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Life as an aid worker is like a rollercoaster - there are many ups and downs. One minute you’re riding high, excited about the possibilities ahead, the next you’re frustrated, exhausted and wishing for the energy to run in the opposite direction!
For communities recovering from Tropical Cyclone Winston, the journey is much the same. Like a rollercoaster, recovery brings highs and lows.
Since arriving in Fiji, I’ve visited many damaged villages. I’ve met people spending their fourth month without proper shelter, people longing for their beloved dalo while they wait for replanted crops to ripen. Every visit is a reminder of the highs and lows of the recovery rollercoaster.
Today, I’m visiting Naboutolu, a village on Vanua Levu. Eight-year-old Vasenai shows me the remains of her community leader’s home. Here, a high floor protected her family from the cyclone.
“I wasn’t scared,” she tells me. “We were all here together.”
The damage is arresting. Ninety per cent of the houses here were seriously damaged or destroyed, and those repaired by the community are a patchwork of old tin. I feel the rollercoaster dipping. But Vasenai is proud of her community: the village is looking forward.
“We just want to get back to normal lives,” says her neighbour.
This is a common sentiment after a disaster, and one I’ve experienced myself. Christchurch is my hometown. Since the earthquakes, we’ve learnt what a long journey recovery can be. But we also know that with support from each other, we will recover. A disaster steals many things we take for granted, but it also gives us a new appreciation of what’s important.
I see Vasenai’s smile, her pride at what her village has achieved, and the rollercoaster heads skyward.
Vasenai’s village is one of many hit by the cyclone. But Fiji Red Cross has a not-so-secret weapon to help communities rebuild – hundreds of passionate volunteers.
I’ve been lucky to work closely with these volunteers. They’re enthusiastic and full of humour, despite experiencing Winston’s full force. I meet Ateca Nayasi, who waded from her flooded house holding her young son, and Zoya Begg, who resigned from two jobs to continue volunteering with Red Cross.
I see their dedication during our intensive, week-long training. There’s a lot to learn, but the team remains upbeat. The room booms with more laughter and wider smiles than you would see on a real rollercoaster!
But, just like a real rollercoaster, at some point the ride stops. As an aid worker, I get to go home.
Communities recovering from disasters don’t have this luxury. I’ve lived through both sides of recovery now, and knowing I’ll be leaving while Fiji is still recovering may be the hardest part of my job.
But for now, the journey continues. My bag, mosquito net and hiking shoes are packed. Tomorrow I’m travelling to a part of Fiji I’ve never visited before, an eastern island called Ovalau.
The rollercoaster is climbing again.
Me te wa,
After the storm
Category five Tropical Cyclone Winston was the worst cyclone to ever hit Fiji, devastating large parts of the country when it made landfall in February 2016.
Forty four people were killed, hundreds injured and an estimated 350,000 people affected - almost half of Fiji’s population. Entire villages were virtually wiped out, and infrastructure, schools and businesses were destroyed.
Fiji Red Cross has reached more than 63,000 people with emergency relief. Staff and volunteers have provided communities with tarpaulins, blankets, kitchen sets and family packs and have given psychosocial support to more than 550 people.
“We have been able to make a big difference to the lives of many. Our focus has not only been on meeting people’s material needs but also on helping them to overcome their emotional distress,” says Filipe Nainoca, Director General of Fiji Red Cross.
However, communities in Fiji are still in need. Donate today and help make a difference.