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, cards....so 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 hope...it 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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