A year ago this week, the strongest cyclone in recorded history to make landfall in the South Pacific Basin hit Fiji. Unicef NZ’s Lachlan Forsyth travelled to the tiny village of Rakiraki to see how a devastated community is slowly rebuilding.
It’s a modest collection of buildings. A couple of classrooms, some homes for the teaching staff, a concrete toilet block, a big rugby field. At one end of the school stands a lone netball hoop made out of the slim trunk of a small tree and a hoop of reinforcing steel.
But Nawaqavesi Primary School is also one of the most spectacular-looking schools you could imagine. It’s surrounded by towering volcanic cliffs, thick with vegetation so lush it’s almost indecent.
This school is collectively owned by a handfuls of villages and settlements in this part of Rakiraki, the northern region of Viti Levu.
Understandably, the locals are very proud of it.
So there’s a terrible irony that on the night of February 20th, it was the school building itself that smashed houses to pieces.
Piece by piece, the main school building was pulled apart by Winston’s winds, bits of iron and wood slamming into the half dozen homes located directly behind it.
A year on, and they’re still in pieces. A large foundation slab shows where part of the school still has to be rebuilt. But two other classrooms are good to go once more.
In all, 70 boys and 69 girls are supposed to attend. But do they?
“Good question. To be honest, no. Girls go.”
Blunt, but honest, words. Village elder Nacaniele Nataucema says his community is in trouble. Winston is still making itself felt.
It should be paradise. Modest yet comfortable homes, tucked into a remote sun-drenched valley nestled by the sea. Lush forest, fertile soil, that hot, hot sun.
Except, that’s not the whole picture. The families here are mainly subsistence farmers. They grow enough to feed themselves, with perhaps a bit leftover to sell.
The crops the region is famed for – eggplant, melons, cassava – are thin on the ground. Where Winston didn’t destroy crops, it drenched the land with spray, contaminating the soils with salt.
The few farmers growing sugar cane are getting a fraction of the price they used to – maybe $60 a tonne. Nacaniele says 30 years ago, it was $107 per tonne.
“The parents can’t afford to buy them uniforms, food, school bags,” he explains. “If there’s no nearby school, they can’t afford to pay for them to reach the next school.”
So boys have been working to support their families, at the cost of their education – just one of the ongoing, unseen, effects of Cyclone Winston.
These locals are familiar with cyclones. They can easily deal with a category 2 or 3. God forbid, maybe a 4.
That Friday had been warm and breezy. The warnings saying Winston was due to bear south towards Suva, so the community was relatively relaxed. Residents stored some belongings, and got their children home for what they thought may be a rough night.
Winston was a category 5, the strongest cyclone ever recorded to hit Fiji, with winds of around 300kph. At the last minute, Winston changed course, and smashed Rakiraki to pieces.
Village elder Asesala Takatiko is in his early 60s, with white hair, a wicked smile, and a generous hand with the kava cup. He can’t recall a cyclone as destructive as Winston.
“We never expected something like this. It was so sudden, that almost everyone was affected.”
A little further up the road is Dobuilevu Muslim School. Head teacher Shahim Hussein tells how he was sheltering inside the main school building with his wife and two-year-old son when Winston hit.
Hunkered down with them were 130 other people. 57 families in all. 12 babies. 6 pregnant women.
“It was terrifying. We just asked people to pray. There was no way out.”
For 45 minutes they prayed aloud as Winston raged around them. One by one the windows shattered. Then the roof tore away. Shahim said he could see the balcony at the front “moving like a clothesline.”
“People were yelling out, we shouted at them to stay. We were worried about the ceiling coming down on us.”
45 minutes of terror, and at the end, the school was gone.
The building they’d been sheltering in was missing its roof, balcony and windows. The massive water tank had been knocked over. But as broken as it was, it became the community’s focal point for the community. Families from remote settlement walked for kilometres to gather, share food, and take shelter. Their houses were smashed. Where else to go?
And as the community started to rebuild, the focus went back to normality, and a desire for their children to go back to school.
Remarkably, the school was back up and running within a fortnight, with a Unicef-provided tent for a schoolhouse. The ground was often boggy from the rains, but for nine months children learned in their canvas classroom while their school was rebuilt.
The repairs happening all over Rakiraki are about more than just preparing communities for the next storm, they’re about a sustainable, more rewarding future.
With funding from Unicef, new water and sanitation systems have been installed. There’s a new bore, and a strong frame for the water tank, so that it won’t tear loose, and go rolling drunkenly down the road. A new roof is going on a newly-strengthened school building, with another building still to come.
‘We were very fortunate to have these services provided by Unicef. Without support we can’t do anything. Tarpaulins mean the school could still operate, later we got tents,” says Nataucema.
There’s a brand-new toilet block, painted a jaunty pink, and a new hand-washing facility for the children, ingeniously made from the remnants of the old balcony.
Trachoma, an infectious eye disease that is particularly contagious among children, had been a particular problem. No more.
“Handwash, and eyewash, it helped a lot.”
Oh, and a new photocopier. The last one did a good job running off black and white copies, a poor one standing up to a cyclone.
The only way to rebuild after a cyclone that’s wiped out everything, is from the ground up. That said, the first thing to go up at Nawaqavesi was actually a new ceiling. The sight of bare beams had been upsetting pupils, reminding them of when Winston had ripped their own roofs off. The new ceiling meant they could sit important exams without reliving the memory of that night.
Schools have been supported by Unicef and the Ministry of Education to reduce the burden on struggling parents by providing pupils with school uniforms, supplies, and bags. These kids utterly adore their bright blue Unicef bags. Nawaqavesi’s head teacher, Niraj Kumar, told us how children would return home and clean them at the end of each day.
They also provide meals, ensuring that every child gets something hot and nutritious at least once a day (the freshly caught and grilled parrotfish dished up when we visited would have been at home in many restaurants.)
It’s cyclone season again in the Pacific, meaning more storms will come – the downside of living in a tropical paradise. But with the efforts and repairs put in place since Winston, Shahim believes they’ll be in a much better place when the next one arrives.
“To look new is one thing, but the main work being done now, the engineers are making sure it’s being built to stand. It’ll hold up to smaller cyclones. It will be much better,” he says.
“We were fortunate, and we will be fortunate again.”
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