural, environmental and economic perspective.

Little did she know how the decision would ultimately bond the Mali family and the Auburn Family. Tui Mali didn't expect it either, which is probably why the gentleman has a hard time explaining—whether it's in English or his native tongue—just how much it means for Auburn to be his family.

"I have to give them thank you very much for looking after Vorovoro, to come and to visit Vorovoro, which is a very small island very far away," Tui Mali said.

Visitors tend to vacation on more popular islands in Fiji, leading many to question Auburn's devotion to Vorovoro.

"There's nothing in Vorovoro, but they want to come straight to Vorovoro," Tui Mali said. "I can't explain it."

"He calls Auburn a miracle," said Thornton.

"Yes, I feel it is a miracle," said Tui Mali.

Thornton admitted hearing those words from Tui Mali brings her to tears.

A special part of the relationship between Auburn and Vorovoro is a traditional Fijian ceremony called sevusevu, during which the natives greet visitors and visitors ask Tui Mali for permission to stay on the island.

"Tui Mali doesn't just grant us permission to stay," Thornton said. "He invites us to join his family. As members of his family, he treats us as family. He offers grace to us, he shares laughter with us and he shares food with us."

Tui Mali does this with Auburn because, "We in Fiji, we still live as a family and I want to introduce that in the world today. The world is a big family because the sun is there, the wind blows there, the land is here, the water is there and all this bring to all the families in this world. You can't live without water. You can't live without food. Food, the water, the sun—that is your family. They look after you and you look after them. We are all family."

Thornton recalled how Tui Mali shared his philosophy with an eco-tourism class at Auburn. She said students were told typical eco-tourism functions with a division between the front and back of a restaurant or a hotel, separating tourists from the villagers.

"Visitors come [to the front of house], stop here. Locals come [to the back of house], stop here. They are not allowed to mix. What we do in Vorovoro is we try to rub this line [between them] off. So when you come to Vorovoro, we all," said Tui Mali, joining his hands together, "one. [We] look like a family, together."

Tui Mali's belief leads to an interesting math equation: 1+1=1, which means you and I don't equal two, but rather one, as in one family.

Auburn students who have traveled to Fiji quickly accept Tui Mali's philosophy and fall in love with the island and its people.

"The Golden Rule is practiced in Fijian culture just by their way of life," said Thornton. "Our students really get to see just how special it is if you actually live that way."

Auburn students have always tried to leave their mark on Vorovoro. They've built a grand bure, a meeting place for the village, and taught nurses on the island an inexpensive way to make reading glasses. Auburn has provided school supplies and sports equipment on more than one occasion. Students in a Global Studies class raised money to buy additional water barrels for the island. With no source of fresh water on the island, locals rely on captured rainwater. Thornton said the student-led project doubled the island's water capacity.

Auburn has also left its mark on the Pacific Ocean. On an optional scuba diving excursion, the master diver allowed students to name an unchartered section of the Great Sea Reef or Cakaulevu Reef, the third longest continuous barrier reef in the world. Students dubbed it Tiger's Cove to commemorate Aubie because the yellow coral wall reminded them of tiger stripes and because of all the sharks they saw in the water.

Each year, students raise money and purchase trees to offset their carbon footprint on the island. This year, students will plant Sandalwood trees on Nemani's farm. She called Sandalwood trees the "Fijian version of a retirement fund" because they grow for 30 years and the wood is very valuable.

While at Auburn, Tui Mali, Nemani and Bale spoke to classes, visited with faculty, attended Auburn's A-Day game and experienced a reunion with students who had participated in the study abroad program. Tui Mali was also the guest speaker for a public presentation in the Haley Center.

They also visited Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, ate Dreamland Barbeque, went bass fishing in Waverly and attended a country music concert in Opelika.

Before returning to Vorovoro, Tui Mali, Nemani and Bale went to Indiana to speak at an event hosted by Bridge the Gap Villages, Auburn's vendor, and try to get more schools involved in similar programs.

"Ideally we'd like it to be bigger than just Auburn" said Thornton. "The more schools that are exposed to Vorovoro, the better for everyone."

She added that Tui Mali has promised that he will always have a place in Vorovoro for Auburn University. She doesn't have it in writing, but said a Tui Mali promise is better than a written one.

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