Isa, Gwen!: A Fiji Experience
Gwendolyn Ross, RPCV, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Fiji 1994 – 1997
On a wintry Friday night in July, the open-air market in Lautoka, Fiji was not deserted, as you would expect. Instead, clusters of people, mostly women, bundled up as best they could against the cold, sat or lay around the outside of the market, their crops packed up around them ready for busy Saturday morning trading.
Children, wrapped tightly in tattered blankets, lay on old sacks or cardboard on the frosty, damp cement, while their parents either slept beside them or huddled together talking quietly. In an open area near the bus stand, a row of five women slept in the unsheltered, chilly air, their heads on their bags of produce for security as well as a futile attempt to achieve some comfort. Others slept fitfully against the market’s walls. A group of men were gathered around a yagona bowl softly singing, accompanied by the gentle sounds emanating from an old guitar.
Near the bus station entrance to the market, some enterprising vendors had set up a cook stove and were selling tea and warm meals to the women, some of whom had traveled more than five hours by overcrowded boats to get to the market. Occasionally, drunks made their way through the groups, singing or cursing—or both—and at one point three young women ran, gasping, for some unknown reason, past them to the nearby police post. After two days of selling from sunup to sunset most of these vendors would take home less than $30.00 (about $15.00 US), frequently the only income their families would have until the following market weekend.
This was the scene in which I often found myself on countless weekend nights. Most of the women around me were my clients, beneficiaries of the small business advice and training that I dispensed during my three years of service as a Peace Corps volunteer. They kindly explained to me that this was a typical Friday night for them. Drunks, shivering sleepy children, the unbearable heat, (or the biting cold), rain, and the tension from staying on guard against the occasional sneak thief, were what the women had come to expect on market nights. Unfortunately, however, some nights were more violent than others. Sometimes, after the bars closed, men stumbled into their midst and harassed them. Secure in their alcohol-induced haze of self-confidence, the men drunkenly begged for money, food, friendship, marriage, and oftentimes, sex. Usually—but not always—there were enough male vendors and police around to chase them off.
The situation for Fiji’s women market vendors was indeed grim and potentially perilous—and I felt an intense empathy for them. As a black woman I felt a remarkably strong connection with them. After all, we shared the same skin color, gender, and probably, somewhere in time and place, the same ancestors. Apart from the geographic boundaries, any of them could have been my mother or grandmother or aunt or sister. Despite the language barriers that separated us, we managed to connect and establish a bond that many of the white volunteers never had. After all, I was their very own Merikan loaloa (black American), the first most of them had ever seen.
The women treated me with a great deal of respect and, sometimes, awe. We sat up late at night around the yagona bowl and shared stories about men and relationships. We talked about our children, our goals, and our futures. They fed me strange food and watched with barely concealed amusement as I ate it…whatever it was. I gave them my skirts, shoes, sunglasses, and sweaters.
They gave me beautiful, finely woven mats, fans, hats, and more freshly-caught seafood than one person could ever eat. They taught me how to make roti (a tamale-like fried bread) and curried goat. I taught them how to set goals and run a successful business.
The link, the bond, between the market vendors and me made me decide to establish some type of safe, affordable, temporary lodging for the women and their children while they were at market. During my mission to help them, however, for the first time since I arrived in Fiji, my physical similarity to the Fijians appeared to be a barrier instead of an asset. When I telephoned to make appointments with various officials, I always identified myself as a Peace Corps volunteer (a position of some importance and high regard in the Fiji). Unfortunately, an African American volunteer was as rare as snow in this South Pacific nation. Consequently, there was an understandable expectation that I would be white. Sadly, as soon as I stepped into a room and introduced myself the barriers came up. Inevitably I was forced into the same conversation that I had with strangers on the street. These conversations always ended with me declaring “Yes. I was born in the United States and so were both of my parents.” The statement, along with my American accent, appeared to be proof enough that I was indeed a “real” American and not some pretender; I was quickly accepted and was treated the same as the white volunteers. Regrettably, despite this acceptance, the vendors never got their lodging. When I said moce (goodbye) to the women they were still asking when it would happen. Isa.
As my time in Fiji drew to a close I felt compelled to spend more time with the women. I visited villages deep within the interior as well as settlements on the outskirts of towns. As I traveled throughout the country I always took along my pictures from home. The women were dumbfounded that my family looked so much like theirs. They finally understood that probably only geography and time separated us. Despite my failure with the market vendor project, the women helped me to see that I had made a difference with the people with whom I spent most of my time.
I know that I helped many Fijians overcome media-promoted misconceptions about black Americans. For example, they were amazed that I didn’t own a gun but that I did own my own home. These talented people laughed when they discovered that I could neither sing nor dance. They were in awe when I told them that almost all black Americans could drive and they owned their own cars. However, mixed with this wonder was some pity. After all past years of British rule and infiltration by the Chinese and Indians, the Fijians had retained both their language and culture while African Americans could not claim a similar ethnic heritage.
So, I said goodbye. I said goodbye after three years of building friendships and trust. I said moce to children I had known since birth. I said moce to women that I had learned to admire and to love. I said goodbye to my little house on the hill with the outside toilet, no hot water, and the flying cockroaches. I said moce to the family that had adopted me and loved me even though I wasn’t Fijian. I left friends and new family. It was sad and I cried because I had to leave.
Isa, Gwen. It is so sad.
Isa, Gwen. We will miss you.
Moce, Gwen. Goodbye.