Confronting Poverty with Stoicism Plus

At the beginning of 1955, my family left the village for Suva in search of better educational opportunities for my brother and I. It was a journey from the comfort of the collective, cultural and traditional milieu – of subsistence affluence, to the unknown which inevitably confronted a nuclear family trying to make a living in new surroundings in the bustling city of Suva, Fiji’s capital city, in the late 1950s. We struggled financially. We were enfeebled by poverty. In retrospect, however, we managed to get by through the family’s improvisation in the face of adversity, but aided immensely by contributions, in many ways, of the collective that we had left behind in our pursuit of a new life and of the extended family that emanated from that collective.

My brother had turned 12 years old in January 1955 and I was going to be 9 years old in October of the same year. However, both our educations had already been impeded. My brother had wasted months of education during his hospitalization at Yaro Health Centre in Nakasaleka, whilst I had lost one whole year in 1952, when I had turned 6 years old. My parents thought it best at the time to seek opportunities in the capital city to make good what education we had missed.

Such a decision is never made in haste. My parents would have considered all aspects before they affirmed their decision. The family, including my grandmother, had to pack up and leave; and the two residences of Natavasara and Levuka would have to be left vacant. For Natavasara, this was nothing new. Dad’s grandfather had left Natavasara vacant when he was transferred out as a Methodist catechist from 1885 to 1896. Dad’s father, on the other hand, never stayed in Natavasara in his first 36 years of life.

There was the business of finance to be sorted out. Living in the capital city costs money. I doubt whether my parents had any savings at the time. My father was able to find a job as a crew member on the inter-island boat: ‘Ai Sokula’ before we left for Suva. He managed to secure this through the help of an uncle, who was the captain of the ‘Ai Sokula’. This uncle also sorted out our accommodation in Suva. His family was renting a house on Toorak  Road and he sub-let a room to my family.

So began our sojourn in Suva. My father was the only income earner – albeit a low income. Our education plan did not start on a good footing. My brother was able to secure a place at Nabua Central Fijian School (NCFS). There was no place however for me. Priorities were given to those whose birth days were in the first half of the year.

I was able to get a place in 1956 at Class 4. By this time, the family had decided to move closer to the school to save on bus fares. We rented a room in an old wooden house on Wainivula Road, towards the Caubati end. With schooling costs for two of us (even though my brother and I walked to school every day) and rents and costs of amenities, it was becoming difficult to make ends meet. Mum thus started doing a laboring job on a vegetable farm owned by a Chinese market farmer. The additional income was hardly anything to write home about. On occasions, wages were paid in kind, in Chinese cabbages!

We needed a cheaper accommodation option. Dad managed to negotiate another sub-letting arrangement with relatives from Nakasaleka at the bottom of Lakeba Street near the old Samabula Theatre. This was still within walking distance of school, but across a stream that got flooded when it rained and a dairy paddock with high fences to cross and vicious dogs to contend with.

At this time, dad left his seaman’s job and was able to get into carpentry, the work he was trained for and he started with Reddy Construction Limited. He also managed to arrange a watchman’s job at the same time. As such, he was entitled to live on site in a flat at the bottom of the head office on Moala Street. So the move there from our previous accommodation was not too far, closer to the school by only about 150 meters.  The flat however came with good arable land and we planted taro and vegetables there for our own use. We therefore saved on rents and on food.

Later, dad got another job with Suva City Council, which meant having to move again – from the Reddy Construction flat. This time around, we moved to Lakeba Street, not far away. My brother and I still had to cross the stream and the dairy paddock on the way to school. This, again, was another sub-letting arrangement. An aunt from my mother’s side and her family were renting a house and there was a spare room for sub-letting. We welcomed the opportunity. We were able to establish a food garden there as well.

The family was getting by, but there were no frills in our lives. No butter on our bread; no milk in our tea. We could not afford thermos flasks. So it had to be cold tea for school. When it rained, we did the most sensible thing to do and that was to place our school uniform in a plastic bag and get changed when we got to school. There was no regular pocket money. I would be rationed spending money on special occasions only including bus fares. I had to walk home once after a full day at the Miss Hibiscus festival because I had spent all my rationed money. No footwear either. My first footwear ever had to wait until I got to secondary school and went to Queen Victoria School (QVS) for Form 6 in 1965 because it was part of the regulation uniform for the school. Birthday celebrations? Not in my family! My first had to wait 21 years when I was at university in New Zealand. My university mates took me to a pub and shouted me beers and fish and chips wrapped in newspaper.

My family was always looking for opportunities to cut costs and save on our limited resources. We had moved around a bit from 1955-1958. In 1959, I was in Class 7, when another aunt on my mother’s side offered a house in Nabua Village to the family. We quickly moved there. That was the start of our longest sojourn on any one place in Suva as a family. We ended up moving to another house nearby in the village. Eventually dad built a house himself on the adjacent block. General facilities however were still shared.

That started another phase for the family. I had started secondary schooling in 1961. Finally, we could claim that we had our own house in Suva. We started home gardens when land was available in those early days. It was our turn to return some of the hospitality we had received since 1955. We offered our old house to my aunt who had kindly accommodated us on Lakeba Street. Our house in Nabua was always full of relatives. There were relatives attending schools in Suva and who were boarders at home. There were relatives who were working and also boarders at home. It was difficult sometimes to find sleeping mats. Luckily, our relatives next door were able to offer extra sleeping places. During examination times, I had to sleep and do my assignment in an aunt’s kitchen.

No frills continued.  We continued to economise. Every week, we bought sui, bones, from Leylands Butchery to cook with bele. We experimented with dhal because we could stretch it to feed the clan.

With increasing numbers of boarders at home, we were relieved to receive increasing food supplies from relatives and from the extended family in the villages and in Viti Levu also whenever they visited Suva (see for instance: ‘A Touch of Kindness Instead of being Punitive.’). A great-aunt, for instance, lived in Nasigatoka Village, Nadroga, and whenever her family came to Suva, she would send food galore and other items of great cultural value. There were of course various hand-me-downs. These were a god-send. Further god-sends came in the form of an offer from the village to pay for my school fees whilst at secondary school.

The family’s decision to seek our fortune in Suva in 1955, after being ably provisioned by subsistence affluence for decades, was a rude shock to the system and we were exposed to the reality of low wages and the struggle to make ends meet. Life was only tolerable through perseverance and dedication to the cause that had driven us to leave the comfort of the community whose collective custody for its members that had withstood the test of time was a welcome intervention worthy of much praise.

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