Coming Home: Fiji

Fiji | Cynthia Arata

Home: Napa, California

 

Photo: Moala Island — one of the most remote islands that is part of Fiji. Photo by Cynthia Arata

 

If you type “Moala Island” into Google, a number of misleading images will populate your search. Make no mistake: there is no tourism on Moala Island.

Despite mislabeled photos online, there is no resort, no hotel, no Airbnb. In fact, there is no paved road. There is no grocery store, market, restaurant or bar. There is no bank, gas station or electricity. It is difficult to illustrate just how remote Moala is, and without visiting, it is unlikely that a person could imagine how pure and peaceful life is there. With extremely limited, infrequent transportation to and from the island, surely, few people will ever travel to Moala.

For nearly six months, I lived on this pristine, 24-square mile tropical paradise in the islands of Fiji, a nation in the South Pacific comprising more than 300 islands and islets.

Moala is part of the eastern archipelago of Fiji, called the Lau Province, which is made up of approximately 60 islands, half of which are inhabited. Moala is one of these inhabited islands with a total population of around 1,300 people. There are eight villages on the island, all which are situated along the calm shores of the Koro Sea. From the water’s edge, communities maintain a traditional subsistence livelihood of fishing and farming.

 

The day that I took my oath was one of the proudest days of my life — a feeling of accomplishment unlike any other I have experienced.” Cynthia Arata on Moala. Photo by Shane Grace

 

Nestled in one of Moala’s lush, fertile valleys is Cakova Village, a community of 153 people. In October 2019, after two months of cultural and language training on Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, I swore in as a Peace Corps volunteer, committing to spend two years serving in the Youth in Development sector. My placement was one of the most isolated sites in all of Peace Corps Fiji.

 

Nestled in one of Moala’s lush, fertile valleys is Cakova Village, a community of 153 people. My placement was one of the most isolated sites in all of Peace Corps Fiji.

 

My specific role was under the Community Youth Empowerment Project — a partnership between the Peace Corps, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Youth and Sports, which has goals of positive youth development, community engagement and capacity building.

As a Community Youth Empowerment volunteer, I worked with the Youth Group and the Women’s Group in Cakova Village. My role involved helping to facilitate discussions with community members to identify needs, interests, and sustainable projects. Additionally, I worked as the librarian at Cakova’s primary school, focusing on literacy and library development.

In Fiji, the term “youth” describes individuals between the ages of 18 and 35 who, essentially, provide the labor force in rural villages to carry out work such as construction, plumbing, and landscaping. The Youth Group in Cakova Village was highly motivated to accomplish community goals. Project ideas proposed by members were reconstruct footbridges, renovating the community hall and expanding the nursing station.

 

The island and the world: schoolchildren on Moala. Photo by Cynthia Arata

 

As a team, we were in the process of leveraging support for the Youth Group from the Ministry of Agriculture for farming tools, as well as the Ministry of Forestry for training on tree and mangrove planting for climate change mitigation.

The Women’s Group had undertaken an economic opportunity plan to generate income in order to rebuild the village canteen, a small business run by the group where basic provisions such as rice, flour, and sugar are sold. A key way for women in Cakova to earn money is by cutting, cooking and drying wild pandanus, weaving the stocks into traditional mats and sending these Fijian handicrafts to merchants in Suva, Fiji’s capital, to be sold in the municipal market.

A passion that I hoped to bring into my service is my love of reading. At the beginning of the year, the teachers at Cakova Village School expressed the need for a new library with more resources and services, a project I felt especially enthusiastic about. The existing library occupied a corner in the administration building, which was also the teachers’ lounge, battery room, and storage space. As such, the library provided a small, outdated book collection, only one computer, and little space for students to explore. Together, we began drafting the library development project, advocating for a new library building, books, shelving, worktables, laptop computers, and solar panels.

In February, as a school staff, we submitted a grant application to the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives detailing a blueprint for an upgraded water station at the school. The project aligned with national development priorities, in particular, the implementation of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure in Fiji’s schools, standards that are generally achieved with the help of non-governmental organizations non-profit organizations, and volunteers. The concept called for new sinks, faucets, soap dispensers, drinking fountains, drainage systems, and roofing in order to improve water efficiency, sanitary conditions and hygiene.

Five months into my service in Fiji, a number of these projects with the Youth Group, Women’s Group, and primary school in Cakova Village were gaining traction. Though in the early project design stages, there was undeniable excitement and engagement around addressing these community needs.

 

 Weaver at work — one of the ways women in Cakova earn money for their community. Photo by Cynthia Arata

 

Just as I had begun establishing my own rhythms and routines as a volunteer, the director of the Peace Corps sent an email to volunteers around the world saying that due to the global pandemic posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, she had made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend Peace Corps operations and evacuate all volunteers back to the United States.

What was more shocking than the news of being evacuated, however, was receiving a second email from the country director in Fiji, determining that my Peace Corps service, along with thousands of other current volunteers in countries all over the world, was being ended by issuing the Close of Service— meaning I was no longer a volunteer.

More messages followed with instructions to pack my bags, grab my passport, and say goodbye and thank you to my community. In a state of shock, my mind raced with questions and concerns — from my outstanding projects and reports to the threat of the virus. My main concern was how to communicate this order, suddenly passed down from the agency, to members of my community that might see me as abandoning them and all of our work together.

Moreover, at that point, Fiji did not have any cases of COVID-19; and certainly, Moala Island is exceptionally isolated geographically with almost no incoming transit. Explaining to members of my community in Cakova that I was leaving, and why, was devastating and confusing for all of us. Questions of when I would return were impossible to answer for the village and for myself.

Ironically, the first Core Expectation of a Peace Corps volunteer is to “prepare your personal and professional life to make a commitment to serve abroad for a full term of 27 months.” The day that I took my oath was one of the proudest days of my life — a feeling of accomplishment unlike any other I have experienced. I know in my heart that I was determined, no matter the challenges, to see through my commitment to Cakova Village, Peace Corps, and my country. However, this health crisis leaves Peace Corps volunteers and staff with no idea of when the agency will be able to resume operations. Furthermore, on the morning that I left Moala Island the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Fiji, a secondary concern as the South Pacific battles the end of this year’s cyclone season.

 

For me, the hardest part, amid all of this not knowing, is hearing the voices of the village children asking me as I was leaving, “Madam, what about the library?”

 

Although I had been keenly aware of how special my time in Moala was while I was there, now that I am back in the U.S., I have time to reflect more deeply on my experiences.

Quarantined in Napa at my family’s home and bombarded not just with culture shock but also coronavirus chaos, I find refuge in my memories of the simplicity of life in Cakova, a place where a good day means having fish and a breeze. In Cakova, a day’s work is fishing on the reef or crabbing in the low tide, neighbors always have pots of warm food and tea to offer, and children swim in the village creek using mango pulp as body wash for their evening baths.

Without electricity, internet access or cell service, I spent my evenings watering my garden, watching sunsets from my hammock, and reading books late into the night under the stars. And although the pace of things was slow, each day was full of more meaning, purpose, growth and learning about what quality of life means.

For me, the hardest part, amid all of this not knowing, is hearing the voices of the village children asking me as I was leaving, “Madam, what about the library?”

 


This article originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register under the title “Memories of Moala.” Read it here.

It was also published in WorldView magazine’s Summer 2020 issue. Read the entire magazine for free now in the WorldView app. Here’s how:

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