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Vatuvonu Adventist High School campus, 2019.

Photo courtesy of Record article, April 26, 2019, "Adventist Church Locked in Legal Dispute with Figi Government."

Vatuvonu Adventist High School, Fiji

By Raymond Coombe

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Pastor Raymond Coombe, B.A. in theology (Avondale College, Cooranbong, Australia), retired in 2010 after 43 years in denominational service in the South Pacific Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. An Australian by birth, Pastor Coombe served the church as a pastor-evangelist in New Zealand, a missionary in Fiji and Papua New Guinea, and as a Departmental Director in the South Pacific Division office. He is married to Daphne with two married daughters and four grandchildren.

Vatuvonu Adventist High School is a coeducational day school and boarding college located on the southern shores of Buca (pronounced Bootha) Bay on the island of Vanua Levu, Fiji.1 Positioned some 180 kilometers (111 miles) from the capital of Suva and the main island of Viti Levu, in the province of Cakaudrove, this tropical paradise is somewhat isolated in a rural area, surrounded by coconut plantations and 65 kilometers (40 miles) from the nearest town of Savusavu.

It is one of three secondary schools operated by the Fiji Mission of Seventh-day Adventists, and has been a significant institution and focus of Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) mission since 1931, when the Vatualewa property was first leased.2 Vatu vonu means “turtle rock” in the local Fijian language, and the property looks out over a picturesque bay, with a jungle-clad mountain rising up behind the school.

In recent years the school has grown considerably in both facilities and enrollment because of a high level of government funding. However, under the Ministry of Education’s Open Merit Recruitment System, all teaching staff were chosen by the government without consideration of the school’s religious ethos. This recently led to a crisis in which the principal and all teachers were not Seventh-day Adventists, so the Fiji Mission temporarily closed the school. It is currently being operated by the government while awaiting the outcome of a significant court case that will determine the right of faith-based schools in Fiji to be privatized and to operate outside the Open Merit Recruitment System.3 The school is not presently listed in the Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook but accreditation as a church entity will be sought as soon as the current legal dispute with the Fiji government is resolved. The Vatuvonu campus comprises four secondary classroom blocks, science and computer labs, manual arts, library, kitchen, dormitories, staff houses, generator and machine shed, primary school and a church.

Beginnings

Although SDA mission work in Fiji began with the arrival of the mission ship Pitcairn in 1891, it was not until 1909 that a Fijian pastor was placed at Loa village in Buca Bay.4 Some years later, converts around Cakaudrove province began requesting a school, so in 1930 A. G. Stewart, E. B. Rudge, G. Branster, and H. Steed traveled by boat to Vanua Levu looking for a suitable school site.5 Eventually Vatuvonu was chosen as the site of a new training school.6

Vanua Levu Intermediate School

During 1931 and 1932 Gordon Branster, Harry Steed, and John Kamea, with the help of local workers, felled timber, and built homes, classrooms and dormitories in readiness for a new training school on what had been a neglected coconut plantation. 7 It was registered as Vanua Levu Intermediate School in 1932.8 However, formal classes did not commence until April 1933, under L. V. Wilkinson, the first headmaster.9 An enrollment of 57 Fijian boys followed a regular elementary school curriculum, and the following year, after a girls dormitory was built, girls were also accepted.10 After completion of this curriculum, selected students were given training as ministers and teachers. The students cultivated their own gardens to provide food for the school. School income was supplemented by the sale of copra, produced by the students from a small coconut plantation on the school estate.

Vatu Vonu Central School

The school continued to grow during the prewar years, and in 1939 under the leadership of Stan Pennington it was renamed as Vatu Vonu Central School.11 With the arrival of Miss Jo Mitchell in 1940, a teacher training program commenced which continued for just over a year until all teacher training was centralized at the new Fulton Missionary College, established at Tailevu in 1941.12 This left Vatuvonu focusing on the first eight years of elementary education and no longer involved in the training of teachers or mission workers. However, it remained a boarding school, providing SDA education for the large rural areas of the Cakaudrove province.

Vatuvonu Training School

The school began to serve a central role in the newly formed East Fiji Mission in 1951, when the campus also became the headquarters for the mission.13 At this time the campus included a mission office and wharf with anchorage for mission vessels that serviced the island territory. It is not known why the school name changed again to Vatuvonu Training School, but during this decade the school grew considerably, and Vatuvonu began to attract students from various cultures including Indians, and Micronesians from the nearby islands of Rabi and Kioa.14

During the 1960s new buildings of permanent materials replaced existing structures as the school grew. They included a church building, a concrete classroom and office block, a new kitchen and dining room, and new teachers houses.15 The original school building became the girls dormitory. At this time the school also acquired the lease of additional farming land at Yalalevu about three kilometers away, which provided excellent food crops of rice, kasava, taro, and vegetable greens for the school.16 In 1967 the two missions of East Fiji and West Fiji amalgamated and for the first time a national Fijian became the headmaster in 1969.17 About this time the name again reverted back to Vatuvonu Central School.18 Each year saw a significant number of baptisms as the school fulfilled its evangelistic purpose.

Vatuvonu Junior Secondary School

With Fiji gaining independence in 1971, there was a new push for academic expansion and led by expatriate principal Alan Sonter, Vatuvonu added the first years of high school.19 Students sat the Junior Certificate exams with good results. It became known as the Vatuvonu Junior Secondary School, and another era of building and growth followed.20During these years Vatuvonu reached its peak enrollment, with more than two hundred students, and more than half of them full-time boarders.

In 1971 a new science block was added, in 1975 a new primary school was completed, and a manual arts building was added in 1976.21 However, a severe earthquake caused damage to the main classroom block in 1979 and over the year-end period the whole classroom block was demolished and rebuilt in readiness for classes in 1980.22 Various factors led to falling enrollments in the early 1980s, and in March 1984 the Fiji Mission closed the high school, and boarding students were transferred to the Navesau Junior Secondary School on Viti Levu.23 The primary grades continued as a day school for local students.

Vatuvonu Vocational Training Centre

During the next ten years, with the help of funding from the Fiji government and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) the Fiji Mission experimented with vocational training and craft programs, which provided practical trade subjects for rural youth.24 This included agriculture, building, mechanics, cooking, and sewing. Instructors were drawn from national teachers as well as expatriate volunteers. The primary school continued to operate as a day school for the first eight elementary grades, but many of the boarding facilities fell into disrepair. Eventually this attempt to utilize the school facilities failed, and the vocational training center closed at the end of 1994.25

Vatuvonu Primary Day School and Dream Machine Clinic

For the next 17 years the Vatuvonu campus suffered periods of neglect and experimentation, with medical ministry under the control of an independent ministry, the Dream Machine Foundation, which operated a clinic and other community projects for about eight years (1998–2005).26 They also helped to fund the ongoing operations of the primary school, which continued as a day school during all these years.

Vatuvonu Adventist High School

In 2012, with pressure and funding from the government to reopen Vatuvonu as a secondary school, years 9 and 10 were added. Government funding provided additional classrooms and upgraded existing facilities. Secondary classes were added each year, until in 2016 year 13 (form 7) was added, and enrollment reached 196.27 A number of volunteer fly-n-build projects by supporters in Australia also restored and maintained other boarding school facilities, such as dormitories, toilet blocks, the kitchen, and dining room. Combined enrollment for both primary and secondary classes totaled 306 in 2017.28 However, the school is currently operated by the Fiji government’s Ministry of Education, and the principal is not a Seventh-day Adventist.

List of Principals

Vanua Levu Intermediate School

Lenard V. Wilkinson (1933–1934); Arthur P. Dyason (1935–1938)

Vatu Vonu Central School

Stan C. Pennington (1939–1943); John Kamea (1944); Don I. Lane (1945); Albert P. Baglee (1946); M. P. Cozens (1947–1950)

Vatuvonu Training School

M. P. Cozens (1951–1952); Robert Aveling (1953); Douglas A. Hokin (1954–1957); Ray K. Wilkinson (1958–1959); William P. Miller (1960); Brian H. Townend (1961–1964); Raymond O’Hara (1965–1967); Jone Rabukuta (1968–1969); Alan J. Sonter (1970)

Vatuvonu Junior Secondary School

Alan J. Sonter (1971); Peter W. Truscott (1972); John H. Rowden (1973–1975); Peter J. McGruddy (1976); R. Max Ferguson (1977–1979); Nemani Tausere (1980–1982); Sakiusa Basa (1983); Chris J. Cowled (1984)

Vatuvonu Vocational Training Centre

Taniela Cabe (1985–1986); Marika Tuiwawa (1987); Ponapate Senikau (1988); Sakaraia Bekei (1989–1993); Harold Poulter (1994)

Vatuvonu Primary School

Sefanaia Gauna (1995–1996); Sakiusa Basa (1997); Sakaraia Bekei (1998–2001); Mereani Dakuna (2002); Peniasi Vosavakadua (2003–2005); Sefanaia Gauna (2006–2011)

Vatuvonu Adventist High School

Luke Ketewai, (2012–2013); Elina Tokalau (2015–2015); Josua Qalobula (2015–2018)

Sources

ADRA Reporter 1, no. 2 (August 1986). Insert in Australasian Record, August 23, 1986.

“After a visit . . . ” Australasian Record, January 8, 1940.

“At the time . . . ” Australasian Record, May 18, 1964.

Australasian Conference Association, Ltd. Archive of Lease Documents. Wahroonga, NSW.

Australian Union Conference Executive Committee minutes, March 24, 1931, South Pacific Division Archives. Wahroonga, NSW.

Australian Union Conference Executive Committee minutes, September 14, 1939, South Pacific Division Archives. Wahroonga, NSW.

Branster, G. “East Fiji.” Australasian Record, January 7, 1952.

Bridcutt, Tracey. “Church Locked in Legal Dispute with Fiji Govt.” Adventist Record, May 18, 2019.

“Brother A. J. Sonter . . .” Australasian Record, September 15, 1969.

Cobbin, Win E. “The Best Bose Ever.” Australasian Record, November 26, 1962.

Coombe, Raymond. “The School That God Built.” Australasian Record, August 4, 1975.

Dream Machine Foundation website on Project Fiji. http:// dreammachinefoundation.com.

Accessed June 12, 2019.

Fiji Mission Executive Committee minutes, meeting 13, Wednesday, December 7, 1994. Item 134.94. Fiji Mission, Suva, Fiji.

Halliday, Daphne. “Training Primary Teachers at Fulton College 1941–1959.” Journal of Pacific Adventist History 3 no. 2 (December 2003).

Parker, C. H. “The Fiji Council.” Union Conference Record, August 3, 1908.

Parr, G. C. “New Year at Visoqo, Fiji.” Australasian Record, April 2, 1934.

Rudge, E. B. “New Intermediate School, Fiji.” Australasian Record, August 31, 1931.

Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook. “East Fiji Mission.” Accessed June 12, 2019. http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1952.pdf.

Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook. “Fiji Mission.” Accessed June 12, 2019. http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1967.pdf.

Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook. “Vanua Levu Intermediate School.” Accessed June 12, 2019. http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1933.pdf.

Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook. “Vatu Vonu Central School.” Accessed June 12, 2019. http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1939.pdf.

Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook. “Vatuvonu Central School.” Accessed June 12, 2019. http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1966.pdf.

Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook. “Vatuvonu Central School.” Accessed June 12, 2019. http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1969.pdf.

Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook. “Vatuvonu Junior Secondary School.”. Accessed June 12, 2019. http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1973-74.pdf.

Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook. “Vatuvonu Training School.” Accessed June 12, 2019. http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1952.pdf.

Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook. “Vatuvonu Vocational Training Centre (S-4).” Accessed June 12, 2019. http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1985.pdf.

“Sonter, A.  J. . . .” Australasian Record, September 15, 1969.

Stewart, A. G. “A Recent Visit to Fiji.” Australasian Record, January 19, 1931.

———. “In Memory of J. E. Fulton.” Australasian Record, October 6, 1969.

———. “Strengthening the Stakes in Fiji.” Missionary Leader, August 1931.

Townend, Brian H. “Vatuvonu Opens Modern Classroom Block.Australasian Record, June 8, 1964.

Truscott, Peter W. “The End of an Era.” Australasian Record, May 12, 1984.

Twist, Christine. “Life in Fiji.” Australasian Record, June 23, 1980.

Whippy, Oliver B. “The Story of Vatuvonu as Told by One of Fiji’s Sons.” Australasian Record, August 25, 1941.

Wilkinson, L. V. “God’s Jewels in Fiji’s Children.” Missionary Leader, June 1934.

———. “New School at Buca Bay.” Australasian Record, September 4, 1933.

Notes

  1. Much of the information in this article is written from the personal knowledge and research of the author, who served as northern district director in Vanua Levu from 1973to 1977 and is gleaned from his soon-to-published book on the history of Adventist mission in Vanua Levu and the Lau entitled “Tragedy and Triumph in Paradise: the Story of Vatuvonu.”

  2. Memo of Lease for Vatualewa NLTB NO: 4/17/581 and NL 27/307, held in the files of Australasian Conference Association, Ltd., Wahroonga, NSW.

  3. Tracey Bridcutt, “Church Locked in Legal Dispute with Fiji Govt,” Adventist Record, May 18, 2019, 8.

  4. C. H. Parker, “The Fiji Council,” Union Conference Record, August 3, 1908, 2, 3.

  5. A. G. Stewart, “A Recent Visit to Fiji,” Australasian Record, January 19, 1931, 2, 3.

  6. Australian Union Conference Executive Committee minutes, March 24, 1931, Item 92, South Pacific Division Archives, Wahroonga, NSW; E. B. Rudge, “New Intermediate School, Fiji,” Australasian Record, August 31, 1931, 4.

  7. A. G. Stewart, “Strengthening the Stakes in Fiji,” Missionary Leader, August 1931, 7; Oliver B. Whippy, “The Story of Vatuvonu as Told by One of Fiji's Sons,” Australasian Record, August 25, 1941, 3.

  8. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook, “Vanua Levu Intermediate School,” page 244, accessed June 12, 2019, http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1933.pdf.

  9. L. V. Wilkinson, “New School at Buca Bay,” Australasian Record, September 4, 1933, 2.

  10. G. C. Parr, “New Year at Visoqo, Fiji,” Australasian Record, April 2, 1934, 8; L. V. Wilkinson, “God’s Jewels in Fiji’s Children,” Missionary Leader, June 1934, 8.

  11. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook, “Vatu Vonu Central School,” page 282, accessed June 12, 2019, http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1939.pdf.

  12. Australian Union Conference Executive Committee minutes, September 14, 1939, South Pacific Division Archives, Wahroonga, NSW, as cited by Daphne Halliday in “Training Primary Teachers at Fulton College 1941–1959,” Journal of Pacific Adventist History 3, no. 2 (December 2003): 29; “After a visit . . . ,” Australasian Record, January 8, 1940, 8.

  13. G. Branster, “East Fiji,” Australasian Record, January 7, 1952, 6. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook, “East Fiji Mission,” page 85, accessed June 12, 2019, http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1952.pdf.

  14. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook, “Vatuvonu Training School,” page 272, accessed June 12, 2019, http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1952.pdf.

  15. Win E. Cobbin, “The Best Bose Ever,” Australasian Record, November 26, 1962, 7, 8; “At the time . . . ,” Australasian Record, May 18, 1964, 8; Brian H. Townend, “Vatuvonu Opens Modern Classroom Block,Australasian Record, June 8, 1964, 1, 2.

  16. Native Land Trust Board Memorandum of Variation of Rent of Native Lease No. 4/17/122— Register No. 213650, copy held in the files of Australasian Conference Association, Ltd., Wahroonga, NSW.

  17. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook, “Fiji Mission,” page 90, accessed June 12, 2019, http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1967.pdf; Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook, “Vatuvonu Central School,” page 363, accessed June 12, 2019, http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1969.pdf; A. G. Stewart, “In Memory of J. E. Fulton,” Australasian Record, October 6, 1969, 9.

  18. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook, “Vatuvonu Central School,” page 340, accessed June 12, 2019, http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1966.pdf.

  19. “Brother A. J. Sonter . . . ,” Australasian Record, September 15, 1969, 16.

  20. Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook, “Vatuvonu Junior Secondary School,” page 357, accessed June 12, 2019, http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1973-74.pdf.

  21. Raymond Coombe, “The School That God Built,” Australasian Record, August 4, 1975, 2, 3.

  22. Christine Twist, “Life in Fiji,” Australasian Record, June 23, 1980, 1, 2.

  23. Peter W. Truscott, “The End of an Era,” Australasian Record, May 12, 1984, 5.

  24. ADRA Reporter 1, no. 2 (August 1986), insert in Australasian Record, August 23, 1986; Seventh-day Adventist Online Yearbook, “Vatuvonu Vocational Training Centre (S-4),” page 473, accessed June 12, 2019, http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Yearbooks/YB1985.pdf.

  25. Fiji Mission Executive Committee minutes, Meeting 13, Wednesday, December 7, 1994, Item 134.94, Fiji Mission, Suva, Fiji.

  26. Dream Machine Foundation website on Project Fiji, http:// dreammachinefoundation.com, accessed on June 12, 2019.

  27. Josua Qalobula, notes supplied to R. Coombe by Josua Qalobula, May 2017.

  28. Liz Dunstan (SPD Education Department), email to author, August 2017.

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Coombe, Raymond. "Vatuvonu Adventist High School, Fiji." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 09, 2021. Accessed January 19, 2021. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=8875.

Coombe, Raymond. "Vatuvonu Adventist High School, Fiji." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 09, 2021. Date of access January 19, 2021, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=8875.

Coombe, Raymond (2021, January 09). Vatuvonu Adventist High School, Fiji. Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved January 19, 2021, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=8875.