By Cath Taylor

Visiting Fiji these holidays? Think of the children

October 5th, 2017

“Palangi!” they cry gleefully, waving the bananas we’ve slid to them through the window and peering in at us as though we’re some exotic species, which I guess we are. This is the far north of rural Fiji – no resort-wear here – and these kids have little English and even less contact with white people. “Palangi!”

Not sure how I feel about being referred to as ‘lightning from the gates of heaven’ (direct translation) or simply ‘white man’. We’re here to chat with two widows who lost their homes in Cyclone Winston, but it’s the kids who have my heart on this occasion. Three girls, one clearly the ringleader. I get out of the car and she approaches boldly, grabs my hand. When I fail to understand her entirely obvious commands, she resorts to the standard fallback: speaks louder.

“Sorry little mate,” I tell her. “I only speak English. Speak any English? What’s your name? I’m Cath.”

The three of them dissolve into laughter, look at one another in bemusement. I’m alien. I’m hilarious. We high five. We slap palms. We scramble up the hill, words chasing each other like dogs, yapping happily with good intention if little comprehension. They show me their house (= tin, tiny, rebuilt after Cyclone Winston with the help of Australian Aid) and they cheekily try to get inside another; they pick me the tiniest, most fragile mango and let me meet their cat. By the time the others finish interviewing we’re best buds, which is good because in about twenty minutes (there’s no delicate way to put this) I’m going to blow up one of their toilets with the gastro I’ve picked up in Tuvalu while they hammer on the door outside and yell “PALANGI!”

It’s not relaxing. And then we’ll all take a very happy selfie.

90% of kids in Fiji attend school through to Year 6, but the future becomes a lot less certain after that. Many will work in tourism – it’s the country’s number one industry – but there are long-term concerns that also cry “Attention please!” Like how does a growing population support itself when the climate is changing and food is difficult to grow?  And that same changing climate is eating away at the edges of the land, displacing communities and putting pressure on limited employment in the cities?  What’s the future for these island kids?

We roll into Rakiraki District School while it’s in full swing – two classes in a white tent with a view I reckon would tempt even the most dedicated scholar. During last year’s Cyclone, a couple of Rakiraki’s classrooms were lifted from their foundations and dumped on the mountain behind the rest of the school. The result is Year 2 and 3 sharing a tiny classroom with the school library thrown in for extra value.

When their homes were smashed 18 months ago, many people left the area in desperation, following a trend that sees rural people move to Suva and other urban areas in search of work. Too often their hopes are dashed and they end up in crowded, “temporary” urban squatter settlements where electricity supplies are limited, housing is crowded and sanitation almost non-existent. Cue poverty cycle.

So what’s the long-term plan for these kids, these three giving me the thumbs up as we wave from our car? Part of the work of the local church is alongside people figuring out how they can thrive in these stunning valleys, long term. A changing climate means they face increasing threats not only from storms but from droughts – their land has become hostile where once it welcomed them with open arms. They’re losing the art of growing enough to live on and to sell to the city; their whole villages need to be rebuilt bearing in mind the fangs of monsters like Winston. Fiji needs these kids to stay here and bring back what the earth can provide, steering well clear of the cities because it’s not where they belong and only poverty awaits. They need to stay connected to home and land.

With that in mind, I’m chuffed about the roster of carers for the school garden: Marco, Joseph, Helen and Feve. I step daintily between rows of beans and taro, cabbage and spinach. The local church runs workshops for teachers about caring for the soil, improving the land; local men and women are taught how to sow the best vegetables and fruits for the changing climate. Their goal is to improve their crops, their livelihoods, their chances of staying here instead of drifting away in search of empty promises.

The children.

You meet them and their faces stay with you. It’s not a matter of sending them pencils, discarded clothes or schoolbooks. It’s about supporting their own people to pass on the skills that will give them a future, in the place they love, on the land they call home. It’s about investing in them before disaster strikes, not picking up the pieces later. It’s about thinking long term, smart and strategic – not reacting emotionally in the wake of cyclone and storm, understandable as those responses might be.

It’s the only thing that will really make a difference. I’m pretty chuffed to be part of it.

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