The Rotary Club, Broadbeach and Shanti Yoga invited its members and friends to volunteer their time and efforts in Fiji this year. We arrived in Nadi, Fiji for an 11 day mission of service.
The first port of call was Koroipita. Koroipita is an ongoing Rotahomes project to build low cost housing to alleviate subhuman living conditions for impoverished families. Rotarians and Rotaractors, working together with local community members have built 231 homes at Koroipita community, Lautoka, Fiji which have given people an opportunity to break free from the cycle of poverty and provide an improved quality of life for them and their children. With two distinct areas of focus, namely to provide cyclone proof homes and a comprehensive community development program, progress to date has involved the construction of simple, timber framed and steel clad homes, each with a kitchen, shower and toilet block.
We took the F$1 bus from Denarau island to Nadi market, and from there the F$3 airconditioned bus to Lautoka where we were met by Peter Drysdale, Project Manager, who toured us around. Also accompanying us was Tom, a peace-core volunteer from the United States. While we were there, the Sewerage Treatment System for the Northern end was being dug out, which will enable 33 more families (out of the 1400+ applications from homeless families i.e. 6300 people on a waiting list prior to Cyclone Winston) to be housed. Building of this model town continues to Stage 3, to provide a solution to the endless cycle of destruction. Fiji now needs 20 such model towns. Three funding partners are involved, namely Rotary, New Zealand Aid Projects and the Fiji Government. The next Koroipita volunteer opportuny will be coming up in 2017.
However, overshadowing the Koropita project was the urgency to alleviate the immediate needs of a number of people in the archipelago nation of more than 300 islands after Cyclone Winston tore across the South Pacific. There are fewer than a million people living in Fiji, spread out on islands thousands of square miles apart. It was the worst storm recorded in the southern hemisphere, which forced people from their houses, had tens of thousands of people in Fiji living in evacuation centres. One hundred and thirty-four schools were destroyed, severely damaged or used as evacuation centres and forty-four people died. A huge tidal surge, up to four metres high, compounded the losses for many villagers.
On our visit to the Ramakrishna Mission Centre in Nadi, Swami Vedanishtanandaji told us that even though the storm peaked on 20 February, there were still a vast number of people in the interior needing help, as the most powerful storm to make landfall in the southern hemisphere, smashed and wiped out their schools, houses, churches, roads and local food crops. Friends in New Zealand had sent four containers of clothes, footwear, bedding, crockery and household goods which needed sorting and delivery into the remote areas. So helping the Ramakrishna Mission fulfil its obligation became our mission. With two, fully packed, from roof to floor, front to back, 5- tonne, fully enclosed monster trucks, one sponsored by local Fiji business owners, Jack’s, and the other by Rotary, Broadbeach, 10 of us, including Swamiji, left from Nadi and drove the 3 hours to Vatuseki Yasawa village, beyond Rakiraki. Even two months after cyclone Winston, we passed homes that still had roofs and walls missing, and people still in tents, revealing the scale of damage, and the huge rebuilding task ahead.
Here the local villagers helped unload the gigantic truck, forming two human chains of 14 people from truck to the hall. Whilst this was happening, we met some of those who were among the hardest hit and listened to their incredible tales of survival. For many of them, it took a few hours to lose everything, including family and friends. Roofs and verandahs were blown away, then the outer walls collapsed. Molly, an older woman was just left with the concrete floor. Her entire home had been lifted. Desperately trying to hold onto two infants when her house literally disappeared, she cried as she spoke. A rubbish bag blew out of the truck, Ceily was happy to claim it. A pair of socks fell out of one of the bags, Mary was grateful to pick them up. After the truck had been emptied, the villagers gathered in the hall and sat around for the presentation. Swamiji introduced us as their friends in Australia, and Rajesh and Kala Solanki, their Indian-Fijian friends, explained where the gifts were from, and gave the villagers an encouraging talk. Peter also said a few words. The reciprocal talk was indeed moving… explaining that they had nothing to give in return, except their sincere thanks, prayers and good wishes from their faith in God Almighty.
We then farewelled them, and took off with the next truck for the village on Malaka Island. The truck was parked on a small, rocky slope at the water’s edge, that served as a ramp, where we loaded three long boats that headed off to the Malake village, which had no jetty, and access was achieved by wading into shore to unload the boat at the other end.
A drop in the ocean, yet, mission accomplished. Swami Vivekananda reminded us: “This life is short, the vanities of the world are transient, but they alone live who live for others, the rest are more dead than alive."
Cyclone Winston may have taken villagers’ homes and possessions, but not their large hearts. Even in the midst of devastation, loss and crises, they sing and pray for better days, and thank God that they are alive. With their characteristic spirit and resilience, the Fijians have humbly shown the world how to just go about rebuilding their lives.
For me, it was a humbling experience, in keeping with Winston S. Churchill’s statement, who reminded us: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”