Through the thick and thin, and the challenges and set backs, sometimes it is hard to truly appreciate the opportunities and experiences I have in front of me; however, sometimes, I experience an extremely meaningful day that makes me realize just how lucky I am. It is days like this that remind me why I became a Peace Corps Volunteer in the beginning.
On Wednesday, my head teacher, Master Selo, asked me to accompany him on a trip up to Yasawa north (Nacula district) to speak with members of the Fijian Teachers Association and to assess damage to their property as a result of Tropical Cyclone Winston. As an area representative for this union, he aimed to assist members with the submission of their claim forms in order to receive financial support to replace ruined and lost belongings. I was given the job of photographer.
Throughout the day, we visited seven different primary schools and two different high schools. We started at the top in Nacula, a beautiful island that is home to many white sandy beaches and resorts. Slowly, between cups of tea and offers of lunch, we worked our way back down towards Waya Island. In some areas, especially Naviti District, the destruction was jaw dropping. At each site, I tried to imagine what it would’ve been like to be there during the storm. In many cases, it was terrifying to picture the force of the storm. All the teachers and villagers that I spoke with about the night of Winston stated that kava was mixed and a grog session took place during the 170 mile an hour winds. Only in Fiji!
The head teacher in the village of Gunu, Naviti Island, told the most frightening story. Their school, village, and teacher’s quarters were severely damaged (practically demolished) by this tropical cyclone. Their kava session commenced at about 9pm on Saturday and about an hour into it, the winds started to pick up. All of the sudden, the roof blew off the house. As they’d chosen a cement house, the one they thought to be the strongest, the damage to the roof sparked a panic in the room. Knowing they weren’t safe anymore in their current location, the teachers were forced to devise a plan. As the wind whipped around and roofing iron flew by them, they slowly crawled on hands and knees with the kava bowl and all their children to the shelter of another concrete house on the opposite side of the compound. Luckily, they made it to safety with no serious injuries; however, they were given no mercy even after the storm passed. The rain continued for four days. They were running out of food, soaked to the bone, cold, and homeless. With all contact still down, they had no choice but to make the four-hour trip in a small rickety village boat to the mainland. The gigantic waves proved that the storm still claimed a strong presence in the South Pacific. The head teacher told me the voyage was risky and horrifying but necessary. Thankful, all made it safely to the wharf in Lautoka!
The head teacher of Gunu apologized for us having to view his school “in such a state.” I could tell he felt genuinely bad as if he were personally responsible for the destruction caused by Winston. As a formal apology, he declared that we would mix and drink a bowl of kava before we would be dismissed to continue the remainder of our visits. During this kava session, I discovered that this head teacher was originally from the island of Koro. A small outer island that experienced a tsunami in addition to a direct hit from Winston. Due to this double tragedy, only a handful of structures were left standing on the entire island and a high number of deaths were recorded. I learned that his family was “mostly fine” although they had lost everything. After stating this, he told me that his aunty wasn’t as lucky. During the storm, she had been cut at the waist by a piece of roofing iron and bleed to death. Being in the presence of his destroyed school and hearing the stories of his family made me sick to the stomach- and here he was apologizing to me for the esthetic condition of his school.
You may be asking yourself how did this day remind me that I am lucky to be in Fiji and that this is a selfish feeling considering the destruction I witnessed first hand. True, I sat in the presence of a small developing island country that was at the mercy of an extremely powerful, unpredictable, and heartless storm conjured up largely due to climate change, and I can tell you first hand, the residence of Fiji are innocently living off the land and practicing more of a “green” lifestyle than many people at home can even fathom; however, said view of the situation is through a negative and realist lens, a perspective Fijians simply don’t use. Therefore, I revealed in the lesson I was living. My Fijian friends who I sat with held their heads high, laughed at the jokes they heard, and seemed shockingly positive. Rather than mourning the loss of their homes and all their material objects, they were remembering those who died and celebrating the victories of their own lives. It was an incredibly humbling experience to see their hopeful expressions after having been hit by the brunt of the disaster.
It was an amazing day because of the people I met, the hopeful stories I was told, the optimistic looks I received, and the reassuring attitudes shared by all. I was humbled but also felt a tinge of guilt due to their generous during this time of distress. Overall this day, strengthened and reassured my love for Fiji and its’ people. I am proud and honored to have spent so much time with some of the strongest, most resilient, unpretentious people in the world. Fijians are incredible people who are undoubtedly #strongerthanwinston.
Just an update on fundraising…
Thank you to all of you who have made donations! Your contribution, no matter the size, is extremely helpful in this time of need. My cousin, Amy, reached out to me stating she wants to send seeds to my village, school, and youth group so we can replant our gardens. I thought this was a great and sustainable idea, so I am sharing it with you all! We have very hot and dry weather. Some of the produce we have been successful with in the past are tomatoes, pumpkin, watermelon, cilantro, cucumber, lettuce and long beans. If you are interested, any seeds can be sent to me at :
C/O Cherie Simpson
Lautoka Post LTD
Lautoka City, Fiji
Again, thank you for your support and consideration!