Monday, February 06, 2006

American Peace Corp volunteer in Labasa

from Wendy
I was interested to find a posting by a vavalagi (European - beige-coloured person) who spent time working in the Labasa Commissioner's Office. She wrote it on a Peace Corp site so I hope that copyright isn't a problem for me to put it here! But it does give a different view of my husband's home town.
From a Peace Corp volunteer in Labasa
Janessa Stream aged 23 a 2003 graduate of Barnard College.

Copyright © 2004 The Hoopeston Chronicle
308 E. Main Street, Hoopeston, Ill. 60942-0190

Ten months of Fiji - on Fiji Time.

Life in Fiji is by no means easy. I find my present life in Labasa starkly different than I had expected when I came to Fiji last September. Having spent the formative months, the first half year, of my Fiji days in a village on Viti Levu and splitting time on the island of Taveuni between a government outpost and more remote villages, Labasa, with its dusty streets swelling on Saturdays as Fijians ride in on the buses for buying, selling, and socializing, seems like a foreign land. I work in an office. I can't see the sea. Some days it's a wonder that this is Fiji at all.

I find myself thinking that I don't know what this place was like for volunteers of Fiji past. Peace Crops left Fiji in 1998, deeming the country "graduated" from the program. Then the coup in 2000, and things changed. The country fell apart. Peace Corps is back.

I don't know what Fiji meant to former volunteers. I see Fiji today as strung out on the line between in the past, whatever that means, and the development it hopes will come. My job is to try and help bridge this gap... And that between rich and poor. Between rural and urban. And young and old, and Indian and Fijians.

I have guesses at who they are. Which village they lived in. How excellent their Hindustani for Fijian was (is?). I've heard the stories about them. Who repairs cars and rides horses and taught math and was the fastest man in Labasa and drank grog like a fish (and even liked it). some days, I feel the vestiges of that Peace Crops past lingering in the Fijian consciousness. I'm saddened that the tradition was severed. I wonder what Fiji was because I only see what it is. I imagine that my life - living and working in a degree of modernity - is different than their experience.

Some days have gone so quickly and I fall into bed amazed at what I have accomplished. More often, though, I itch to continue with the day, to achieve something, to have a product to show for all of my work. In some ways, this article is a product of what I have been doing. In some ways, the itching is just bed bugs.

Some days I come to work at 8:00 a.m., on time. At the Office of the Commissioner Northern Division on Labasa, I have my own office, set aside for disaster preparedness and mitigation. That's my job, to prepare the people of the Northern Division for disasters, and teach them how to manage them.

Often, however, my job is on hold for lack of some "necessary" component: computer, data, funding, interest groups. While waiting for whatever obstacle to end the roadblock of my progress, I apply for grants to obtain funding for a disaster management program in the North. I also run workshops for various ministries. Last week it was a three-day program for the Volunteer Youth Corps at the Ministry of Youth, Employment Opportunities and Sports.

Some days I come to work later, around 11:00 a.m. These are days I have meetings with the Labasa Town Council, Public Works Department, the Ministry of Health or Education. I have only been in Labasa for three months, because I moved from my original placement, in Taveuni, after three months at site. I am therefore in high-gear networking and trying to assemble information and resources for disaster work or secondary projects.

Two or three days a week, with another volunteer in Labasa, I coach the Labasa Town Swim Team, which we formed in June. Two dozen swimmers. Tireless high schoolers. Half Indo-Fijian and half Fijian, half girls and half boys. We lack lane lines, goggles, suits, any and all equipment, but the swimmers are excited and motivated. The team shows great promise. I spend a good deal of my free time writing sponsorship letters to corporations and designing "exciting" practices for kids who have never swam competitively.

Some days I wonder why I even stay here. Those are the days I question my purpose in Fiji. My job. Integration. Cross-cultural exchange. Some days I doubt my language skills. Those are the days I chose to remain silent. Some days, meetings happen four hours late (Fiji time!), disaster management takes second priority to sugarcane roads and cement mixers. There are days when I think I can no longer tolerate the heat, the curry, the waiting, the cold showers, the bugs.

Some days, the sun shines so clearly in the sky. It's not so hot. I get a phone call from a contact requesting a workshop. The $0.60 roti parcel actually tastes good (and fresh!). The friendly Bulas and Ramrams on the street, at work, or in the market, make me smile widely - both outwardly and inwardly.

Some days, it all lines up.

I hope today is some day.

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