It’s the 9th April 2020 and I am sat writing this, the first blog of my new website, in the open doorway of Alfie’s Uncle’s house in Lomanikoro village, Nakasaleka, Kadavu, Fiji. The reason I am sat here, and not in our own house, is because Cyclone Harold came yesterday and it ripped the village to pieces; whilst we were lucky enough to have only lost some of the glass in our windows, have our outside kitchen blown away and the inside mats ripped and broken, I can look both directions out of this doorway and see people’s roofs scattered on the floor, a detached and dented water tank floating in the river and piles of splintered wood and rubble where people’s homes, that once stood strong and were full of memories, have been totally destroyed.
For those of you who do not know me, or for those of you who do know me but haven’t seen any recent updates on social media, I am a 22 year old British woman called Emma who came to Fiji to lead youth development volunteer projects. However, due to the outbreak of COVID 19, both my contract and my boyfriend Alfie’s contract were terminated with immediate effect and so we are currently living, jobless, in his home village in Kadavu. For the past week and a half, we have been living the proper island village life; Alf has been working on the farm and doing community work, I have been baking and cooking all the classics (babakau, dhal with tinned fish, panikeke, doughnut balls etc.) and we have both been enjoying fishing in the clear turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean, spotting turtles and sharks along the way (although Alfie didn’t like seeing the shark on Tuesday because it scared away all the yellow-fin tuna meaning we didn’t catch any, but that’s a story for a different day). I have also been creating this website so I can share all these stories, which I will still do over time, but sadly, today’s blog is not a tale of happiness and paradise, but a tale of destruction and a reality check on how tropical natural disasters can really affect the more vulnerable areas of the world.
It starts with me waking up at about 7:00am on the 8th April to the sound of heavy rain on the roof and a loud banging noise. Alfie wasn’t next to me and the room was dark, the natural light being blocked by a big sheet of corrugated metal tin that had been nailed over the window. I came out of the room to an empty house and looked out to see the village boys, including Alfie and his older brother Ilaisa, working in the pouring rain nailing more metal over the windows, preparing for the cyclone which we had been told would hit Kadavu around midday. Feeling a bit helpless, I put on my headtorch (as the lights from our solar panel weren’t working) and got busy making breakfast: english pancakes and steamed condensed milk cake with white icing. The boys were coming in and out, grabbing nails and planks of wood and delivering cassava and breadfruit for us to eat. Wise, otherwise know as Paka, Alfie’s cousin brother, had his music playing loudly through his speaker, a mixture of island reggae remixes and Bob Marley, and Lucky, his dog, was sheltering from the rain with me in the kitchen. Whilst I was flipping the pancakes, the door opened and in ran a chicken followed by Alfie, who just shouted, “for lunch” and then he disappeared again. Both Paka and Lucky ran for the chicken, but within seconds, the chicken was dead and Paka popped it in a bucket and placed it with the food supply – something the British part of me still finds quite fascinating, particularly from being a past pescatarian but also from being used to buying my meat from the supermarket, plucked and packed and ready to go.
By about 11:30, all the boys were inside and nailing the door shut with a final plank of wood. As I watched out of the window, the winds started to pick up and the rain was getting heavier. A flock of birds could be seen in the distance, being thrown up in the air by the storm, then plummeting towards the ground before being swooped up to the left and over the rolling hills. The roof was clattering and the windows were shaking but it was fine…then it started getting scary.
The winds grew stronger. There was a crash and the metal sheets were ripped off the windows. Rain started rushing in and a few of the glass panes slipped out and smashed on the floor. The boys were desperately trying to cover the windows and keep the door nailed closed but the cyclone was too strong. I hid in the bedroom, peering round the door, shouting at the boys to come in too as it was safe in there but they, being classic Fijian boys, were all laughing and skipping around barefoot in the broken glass. Paka, who was pressed up against the dresser, blocking a window as the wind was whipping around the room and ripping down the curtains, said calmly, “Everything is ok, Emma”. Outside, the world was white, rain pummelling the nearby houses as branches, tin and housing structures flew past in every direction. Trees were bending almost fully in half and the sound was deafening. Two of Alfie’s elder relatives, Tutu Taitusi and Bubu Merewai ran into our house for shelter as their roof was ripped off. After some persuasion, I managed to get Alfie into the room with me and we hid under a mattress, waiting for it to be over.
About 3 hours after it arrived, the cyclone calmed down a little and some of the men began to venture out. For about an hour, Alf disappeared and I began to worry. What I didn’t know is that he had just gone to check on his little brother and other family members but had got caught in the rain so stayed in their house until he was able to leave. In my mind, he had fallen in the flooded river or been crushed by a tree or been hit by a flying spike of wood. So I, being the anxious worrier that I am, sat terrified and in tears, still hiding from the continuing storm, absolutely certain that he was dead and refusing to leave the house until he returned home. The cyclone finished, and of course, Alfie did return home. After floods of tears and me telling him he was never allowed to scare me like that again, we packed up our stuff and went to his Uncle’s house next door.
The village was in ruins. The hills, that were once full of trees and plantations, were baron and bare. The river, normally clear and fresh, was muddy and flooding over the stone walls and around the houses. The nature had been battered and broken. Dogs were sheltering under the remains of family homes, surrounded by furniture that was in pieces on the floor. Chickens were picking their way around the sites with their chicks, pecking at the food that was spilt in the grass. Thankfully, however, no one was hurt.
I’ll tell you something though, and this is why the people of this country never fail to amaze me. Not once did I see a tear shed for the fallen houses. Not once did I see people giving up or in despair. The strong, resilient, brave and wonderful people of Nakasaleka were still smiling and laughing. As we walked around the village, children were jumping into the gushing river, being swooped down in the surging water and then grabbing the branch of a fallen tree, clambering out and doing it again. Families sat together chatting, waving at us and inviting us in for tea. I walked past one man, and he said “Bula Emma, how’s the weather?” followed by a hearty chuckle and he wandered off. The sky cleared and became a beautiful collage of darkening blue and pink clouds as the sun began to set.
To my disbelief, the flooding cleared within about ten minutes and when I questioned this, Alfie’s Auntie told me that the village nearest the sea will have blown into a conch shell. She explained that their sacred God is the God of rain and whenever there is a flood, they blow into the shell and it will clear within minutes. Normally, this sort of story would seem unbelievable but I truly can’t think of any other explanation because honestly, the water that was up to peoples knees just disappeared into thin air.
Never did I expect to experience something like this. Being from England, you only ever really see this sort of stuff on news channels. Living the real thing was scary but incredibly grounding and made me realise how lucky we are in England to be mostly totally safe from natural disasters. The endless positivity from the villagers has been a saving grace for everyone and I am truly grateful that I have all these amazing people around me during this time. Nevertheless, tough times are ahead, there are many things that need to be fixed and it may be very difficult to get the supplies to fix them. I have no doubt that people will try their best and I pray that God will give us strength and look after us all in these testing times.
You can donate to help Nakasaleka village through this fundraising link here: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/cycloneharoldnakasaleka?utm_term=5yJbmyxEq
Vinaka, thank you for reading and please share on Social Media!