Building Trust and Overcoming Racial Stereotypes
Funding a Project
“Give me a good reason why the Canada Fund should finance your facilitation project here in Labasa. And don’t say that it is to facilitate a development project for poor women. That is what everyone says. Give me a unique angle that will convince my boss!”
Adi Vasu of the Pacific Center for Peacebuilding (PCP) thought for a moment and said, “Here in Fiji, indigenous Fijian women’s groups can connect with government through their provinces. Our hierarchical culture demands that the leader has to be a chiefly woman. But if she is not committed to the group the other women can’t offend by bypassing her, so nothing happens. On the other hand, the more egalitarian IndoFijian women have a freedom to discuss and act but they don’t have a clear route to government.
A multiracial women’s group would pool the strengths of both. That is why you should fund our PCP program to facilitate the Vunicuicui Multiracial Women’s Forum in their cooperative store and seed bank projects.” “O.K. that’s it!” said the Canada Fund lady. “I think we can buy into that project.”
PCP was formed at the beginning of 2009, with five members in the capital of Fiji, Suva, and with Adi Vasu (Fijian) and her assistant Sindu (IndoFijian) in the Labasa town office. Adi Vasu had previously met some members of the rural Vunicuicui Women’s Forum at a workshop in Labasa. She realized that it was a unique
group and wanted to help.
Originally, a Labasa Multiracial Women’s Forum was started at the behest of some national politicians. Julie Waqa, an indigenous Fijian woman, and Nirmala Wati, an IndoFijian woman from Vunicuicui settlement, ten miles from Labasa, independently attended the forum. They met there, as enthusiasm for the Labasa forum began to falter. They decided to set up a women’s multiracial forum in Vunicuicui itself in September 2004. “I wanted Indian and Fijian women to work closely together, because we ladies just stayed at home doing housework,” said Julie. They both gathered some friends and held meetings in their houses in rotation. Julie became president and Nirmala served as the vice president of the group.
The women shared their knowledge and skills with each other. “When the meeting was at my place, I would teach flower arrangement and landscaping,” reported Julie. “We used to organize raffles and collections, but we were not known to the Ministry for Women,” remembered Nirmala. The Fijian women are Methodist and the IndoFijian women are Hindu. Prayers at the beginning of each meeting alternate between religions. At times the women met only once every two or three months, but the forum persevered.
Language and communication is the biggest problem the forum faces. Some members only speak their mother tongue but not English or the other vernacular. “Money is another problem,” according to Julie. “We need money, a better road and electricity. In the wet season the bus cannot travel to the end of the settlement and the farmers have to walk a long way with their market produce.” The forum persuaded a bus company to schedule a bus to leave for Labasa town at 6:00 a.m. so that the market vendors can get to town early.
Adi Vasu visited the Vunicuicui ladies and heard about their problems. She suggested that they send a petition for electricity to the government through the provincial office. The forum women decided their priority need was a shop near Nirmala’s house because there was none in that area of the settlement.
The forum, guided by the PCP facilitators, began to plan for a cooperative shop and eventually, when electricity arrives, an internet café for the children to use for school projects. The area is also subject to heavy flooding. In the past the government has been slow in assisting the replanting of crops. So a seed bank, situated in a Fijian village on high ground, became a second forum project.
Nine members of the forum completed an eight day course in new business creation last June. Most of the women who completed the course received small grants and loans from the government for individual projects. Their group project for the cooperative shop was also approved. In July, the forum had a visit from the Ministry for Women. She applauded the multiracial composition of the group and gave them a present of a sewing machine.
Adi Vasu invited me to facilitate two, one-day intercultural workshops for the forum. Because the work of this multicultural group of women is ongoing, I accepted gladly. I tried to help the Fijian and IndoFijian women understand how their different cultural values and communication styles could affect their work together. The forum offi cers had one big blowup.
Unfortunately it occurred in front of the bank manager. An agreed change of contractor was not written in the business plan. When this was discovered, just as the bank manager was to sign over the grant money to them, an emotional explosion occurred which split the group along racial lines. Racial stereotypes got a loud airing in public. Shame and fear resulted. However, the PCP facilitators later helped the group to reflect and learn from this.
Looking Back and Forward
Reflecting on their relationship over the last six years Julie said, “I learn a lot from the Indian women in our forum, and I like working with them. I learned how to budget and how they prepare food. We Fijians have to have a surplus of food. They prepare food nicely and just enough for each person.”
Nirmala commented, “I was raised and socialized with indigenous Fijians. Our Fijian neighbors were very friendly, and our family was very close to them. I can understand and speak a little Fijian. I really like the forum.”
On January 20, 2010, I was honored to bless the shop site at the ground breaking ceremony. Government officials, bankers and local people were present. In the context of mistrust between Fijians and Indo–Fijians fanned by four coups in the lasttwenty years, the Vunicuicui Woman’s Forum and the Pacific Center for Peace–building have planted a seed of hope. It points the way to a better future, though there is still a long way to travel.