The province of Ra is one of the strongest, most ethnically and linguistically diverse communities in all of Fiji, with over 86 villages and a population of 29,464 (2007 census). And it is also well recognized for keeping keeping traditional Fijian values like vei lomani – directly translated as ‘love in action’ – alive. Rupeni Vatugata, a 74-year old carpenter from the village of Namarai, explains: “When you see someone, you will say hello and share a special respect with your fellow villager.”
It was vei lomani that saw communities across Ra come together in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Winston in early 2016. Winston – the biggest storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere – impacted 62% of the Fiji population and caused F$2 Billion in damage (20% GDP). It killed 44 people, injured hundreds and left 131,000 people homeless. The Category 5 storm first made landfall in Ra, leaving its communities completely devastated.
“I thought that God was returning on that day,” says Raivolita ‘Rai’ Tabusoro, 43, former village headman of Nabukadra, just down the road from Rupeni. “There were many who sustained heavy injuries from flying debris and falling into drains, trying to survive.”
The ceiling of Rai’s home was ripped away by catastrophic winds. He was able to save the life of his elderly mother by placing her in a concrete bathroom, as well as a pregnant woman who he carried to shelter.
“We lost everything. The next morning, the sun was shining as if nothing happened. It was as if a bomb was dropped in the village because there was nothing left, not even clothes were spared. I called everyone and for a moment, we were all crying.”
Asmita Kamal, a 24-year-old teacher from Dagarotu near RakiRaki, found shelter under a table with her grandmother while her family hid under a bed as Winston blasted through their village. Despite their best efforts to secure their house, strong winds swept away just about everything.
“We tried to tie it [house] three or four times. As soon as my brother and father came down from the roof and we came inside the house, half of our roof was gone. Within seconds the other part of the roof was gone. I was very sad and scared. That house, when we were young, my grandfather built it and everything was just gone.”
Rebuilding from the heart