Vei Lomani: Rupeni’s story

On 20 February 2016, Tropical Cyclone Winston, the most intense (category five) tropical cyclone in the Southern Hemisphere on record, struck the mainland of Fiji, killing 44 people and injuring countless others.

Hundreds of people lost their homes, with others seriously damaged, including Rupeni Vatugata’s, 74, from the village of Namarai in the province of Ra, on the northern coast of Viti Levu, Fiji’s biggest and main island.

In the early evening of the 20th of February, Government officials called a nation-wide curfew. Rupeni, husband and father of four, says he and his wife didn’t notice any of the usual natural signs of an oncoming cyclone.

Portrait of Rupeni Vatugata, 75, and his wife Losena Cagi inside their home in Namarai, in Fiji’s Ra Province, on the main island of Viti Levu. Namarai was devastated by Cyclone Winston in February 2016. Of the 37 houses in the village, only seven remained upright during the Category 5 storm – Rupeni and Losena’s home being one of them. In the 18 months since Winston, Rupeni has dedicated his time to rebuilding the community, volunteering his carpentry skills to construct new homes using the building materials supplied by the Fijian Government. Losena is proud of her husband, but wishes he would spend some time rebuilding their kitchen, which was the only room to be damaged by Winston. It remains unused while Rupeni helps his community.

“In the morning we didn’t know there would be a cyclone, we came from Suva just to check on our house. In the afternoon when winds started, the disaster office officials came into our village to say the cyclone will come today, and that everyone is to go down to the village hall. After that, I said for my wife and I to pray, prepare, and then we go down. When we were down there, I never thought that my house would be damaged; I had faith in my prayers.”

Rupeni Vatugata, 75, reads from the bible as sun rises over his village of Namarai, in Fiji’s Ra Province. A Seventh-Day Adventist, Rupeni observes Sabbath on Saturdays, rising for prayer at 4am and 6am. He describes Cyclone Winston as the ‘second coming of Jesus’. When asked where his community’s strength and resilliance comes from, he replies simply: “Fiji is paradise is because it’s a country that cares. It’s God’s gift to us to love each other.”

Having lived through Tropical Cyclone Bebe in 1972, which killed 28 people, Rupeni understood the devastating impact of a tropical cyclone. But nothing prepared him for what he saw during Winston.

“It was scary. The first winds blew from the south. You could only see when you looked outside – it was like a fog – I couldn’t see a single rain drop. That was the strength of the winds, it evaporated the raindrops.

All the children and their families were in the village hall during that time. If you look at the side of the village hall, you can see a huge African tulip tree. The winds pushed the tree into the water. I saw it with my own eyes and I felt the south-easterly winds, and it was terrifying. It picked that tree and brought it down to the village ground.

We saw that houses were being blown away together with its stilts. The roof flew away, together with the posts. Only the soil was left. I’m not sure which part of the world it was blown to. In this village, only six houses remained and about thirty houses were blown away.”

Fortunately, no lives were lost in Rupeni’s village, however the damage left in Winston’s wake was more than physical.

“People were scared and sad because of their belongings. There were no pots, no plates, no cups, no beds and no TV. All the good household items had disappeared during that short span of time.

Maybe in 3 hours all of people’s belongings disappeared, items they treasured in their house.  I don’t like what the cyclone did because it was heartbreaking. Fortunately no lives were lost but there were a few injured. For a week they ate together and 3 months after the cyclone some families lived in the evacuation centre.”

Rupeni an experienced carpenter of twenty years knew what needed to be done. Rebuild needed to go underway immediately, and he quickly assembled and led a team of builders from the community.

Rupeni Vatugata, 75, stands inside a family home badly damaged during Cyclone Winston in 2015, in his village Namarai, Ra Province. The Category 5 storm tore the roofs off many houses, in some cases lifted entire homes from their foundations and sent them crashing into the countryside. Corrugated iron and trees could be seen flying through the air. Those same pieces of iron were used to build temporary houses (pictured behind). The Fijian Government has provided support to communities badly impacted by the cyclone through provision of building supplies for new homes and income support.

“At first, we started building to provide shelter, since there were hardly any houses. Tents came later. We would rebuild our village communally. I was the team leader for rebuilding in the village. Everything went well because we look after each other and work together.”

With tears in his eyes, Rupeni says his biggest motivation to help people is vei lomani, directly translated as love in action. Rupeni’s humility, compassion and hard work aren’t limited to his own community; he’s worked on rebuilding houses in three other villages nearby.

“Some ask me, why do you do it? This is how I live my life, to help others. I have been doing carpentry for over twenty years and I don’t get any payment for it.  I do it out of love and to help those that need their houses built. I’m truly happy. Twelve houses in Naocobau and Namarai have been completed, four completed in Nadavacia and four completed in Saioko.”

Rupeni Vatugata, 75, and his nephew sit on top of bags of cement and building supplies overlooking the village of Namarai, in Ra Province, Fiji. Rupeni calls himself a ‘Namarai Boy’ – he was born in the village 1943. Along with some of the other elders in the village, Rupeni has lived through Cyclone Bebe in 1972 as well as Cyclone Winston, the largest storm ever recorded in the southern hemisphere that devastated Fiji in February 2016.

With age comes wisdom, and Rupeni has it in spades. When asked why his community has been resilient in their response to Tropical Cyclone Winston, his response is simple.  

“Caring for each other. One reason why Fiji is paradise is because it’s a country that cares. I can walk through this door and that door and I’m free to do so. That’s the love we have in this community. It is our gift from God to love each other.”

Rupeni Vatugata, 75, and his dog Lella in front of a partially constructed home in Namarai, a village along the coast of Ra Province, Fiji. Rupeni has helped rebuild 13 homes following Category 5 Cycone Winston which devastated the area in 2016.

Our Home, Our People is a storytelling project produced by the Fijian Government, in partnership with the World Bank, Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the ACP-EU Natural Disaster Risk Reduction Program.

Encompassing a 360° virtual reality video and this siteOur Home, Our People explores climate change vulnerability and resilience in Fiji through the stories of our people. Combined with findings of the Climate Vulnerability Assessment 2017, the memories, hopes, fears of Asmita, Rai, Rupeni and Catalina show us how rising sea levels and extreme weather impact Fijian people today, and what support is required in the future. Photography and photo captions by Alana Holmberg, words and storytelling by Arieta Tora Rika.

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Arieta Tora Rika is a Tongan-Fijian Freelance Writer, Digital Communications Specialist, and Talanoa’s Founder and Creative Director. Born in Darlinghurst in the late 80s, she spent most of her childhood in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia, and all of her teen years in Tonga. She now lives in Western Sydney with her husband Josese.