This week I’ve been in Fiji with Sa Manu teaching people how to make soap. It turned out to be a whole lot more than that – we swapped (food) recipes, I discovered how quickly the human body heals when you apply antiseptic and so much more.
The journey there was amazing in itself. Next time I might invest a little more in flights and land on the small landing strip on Ovalau as it took over a day of taxis, planes, buses, ferrys and trucks to get to the village from Nadi airport. It didn’t take long for my joints to swell up in the humidity.
The place we were headed to is a small island on the northern coast of Ovalau called Arovundi (arrrruvoondi - The Fijian language is full of enthusiastically rolled ‘r’s). The people of Arovundi are still rebuilding after hurricane Winston stipped the soil back to bedrock in a dramatic half hour early last year. The village is situated by the sea next to what were crop covered hillsides shaded by a mango forest before the hurricane. We arrived just after dark and were welcomed (after I put a long skirt called a sulu on) into the house of Sa’s relatives and sat on floor mats for a Kava ceremony. The only male in our little group introduced us and presented Kava (a lightly relaxing root of a bush) from his village on the mainland. It was mixed with water and we drank in turns. Then the male head of the household welcomed us with a reflection of what we had just done. We presented our gifts – essential food and baby items bought in Suva plus equipment to make soap, a sewing machine, knitted beanies to sell, muffin tins and a labelling machine to make labels for the beanies.
On the way to the single garage-sized house I would be staying in, I was told this family had been picked to host me as theirs was the only house in the village with inside plumbing and a table. I felt guilty as I was shown to the only bedroom while the family of four (plus one on the way) slept in the living room. There was indeed inside plumbing – a small room that just fitted a flush toilet and another the same size for the shower/laundry. This fresh running water from a spring an hour away in the hills (and associated drainage) would be invaluable in making soap. The family put what I would later learn was a massive meal on the table and encouraged me to eat. The hospitality this family showed me during my short time in the village was amazing.
The next day we made our first batch of soap. The three woman who were interested in making soap were looking for business ideas to start earning money again after the hurricane. Their sewing machines and fishing equipment had blown away and they didn’t have any savings or insurance to get more, so their standard of living had dropped dramatically. Selling soap in the village and in Lavuka, the nearest tourist town, could give them a potentially reliable source of income. Like many of us in the Western World, they have children and grandchildren to bring up and can’t leave home for long without putting pressure on a web of childcare arrangements.
I had been told that olive oil was in good supply and as such has brought along a recipe that focused on that, and some olive oil. While the soap turned out well, I had to make a few adjustments for next time to account for the extreme humidity and the fact that the ‘olive oil’ I’d bought in Suva acted as though it was mainly pomace. My most distressing discovery was that olive oil is a bit of a luxury item in Fiji. But, the villagers had ample access to relatively cheap soyabean oil and in the next couple of years, as the coconuts grew back, they would have access to coconut oil. I’m currently experimenting with a more appropriate recipe for their resources and will email it to them.
One wonderful thing I discovered was the variety of plants around the village that could be made into oils. This would be essential to improve the quality of soap if they are to make it with soyabean oil. While not yet back be being abundant, there are several trees that produce lovely oils such as the Fijian native sandalwood and the dilo. There are also several leaves such as Sama and Papaya that they use to make medicinal teas and could have potential in soap.
During my stay the three woman who planned to sell the soap discussed what they could charge for it, how to package it and whether they should cut some of the bars in half and sell them more cheaply to the poorer villages. They were full of ideas and didn’t need much help from me in these areas – I was just a sounding board.
This post is focused on the main reason I visited Arovundi, but as you can probably tell from the undertones, a lot more was going on. As anyone from Christchurch will tells you, rebuilding from underground up takes a lot longer than you’d think. New houses were being built in the space before and after work, crops were being planted and harvested, people line-fished on the beach and children went to school. The village is quietly getting back to the business of being a village after being literally blown away by a hurricane. By the time I climbed back into the truck to take me away there were tears in my eyes and I knew I would keep helping these people who wanted to help themselves.