The road to rebuilding Nayavutoka
September 11, 2017
Corrugated iron strewn across lush green bush, snapped limbs hanging from trees, roads so jagged with potholes you can’t hear yourself think as you drive along the long winding road to Nayavutoka – all tell-tale signs that Tropical Cyclone Winston was here.
Devastatingly beautiful, the once prosperous coastal village was one of the worst hit by the Category 5 cyclone that ravaged Fiji on February 20 last year. The storm was the most intense to make landfall in the South Pacific’s recorded history, with maximum average wind speeds reaching 233kmph.
Isolated in the northern province of Ra, it was one week before Nayavutoka was accessed by the outside world, with broken bridges and impassable roads preventing help from reaching those who needed it most. All but two homes were completely destroyed, two villagers lost their lives, and possessions and livelihoods were swept away.
Mother-of-three Emele Bitaki remembers that night all too well. Her smile faded as she recalled having dinner with her family when Winston hit. The windows in her home blew out, the roof was ripped off, the floors flooded. By the time the cyclone had ravaged her village and passed on, her friends and neighbours were huddling together with her in the only rooms left standing in her house. She was eight months pregnant, her children were freezing cold and there was no food or clean water. She prayed: “God help us.”
Seventeen months later, Bitaki and her fellow villagers are still trying to rebuild their lives. Through sheer resilience and resourcefulness, they have managed to keep their families fed, their children in schools and their crops replanted. All while they continue to rebuild their homes and farms with the help of local and international non-governmental organisations such as OXFAM and FRIEND.
Homegrown initiative FRIEND, The Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises and Development, was the first organisation to get to Nayavutoka. Associate Director Dr Jone Hawea said it had initially intended to provide support to the villages closest to their base in Lautoka, but further north it became clear where their help was needed most.
“After Winston, as we went from Lautoka to the Ra province, the devastation we saw just worsened as we went. When we went to those communities we realised that was ground zero, that was the worst hit.”
Lack of financial backing prevented FRIEND from assisting right then and there, but fortunately it was able to mobilise funds for temporary shelters with help from the Fijian diaspora and US Aid.
“With that funding we were to do climate change adaptation activities. We proposed sustainable agriculture, food preservation and food processing as a means to adapt to climate change.”
FRIEND initially thought it would work on the project around Ba and Tavua, but after Winston realised the Nayavutoka area was where it was needed most.
“All we have to do now is match what they can do to the activities that we had proposed, and bring the assistance to them.”
Training villagers on international standards of organic agriculture is one of the ways FRIEND is helping empower farmers to sustainably grow their businesses. It provides an opportunity for them to slowly make the transition from subsistence farming to small commercial suppliers.
“Most of our farmers and rural suppliers don’t operate on a commercial basis, they have a subsistence way of supplying – when they have surplus they take it to the market or sell it by the roadside.
“But more and more, the demand has been put on them to supply the booming tourism industry. But they are not able to meet market demand so that’s where FRIEND has come in, to try and develop a model. And we have to develop a market ourselves.”
Once the villages are able to supply fresh produce, local flavours will be fused with traditional cuisine and served at FRIEND headquarters’ soon-to-be restaurant, part of the business arm they hope will help make them fully sustainable and donor independent.
“Donors come with their agendas and sometimes these agendas do not align with the way our communities are set up, with our traditions, with our culture and with our social structures and makeup.”
Originally set up to alleviate poverty in 2001, FRIEND realised early on that this was not an isolated issue. So tackling social, economic and health issues in a holistic way became its approach, transforming its headquarters into a health and community hub.
FRIEND will continue to work with villages like Nayavutoka until they are ready to move forward in their own way, at their own pace and on their own terms, empowering their people and enriching their already strong Fijian spirit.
“It shows how much resilience is in our people. That smile has never gone away, from TC Winston to today people are still smiling.”
For more information visit friendfiji.com
– as published in Mai Life Magazine