Experiencing Gunu

Experiencing Gunu

If I knew this experience was going to be as hard as it was, I possible wouldn't have boarded that plane, but fortunately I was oblivious to what lay ahead for me. 

Jackie and I landed in Fiji on a hot December day. I was so grateful to have Jackie with me as a support. I would have been totally lost without her. 

We found our motel easily and waited to meet Bale, a Gunu resident who was on the mainland. Bale and Jackie had met a few years earlier so it was a nice reunion for them both. 
We welcomed Bale to share our motel room for the night, which was a first for Bale who had never spent time in a motel room.

The next day we began our long journey to the village. With suitcases and boxes filled with supplies and gifts we all boarded the tourist boat to island skip through the beautiful scenery towards Naviti Island. 

Bale's English was limited so it was hard to communicate but we made small talk during the next 5 hours before it was time to depart our large vessel and board a small tinny to take us along our final leg of the long 2 day journey.

Gunu village is nestled on the banks of a secluded bay on an outer island of Fiji. Its such a picturesque location. Finally we had arrived and I was nervous, yet excited. 

There was a bunch of locals to greet us as we stepped out of the boat and approached the village. Jackie knew many of the people and they were so excited to see her again after a few years of absence. 

I followed my guides into the little concrete hut that would be my shared home for the next 2 weeks. 

As a guests in Gunu it was tradition and respect to wait in the hut until the chief of the village was aware of our arrival and we were granted his blessing to explore his village at our will. We did wait for about an hour or more, cooped up inside the small room waiting for word from the chief, but was entertained by all the children and the ladies who began to wander past and stop by to welcome us.

Finally we were led to the chiefs hut. With a bag of kava root in hand ready as our offering we walked inside to greet the chief. We all sat around the floor of his open hut which had signs of damage from the last cyclone that had passed through and destroyed a lot of the village. It was a quick ceremony, mostly spoken in a foreign language to my understanding, that resulted in our blessing to make Gunu our home for the duration of our stay. 

So now, here I was worlds away from my family, my life and my comforts, surrounding by small concrete and wooden huts, palm trees and children's smiles beaming up at me. 
The weather was so hot. Dressed in the only acceptable clothing worn by women and older children of long skirts and tops with sleeves, I wandered back to the hut I would now call home during my stay. 
It wasn't long until Jackie and I attracted the attention of a room full of children and some of the other village women. Soon we were all sitting on the floor and I was going through my suitcase finding gifts for the kids that my family and I had spend days hunting for to bring for this occasion. We had nail polish, lipstick, hair clips, Frisbee, kite, necklaces, balls, writing pads, pencils, many things I cant even remember now. I began handing some of the gifts out to the kids, painting nails and allowing the kids to put clips in my hair. The children were so affectionate and I was immediately their best friend.  Jackie reminisced with some of the ladies of her time she spent here with her family many years ago. Jackie was delighted to see things had advanced a little in the village now with small solar panels on each hut allowing the use of lights and the recharging of a phone. It was only a couple of years ago this village had no power at all and was in complete darkness other than candle light. I was grateful for the advancement of light. 

That evening we were offered a welcome meal of turtle curry on the floor of the hut. It was all laid out on the beautifully woven mat made of palm fronds. I have been a vegetarian (apart from the occasional fish) for about 10 years, so turtle meat was not something I was really excited to enjoy, but I was actually starving and it would be rude to refuse. So I happily ate my first meal of turtle. The ladies who had served our meals sat around and watched as we ate, ensuring we were well cared for and had finished before eating their own meals. About half an hour later, I found myself vomiting under the frangipani tree in the darkness. I went to bed early, not feeling very well. It was not the ideal first night I was anticipating. 

Thankfully I woke feeling better, but had far from a good nights sleep. Seems I also didn't anticipate the number of roosters that would roost directly outside my window and crow from 2am! Regardless I was ready to take on the day and start to round up a group of women who were interested in working for spiralocks. 

Looking back I can now see how delusional I was to think this would be an easy task, but I guess it was fortunate I was delusioned, otherwise I would have probably reconsidered this entire project. 

Making spiralocks was something I had been hand creating for the last 6 years, so in my mind it was a pretty simple thing to do. I assumed training the ladies would be pretty quick and easy. Oh how wrong I was! So for starters, the ladies had never used a pair of pliers or dealt with wire. It was entirely new to them. So now I was right back at the beginning, teaching the ladies how to grip a pair of pliers and cut wire! We were struggling with the language barrier so explaining was so difficult too! We laughed a lot and spent the entire morning just learning how to measure and cut wire. I began to get concerns that this might not be as easy as I thought. The following steps were just as slow that afternoon. What literally would take me 5 mins to create a spiralock base, the ladies were struggling to make in almost an hour! And the standard was not great either. Jackie tried to reassure me that it was only our first day of training.
The next day was not much better. Pinning and stitching was the next lesson. This was very difficult for a few of the ladies as they had very poor eyesight and threading a needle was a massive challenge in itself. After years of swimming in the ocean gathering seaweed to sell to make a living, these ladies had compromised their eyesight. Even after the needle was threaded, the stitching was irregular and pretty rough to say the least. I was quickly loosing hope. I began to wonder if I should have listened more to all those people who had said to me before I left that this may not be that easy and I should look at other options before committing. But I was here now, I was committed, but loosing hope. A full day and we didn't even have a single spiralocks that was of any decency finished. The ladies were getting a bit exhausted, so was I. Then I had a glimmer of was a breakthrough. One of the ladies in the group finally gave me a much needed boost! Kaile had been slowly and quietly learning from me over the past 2 days. Then she handed me a finished spiralock she had made herself. I was so excited! It was actually well done! I asked where did she learnt to stitch. Fortunately Kaile did home economics at school and had learnt to sew. Yay! My enthusiasm had returned. I had hope again. We finished on a good note. 

Sunday in Gunu is all about church. No work is to be done on a Sunday. Church sessions are on in the morning and again in the afternoon. I attended more sessions of church that day then I have ever done in my entire life. I enjoyed it. There was beautiful music, everyone was dressed up in their prettiest and fanciest clothes and it was lovely to meet so many people from the villages. 
I spent the day being followed around by the children who loved to dance and perform for my camera, being handed pineapples and pawpaw to enjoy and sitting with my new friends laughing and chatting in our mixed languages hearing about life from our different worlds. It didn't take me long to realise how different our cultures really are. In Gunu, men are made priority. Women will do all the cooking, cleaning, caring of children, basically most of the work. Women will prepare the family meals three times a day and ' cuppa tea time' with cooked snacks between. Women will serve the best portion of the meal to the men and watch them eat to ensure they are fed well before eating their portion afterwards. 
Jackie and I had to beg the ladies to join us in a meal as we too were treated like the men and fed the bigger portions and watched until we finished before they dared eat their own meals. It was a really strange and uncomfortable to be eating while being watched by people who are waiting for you to finish before eating themselves. Finally we did manage to talk them into eating with us, rather than after us. I was disheartened to hear from the women about how money earnt by the men was more likely to be spent on kava and cigarettes, while the money earnt by the women is spent on food for the family and necessities for the children. I also wasn't too impressed about the dress code which forced the women to wear long skirts and shirts with shoulders covered in such hot weather, while men were able to wear shorts and singlets without the fuss of having sweat literally drip down their legs!
There was some really beautiful things about village culture too. They have a rule that if they are sitting to have a cup of tea...which they did a couple of times a day, and they saw someone walk past, which is impossible not to do every few minutes as everyone lives so close, you must invite them to join you. It was a very social thing to do. Some requests were declined and some were accepted. I enjoyed those moments sitting around together, (though not particularly enjoying drinking hot tea while sweating under my knees sitting crossed legged on the ground as my back ached as there was no chairs in sight!) Kids were always close by, sitting around me, playing with my hair or trying to tug me away to play. I tried to learn some of the basic words in Fijian and tried to remember the names of the kids which was so hard as they tended to look particularly similar with their fuzzy hair, bright eyes and big smiles!

Jackie didn't stay the entire time. She left the village after the 4th day to return to her home and her young family. She had assisted me as much as she could on this journey and now I was left alone to do the rest.  I remember waving goodbye to her as she boarded the boat  and having a lump in my throat. I could possibly had a little cry to myself at that moment if I was alone, but in Gunu, I was never alone. But now I felt alone. I was in a remote village on a little island in a remote part of the world, far from my family and everyone I knew, trying to achieve a project that I wasnt even certain I could accomplish anymore. 

Jackie left me some ear plugs so I could block out the roosters crowing and have a half decent nights sleep on the barely there mattress that didnt quite protect my back from the metal bars on the bed. 
Showers were behind a tarp using a bucket of water. There was a newly installed septic toilet thank goodness, but didnt flush, so needed a bucket of water with each visit. 

So training continued for the following few days. We found a lovely space outside Kaile's house to gather and learn. I had allocated Kaile as the master of vegan spiralocks and so she continued to perfect her skill. I moved onto teaching felting, macrame and sari spiralocks to the others. The ladies came and went between seaweed collecting and household chores. I continued to sweat profusely in my long skirts in the sun, but I was making progress with the ladies and I had allocated a master of each design. They were improving and I was gaining faith again in this project. 

Unfortunately my health was starting to go down hill over my last days in Gunu. I had picked up a bad chesty cough from one of the kids who had been coughing around me, my body ached from sitting on concrete floors, sleeping on a rough bed and bending over for hours teaching. I had also noticed a pimple on the back of my leg that was getting hot and inflamed. I think it was the combination of my continual sweating, my exhausted mental and physical state, me pricking the pimple with a pin and sitting on dirty floors that made it start to swell and burn and get angry and red. 

By the time it was my last day in Gunu, I was actually really looking forward to leaving. I had done the best to teach the ladies what I could in the time I had and I was completely spent. I was constipated with all the flour based deep fried, margarine coated dumplings, my body was burning up from my sore leg, the flu and sweating. I hadn't had a decent sleep, had a proper shower or had a cold drink for over 10 days. I hadnt seen my family for almost 2 weeks. The longest time I had ever spent away from them. I was ready to go home now. My leg was totally aching by this stage and I was limping. To add pain to pain, I got entirely sunburnt from the 5 hour boat ride back to the mainland as I spent it standing on the deck as I could no longer sit on my leg. 

I returned home, sunburnt, sick and limping with a massive infection on the back of my leg. I hadn't realised how bad it was until I saw it in a mirror for the first time after landing back in Australia. I had a large pussy red, hard lump the size of a saucer on my leg! 

I then spent the next 5 weeks in and out of hospital having my leg cut into and on intravenous antibiotics. I was left with a couple of large holes in the back of my leg that took a long time to heal. My sunburn healed, my flu disappeared, but my problems out of Gunu did not end. I don't have the need to go into details, but all I can say is the following 6 months was filled with a lot of ongoing issues with getting supplies to Gunu from Australia, having supplies go missing in the village, having customs in Fiji hold our parcels and refuse to release them unless we pay large amounts of money, banks not releasing pays to workers for the most unheard of reasons, spiralocks arriving back that were poor quality or damaged. It seemed to be one problem after the other and a lot of money and time spend on what sometimes seemed a pointless process. But on the other side of it all, 1.5 years later, I'm so pleased I took that initial crazy plunge and took the leap to follow my dreams. We are still ironing out issues on regular basis as its still a new journey for us all, but the difference that spiralocks has made to the ladies in Gunu and how grateful they are for the employment makes me want to continue to work harder every day to ensure the success of spiralocks for us all. 

And now I'm so excited to return, this time with my family, this time to spend time with my new Fijian family and meet Kaile's new baby which has my namesake, Mitchell. 


Peta Mitchell
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Finding Gunu.

As I start stuffing bags with all sorts of random things, preparing for my next big adventure to Gunu Village, my thoughts go back to where it all began. 
I often get asked, "why Gunu village?" and how did I find it. Well, it didn't quite start off with Gunu village and it wasnt that easy to find. 

About 6 years ago, I had an aspiration to take spiralocks from my kitchen table to an underprivileged village, anywhere in the world and support women by giving them employment. I carried this desire with me for awhile, not knowing how to achieve it or even where to begin. I was an unworldly traveler who hadn't ventured out of Australia. I had no contacts with any charity organisations or contacts in any other country. I was basically clueless to the idea and didn't even know how to begin. I just knew making spiralocks was a simple craft that did not require machinery, power or intricate skills and could be created in basic conditions. I could envision my end result and just focused on the final possibilities without considering the implications that eventually lie ahead. 

I often spoke to friends and family, asking of potential contacts in remote villages in other parts of the world....I rang charities asking for advise.....I searched endlessly on the internet trying to find a starting point, emailing organisations, all  to begin my dream to ethically expand the production of spiralocks.
It was back in 2015 when I thought I had a break through. I had made contact with an 'acquaintance of an acquaintance' who had family in Ghana and was looking at possible financial options to support them. I was so excited to have this opportunity. I spent months of constant back and forth communication via the 'acquaintance of aacquaintanceteaching their family members in Ghana the techniques of crafting spiralocks and sending over multiple amounts of supplies and money. I felt so proud to finally be achieving my dream. Empowering women with financial security. I soon received my first batch of Ghana made spiralocks covered in traditional Ghana kente cloth and wax fabrics. I continued to communicate the faults in the first batch and where improvements could be made, and making payments to the workers. 
It was not long after the arrival of that first batch, when I was feeling so proud, I was made aware that the two 'acquaintances' had decided to work together and use the ladies I had just trained to make mass replica spiralocks for themselves and sell their own version of 'spiralocks'. They told me I had "liberated the women in Ghana with a trade and now they were free to make spiralocks for who ever they chose". Hearing that and knowing I had just lost all that I had worked towards, I felt like my world just fell apart. It was a really devastating time for Helen and I. We shed a few tears and felt like giving up. I felt like everything we had created and worked for was just pulled away from us. We were just a couple of mothers at home, trying to make an income and trying to support others while doing so. It was hard to pick ourselves up and move on. We wondered if this was how people in business grow, by taking the efforts of others for themselves? If so, then we didn't want to be in business. It was almost the end of spiralocks for us.  But, now looking back, we appreciate this experience as something we have grown stronger from. Fortunately for us, we had each other to build ourselves back up. No one could take away our passion for a creation we invented and we had nurtured. No one could take spiralocks away from us as it is ours and no one could make spiralocks better than us as we had been hand making them for years and we had mastered and perfected the design. We never spoke again of the bitterness we felt from what had happened, nor did we dwell on the sadness we felt during that time. We simply got back up and found that creative passion and thrived harder to make spiralocks a bigger success then it ever was. 

And a bigger success it became.  

As spiralock popularity grew, so did my desire to pursue supporting families in poverty, but it wasn't until mid 2017 when I was again randomly ringing local charity organisations asking if they had any contacts, information or an interest in supporting my idea. I happened to ring a local op-shop called 'Global Ripple' in Byron Bay, run by Jackie. As confusing as I must have sounded to Jackie on that initial phone call, it was reassuring to know Jackie seemed interested in what I wanted to do and wanted to know more. We had a couple of follow on chats about a possible village project with spiralocks. I was so excited. As expected though, my family, Helen and her family, were all very cautious of me pursuing again another overseas venture. I was concerned that I could possibly ruin it again for us and waste a lot of money and conceivably expose our trade secrets again, only to have them exploited. But I felt confident this time. I had learnt from the last failed project. I didn't want to deal through a third party. I wanted to deal direct with a village and its people. I wanted to teach them in person. I wanted to be the only contact for this project, and I liked Jackie. She was genuine and had a true desire to support people all over the world in poverty which was evident in all the projects she had personally accomplished. Jackie only wanted to help and not have a vested interest in this project.  

So without too much thought or preparations, I jumped in head first and booked plane tickets for Jackie and I with only a few days notice to visit a small unheard of village on the outer Islands of Fiji. Jackie had spent a bit of time with a family in the village a couple of years earlier and thought it would be a good place for me to set up spiralocks. 
For me the idea of Fiji didnt make much sense as I assumed Fiji was a high-end luxury island full of fancy resorts and rich people. I couldn't picture anyone living in poverty or in need of any support, but then I had never traveled far. I was oblivious to it all.
Jackie had traveled far and had experience with charity projects. I was fortunate to have guidance from her. 

It was the longest I had been away from my family. The first time I had done anything on my own, without my husband who I have been with since we were 18 years old. 
With suitcases full with spiralock supplies and gifts for the villagers, Jackie and I departed for Fiji, heading for Gunu Village. It was a hot December in 2017. 


Peta Mitchell
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In the beginning...

In the beginning...

It was just a simple idea between a couple of friends with fresh dreads that created the first 'spiralock'. Helen and I were close friends, living in the same remote town, first falling pregnant at the same time, sharing the joy of our sons being born only a couple of weeks apart. Then sharing a market stall selling our homemade craft, closely followed by sharing a passion for dreadlocks.

It was all these events that led us to the making of the very first spiralock.

I had a this head full of dreadlocks, but a constant struggle to find a suitable band to tie them up. Regular elastics were too tight and caused headaches, or too loose and slipped out. Thick elastics where great..but only for the first week or 2 before they stretched and stretched and stretched no more, becoming just a thick stiff band.

Helen and I love to be creative, so now that we both had dreadlocks, we would often spend afternoons together decorating them by stitching in shells and handmade beads, while our children played.

It was Helen who gifted me with a cute little felted wire coil she had created to wrap around a single dread as a decoration. This little creation soon became what is known as Helen's 'minilocks'. From this little 'minilock', the evolution began and the spiralock was born.

I began using this little minilock to wrap and hold a couple of dreads..then a couple more, until it could hold no more. I wanted Helen to make a bigger one, so I could use it to tie up all my dreads in a pony tail. The little minilock just wasn't going to hold up to the challenge, even if it was longer...the wire just was not strong enough.

And so the search began for the materials......the best wire...the best way to felt onto the wire...the best length to make...the best way to wear it. We spent many afternoons together playing around with different materials and trialling different designs. Soon we had a big bundle each of these wire dread ties we were using everyday, often comparing colour combinations we had felted and dread hairstyles we had achieved. Over the months of constant use and amazement of how great this little dread tie was, we knew we had to share it with all other dread heads. So we went about making little batches each and brainstorming a 'name' for this handy little product. 'Spiralock' was what we decided to call it.

We took this little invention to Facebook in late 2011 and started a business page. It was such a buzz to get our first orders and get feedback from customers describing our invention as a 'game changer' and 'the best dread tie ever'. A lot of our early customers are still customers today, which has been a special part of our success. Never could we ever have imagined the success that would have come from spiralocks and the adventure it has taken us. We are so grateful every day and I often wonder in disbelief how it has even happened. Thank goodness I decided to take the dreadlocks journey way back then...

Peta Mitchell
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