We’re Expanding!

“A low-risk 10-bed Maternity Unit will be established in Makoi at a cost of $600,000FJD. This new facility will make this crucial health service more readily available to women living in the Makoi community, reducing the risk of maternal or infant mortality in this populous area.”

-Prime Minister Bainimarama announcing the 2014 Fiji National Budget

 

The expansion of the health center where I work has been the topic of conversation for quite a while now. I learned about it a couple of months after arriving at site while attending a Board of Services meeting one afternoon. At the time it was one of those “coming soon” type of plans. Everyone knew about it but we also knew how long it takes for something of this scale to move through local and government channels. Last November, PM Bainimarama announced that we would be getting the necessary funding for the expansion!

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The 10-bed Maternity Unit will be built on a lot of land behind the current health center building. Right now the lot is just an overgrown space and like most unaccounted for open spaces here people have been using it to plant root crops. Construction on the Maternity Unit will begin…”soon”.

The bigger picture is that the new Maternity Unit will be a step forward in decentralizing health care in the Suva subdivision. This is a step in the right direction because the major hospital in Suva, Colonial War Memorial Hospital (CWM), is overburdened with patients and are working with a limited number of medical staff. Since Makoi is just outside of Suva the new extension will hopefully provide a much needed, and of course more convenient, service to the families in the area.

On a more day-to-day level, the staff and I are excited about the extension because it will alleviate one of the biggest problems we have at the health center– lack of space! When the health center was built in 2007 it wasn’t meant to take on the patient load and variety of services that it currently has. Over the years various factors like urban drift, the increase of NCDs in Fiji, lack of available facilities/equipment in other health centers, etc. has made Makoi Health Center work over it’s maximum capacity. Benches have been donated to the health center yet oftentimes chairs from the rooms have to be moved to the waiting area so patients can have somewhere to sit. When that doesn’t work, well patients stand and sick patients are given seating preference. This usually causes a crowd in the waiting area that extends beyond the front doors. Not to mention issues of cleanliness, safety, and productivity.

Staff at the health center feel the burden of lack of space and resources as well. The Ministry of Health provides equipment to the staff and furnishings for each health facility, but there are only so many items to go around. What you get is what you get. Maintenance of health center equipment leaves a lot to be desired and when something is malfunctioning or breaks it can take months to be replaced, if at all.

Each nurse gets a desk, a chair, and a cabinet to store their belongings. That means that that one desk, that one chair, and that one cabinet is claimed! It isn’t “the health center’s chair” it’s “my chair”. On many occasions I’ve seen nurses get into it because “their” chair was moved. A full on investigation ensues to find the chair and the poor soul who moved it. There are witnesses (“I last saw so-and-so with it in the zone room.”), there’s evidence (“This is so-and-so’s record book by the chair, they must have taken it.”), the confrontation (“You took my chair! No, this is my chair see it has my name on the back. You use your chair!”), and eventually the resolution (said chair is back in the presence of said nurse). It all seems silly until that fateful day when you’re the one that has accidentally used the desk/chair/cabinet without permission. Then shit gets real and for a split second you wonder why you joined Peace Corps (hahah kidding!). I can’t say I blame them though. When there’s a lack of resources it’s only human nature for people to guard what’s “theirs”, as disruptive as that might be for the work environment.

The lack of space and resources isn’t limited to the staff. My first week at the health center I was given a desk and a chair in the corner of the Sister’s Office, which is basically the main office. My second week at the health center the desk and chair were moved to another room where it was used to help the nursing staff. At first I was offended because I, too, had started feeling that sense of ownership; that it was “my desk” and “my chair”. I didn’t have a specific place to sit and over a year later I still don’t. At work I sit wherever there is available space. I take my laptop with me every day so when I can’t find an unoccupied desk I work with the computer on my lap. I’ve actually gotten pretty good at making myself cozy in whatever nook of space I can find. A few months before leaving for her rotation the previous Sister-in-Charge gave me a drawer in the file cabinet. It’s even got my name on it! Now I have somewhere safe to put my things :D

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It might sound inconvenient but not having a desk/chair has helped me to be a more flexible volunteer. I don’t have a desk rooting me to one area of the health center so it’s easy for me to roam. Whichever staff member I’m helping that day, whether its in the pharmacy or the reproductive health clinic, I pull up a chair (after having asked nicely, of course) and sit. It’s also been a great way for me to build relationships with the staff because I get to spend quality time with them. Sure, I could make a fuss and demand a desk/chair and would be well within my right because volunteers are supposed to be provided somewhere to sit and work, but its really not a big deal to me at this point. Hey, a rolling stone gathers no moss, right?! I guess in this case it would be a rolling coconut :)

The Maternity Unit is slated to be completed at the end of this year well after my COS date. I won’t get to see it up and running but I already know it will be beneficial for the health center and the surrounding community.

Urban Drift: Part II

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.

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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.

Asinate documenting the number of people per house

Asinate documenting the number of people per house

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.

Urban Drift: Part I

This past week the zone nurses at my health center were updating their data boards for the end of the year. Among other things, the statistics they gathered showed an increase in the overall population of each of the coverage zones in Makoi. The increase was slight, but over the past few years it has been an ongoing trend.

Makoi is a district on the outskirts of Suva, the urban capital of Fiji. It is located close to a major city so it is directly affected by urbanization, yet close enough to rural areas farther away from the city so it’s impacted by the pressures unique to underdeveloped areas. The concept of urban drift in Fiji, or other developing areas, isn’t new however the impacts it has on my everyday work and the work of staff in my health center became real while watching the numbers on their boards slowly increase.

There are many reasons people move from rural to urban areas in Fiji. Sometimes it’s by choice. Parent’s want a better future for their children so they move to urban neighborhoods near better quality schools; families want to move closer to relatives to have a more cohesive support system; or, there is a lack of jobs or agricultural development where they currently live.

Other times, the move is more urgent due to expiration of land leases or work contracts, or due to a poor standard of living which makes the move more of a necessity than a luxury. A 2011 Fiji Bureau of Statistics report said that failure to improve the living standards and household incomes in rural areas would accelerate the rural to urban drift, increasing pressures for basic services in urban areas while further worsening rural poverty.

I’ve mentioned before that I work closely with the zone nurses at my health center. They are the public health nurses, the ones who are responsible for going out into the community to not only treat patients but also to educate people about how to prevent illnesses. As competent nurses, they are very aware of the impacts urban drift has on their jobs. For the most part, they work as well as they can with the limited resources and time that they have. Urban drift for them isn’t just a number on a chart, it’s a living person that could, at some point, be a patient of theirs.

Beyond the health center, community members are also aware of the impacts urban drift has on their lives. Fiji has a rich culture of dance (“meke”) which has been a traditional way for them to express stories from their history and their current lives. A few days ago I heard about an upcoming performance arts piece by a popular dance troupe named VOU (meaning “new”). This performance called “Mataqali Drift” is their way of responding to an issue that seems so large and seemingly uncontrollable.

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Picture taken by Fotofusion Photography

Here is a poem that was written to set the tone for the performance:

We all drifted into this urban center
Even me, even you
Suva has its own unique culture;
Churches at bus stands, café convos and market wheelbarrows
Expanding settlements squat next to mushrooming high rise apartments
From food halls in shopping malls
To kisses on the sea wall
This is the Suva we run to from the rural
Then once here yearn to move overseas
We are in a constant unsettled state of transit
State of drift
Urban drift
Global drift
Now is the time to return
To water our roots
Mataqali drift
-VOU

At work I can see how urban drift affects communities located close to the city and the impact it has on health services and standard of living. Living in the city I get the opportunity to see how urban areas address the issues that rural areas, and Fiji in general, is facing.

Springtime on the South Island

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“Put Charles Darwin, Claude Monet and JRR Tolkien in a room and, combined, they still could not come close to the concept of New Zealand,” reads one of our guidebooks. The statement is so true.

New Zealand is made up of two islands: North Island and South Island. The North Island, roughly 6 times the size of Fiji, is home to two-thirds of the population of New Zealand and the capital city of Wellington. The South Island, roughly 8 times the size of Fiji, is what some people call the “true” New Zealand with rural terrain, glaciers, rainforests, wildlife, caves, hot pools, and mountains.

I travelled with Sandy, a fellow PC volunteer. Sandy lives in a small, mostly Indo-Fijian town in Vanua Levu, Fiji. We both wanted to take advantage of being in the South Pacific by travelling as much as possible so when the idea to go to New Zealand came up, we jumped at the opportunity. To be honest we were both feeling a bit jaded about our PC experience and welcomed a vacation to refresh our spirits. The result: a two-week camping trip spent circumnavigating the South Island of New Zealand!

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We flew into Christchurch where we picked up our rental car and eagerly made our way through the city. Back in 2011 Christchurch was rocked by two deadly earthquakes. This made navigating through the city center a bit difficult due to construction. Entire city blocks were barred. The buildings that were left standing had bricks scarred with rubble where adjoining buildings used to be, and the diverted roads turned our drive into a road map-twisting maze. It was sad to see how many homes were damaged and were still being rebuilt. The earthquakes also caused a big economic hit to the Christchurch. Business that were able to rebound financially were temporarily moved to the outskirts of the city.

Eventually we made it to our hostel in Addington. After checking in, the first thing I did was change and go for a run in South Hagley Park. It was a delight to see so many people of all ages outside, simply exercising… jogging with dogs (instead of being chased by dogs in Fiji haha), riding bicycles, doing yoga, and playing cricket. When I returned to the hostel, I met up with Sandy who told me how exhilarating it was to go into a grocery store. There’s a lack of food variety in grocery stores at her site in Fiji so seeing all of the options was a treat for her. We snacked on strawberries, brie cheese, kiwi, and toasted our glasses of champagne to our first day. That night, after dinner at an Irish Pub, we walked back to our hostel ready to experience more of what New Zealand had to offer.

From Christchurch we made our way up to Waipara where we visited vineyards and wineries. Sandy and I quickly realized our tastes in wine were on opposite sides of the spectrum. She likes bountiful, red wines. I like light, white wines. I hate wines that make my mouth dry and leathery; she hates wines that are too sweet. New Zealand is known for it’s white wines so I lucked out! Nevertheless, we both enjoyed visiting the wineries. After Waipara we made our way up to Hanmer Springs. The scenery was beautiful. Rolling hills with plush green grass and golden-yellow flowers. The air was crisp but it was evident that springtime was beginning to blossom. Sandy and I spent the afternoon relaxing in the bubbling hot springs before heading back to our camp site.

The next day we headed to Kaikoura– a small, seaside town. While in Kaikoura we had our first taste of white bait (a very thin, long fish that was served fried in a patty between two slices of buttered bread with lemon on the side), saw seals, and swam with Dusky Dolphins in the Pacific Ocean. The water was cold (12-15 degrees Celsius) but it was amazing seeing and swimming with the pods of dolphins. It was just about the end of their mating season so baby dolphins could be seen swimming next to their mothers while others did flips in the air before splashing into the water.

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From Kaikoura we drove up to Nelson stopping along the way to taste green-lipped mussels. Nelson is a middle to upper-middle class town so we did quite a bit of window shopping and touring around the city. This was where we had our first hiccup- a parking ticket, which we contested but were denied. After Nelson we went to a couple more wineries before heading to Abel Tasman National Park.

Throughout our journey Sandy and I noticed that there were so many fruit, vegetable, and flower stands in each town that we visited. What surprised us was that most of these were located on residential properties and worked on the honor system. Take a bundle of asparagus, leave $3 in the box. On one property we drove into a man’s vineyard up to his open garage, opened his freezer, took 2 kg of kiwi (kiwi fruit is expensive in Fiji so we were really excited about kiwi, ok!), and slid our $5 into a box nearby. The thought of people being so honest is heartening to imagine, but what impresses me is the widespread knowledge about gardening; the time and carefully spent energy used to tend to crop growth. It was a fond reminder of Fiji.

From Abel Tasman we headed towards Farewell Spit then drove over to the starting point of the trail to Cape Farewell. We hiked over to Wharariki Beach trudging through sand dunes before being able to get a stunning view of the coastline bordered by mounds of sea hills. It was a rainy, overcast morning like many we had previously experienced but the weather helped to cool us down from our hike. From there we headed in the direction of Nelson with plans in mind to make our way down the west coast before nightfall.

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45 minutes into our drive up a winding hill we heard a loud bang and smoke started coming from the engine. Sandy quickly pulled over to the side of the road and popped the hood. Puffs of smoke, the acrid scent of radiator coolant, shock mixed with a little bit of panic (you know, the our-car-broke-down-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-in-a-country-we-don’t-live-in-and-our-phones-don’t-work-Sandy-is-looking-at-me-I’m-looking-at-Sandy-I-think-I-just-peed-myself-a-little-bit kind of hot panic). Luckily a car full of friendly people pulled over to help us and let us use their phone. We contacted the rental car company, who gave us the contact information for AA, who sent out a mechanic (a sweet old man named Neville) who exchanged cars with us and directed us back to his shop in Motueka. He loaned us a car to use until he fixed ours and told us how to get to the nearest camp site, which turned out to be a decent but overpriced Holiday Top 10. I was so tense after the day that I went for a long run AND a swim in the pool before zoning out in front of Sandy’s computer watching multiple episodes of Game of Thrones. Two days stuck in Motueka and one radiator later, we were back on the road.

We made our way down the west coast from Wesport to the Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki then on down to the Franz Josef Glacier. We previously wanted to take a helicopter ride to the top of Franz Josef but once we got there we realized we didn’t have the time or the desire to spend money on it.

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After spending a night in Haast we drove to Queenstown where we enjoyed a Ferg Burger and fruity gelato before doing a bit of window shopping and city touring around the upscale city. Before heading back to our camp site we booked a one-day tour package that included a bus tour and a boat cruise through Milford Sound. We had both been doing a lot of driving so the thought of a day trip without having to get behind the wheel was definitely welcomed! The next day we woke up early for our trip and boarded the bus. It took us four hours to get to Te Anu, then another four to get to the dock where we boarded our cruise. Although the ride was long our tour driver stopped regularly to show us natural landmarks and took us to the Fjordlands National Park. The scenery of waterfalls and glacial rivers was breathtaking and the cruise through Milford Sound was stunning!

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Our bus drove into Queenstown just as the sun was setting at 9:20pm. Throughout the trip we remarked on how late the sunsets were but this one was by far the latest since we were so far south.

Early Friday morning we left Queenstown, skipping Invercargill since we were running short on time, and headed to Dunedin. After lunch, I visited the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, the Train Museum, and walked around the city. Sandy and I met back up and we hopped back into the car for our drive to see the Moeraki Boulders.

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Around 11:15 that night we cruised back into Christchurch, ending where we began. Overall it was a memorable trip! It’s easy to tell why adventure and nature lovers choose to visit the South Island. There’s so many activities to do and beautiful scenery that surrounds you. One thing we didn’t do that I wish we had was learning more about Maori culture. I’ve heard that there’s more cultural activities on the North Island so that could be an itinerary item for another trip!

Mid-Service Crisis

Mid-Service in Numbers:

25- People in my training class when we arrived in Fiji
22- People at Mid-Service Training
4- Pairs of beloved sandals that have either fallen apart or have been stolen by dogs (isa, Chacos!)
1- Indoor water heater
30- Gigabytes per month of internet
6- Average amount of house guests per month
3- Amount of times we’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to start a garden
1- Amount of times I hand wash laundry per week
2- Average amount of days it takes for hand washed laundry to dry (it rains a lot in Suva)
1- Neighborhood dog that I absolutely adore (Rex!!)
1- Neighborhood dog that I absolutely do not adore (A*hole dog)
3- Number of buses it takes me to get to work
2- Number of buses it takes me to get home from work
60- Average amount of minutes it takes me to get to work
75- Average amount of minutes it takes me to return home from work
$4.40- Cost to get to work per day
6- Nurses (4 zone nurses and 2 maternal/child nurses) at the health center with whom I work
3- Liters of water I drink daily
~2- Amount of times per day I have to remind myself how to write the date (day/month/year), or measure temperature (Celsius) and weight (Kilograms)
$8- Cheapest hostel I’ve stayed in
$32- Most expensive hostel I’ve stayed in
2- Mobile phones that have perished
24- Vacation days per year
10- Vacation days used in May (when my mom came to visit)
14- Vacation days that will be used during my trip to New Zealand (Nov 10-24)
2- Birthdays spent in Fiji so far
1- Skin condition (eczema)
1- Respiratory infection
1- Allergic reaction
1- Centipede bite
x- Countless mosquito bites
x- Countless incidences of diarrhea/constipation
4- Traditional Fijian sulu jabas that I own
1- Traditional Indian saris that I own
3- Average times per day I’m asked where I’m from (America), get skeptical looks, then asked where I’m from originally (the Caribbean)
2- Average times per day I’m encouraged to marry a Fijian or Indian while I’m here
4- Maximum amount of rotis that I can eat in one sitting
1- Major project that has failed miserably
1/5- Roll of toilet paper I carry around in my bag every day (bathrooms almost never have toilet paper!)
2- Amount of times I’ve seriously considered throwing in the towel and going home
x- Countless times I’ve thanked God for this experience

There’s a phenomenon in Peace Corps called the “mid-service crisis”. The mid-service crisis happens to volunteers who are halfway through their 27 month stint. We’ve made it through a year of working and living in a developing country but there’s still roughly a year left to go. A few of the hurdles that volunteers typically face are:
-Doubt about the program, role, self
-Reflection
-Disillusionment
-Lethargy/Apathy

Which of these am I currently experiencing? All of them. It’s been a productive year filled with highs and lows as far as work, hobbies, relationships, and life in general. Right now this volunteer is feeling more than a little burned out.

One of the suggestions for getting over the mid-service crisis is planning a vacation. I have always wanted to visit Australia or New Zealand so when another volunteer shared the same enthusiasm we began planning a trip! New Zealand quickly became the favorite of the two. In the past couple of months we’ve been researching all of the details… places we’d like to visit, modes of transportation, upcoming events in each city, talked to people who have travelled there, and purchased tickets! From November 10-24 we’ll be doing a camping trip around the South Island of New Zealand. We’ve got some pretty exciting things on our itinerary so I’m really looking forward to it!

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New Zealand here we come!

Congratulations Group 90!

“I, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.” -Peace Corps Oath of Service

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On November 1, 2013 the new group of Peace Corps Volunteers were officially sworn-in. After living in host villages for 7 weeks, passing their language exams, battling various types of skin/gastro/respiratory/etc. illnesses and infections that can only be found in a developing country, and integrating into Fijian lifestyle and customs they have made it to the first day of their 2 year service. Similar to our group, they are all under the CHEP (Community Health Empowerment Project) outline for promoting community health and wellness at sites on Viti Levu, Vanua Levu, Kadavu, and the outer islands of Fiji. Congratulations and good luck!

Happy Anniversary!

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Exactly one year ago I left the place I called home. I said final goodbyes to family, friends, and my dog to begin this adventure. Over the past year I’ve had the incredible luck to live, work, and grow here in Fiji; a life-changing experience I am so blessed to have. There have been ups, downs, high-highs and some really low lows. Cultural fopas have been made. Languages have been learned, forgotten, and (partially) re-learned. Relationships have been built and strengthened over time while others have suffered due to thousands of miles of distance. Idealism has been replaced by reality, and frustrations have been replaced by humor and a cold beer. And, just when I think I’ve seen it all, the sun sets over the ocean and I’m reminded of how beautiful life can be. I’m lucky to have experienced all of this and more with an incredible group of talented volunteers. We all came from different backgrounds but found commonalities within each other and used those as footholds to build lasting friendships. Here’s to another year of growth, friendships and new experiences. Vinaka vakalevu, Fiji!

August In Review

Oi lei! Time is so funny. Days seem to move by so slowly and yet here we are in a new month. Instead of writing out a long blog entry about how I spent August I thought I’d post a few pictures of what I’ve been up to for the past month, captions included below. Enjoy!

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-Visited Kula Eco Park with the students from Makoi Kindergarten. The purpose of the trip was to educate the students about the plants, animals and marine life in Fiji. It was an outstanding way to encourage the kids to gain interest in ecology. Afterwards, the students, teachers and chaperones had a picnic on the beach.

-Makoi Health Center launched the first Immunization Pamphlet in our division with leadership from nurses at the divisional and sub-divisional level, the combined efforts of the staff at the health center, and a pretty cool Peace Corps volunteer. It took us a few months to get it off the ground, but we finally had our big launch with the motto: Small Steps Big Effects. Since August was Breastfeeding Month demonstrations and counseling were provided for breastfeeding mothers. By December 2013 we’re projected to have 100% of the infants and children in our coverage area immunized. So great!

-As usual, I’ve been helping in the maternal/child health clinic and have been going out on outreach to the communities surrounding the health center. In the clinic, we’re working on developing a Meal Plan insert which details sample meals with ingredients and cooking directions so parents have a guide to healthy food options when preparing meals for their children. And, of course, health talks for days in the communities.

-Swimming lessons, Zumba fitness classes, running with Suva Hash Harriers, and leading aerobics classes at the health center. All ways I’ve been keeping physically active. Gotta practice what you preach!

-The annual Hibiscus Festival was held here in Suva at Albert Park. Hibiscus Festival is the largest festival held in Fiji. Thousands of people from all over Fiji turn up to the 7-day event to enjoy music, carnival rides, food, entertainment, cultural events, and various pageants. Ministries, embassies and local businesses also hosted tents throughout the grounds and the majority of the festivities were covered on major television networks. Let’s just say it was a big deal. I’m glad I got to experience it!

Hope everyone had an enjoyable August!

Hindu Fire Walking Ceremony

Ganesh, the God of wisdom, learning and the remover of obstacles

Ganesh, the God of wisdom, learning and the remover of obstacles

This past weekend I got to experience an interesting part of Hindu culture- fire walking!

Around midday on Saturday I hopped on a Sunbeam bus and headed roughly an hour south of Suva to a small town called Navua.  Every year the TISI Sangam Temple hosts a fire walking ceremony preceded by a one-week fast and various other religious rituals.  The rituals range from daily prayer, fasting from eating meat, celibacy and surviving on little sleep to more extreme forms of devotion like flagellation and skin piercings. I had previously heard of these South Indian ceremonies so when I was invited to attend by a fellow Peace Corps volunteer I jumped at the chance to experience it first hand.

When I arrived in Navua the town was in motion. The streets were crowded with people doing their Saturday shopping. Under the hot midday sun street vendors lined the roads selling produce. Teenagers lingered in the doorways of grocery stores and dance music pumped from speakers in the pool halls. Above all the bustle a constant drum beat could be heard from the temple in the distance.

When I arrived at the temple the first thing I saw was multiple piles of firewood arranged next to a large pit. I was immediately welcomed by two very lovely women, one was Fijian the other Indian. Although it is uncommon for Fijian women to practice the Hindu religion, as it’s usually only practiced by Indian women, she explained that her husband was Hindu so to respect him she converted from Christianity to Hinduism. One aspect of Fiji that I never get tired of is how warm and welcoming the people are. They knew that I was a foreigner so they took me under their wing. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these two women would be my guides, interpreters, cultural liaisons and caretakers for the weekend.

Throughout the day the participants prayed in 3 hour intervals. I happened to arrive in the middle of the afternoon prayer around 3pm. There were over 30 men, women, and children dressed in various shades of yellow and red chanting and singing. The women explained that the yellow and red colors symbolize the cleansing of physical and spiritual impurity. After their prayers finished they served a light vegetarian meal to everyone. There wasn’t much to do until the rituals resumed later that evening so one of the Indian women invited me to go home with her to meet her family, have dinner and relax. At her house I met her son and three daughters. One of her daughters liked watching vintage Bollywood movies so we spent the afternoon watching movies and talking. Turns out she is a nursing student at FSN (Fiji School of Nursing) in Suva. She knew where my health center was and said some of her friends were on rotation there. Small world! After dinner they helped me into my sari then got dressed themselves. We carefully made our way to the car and drove back to the temple for the night’s events.
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The energy at the temple was unreal. There were so many people packed into the makeshift seats surrounding the main building. Indian men stood in small, idle groups smoking cigarettes. Women sat socializing while trying to coral their excited children. I couldn’t get over how beautiful the women’s saris were. Red, purple, yellow, orange and green saris jeweled with sparkling rhinestones were wrapped elegantly around women young and old. There’s something so bold and gorgeous yet delicate about saris that makes women look stunning. A spicy aroma lingered in the air from the curry being cooked for the guests. Even though this was a religious event, the atmosphere felt more like a Saturday night party. A short while after arriving the rituals began.

 

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Musicians playing the drums and dancing before the Gods emerge from the temple

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Devotees line the temple and watch the singers and dancers. To be allowed to sit inside of the temple you had to fast from eating meat the previous week.
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Men dressed as the Hindu gods served as the object of the prayers. They led the rituals and were treated with reverence throughout the ceremonies.
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Each participant-men, women, and children- were subject to flagellation (whipping) done by the priest. To soften the fibers the rope was soaked in water for days, then dried. The priest wet the rope by dipping it into a bucket of water before each lash. He went easy on the smaller children but was noticeably more harsh with the grown men.
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A procession of participants and attendees led by the men dressed as Hindu gods circled the temple three times. The band of musicians followed while everyone chanted prayers and sang songs.
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As the people circled the temple they dropped offerings into the fire.
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Men say a prayer over a hole dug into the soil of the fire pit.
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An offering was placed into the hole and buried.
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The fire pit before it was covered. It is lined by the firewood that will be burned and used for fire walking the following day.
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Men work together to stack the firewood and start the fire.
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The fire burned from about 11pm Saturday night to 8am Sunday morning. Once all of the wood burned to ash it was left to smolder so additional prayers could be said. Afterwards, the ash was smoothed evenly over the entire pit.
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While the fire burned religious skits and dances were performed to entertain the crowd.
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Sunday morning, the final day of the ceremony, participants walked roughly 2km to the river where they bathed and prayed.
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Near the banks of the river they prepared the final offering.
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Priests pierced cheeks, tongues, ears, arms, backs and chests of participants with three-pronged skewers called Trishul. Participants also smeared yellow turmeric on their bodies as a symbol of prosperity and power over diseases.
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Fire walking, the final act of the ceremony. The participants made their way back from the river accompanied by music and chanting. When they arrived at the temple they were in a kind of spiritual trance, similar to when Christians become overwhelmed by the Holy Ghost. It is said that if fire walkers focus on the Divine Mother they wouldn’t feel the pain of the hot embers. Some men walked across alone. Others walked with small children in their arms. All were praying for blessings.
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I spy a Peace Corps volunteer ;)

After I said goodbye to my friends I eventually made my way back to Suva. When I got home my roommate asked, “So how was it?” and I had to pause for a moment before answering. I was glad that I got the opportunity to experience this part of Hinduism, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the more extreme acts of self-inflicted pain. There were some parts that were hard to watch without grimacing or casually (so not to offend) looking away.

When I researched it a little more I was able to get a better understanding of why inflicting pain was involved in the ceremony. Suffering for Hindus is related to the concept of karma; that any good or bad action in this life will lead to either punishment or reward in the next life. They believe that enduring pain negates any bad thoughts or actions they have committed. Also, it is part of their spiritual growth to overcome pain through intense devotion. During the ceremony, I asked one of the women why people chose to do this. She said that some people did it every year, some did it only when they needed a blessing or wanted to seek forgiveness, and others have never done it and don’t plan to. Like most religious ceremonies, this ritual was borne from a longing to connect with God. What makes it even more sacred was the extreme lengths participants underwent to make that connection.

So, how did I answer my roommates question? “Interesting. My weekend was very interesting.”

Fiji in the Forties and Fifties

Recently, the Fiji Museum began exhibiting photographs of Fiji from the 1940s-50s. As a current volunteer living and working here, I think it’s important to have an understanding of the history of Fiji. Granted, I’m not a history buff but I do enjoy learning about the past in Fiji because it helps put Fijian culture and lifestyle into context, especially regarding Fiji’s current health statistics.

These images were captured by Robertson Wright years before Peace Corps entered Fiji in 1968. Mr Wright was influential in establishing the Government’s Public Relation Office Photographic Unit in the 1940s and worked as a Government Photographer. A majority of his photographs are now with the National Archives of Fiji.

Robertson Ramsay Wright

Robertson Ramsay Wright

Robertson Ramsay Wright, MBE, was born in Sigatoka in 1906. He served in that office until he retired in 1969. In 1963, the Pacific Islands Monthly called him the South Pacific’s best known photographer, and Encyclopaedia Britannica selected two of his pictures to appear among the ‘Best Two Hundred Press Pictures of the Decade’. Rob Wright died in Suva in 1976.

April 1944. A live-shoot training exercise to familiarize soldiers with what real warfare would be like.

April 1944. A live-shoot training exercise to familiarize soldiers with what real warfare would be like.

This photograph is captioned “Yaqona at ‘C’ Coy HQ Yang Peng, Malaya, 8 August 1953″. It shows how communication between senior officers and men can be achieved in the Fiji Military Forces. The two senior officers in the photograph are Lt. Col. Ratu Penaia K. Ganilau and Major Josefa George.

Former members of the 1st Battalion FIR in Suva in 1954, recalling the good times as well as absent friends at their annual April 13 reunion. This was the anniversary of their 1943 embarkation on the ship “President Hayes” bound for combat in the Solomon Islands. Both 1st Battalion and 3rd Battalion FIR made a practice of holding annual reunions, the latter unit choosing June 23 to commemorate the death in action of Corporal Sukanaivalu, VC.

Former members of the 1st Battalion FIR in Suva in 1954, recalling the good times as well as absent friends at their annual April 13 reunion. This was the anniversary of their 1943 embarkation on the ship “President Hayes” bound for combat in the Solomon Islands. Both 1st Battalion and 3rd Battalion FIR made a practice of holding annual reunions, the latter unit choosing June 23 to commemorate the death in action of Corporal Sukanaivalu, VC.

Joy is evident on the face of a Fijian soldier returning to his beloved land in June 1956 after service in Malaya where his unit, 1st Battalion FIR, played an important part in the defeat of the Communist insurrection.

Joy is evident on the face of a Fijian soldier returning to his beloved land in June 1956 after service in Malaya where his unit, 1st Battalion FIR, played an important part in the defeat of the Communist insurrection.

1st Battalion FIR marching along Victoria Parade, Suva, after disembarkation from the ship “Devonshire”. The battalion is led by its Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Ratu Penaia K. Ganilau.

1st Battalion FIR marching along Victoria Parade, Suva, after disembarkation from the ship “Devonshire”. The battalion is led by its Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Ratu Penaia K. Ganilau.

1957 Hibiscus Festival “soapbox derby” in which young children competed, racing their home-made trolleys down Cakobau Rd. The photograph shows Robert Thurley Jnr (left), neck and neck with Lawrence Ah Sam.

The Fijian Banana Venture flourished in the 1940 and 1950s. Bananas were grown on fertile soil close to the Wainibuka, Wainimala and Waidina Rivers on Viti Levu. They were transported to packing centres on bilibili rafts made of lengths of bamboo tied together. Bilibili were affectionately known as “HMS No-come-back” because they never return upriver, as supplies were plentiful. Bananas were packed into boxes and exported to New Zealand monthly aboard the Matua and Tofua.

A typical village store, 1951.

A typical village store, 1951.

Vatukoula gold mine.

Vatukoula gold mine.

One of the old steam locomotives that were used to haul trucks full of cane from field to mill in the sugar districts of Fiji. This particular train was destined for Lautoka mill, September 1954.

One of the old steam locomotives that were used to haul trucks full of cane from field to mill in the sugar districts of Fiji. This particular train was destined for Lautoka mill, September 1954.

The sacks shown in this 1950 photographed contained copra being shipped on the trading vessel Komaiwai. A mill in Suva converted copra into coconut oil for export.

The sacks shown in this 1950 photographed contained copra being shipped on the trading vessel Komaiwai. A mill in Suva converted copra into coconut oil for export.

This picture shows a group of young women during a function in Nadi in 1959.

This picture shows a group of young women during a function in Nadi in 1959.

A primitive and, from a land-erosion point of view, undesirable form of transport in rural areas of the dry zones in Fiji; the gazita. This photo was taken in Ba valley on Viti Levu in September 1955.

A primitive and, from a land-erosion point of view, undesirable form of transport in rural areas of the dry zones in Fiji; the gazita. This photo was taken in Ba valley on Viti Levu in September 1955.

Source: Fiji Museum