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“You work for Red Cross?” the shopkeeper asks.
I’m with Vasemaca Vuki, known as ‘Va’, the Fiji Red Cross Safety Coordinator, buying roti rolls from a small stall at the bus station in Savusavu, in the north of Fiji. We explain that yes, we do work for Red Cross.
The shopkeeper isn’t convinced.
“But your shirts are different,” he says. I’m wearing the standard New Zealand Red Cross black polo shirt, with the white-and-red New Zealand Red Cross emblem. Va is wearing a bright purple Fiji Red Cross Society polo shirt, with a blue and red Fiji Red Cross emblem, and a band of white tapa design running down the side. My envy of their beautiful uniform is no secret to Va.
“That’s right,” I reply. “But we’re from one organisation: Red Cross.”
Va and I are bringing psychosocial support to Fijian communities affected by Cyclone Winston, training volunteers in psychological first aid. After the Christchurch earthquake, I was involved in adapting an international psychosocial support programme to meet the needs of New Zealanders. Here, my role is to share the lessons we learnt with Fiji Red Cross, so that they can do the same after Cyclone Winston.
Already key aspects of this form of support are being translated as talanoa, the sharing of stories together.
On my third day in Fiji, the Fiji Red Cross Director General, Filipe Nainoca, met with Red Cross technical experts like myself, here to help with shelter, logistics and psychosocial support. He told us that alone you might run fast, but together we can run far.
We have been working to make this a reality, capacity-building with local staff by working closely with our Fijian counterparts. But the learnings are reciprocal. Working with Va, explaining to volunteers how to support people in distress, and helping them give messages about reducing stress and accessing emotional support, has given me a new perspective on how we communicate these concepts, and why integrating this project into all response and recovery work is so important.
I know I will take away as much from Fiji as I hope I am leaving behind.
Va and I are currently on our third trip to cyclone affected villages, supporting and training our volunteers. We will soon be on a boat that will take us across the sea to Taveuni, a small island in the north. By the end of the week, we will have reached our target of 80 trained ‘PFA Champions’ - as Fiji Red Cross refers to their psychosocial support volunteers. We plan to celebrate over lamb curry at Va’s favourite restaurant in Suva.
Loaded back on the bus, sharing our roti with the music and laughter of locals around us, watching coconut palms, children in neat school uniforms and boys riding horses whizzing by the window, it feels like together, we really are going far.