Walking in Fiji post-Tropical Cyclone Winston.
On the 20th of February, less than a week after Fiji became the very first nation to ratify the Paris Agreement, Tropical Cyclone Winston tore through my beloved Fiji. Eight days later, 350.org Fiji Coordinator, George Nacewa, Australian Photojournalist, Jeff Tan, and I, sat with 3 different families from Navoci Village, Korovuto Settlement, and Vatukoula.
Here are their stories of Tropical Cyclone Winston, the strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere
“It was a scary night and all I remember was hoping that this would be the first and the last time something like this happens here.”
The winds were so strong that night, it reminded me of how back in the days people without washing machines used to,
after they washed their clothes in the rivers, beat it- that’s what the winds sounded like someone beating their clothes by the river. We were all so terrified by the strong winds and the debris flying everywhere. I met a family that said they witnessed a roofing iron slice down a coconut tree in a matter of seconds. It was a scary night and all I remember was hoping that this would be the first and the last time something like this happens here.
The night TC Winston hit our area; we were in the other house up the hill carrying out our ‘bhajan’. As we were wrapping up our prayer for the evening, a roofing iron crashed into the lounge. We learned later that it was the roofing iron from my neighbors’ home. They lost their roof and having no roof throughout the entire ordeal, meant that everything they owned inside their home was destroyed. I felt sorry for them, they were barely making ends meet. Their three daughters were all in primary school, and now they just lost all their possessions, what are they supposed to do now? We are helping them rebuild, and once their roof is back on, they can move back into the house and slowly rebuild their lives.
We have been told that we will be without power for about 4–5 months and while that’s a long time, we consider ourselves lucky. Our homes are close to the road, which means relief rations are easier to reach us. I feel sorry for those in the interior. I hope they can get the help they need.
They told us on Friday, that the cyclone would hit the Western Division on Sunday. But by Saturday, the winds had already picked up and by that evening, we could already feel the full brunt of it.
I was already overdue, I was meant to give birth on the 14th, so I was worried that I would go into labor during the height of Tropical Cyclone Winston. Imagine, that night, the winds were so strong that whenever I needed to go to the bathroom, my husband had to hold my hand and lead me so I wouldn’t get blown away. On top of that, the rain made everything so slippery and it was so dark, I couldn’t see where I was going. I am so glad I didn’t go into labor that night. If I did, my husband [would of] had to run to the fire station to get me a truck because there was no signal on our phones. There were branches and debris everywhere, fallen power lines and a fire truck was the only way I could imagine I could get to the hospital. To be honest, I was having a bit of a panic attack that night. I ended up going into labor early Wednesday morning and after about 16 hours of labor, I gave birth that evening. I was unable to nurse my son however, the nurse explained to me that because of the trauma brought on by Winston, I couldn’t give milk to the baby, so she advised me to go home, calm down, rest and relax and head back in later for another check. Even though I couldn’t nurse my son because of the trauma, I consider myself lucky. The Indo- Fijian lady in the bed next to me had a miscarriage because of stress brought on by Tropical Cyclone Winston. The nurses told her the unfortunate news the day I had given birth to Philman.
“Throughout this entire ordeal, all we could was pray. Pray for it to be over and done with, especially before I go into labor.”
I read an article once about this lady in an interior village who tried to cross over a river to reach the home of the midwife. Before she could get through the river, she went into labor. Her young son, who was accompanying her, ended up running up ahead to inform the midwife. By the time they had come back, the baby was out along with the afterbirth. The midwife had to cut the umbilical cord, wait for a while for the mother to be strong enough to walk, then take her to safety. Imagine, this is what it’s like out there, without a cyclone. I consider myself lucky to have gone through what I did, others have endured a lot more.
Throughout this entire ordeal, all we could was pray. Pray for it to be over and done with, especially before I go into labor.
“We will have to start again.”
You know when I was a child, we hardly had these, but now it’s more and more frequent and it’s devastating. That night all we could do was just sit here and listen to the wind roar like a huge lion. We just prayed all night until the light shone through again. Some communities and families need more help than others. We can fix our own roofs. Places like Koro have lost everything and people have been traumatized, I hope they can get the help they need. We will stay in Navoci village until mother and baby are strong enough to head back home and rebuild. We will have to start again. It’s already March now and we need to start planting again soon. So much has happened, but what can we do? We cannot stand out there and stop the cyclone, but we can rebuild, we can start again.
“I had been through Hurricane Bebe, but this night, nobody will ever forget — all you could hear was the constant howling of the wind.”
Locked up inside our home, we couldn’t do anything else but pray. As soon as we heard the warnings, I got the bus to the town and bought things to see us through, Cyclone Winston. A torch, some batteries, candles, and tinned food items. We tried to prepare ourselves the best we could. I had spoken to my two sons and told them, when I say run, don’t run to the neighbors, run underneath the house and seek shelter. By that evening when we started feeling the strong winds, it felt like we spent three hours in hell. I had been through Hurricane Bebe, but this night, nobody will ever forget — all you could hear was the constant howling of the wind. I just lay there with my children and prayed. That’s one thing I am thankful for, the power of prayer, I think that’s what saved my family. Even though we went through all this, I can’t help but feel for the people in my village. They were hit by both the hurricane and tidal waves that crashed right into the village and destroyed everything in its path.
Following the oral traditions of storytelling in the Pacific, you are able to find an audio version of my reflections, “Children of Resilience”, here.
Children of Resilience.
Recently, I was referred to as a ‘Child of Fiji.’ Someone who is born from, embedded in and a native of. This resonated so much with me, mainly because I had never thought that my identity was tied to my nationality. Yes, my passport, birth certificate and every form I’ve filled say, I’m Fijian, but my identity, I had hoped, was a little more nuanced than that.
Personally, I identified as a child of my mother’s’ dreams and aspirations. A manifestation of her hopes as she packed her suitcase and moved from the outer islands to the city, in search for a better life.
I identified as a child born from the sheer hard work of a loving mother, embedded into a culture where giving graciously was always encouraged, and a native of the ocean and everything it represented.
My identity was never tied to a sense of patriotism. In fact, until that reference, I had never even considered myself a ‘child of Fiji.’ I have always just been a young human, finding purpose through service, and I also just happen to be Fijian.
A sense of identity in itself is important. A sense of identity as you figure out how to show up in impacted communities, even more so. Simply because you need to know how you being there will impact those of that community. As I navigated my way through this, I unraveled a few lessons, that I think are valuable and worth sharing.
How do you ‘show up?’
Let me first start off by saying, that these are my personal experiences, and I share them without any ill intentions. I simply would like to share my story with the hopes that it can help somebody else think about how they can useful during this period of rebuilding.
Everyone has ‘shown up’ in a way that has made sense to them, but have we all ‘shown up’ in a way that makes sense to those in impacted communities?
8 days after Tropical Cyclone Winston destroyed already vulnerable communities in the Western Division, I traveled there with 350.org Fiji Coordinator, George Nacewa and Australian Photojournalist, Jeff Tan.Our backpacks were filled with cameras, audio recorders, and notebooks. In Nadi, we picked up ten cases of bottled water, two bags of hard candy and an assortment of chips. Our intention was to travel to impacted communities to collect stories and photograph the trail of destruction left behind by Tropical Cyclone Winston.
We had a loose plan in place. George and I had contacts living in the West that we knew from our former roles as Dialogue Facilitator’s. We would check in with them and their loved ones, listen to their experiences and share their stories with the hopes that people around the world would hear them and feel motivated to help rebuild Fiji.
As we drove out of Pacific Harbour early that morning, it seemed simple enough. We were speaking to old friends and because we had heard access to clean drinking water was a problem, we could, at least, offer some water for their families and some treats for the children.
What I experienced that Sunday however, was a little different. I struggled with navigating how to show up in these communities. Would I show up as the trained journalist that I am or as the aspiring storyteller that I feel I am? What identity would I take on? As a ‘child of Fiji’, would I be the ‘journalist’ the world needed that could go in, extract that image, extract that story, and leave, or would I take on the identity of a ‘storyteller’ the community needed, and share a truth the world needed to hear?
It was interesting because I got it, you know, I got the justification around going in and getting these stories, because if you’re ‘out of sight’, you’re ‘out of mind’ and the world needed to hear these stories and see these images, so they could mobilise, donate, send aid, help rebuild. I got that, and to some degree, I have so much respect for that because I think it takes a certain kind of person to be able to tell these kinds of stories. To have a camera in the face of someone that has just lost everything and snap away in order to get that one powerful image- it takes a certain kind of ‘courage’ I haven’t understood yet.
For me, as a ‘child of Fiji’, someone who is born from, embedded in, and a native of, my heart had been molded to show courage in a different way. In that moment, I had to be courageous enough to navigate culture, protocol and respect, be clear in stating that while I hope this water might bring you a some sense of relief, what I can do to help, is elevate your voice and share your story with the hopes of eliciting the type of reaction needed to allow for allies to rebuild with you- as partners. And in order for this to happen, I needed to show up as a storyteller.
As storytellers, it’s important we honor stories and people by sharing a more in-depth, nuanced truth.
In emergency situations, I know that the rules are different, and there is a time crunch and urgency around getting information out. But what I think it comes down to, is the choice you make about the identity with which you ‘show up’, when walking in post- disaster situations.
For instance, with the recent devastation caused by Tropical Cyclone Winston, it would have easy to have taken thousands of photos and told you hundreds of stories about the destruction, the despair, and the sorrow. It would have been easy to share yet another story about the sheer size of the devastation.
But you know what, that story will be told and that aid coming in from donors and Governments will come in whether I tell you those stories or not.
So instead, I want to tell you a different story.
One about the aspirations of our resilient nation. One that focuses on how faith and community will be at the core of rebuilding our beloved Fiji.
The story of a woman who was overdue during the cyclone but could only worry about other mothers in more remote villages. The story of the neighbors in Ba who are rebuilding their community one rooftop at a time, and the story of the father and his children, who prayed all night for their village and their people.
Theses stories of Fijians minimizing their misfortunes so it’s never about themselves. These are our stories because they weave in aspects of the Fijian society that make me realize that there is something beautiful unfolding in all this destruction, and it cannot and should not be packaged in a traditional news piece.
The story I want to share with you, is about our shared identity as ‘Children of Fiji’, Our shared identity- along with all its beautiful diversity- is what truly shapes our story. What truly defines who we are are the powerful values at the core of each of us. Faith and how it comforts us, resilience and how it defines us, and community and how it enables us. This is who we are as ‘Children of Fiji”.
This is our identity; this is how we must always show up.
Communities in the Pacific are already made vulnerable because of climate change, and as more and more of these Cyclone Pam’s and Winston’s, tear through our homes and turn our lives upside down, may we will always remember who we are.
We are neighbors fixing rooftops, we are mothers worried about families, we are fathers praying with our children. In the face of climate change, more severe tropical cyclones and sheer devastation, we are faith, we are community, and we are children of resilience.