Influential Fijian Women, Coconuts, and Me

Photo of coconut trees on the coast of Viti Levu, Fiji near Sigatoka Town.

In the South Pacific, it’s no surprise that coconuts are a big deal. Their usage is endless!–from a building material, to a source of healthy fat, to handmade virgin coconut oil that is used to prevent the spread of common skin disease such as scabies.

 

The complimentary phrase “vanka vaka niu” translates to “good like a coconut”–implying that everything about you is valuable, no aspect is gone to waste. In Bowen (the main dialect of indigenous Fijians), there are two words for coconut: ‘niu’ referring to the brown dried coconut that is good for making coconut milk and ‘bu’ which is the ripe green coconut that one has to climb all the way up a tree to retrieve. It’s no coincidence that ‘bu’ is also the Bowen word for grandma.

 

By this time I have been in Fiji as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) for almost 11 months. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, and I’ve made some friends. But one thing I have learned for sure in my time in Fiji is how much value and power can be wielded by a small island grandma (Aka Naus in my local Cakodrove dialect).

Community Development

The main objective of Peace Corps in Fiji is to support the nation’s youth development goals by getting young people motivated and engaged with their communities in a healthy way and by promotimg wellness on all levels. This is achieved by projects such as starting a youth club in the village, or a farm to generate income for young people, or by empowering school girls to study math, or by promoting sports and physical activity.

However, across Peace Corps Fiji, PCVs run into many obstacles in mobilizing and connecting with their communities’ youth. As a result, many PCVs decide to dedicate their time and energy to collaborating with women’s groups to inspire community action. The importance of Fijian women in sustainable development is often overlooked, yet they possess substantial economic decision-making power on the community level. In my experience, older women in Fiji have the reputation of being the most concerned and passionate about the wellness and health of their families, ecosystems, oceans, and land. Therefore it is natural to support them developing as leaders in this movement.

 

Impact on My Work

Women working on an organic farming project in Ba district in Western Fiji. This project aims to support healthy eating and generate income for the community.

When working in the international development sphere, understanding the social dynamics of the community and culture are almost more important than practical knowledge of how to run a sustainable farm or organize a workshop. This is a topic that came up time and time again in my policy courses with Professor Segarra during my first year at Bard CEP. When working on a local level, simply coordinating projects with those claiming to be in charge can exclude a wealth of knowledge and power held by marginalized groups in your targeted community. This is a foundational principle of Peace Corps and one of the main reasons PCVs serve for two years–it really takes that long to even begin to understand the finer interpersonal layers that influence community development, environmental policy, and public health.

Being a young woman myself, I’ve had the privilege of being welcomed with open arms into many of the elder women’s spaces. This has allowed me to build relationships that have revealed many of the desires and visions of communities on a one-to-one level. A really important lesson I have learned while working in international development is to be aware of how your presence as an ‘expert’ or simply an American impacts space, what is talked about, and who feels comfortable voicing their needs or opinions. To use Peace Corps terminology, “there is no such thing as a silent observer.” Meaning that you always have an impact on the social dynamics when working in a cross-cultural space.

 

As an environmentalist, we think a lot about promoting behavioral changes through policy or economic incentives. As a PCV in Fiji, I am interested in the power of the historic change makers of this culture, the Bu of the families. The grandmas who are most dedicated to wellness and most respected in their communities.

Two Fijian moms having some fun burning the weeds after clearing out a field for planting in Ba district, Western Fiji.

In Bard CEP Climate and Agroecology course taught by Professor Phillips, we often talked about the value of indigenous knowledge in sustainable agriculture and climate adaptation. I believe that, in order to promote sustainability and wellness on a grassroots level, it is important to explore the power of traditional change agents. For this reason, I have been recently dedicating a lot of time to working with mothers on healthy eating projects in surrounding villages.

 

I am looking forward to growing, learning, and sharing with my community as I move on to my second year of Peace Corps service in Fiji.

 

About Maya Whalen-Kipp

Maya is a M.S. student of Climate Science and Environmental Policy and recent grad of Union College, Schenectady NY. Maya is interested in climate change mitigation and adaptation for Island communities. In the fall of 2017, Maya is departing for Peace Crops-Fiji as a masters international fellow. She loves tropical wetland ecosystems and ceramic arts.