I first heard about this project a couple of months ago. It was a typical Tuesday afternoon at the health center. The morning rush of patients had died down so the nurses and I were sitting in the zone room killing time before the end of the workday, joking around and chatting. Asinate, one of the zone nurses, called my attention and began telling me about an emerging project in one of her communities. This village was notorious for having high incidences of illnesses. Most of our cases of malnutrition, water-bourne diseases, and skin infections came from this area.
The village’s project was to build new latrines to replace ones that were broken and to update ones that were outdated. After forming a committee to address issues within the community they decided the latrine project was a top priority. To complete the project they needed help writing a proposal for funding, which included taking photographs of their current latrines, organizing community-based training about sanitation, then eventually working with the Health Inspector to build the new latrines. Since Asinate was the nurse assigned to their area they asked her to partner with the village health worker to help them with their project. Asinate and I had previously worked together on activities in the health center and in the communities so she asked if I could help with this project as well. I, of course, said yes.
Over the next few weeks Asinate and I talked about the project in passing but we were both pretty busy, too busy to nail down a day to actually work on it. When she had a free day to devote to the project, I was busy. When I had a free day to devote to the project, she was busy. Then, one afternoon after a day of work in the health center she introduced me to the village health worker that would be helping us with the project. The three of us sat down and talked. I hadn’t yet visited the village so I listened as they spoke. One family with several cases of bloody diarrhea. Another family with an underweight, sickly infant. Parasites. After our conversation we all agreed our first step would be writing the proposal so photographs of the current latrines being used in the community had to be taken.
We picked a date.
It came and went.
We picked another date.
It came, but was cancelled last minute.
I returned from vacation to find Asinate bursting with eagerness to begin our project. I had my camera, she had her book of statistics, we both had a free morning… perfect! We grabbed Josie, another zone nurse, then left the health center. After about 25 minutes of walking we arrived at the village. As we walked into the village I quickly realized it was in fact a squatter settlement. A squatter settlement is a makeshift village of sorts; a prime example of the realities of lower-class urban drift. They are usually led by an appointed turaga ni koro (village leader) and are populated by poor families who were drawn from rural areas to the outskirts of the city in the hopes of finding work and a better life. These settlements usually start small with a few dozen families who build homes using spare galvanized corrugated metal or concrete blocks, but as time goes on they expand as more people move closer to the city. A few dozen families turn into a few hundred. I later learned this overpopulated settlement had over 700 people from various regions in Fiji.
Over the next couple of days Asinate, Josie, the village health worker and I went from house to house documenting the state of the latrines in the village. There were three variations of latrines: flush toilets, water-seal toilets, and pit toilets. Many were abandoned and others were in various states of disrepair. This meant the ones that were working were being used by multiple families. As we made our rounds the numbers were shocking. One flush toilet for eight people. One water-seal toilet for 13 people. One pit toilet for 10 people.
The farther we went into the village the larger the numbers. The larger the numbers the more frustrated I felt. I watched small children boldly walk through puddles of mud and questionable liquids around the latrines. Puddles that we teetered on rocks and patches of grass trying to avoid. We passed three of the five piggeries in the village, the scent from each one meet us yards before we came upon them. We found a stagnant, man-made well that was being used by a family who didn’t have access to running water. I asked the village health worker if the family boiled the well water. Her response made my heart drop. I thought of the long list of illnesses that people in the village faced. My initial feelings of frustration fragmented into feelings of confusion, anger, and powerlessness.
Later I shared those feelings with Asinate and Josie. They sympathized and said they too felt overwhelmed when faced with all of the health issues in the village. But they reminded me of a very important fact, that this project is the village’s project. The village took the initiative. We are just there to help. And they’re right. Although I felt powerless the village had a strong sense of communal power.
My job as a Volunteer as this project progresses is to support them with their desire to improve their standard of living not to empathize to the point of paralysis, or to overshoot the mark and take on the development of their project for them. I’m learning that, at times, the product of urban drift isn’t just a new village, it is also a demonstration of a group of people empowering themselves and their community.