As COVID-19 intensified globally between February and May, the government of Fiji reinforced different levels of lockdown throughout the country. Despite relatively fewer cases, communities across the region have felt the impact of the crisis in their own way, such as the Nanuku settlements in Vatuwaqa, Suva. Jioje Fesaitu reports.
This is the fourth in a series of stories from ‘Voices from the Frontline’ by ICCCAD and CDKN.
Saleshni Wati is a resident of Nanuku settlement. She found out about COVID-19 through Facebook posts towards the end of March. Word quickly spread through the neighborhood. “You see, we live very close to each other, so people started talking about this new dangerous disease,” shares Saleshni. A Hindi radio station, Radio Sargam provided regular updates on global cases of infection and the lockdowns being imposed. She was also made aware of social distancing and hygiene measures through the radio broadcasts, initially. However, the impact of the global crisis was truly felt by Saleshini when her husband lost his full-time job as a warehouse worker, due to the lockdown.
The loss of income led to difficult times for Saleshni and her family. Gradually, small initiatives at both the community and the household level brought hope. During the lockdown, the local Dudley Church came forward to support the Nanuku community. It distributed food packs, without which the family would have struggled for sustenance. To make ends meet, Saleshni’s husband walked around their neighbourhood looking for informal work. As restrictions were being eased, he was able to find employment on a casual basis, which involved cutting grass and gardening around the Vatuwaqa area.
“My eldest daughter, who is 18 years old, was lucky to be employed as a cleaner for three days a week at the Pacific Theological College”, adds Saleshni. For additional income, Saleshni would make ten roti parcels (flatbread), which her daughter would sell at the college. “This helps to cover our basic needs, like food items and toiletries,” says Saleshni.
To make matters worse, Cyclone Harold hit Fiji in the beginning of April. This caused heavy floods in the area, with water entering some of the community members’ homes, despite their being elevated off the ground. Though the community is keen on home gardening to achieve self-sufficiency and food security during crises, the rainy season often leads to severe flooding, thus removing the option for growing crops on the ground level. “Some families do pot-planting that is placed on tables or old deep-freezers so they are raised above the ground. We can also put them indoors but our home is very small,” mentions Saleshni. Such difficulties require Saleshni to buy groceries from the markets despite the lockdown measures. Thankfully, the curfew was set between 10 pm till 5 am, allowing residents to move around during the day
Furthermore, in order to cope with the situation at hand, Saleshni and her family have begun reducing food wastage in their household. “I cook sufficiently for each meal so there are no leftovers. By doing this, we also save money,” explains Saleshni.
The local government also supported communities through awareness campaigns. “During the first week, there were announcements made through loudspeakers on the main road. I also read a letter from the Suva City Council asking us to clean up our neighborhood, make sure that children are inside the house, practice social distancing and wash our hands frequently. An extra trash bin was also installed for the neighbourhood” Saleshni further adds.
Talking about the future, Saleshni believes that practical training in regards to growing food within confined spaces would be beneficial for families in her community. This would not only protect them during crises such as the current pandemic, but also help them to save costs. Many programmes that were meant to take place for women and the youth in Nanuku have been postponed due to COVID-19. These training programmes on running small businesses for income generation and financial management, are essential for such communities, and should be implemented once normality returns. “If we receive training, and some help to start us off, we can take it from there,” says Saleshni.
In conclusion, Saleshni reflects that notwithstanding the hardships brought on by COVID-19, a silver lining shone through, “My children were very happy to spend time with their father, since before the lockdown, he would work long hours and only return in the evening. As we were not allowed to go out, we spent more quality time together as a family. ”
The global pandemic has affected different communities in different ways. Living in informal settlements is a daily challenge by itself. The myriad existing realities in such communities shape their responses in times of crises. The Fiji government has been promoting home gardening to encourage people to achieve food security as a multi-hazards response to COVID-19 and Cyclone Harold. However, it is important to be aware of individual obstacles faced by community households, and cater to their needs accordingly. As per Saleshni, insufficient space indoors and heavy rainfall act as obstacles for her family to achieve food security through home gardening. Only by listening to community voices and providing suitable training, can we empower them to meet challenging times head-on. COVID-19 crisis creates an opportunity to learn about varying community perspectives and initiatives that can help lead the way for better crisis management in the future.
About the interviewer
Jioje Fesaitu is a project consultant at the Pacific Center for Environment and Sustainable Development (PaCE-SD) at University of the South Pacific (USP). He manages the quantitative component of the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) – USP research, “Applying Lessons from the Community Food and Health (CFaH) in Innov4AgPacific Community Agriculture-Nutrition-Income Seed Funding Projects” in Fiji and Solomon Islands, while pursuing a postgraduate diploma in climate change at the department.
About the interviewee
Saleshni Wati is a Fijian woman of Indian descent, who has been living in the Nanuku settlement for the last 18 years. She lives in a corrugated iron lean-to house, built on stilts, with her husband, three children and her mother. She used to work at the Pacific Theological College in Veiuto but has since resigned on medical grounds. She’s a member of the Dudley Methodist Church in Nanuku.