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Declan T.

“My friends in the village love to help, and love to hone my potential, in the same way I’m here to help them hone their potential in business. Bidirectional learning is fundamental to this experience.”

Declan T headshot

1. What got you interested in the Peace Corps?

Early on I was interested in doing work that involved traveling abroad. In middle and high school I dreamed of doing humanitarian aid and development work, and when browsing my future options, the Peace Corps always showed up. As I went through university, my interest focused more on being present with people, exchanging stories, and creating community. That's when I really started to consider Peace Corps. What stood out was the two-year commitment that would “root” me in one community. The length of service was a turn-off for a lot of people I went to school with. But for me, it felt necessary for the kind of human connection I wanted to create. There's really no other program that gives the same opportunity to become part of a community so different from your own.

2. What projects are you working on?

Currently, my village is working with the Fiji government on a water catchment project to collect rainwater and store water for each house in my village. Because of climate change, it's harder to predict when droughts will occur, so we are building out infrastructure for water security in times when the village water supply dwindles.

My primary role is in facilitating discussions about financial literacy and entrepreneurship in the village. These discussions are broad and mean different things to different groups in the village. For example, the youth group has many business ideas, and my role is to give them the perspectives they need to make ground on those dreams.

Declan facilitates discussions about financial literacy and entrepreneurship in Fiji.
Declan facilitates discussions about financial literacy and entrepreneurship in Fiji.

3. What strategies have you used to integrate into your community?

Playing music. It's the biggest part of my village experience. I brought a guitar to Fiji as one of my checked bags, and it was the best decision I could have made. My village is up in the mountains without phone service or electricity. Therefore, the main form of entertainment is “sigidrigi” (singing and drinking). Most nights (especially weekends), I’m at someone's house playing guitar and singing Fijian songs with them. We’ve got a little band going, and I’m often asked to bring my guitar to whatever function I’m going to in the village. I’ve been able to connect with people by playing guitar when visiting other Volunteer’s villages as well.

Outside of music, it's important to be vulnerable with the community, which initially is quite hard. I realized the best way to connect with people is to ask questions about the things I’m not good at, such as farming, rugby, etc. My friends in the village love to help and love to hone my potential, in the same way I’m here to help them hone their potential in business. Bidirectional learning is fundamental to this experience.

4. What is a highlight of your time in service so far?

My family from America came to visit and we had a big village ceremony with dancing and drinking kava (a traditional beverage). It was beautiful seeing my Fijian family and my American family mesh over laughter and shared stories making fun of me. Two worlds became one. It was an action-packed series of events, from big banquets and late nights at neighbors’ houses, to a wilderness trek and a swim at a waterfall.

The cornerstone of this event, however, is just being a part of the village fabric—being able to consider everyone family. Many times, I’ll be lying on a mat in my neighbor’s house, chatting, and think about how I’m going to miss that moment when I leave. I would have nostalgia for the present! When I have those feelings, I just try to focus on the laughs and pure joy of being in community.

5. What have you enjoyed most about the community where you are serving?

My community is small and in a remote area, so everyone is wildly close (geographically and biologically, as almost all villagers are related). There is no community hall, so people meet with others in their homes. This means that everyone’s house is a community center, which is beyond any conception of community I had back in the States. Instead of having lots of small functions in different enclaves around the village, almost everyone goes to the same place to hang out and enjoy the evenings. There's no FOMO (fear of missing out), as everyone is always together.

6. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from your community?

Grogging is a big thing in the village. People will sit around all day and all night drinking kava. At first, I was so perplexed by the lack of activity—the lack of doing anything besides just sitting. But I had a revelation and realized how special it is to just sit and be present with friends and family. I imagined what it would be like to hang out with my friends and siblings all day, without a care in the world. That would be the best day ever. People in my village do that every single day. They have this community thing figured out. Although it’s taken me some adjusting to learn to be present and just do “nothing” with others, there is so much power in it and and the experience creates greater bonds.

Declan spends a lot of time playing music with community members in Fiji.
Declan spends a lot of time playing music with community members in Fiji.

7. How do you spend time when you are not working on a project?

I read a ton, I run, and I practice guitar with my best friend in the village. I’ve been in the village long enough that I have a solid crew to hang with. It has been fun to just joke around with them in the evenings. I’ve started rugby training with them, which has been a bit brutal (but rewarding). I brought some Legos from home, and the children come over after school and on the weekends to use them and let their imaginations run wild. Legos were huge when I grew up and I love to see Fijian kids creating their own little worlds with Star Wars characters. Kids rule my house!

8. What are you looking forward to in your remaining time as a Volunteer?

The village has quite a few projects in the works. I’m looking forward to seeing some of the ideas we have been talking about for the past year start to materialize. The youth group in the village has a lot of ideas, and their gears have been turning more and more recently. Ideas include turning freshwater prawn farming into a bigger enterprise, eco-tourism in the mountains, and traditional bure building to keep traditions alive and learn from the elders in the village.

I also look forward to spending as much time as I can with my Peace Corps cohort. We have a small group, which is really family at this point. We recently celebrated the wedding of one of my close friends in our cohort. I look forward to more moments where we can all meet up and share stories. Personally, I want to get my scuba certification before I leave and to surf the world-renowned Cloudbreak.

9. Once you finish your service, what will you do differently when you return to the U.S.?

As I said before, I love the idea of community and being present with others. I think the Fijians are onto something with their tradition of keeping their house open to anyone who walks by. I hope that wherever I end up in the U.S., I will cultivate that same kind of place-based community. Building relationships with neighbors and just being present in the company of others is what I really hope to achieve. I’d love to bring a taste of slowing down and giving enough space to focus on my friends in a go-go-go world.