Somehow, a lot of time has passed since my last blog post. I would blame “island time,” that curious slowing of the passage of time that tends to occur in the South Pacific, but it would be disingenuous. The fact is that Michelle and I have been so busy that I just simply haven’t taken time to write. You may be asking yourself, “what exactly do Peace Corps Volunteers do that could possibly keep them so busy?” Well, here ya go…
Day to day living takes up a lot of time in the Peace Corps. When the dishwasher stops working I can’t just call a repairman, mostly because Michelle wouldn’t appreciate it if some stranger showed up at the house and started using a screwdriver and a crescent wrench to poke around on her. Like most of the rest of the world’s population, we don’t have fancy electrical appliances to assist in daily chores. Thus, a lot of our time is spent doing by hand chores that folks in the U.S. just push a button to achieve, including laundry and dishes. Additionally, we generally don’t have the convenience of the pre-packaged foods available in the U.S. You won’t find “salad in a bag” in Fiji or sometimes even something as ubiquitous in the U.S. as jarred pasta sauce. And the closest thing we’ve got to a microwave is the heat generated by the tin roof in our kitchen in the hot season, although with the humidity I’m pretty sure you could cook a pot of dry rice on the counter without adding any water during that time.
Furthermore, unlike in the U.S., we don’t have a convenience store on every corner if we need something like milk, butter, or an onion. Our nearest markets are an hour and fifteen minutes by bus and the selections, as I noted previously, generally don’t rise to Western standards. So we have to plan our food and meals carefully, which takes time. You don’t want to store so much food that you just end up feeding the weevils and rats, but you also at least want enough that you don’t find yourself eating oatmeal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner until the next time you can get to town. So planning is important. Add to that the time that I spend catching fish (time I don’t mind spending, but time, nonetheless) as well as tending the garden, and the simple act of survival seems to take up most of our days. In any event, a good portion of our time is dedicated to preparing and cooking meals, chores, and miscellaneous repairs or other projects.
However, looking back over the past six months we’ve accomplished a lot in addition to simply surviving. In retrospect, it seems like we’ve been working non-stop on a number of projects and, at times, feel as though we work harder here than we do in the U.S. It has been challenging, frustrating, and rewarding at various times. Our projects have ranged from the small and routine to the complex and sophisticated, including everything from helping design a Village Development Plan to establishing income generation projects. Nonetheless, at one year into our service, we feel like we have contributed a lot to the well being of the village and its people.
The Village Development Plan (VDP) was a huge undertaking…and probably one of the most important things that we did. Many villages in Fiji have a VDP, but most of those plans are no more substantive than what a 6 year old would send Santa Claus come December…nothing more than a wish list. As facilitators, we actually sat down with village leaders over the course of six meetings and helped them work through priorities and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different projects. We helped them create a vision statement, organize and prioritize all the projects, justify the priorities, and develop brief timelines for the top 5 proposed projects. In the end, the village had a long-term, comprehensive plan that they could be really proud of that showed the level of thought and consideration put into each proposed project. Each future project we took on as volunteers extended from that plan, but the plan also provides the guideposts for the village after we leave. More importantly, each time village leaders meet with a government minister or NGO they can hand the document over with pride knowing that they’ve done a lot of the difficult planning preparation for a brighter future in the village.
One of the first projects I took on at the request of the village was to help them set up a well-managed marine protected area. Marine protected areas (MPAs), or “Tabu Areas” as they are known in Fiji, have been used traditionally in Fiji for millennia. However, traditionally the Tabu Areas were unilaterally put in place by a chief and generally only for short periods of 100 days in association with a ceremonial event like a funeral. But one thing that the very observant Fijians noticed about Tabu’s is that, in terms of producing more fish in the protected area, they work. There was no need for me to even cite the science that proved it; they had seen it with their own eyes. The villagers knew my background in managing fisheries and asked me to help them set up a Tabu Area that better met the needs of the people than the one the chief had unilaterally put in place that disenfranchised most of the people. So I set about helping the village to design an MPA that would balance the needs of the people living nearby with the needs of the environment.
Over several months we did some research, a lot of outreach, and drew some maps. We had several meetings and got the local authorities involved as well. In the end, we created a Tabu Area that the people designed and agreed upon based on well-founded criteria established by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of the South Pacific (USP). After months of work and outreach, we held a ceremony in the village to dedicate the Tabu Area that even included a blessing by the High Minister of the Methodist Church. Most importantly, we’ve started to see the impacts of having the Tabu Area in place with many of the locals, including myself, increasing our catches out on the reef in the open areas.
I also helped the village start a community based tree nursery to grow sandalwood, locally known as “yasi”, as an income generation project. Initially, I worked with one of the villagers to write a proposal to get professional nursery materials provided by the Department of Forestry. After repeated attempts to prompt action on the proposal, it was clear that the project was going nowhere, so we changed strategy and asked simply for a workshop to be conducted by the Department on how to plant and care for yasi trees. Several phone calls and personal meetings in Labasa and Suva later, I finally got them to commit to coming to the village for the workshop. I actually did very little to get the project off the ground. Once the workshop occurred, the village took the initiative to build a nursery using locally available materials. When the Department officials returned a couple of weeks later to do a soil mixing and seed preparation workshop, they were stunned with the amount of work that the village had put into building a nursery out of natural materials found around the village. We got some great press coverage as a result in the Fiji Times. This is exactly what you want as a Peace Corps Volunteer…you provide the spark and they fan the flame and build the fire…
Michelle has also done a lot in the village. She has singlehandedly helped the village put together what will ultimately be the only community based virgin coconut oil business in all the South Pacific. The idea started with a visit Michelle made to Fiji back in 2003, when she was introduced to virgin coconut oil. In Alaska’s cold and dry climate, it was one of the only things she found useful in combating dry skin. With a little research, she also discovered a myriad of health benefits associated with VCO, including antifungal and antiviral properties. So when we arrived in our village and discovered acres of surrounding coconuts, she suggested VCO as a potential health/women’s empowerment/business project. After learning how to make VCO herself, Michelle taught three of the village ladies how make VCO using materials they already had on hand. Those three ladies went on to teach the other ladies in the village how to make VCO. Again, it’s exactly what you hope to see as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Seven months later, Michelle has organized the village businesses (including copra and the yasi nursery) into a federally registered cooperative, established savings accounts for the women in the cooperative (many for the first time in their lives), and helped the village secure funding for a small VCO factory to scale up production and potentially start exporting a superior product abroad (place your orders now, folks!). In just six months, the ladies have made over $7000FJD, which is HUGE in a village. Furthermore, proceeds from the VCO project were used to build a community copra dryer to support better income from that source. In addition to the VCO project being a sustainable source of income for a village that had very limited opportunities in the past, the project has been an enormous source of pride with many people throughout Fiji taking notice. It has boosted the women’s self-confidence and is a source of optimism for the future. Moreover, the factory will serve as a model and training facility for other communities in Fiji. What she has achieved in this short time with the VCO project is nothing short of incredible.
All that said, some of our greatest personal triumphs have been the small things. For me it was when one of the young men I had been working with, Elima Rabuli, came to Michelle and I and told us how proud he was that he had completed an 8-week life skills training and hospitality training course he had sought out of his own volition…and then proceeded to tell us how we helped inspire him to do so. For Michelle, it was when she took one of the local women, Timaima Serakula (Kula), to do a presentation on VCO at a local resort. Kula was terrified and told Michelle that she “prayed and prayed” that she would not make a mistake. After the presentation the attendants (most of whom were American, Aussie, or Kiwi) all went to Kula and thanked her for the presentation and the great job that she did (and proceeded to buy about $150 of VCO!). Kula was simply glowing after this and it was clear that she had found a new confidence within herself that was not there before. In the end, it is the people of Wailevu Village that have made everything about our experience special. The people and their ability to come together represent the main reason we can consider our experience successful so far.
Somewhere in all the previously described craziness, we managed to visit Tonga and swim with humpback whales, travel to the Yasawa island chain and help another volunteer with his projects, dive uncaged with bull sharks…twice…, and swim with dolphins (all subjects of future blogs/videos). Yes, it’s been a busy year, so I hope that you’ll forgive my absence from the blogiverse!