29 Jul 2013

Villagers in remote Fiji islands still recovering from cyclone damage

6:42 pm on 29 July 2013

Remote villages in Fiji are still recovering from one of the country's harshest cyclones, which struck last December.

There is still plenty of damage visible in the remote Yasawa island group, including simple structures used as family homes.

Alex Perrottet visited one of the two villages on Matacawalevu Island six months on from the devastating natural disaster.

The island is one of the most northern in the long Yasawa group of islands to the north west of Viti Levu, Fiji's main island. Emosi Ravato is an elder in the village of Vuaki and has come to pick me up. Some, like his sons and daughters, find work in nearby resorts, but most work on plantations.

"EMOSI RAVATO: Everything was damaged in the plantation, whatever we need, like cassava, yams and kawai. They were all damaged on the hurricane, when the hurricane came. And 20 houses flew away when the hurricane came."

ALEX PERROTTET: And how many of them have been repaired so far?

EMOSI RAVATO: We still need some repaired, but maybe only five or six were repaired at the moment.

Cyclones are something they deal with every few years, but as Emosi Ravato explains, they can't remember one that went this long.

EMOSI RAVATO: Nine in the morning until four o'clock the next morning. One whole day and one whole night. And that house was, taken out, all the stuff from the posts. Posts, and holes and everything... gone. No house there. Only the foundation for the house was there, but nothing else.

ALEX PERROTTET: And were people inside?

ER: People inside they ran away. They ran to this house.

No one in Fiji died, but Gabriel Dalivalu told me they were lucky, as people had to run from house to house to take cover and avoid flying pieces of corrugated iron.

GABRIEL DALIVALU: Corrugated iron flew off. When the wind direction came this side, and flew off. And some trees from there. It changed direction, but lucky we came down here. You see the low gravity of this one saved us from the wind.

ALEX PERROTTET: And what was on these posts here, was that also part of the house?

GABRIEL DALIVALU: This one was the old house.

ALEX PERROTTET: The old house, OK.


There are many children on this island. A local Catholic school caters for over 100 students. Gabriel's aunt Lowata has six children and they have all been huddled in an iron shack for six months, and have had to call their daughter back from university studies in Suva while they save to pay for a new house. The foundation stones are there but nothing else.

LOWATA: My house here and my small kitchen, both of them, taken off by the hurricane. After two weeks we, or my husband built this house, then we sleep and we stay here till this day.

ALEX PERROTTET: And is that house there a temporary one? You will end up living in this one when you build it properly, is that right?


AP: But you are waiting on the materials and money to finish?


AP: When do you think it will be built?

LOWATA: We need your help. (Laughs) We need your help.

The government provided initial aid and have offered to subsidise a company's proposal to install solar power in the village, but for now the urgent issue is the building of proper homes for these people. But just how they build them may be a point of contention. All new buildings are made of concrete blocks and corrugated iron roofs, but as Gabriel explains, that's not how their ancestors built them, and in times of emergency, the traditional bures are much better.

GABRIEL DALIVALU: If you have back pain, then the cold reaches the cement or the concrete very fast, but for Fijian bure, you don't have the concrete. You have the straws that binds, that keeps you to your normal body temperature. When it rains it's very warm inside, you don't have to have a blanket. And if you lit a small fire on it, the straw sucks and you won't suffocate inside.

There are, in fact, some novel ways these villagers can make some money. Loata is sending her children to catch mud crabs and then sell them to the resorts nearby who pay handsomely for them. And some of those resort managers who visited after the cyclone have pledged to help. But time is ticking away while people live in very basic conditions. They're hoping something will be built for them before the next cyclone season begins.