Cross-Cultural Marriage in the Pacific – One of Life’s Great Adventures, or Train Wreck in Slow Motion?

pole wedding

Source: Time Life Magazine

A while ago I came across this photograph on my Facebook feed.  It looked so intriguing so I read a little about the couple in the picture.  They got married on top of a pole long ago.  Some said that they got divorced, some that the groom died alone in a ramshackle house and that sometimes the local kids used to go and throw rocks at the house “To Kill a Mockingbird Style”.  Whatever happened to the couple in the photo, it got me thinking.  We all start marriage with a sense of thrill, of excitement for the future and a belief that we can, together overcome all odds.  If we didn’t, how would we justify taking that huge leap into the unknown.  The symbolism of the couple married atop a pole symbolized to me the sense of joy, girlish hope and total belief in myself and my bond with another that I felt when I rushed headlong into a cross cultural marriage.  Don’t get me wrong, I thought I knew what I was in for.  It wasn’t my first marriage, and my children were almost all grown up, some having left home years ago.  I thought I had a knowledge of what obstacles come hand in hand with marriage, and was going in with my eyes wide open.  I had a belief in the future, taking on the lessons of the past, but I did truly believe in what I was doing.

One of my dearest friends told me at the time that there may be days that I questioned whether what I had done was wise, but to put on my adventure hat and hold on tight – to enjoy the ride, but knowing it might at times get a little hair-raising.

I realized I thought, that marrying someone from another culture would mean learning and understanding, not just what do, and what not to do, but WHY culturally it would be significant.  I have really worked hard over the last two years to do just that.  I have become involved in a lot of community projects; immersed myself fully in life here.  I have ceased to be merely an observer.  We have a freezer but no fridge, we have internet but no TV, I washed by hand for a year.  I made a chicken house from plastic bottles.  I raise pigs and chickens and we have a dog that came one day and stayed.  I plant my own vegetables.  I don’t have any high heels any more and wear flip flops every day, even to town.  I don’t wear make up.  I have met the High Chief of Bau twice and been to many villages.  My son spends every holiday and most weekends in the village, and speaks Fijian. I understand Fijian but can’t say much. I know how to cook Fijian and Indo-Fijian food, and often get asked about Fijian customs.  I study Fijian history  and culture and maybe know it better than many Fijians. I know how to weave mats.

Have I become a hippie?  No, I have just become Fijian.  However, what I have realized is that no matter how long I stay here, I will never be considered Fijian, even by my husband, or my family here.  I will always be different.  I will never be understood fully, and some things I will never understand.  I don’t mean language – I mean culture.  Actually, the things that I don’t understand are referred to as culture, but I believe that is an incorrect description – they are actions and deeds that hurt and destroy, which because of skin colour and place of birth, are passed off conveniently as “culture”, but bear little resemblance to honoured traditions of the past, or accepted cultural mores of the present.  Tragic human interactions and decisions are dressed up and paraded as culture by those who are uneducated about their own culture, and any other;by those desirous of living a “developed life” and who manipulate the lives of the unwitting or innocent to eek out some perceived gain.  The tragedy is that the gain or advantage dubiously plotted is only a perceived one, one that will never be realized, because those who are fiendish enough to hatch such plots are those who have already led lives of despair and have not the where with all or skill to derive the advantage.  Therefore their lives of despair continue to spiral, generation after generation is disadvantaged through their deception, creating a sub-culture which is then given the haughty and dignified name of “Our Culture”.  This erroneous term is then bandied about with abandon any time that the truth is dared to be spoken, often, with the precursor “You don’t understand (Our Culture)”; “You’ll never understand (Our Culture); “You have no right to comment on (Our Culture)”.  Eventually the offender is not even addressed, just spoken about as if deaf with the damning and sulky lament which trails off…”She’ll never understand (Our Culture), she has no rights, she is not One Of Us, she doesn’t understand The Pacific”, she doesn’t know anything about Me, she doesn’t know anything about Us”, followed by tears, tears, tears, sniff, sniff, sigh.  There also seems to be amongst the people who use these terms and phrases the solid and unwavering belief that white people have no “Culture”, and it then follows naturally that therefore, as they have no culture at all, that they are incapable of understanding any type of cultural interaction at all, let alone those of people of a different colour and place of birth.

To clarify, I enjoy my life here, and am not sure if I fit in with developed life anymore.  Every time I go back “home”, I feel a disconnect.  Living without many things, and no longer feeling the need for them makes me feel overwhelmed when I visit there.  Also, living in a developing country, I see that many of the items that are being marketed here as the trappings of “developed life” and therefore desirable are having such a negative and compounding effect that it makes me question what development should really look like, but who am I to pass judgement?  Families that need assistance for free bus fares for school children (when the bus is only 35 cents) seem to feel that the children must have fizzy drinks in plastic bottles.  That is just the start, and I am sure that if you are a reader of this blog, that you already know my opinions on many things and maybe don’t want to hear them again.

However, recently I took a month off the internet – really and truly, I didn’t look at it at all (I can hear some people gasp from across the oceans).  The world didn’t stop rotating – phew!  I can hear people thinking – WHY did you do that?  The reason I told my family was that it was a month long experiment.  That was a lie.  Actually it was because I got back from visiting my older kids, my friends,  and my elderly dad in Australia.  When I got back, I missed my friends, my kids, and my dad.  I felt sad, very sad.

I felt the most sad because I felt that I was back home in Fiji, but that many things are not as they should be.  Many things happen here, and are disguised or dismissed as ‘culture’.  Actually that is not the case.  Culture is respect for your elders (parents, older relatives, chiefs), and traditions.  Culture may even extend to men drinking yaqona (kava, a traditional ceremonial drink made of plant roots) after work.  Culture may even at a push extend to the relegation of women to being subjugated to men as it was not that long ago that Fijians were a warlike people, with rival tribes often fighting each other, and women needed their men to be strong.

What follows is the events of the past month un-distracted by internet – a look at culture in reality – both good and bad, constructive and destructive, real and imagined.  Much of it is just plain tragic – a train wreck in slow motion, with the outcome and destruction clear, but no one willing or able to stop the horrific carriage crashing into carriage, carnage, debris and chaos.  Of course, this is just my view, and the fact that I may have it all wrong, is the thing that makes me wonder whether I will ever understand this “culture”, or even wish to be part of it, if what I am told is “Pacific Island Culture” is what it really is.  I was hoping that the other parts of the culture that I have been part of were really the culture – you know, the good bits: respect for elders, respect for nature, a connection with the earth and the sea, love of animals, skills and knowledge willingly passed down, traditions.

Last month……

Fijians participated and voted in the first democratic election for eight years, and the first where people didn’t have to line up to vote according to race.  I helped a friend who is a successful young female pig farmer to demonstrate at the local Agriculture show that pigs which are fed on natural foods (vegetable waste from the local municipal markets) grow faster, stronger and healthier that those pigs raised on commercial feed. I made soursop, pawpaw and chili chutney with my daughter. I swapped two of my chickens for a small pig and have been training the pig to walk on a lead when he comes out every day. My dog was poisoned and died a painful death, but then mysteriously a new dog arrived on my porch one day and has never left. I started harvesting corn, tomato, cucumber and pumpkin from my vege patch.  I bought a lot of new chicken hatchlings and they are all growing fast.  The hens layed four eggs every day.  I got invited to a wedding.  We had parent-teacher day and the kids are doing well.  I bought some small trees and found some discarded orchid plants and planted them.  I invented (well kind of) a fridge that doesn’t need electricity which is made from concrete building blocks filled with wet sand and covered with wet hessian bags.  I tested it, taking photographs of three test samples daily, and discovered that vegetables stay fresh in the new fridge for more than 10 days.  I baked some cakes using farm fresh eggs, yoghurt and fresh limes, over at my neighbour’s house using her oven.  My son turned 15 and had a friend over for dinner and cards. I took the kids to the movies. If you are interested in the details of any of the above, then let me know and I can fill you in.

Turns out that after a month not being on the internet I didn’t miss much.  There were hundreds of emails, but most of them were things I had previously subscribed to and I now refer to as “Junk” (funny, because they all seemed interesting when I subscribed).  There were only three Facebook messages for me, and less than ten emails from other friends or colleagues.  Maybe I really am a pain in the proverbial, and that is why people have stopped communicating with me.  Perhaps, as my son might say, they “tire of my shennanigans”.  The only really cool thing I missed was that my son is in a drag competition, and is being hailed as a “true talent”.  I watched the video over and over.   All of the above is normal life, (well, normal life here in Fiji where I don’t have a demanding job like I did way back when), and none of it seems that bad.  Even no-one really worrying about me wasn’t that bad.  I think everyone knows that I am off and on since I got here and are used to it by now.

What really has me in a spin is the other event of the month, a tragedy of what seems to me of epic proportion, with far-reaching consequences.  There is a young girl in the family who has gotten herself into trouble bit by bit, but consistently over the past few years.  It started when she started truanting from school in Australia when she was about 13.  Eventually by the time she was 15 she was only attending school on average one day a month.  When the absentee report from school was requested, it turns out her mother had phoned nearly every day with an excuse.  Actually the reason was that she rarely slept at home by that time, and was going from house to house, staying away from home for weeks at a time and only coming home to refill the contents of her bags and get more money.  Her school reports indicated for most subjects “Not enough evidence to assess” or something like it.   A year ago, that girl came to Fiji with her mother and brother and sister.  At the time she was 16 years old.  After a week, the girl left Fiji with her mother, headed for Samoa, saying that she needed to go there, to meet up with her boyfriend from home, who was also a Samoan citizen.  At the time I predicted that within a year, she would come back pregnant – but that was a bad thing to say, and I was told so. The brother and sister, who had similar problems scholastically, stayed here, and are now passing at school and attending daily.  The girl who left found that very soon after arriving in Samoa to meet the love of her life, he left her, and was gone.  With no access to schooling, she found herself relegated to home duties for a large family, and started saying she wanted to come to Fiji and resume education.  It was agreed.  However, weekly, the arrival date seemed to be changed and over time got more and more remote.  From April to May, to June, to possibly August or September.  It all seemed so strange.

A couple of months ago (when she was just 17 years old) , we got the call, she was pregnant.  After discussion, it was clear that she wanted to keep the baby.  All good.  What to do next would be worked out.  A month ago, on my return to Fiji, I discovered that with only two weeks until the baby’s due date, that the girl had been persuaded to “give” the child when born to the “father’s” family, and was staying in the father’s family home in Samoa with his relatives.  Her mother was absent, saying that she was going to buy baby things.  However, the search for appropriate baby things must have taken her far and wide, as she ended up in American Samoa, and did not return until after the baby was more than a week old, leaving the poor girl alone.

A day after birth, the baby was fed a bottle, the girl being advised that it was “better” for the baby.

The girl is still convinced that it is going to be “better for the baby’s life” that the baby be sent by the end of this month to Australia to live with the baby’s paternal grandmother who apparently is planning to raise it “as if it’s her own”.   The girl has still not bathed the baby, but just observes.  She has been taught that if the baby cries, you have to blow in it’s face to make it quiet.  I suppose there is no real investment in teaching the girl mothering skills if she is soon not to be a mother.  She is still a girl of 17 (soon to be 18).

Distressingly, after being cajoled into releasing the baby to go and live in another country to which she has no access, she is going to be sent to Fiji to apparently resume her schooling.  By that time she will be 18, and will not have attended school on a regular basis or passed many subjects since she was 13.  The “better life” of the child away from its mother, living with a family who are also uneducated is questionable to me.  What is going to make it a better life?  Just because in developed countries there is health care, the dentist, education, pottery class, parent teacher day, the school fete, playgroup, swimming club, or even school for that matter, or whatever is judged to be good for children’s development, it requires the adults of the family to actually take the children to those places for the betterment or benefit to be derived.  If available services are not accessed, they are of no benefit.

The girl is tragically being counseled by her own mother to release the child, who will travel to Australia under a New Zealand passport.  The girl believes that she will see her baby soon.  She believes like many 17 year old girls that once her previous love sees her again, he will realize the error of his ways, and repent.  He will realize that he still loves her (and the baby), that she has produced a beautiful baby on his behalf and he is eternally grateful and wants to be a family.  The reality is that he treated her badly even when they were “in love” at the age of 16, left her in Samoa and has not returned.  She wistfully said that he told her recently that he wants to be there for the baby, and that he “doesn’t want to miss a thing, whatever that means”.  Well, he missed the birth, that would have been a good start.

The girl and her mother believe that life is going to be better for the baby, and also for them, as they believe that eventually they will both be sponsored for visas to one or other attractive developed nation.  Why I asked, would that be a reasonable supposition?  The father treated her badly before she was pregnant, he went to Samoa to meet her, but quickly left her, and has not returned.  He apparently has completed paperwork for the baby to migrate, but not for her.  She is an uneducated child who will now suffer the stigma of having given up a child before she is eighteen years old.  She has no way to earn a decent living, and few prospects in the world.  She and her mother live on handouts and the kindness of strangers.  Who is going to sponsor both of those people, and then support them.

The poor girl happily proclaimed that it is going to be fine, as her goal is to “get an education, and be able to support the baby properly, and then go and get her back!!”.  My heart broke.  How is this all going to happen, when even the first part is going to be such a long, long road.  It may be possible, but without good guidance and decision making, it is just a train wreck in slow motion.

Apart from me, no one wants to speak the truth as it might be upsetting.  However, the wish to be a child’s friend, rather than a parent is a foolhardy one in my opinion.  I feel a sense of foreboding that once separated from her child, she will be looking for love, heartbroken and feel duped.  Within 18 months, she may be pregnant again, and then what -give up that child too?  I also feel that rather than thanking the adults in her life for being friendly right now, she will be blaming them in the years to come.  “Why didn’t you protect me? Why didn’t you tell me the truth? Why didn’t you come and get me and the baby before it was all too late?” are the words that might come crashing out.  The train wreck will continue with the broken heart of a father who out of misguided love, didn’t want to upset a daughter in the short term.  What of the next generation?  A child of an uneducated child, sent away before a month old to live with another uneducated family in another country.  Who is going to give that child the skills to protect the embryos that are already in her tiny womb waiting for the day that they bloom into the next generation?

The footage of the train wreck, although we all know it, seems now to move slower than we even thought possible, with more dust and debris and carnage than we ever imagined.  But for having these thoughts, and voicing them out loud, apparently I don’t understand “Their Culture”, and I have no rights to comment, and I will never understand.  Only time will tell if I am scarily right.  But will there be enough time for me to view the footage complete, or will I have to watch it via the internet, as can I be part of a “Culture” that so quickly and calculatingly dismisses babies and hoodwink teenagers to gain a perceived advantage for adults?  Can I ever truly be part of a “Culture” that I really don’t understand at all?  Do I love my husband – yes.  Do I love the kids no matter where they come from – yes.  Do I love Fiji – yes.  But do I understand – at this point I have to say – no.  If there is an argument about my thoughts, it will all be justified on the basis of “Culture” – all from a child who has given birth to a child, and spent the years from the age of 10 to 16 years living in a sub-culture in a developed country.  A child who had every opportunity to attend school, attend the dentist, go to swimming club, dance class or whatever she pleased, but instead decided that the benefits of living in a developed country were to go to the movies and have fist fights at the train station instead of attending school, or anything else.  All this talk about Pacific Island Culture from a child who has not lived in the Pacific since she was 10 years old, and as soon as she got to the Pacific tragically discovered what she calls “Culture” firsthand.

Do I have a right to comment – that is a question that will always be up for debate around here.  Will my comments be taken into consideration?  I am not saying I am right, just putting my concerns in the hat.  Will anyone take action?  Honestly, I am not even that worried that there may be a further disagreement ensuing from this musing on cultural differences, as very few of those I care about in my new culture value what I say significantly to bother with what they call “my things”.

What I do know is that if anyone in the family ever reads this, I will be told that it is not their culture to discuss things openly, and that I have no right to do so.  What then are my rights, or am I not really part of the family?  Are there really two train wrecks, and I have unwittingly gotten on the train many stations ago and have been sitting in the carriage all this time headed inexorably to my fate.

 

Signature or Thumb print? I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes, I saw the sign.

IMG_2073

My niece, Rosie, outside her house at Baba Settlement, Levuka

What makes a country “developed”, or “developing” as a nation for that matter?

How can you tell, what are the signs?

Often, I pore over statistics, and unwittingly commit them to memory in an effort to latch on to something… an effort to make sense of the country I now live in, and what really makes it a “developing nation” or “small island developing state” or any other platitude created by developed countries to describe a country that is in many ways very, very poor fiscally, and in terms of infrastructure.

What is it that Fiji wants to develop into?  In developed countries I feel that the main things that are coveted by those on the other side of the divide are Education, Sanitation, Health Care.  We could have all of those things here with the right focus.

Any who are my friends are now painfully aware that I have developed an annoying habit of being outraged about the figures and indeed how many useless figures I retain, and I am sure they wonder WHY?  What happened?  Why can’t she just relax?  Do I even like her any more?

I am amazed that I know, and tell anyone who will sit captive for more than 30 seconds in a machine gun – rapid fire -one way conversation,  just for example that…..

There are 44 million PET plastic bottles produced in Fiji every year (and that figure was from about 10 years ago)

Fiji is the 40th best place to be a mother (in a list of underdeveloped countries)

Approximately 40% of women suffer from anaemia

Between 100,000 and 300,000 people live in “informal settlements” or shanty towns

Every day in Fiji an estimated average of  one woman is permanently disabled as a result of domestic violence, 10 loose consciousness, and 43 are injured

In fact Fiji is the fourth worst country in the world for domestic violence of nations that have undertaken a comprehensive study of a particular type (see Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre Report for more and more and more details)

More than 40% of Indo-Fijian women are illiterate in rural areas

But still, I needed something to hold on to… where is the sign I have been looking for that Fiji is just so different from the developed nation I came from, and why do I need to think about things differently now?  Why and how have I become a different woman than I was two years ago?

Today, I saw the sign…..

I had to go to the Vodafone shop in town to register my phone number as originally I was sold a SIM card without being asked for any identification.  After 9/11 mobile phone operators need to know who is registered to a certain mobile number.

It all went swimmingly.  I took in my ID, the young man at the counter re-activated my number and then gave me the form to sign.

In the signature area, it said simply “SIGNATURE OR THUMB PRINT”.

Maybe the only thread of myself still linking me to my previous life, and the girl my friends used to know, is that I have had to open this post and amend it, to admit that the whole time I have been writing, I haven’t been able to get out of my mind the old Ace of Base Song “I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes, I saw the sign….”

 

 

 

Plastic Seas – two minute thesis and apology to taxi drivers of the Pacific

plastic sea

Source: vimeo.com

I know that so many people are so weary of posts on the big nasties: Climate change, plastic in the ocean, single use plastics, dumping on the reef, turtles wrapped in beer holders and other depressing topics.  I know that I used to be.  Now I feel obsessed.

I used to not take much more than a cursory glance at these things thinking often that I just didn’t understand it enough, or alternately, that the headline and picture spoke a thousand words, and that was about 999 words too much to take in after a busy day at work before having a glass of wine and watching re-runs of “Friends” or perpetually planning to go to the gym, rarely making it past my runners with the socks hopefully stashed inside.

plastic sea 2

Source: vimeo.com

Today on Facebook I came across a new video called “Plastic Seas”.  To watch the film see http://vimeo.com/69689785

Over the last twelve months, I have had a change in lifestyle, having moved to Fiji.  So many changes have happened even here in the year since I started this blog.  Many of them positive:  I have been contacted by people all around the world who want my insights on social problems in Fiji.  I have been contacted by people wanting information about where to buy shipping containers to make school classrooms and kindergartens. I have been contacted by people who want to know how and where to recycle in Fiji.  Now, maybe due to the little bits of information I have posted, perhaps I have been an unwitting catalyst in the advent of the shipping container classrooms such as at Basden College, Newtown in Suva.  I would like to think so in my own small way, that I have made some difference.  I have led a local clean up in my old street that resulted in 10 tonnes of trash (mainly plastic) being picked up out of the drains and waterways in one morning.

I have had a lot of time to research as a “citizen scientist” and have learned so much.  As the old saying goes, the more you know, the more you realize how little you know.

If you only watch one video on the plastic problem, and possible solution this is a good one.  It seems to encapsulate the main points.  It is always useful in any academic or commercial exercise to think about what you would say about your topic or business in two short minutes if asked by a lay person, stranger, or client.  If you can encapsulate your main points in a two minute “nutshell” then that means that you really understand what you are on about.

So, here goes:  my two minute nutshell on single use plastics……

For me, I can type about as fast as I can talk as I am old enough to have learned shorthand and typing at school when only the girls who went to secretarial college did so, on an old fashioned typewriter.  How I conned my parents into that I still don’t know, but I digress!

Two minutes starts now:  Since having moved to Fiji and seeing the enormous amount of plastic waste in the environment, I have started to question why it is there.  It is everywhere in the world, not just here.  It is a plain truth that most of the plastics I see here are single use PET plastic drink bottles, and plastic shopping bags.  People of our generation and the next have been somehow hoodwinked into thinking that everything that comes in plastic is somehow more worthwhile, more necessary than the things we used to make do with (such as water from the tap, a paper straw, a shopping bag you had to take with you, or a drink that is not carbonated, and maybe came in glass).  Also, we somehow now NEED chicken and meat that is wrapped in plastic, ice cream in a plastic tub or wrapper, and our children NEED an enormous amount of single serve snacks.

Most of these packages are recyclable in some way, but only about 10% of them get recycled, and about 10% of them end up in the oceans.  Some of them are biodegradable and marketed thus, but are only biodegradable if sent to a “properly managed landfill” of which there are next to none in third world or developing nations.  Herein lies the real issue.

If the plastics reach the dump site that is not a modern “properly managed” site, most of the dumps are near the mangroves.  Leechates infiltrate the water, and are toxic, highly so (especially with the introduction of e-waste into developing countries).  Once plastics reach the ocean, even if intact with the caps screwed on, they do not biodegrade, they PHOTODEGRADE.  This means that the sun breaks down the plastics into smaller and smaller pieces until they are called “nurdles”.

These nurdles are chemical attractants.  That means that they attract any chemical that is in our ocean, from agricultural chemicals, fuels, and pesticides, just like if you have a take away container with your curry lunch, and want to re-use it, it is very difficult to get the curry out without an enormous amount of dishwashing liquid (so you throw it away anyway, a bit hurt that it seems so unfair).  The plastics in all sizes accumulate and spiral in the ocean in five enormous gyres.  The five gyres are sometimes described as “garbage patches”, most famously the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  The edges of the gyres are close to land in some areas, and the plastics spiral out of them and make landfall at odd places, like Hawaii and Alaska, just like if you wet a towel and spin it around, water droplets start radiating out annoyingly.

Most people are not overly worried about plastics in the oceans, as they think that it is the actual plastic that kills the wildlife, and they think, “How much plastic could a small fish/bird/turtle actually eat??? Not that much, so the risk is small.  I will continue to get a lid on my takeaway coffee and always act confused when I am not sure which bin to put it in.”

They are right, the plastic would take a long time to dissolve in the stomach of an animal, so it is unlikely that the animal would actually get “poisoned” by the plastic.

The animals actually get poisoned very quickly by the cocktail of chemicals that is stuck to the plastic pieces (nurdles) which quickly are released during digestion. 

Other animals consume so many nurdles that are the same colour and size as their natural food source, that they die from bowel obstruction.  These animals include whales (they can consume up to 37 kg of plastic before they die), sea birds on Lord Howe Island and over 40% of a species of albatross. 

I wonder what the Ancient Mariner would say about the death of so many ominous birds?

So, what to do? Who is responsible?

There are so many reports from various government and non-government organizations naming particular departments or bodies, but it occurs to me that all of the plastics we use are marketed to us as necessary for our convenience or safety, or “freshness”.  Recently I was shocked when in Australia at a hospital to find a banana vending machine, with every hand of bananas wrapped safely in plastic in the glass case.

Actually, it seems to me that the majority of products that we have been marketed to believe we NEED are profit driven, and we are simply consumers.  Stupid ones.  How many bottles of carbonated beverages do we need?  Do we actually need to drink sparkling this, or cola that?  Not really.  Do we really NEED the convenience of having our sushi soy sauce come in a little plastic fish container with a little plastic red lid so that our soy sauce will stay “safe” on the way back to the office?  Not really.  We used to pour the soy sauce and get the ginger from receptacles on the counter at the cafe, and we were ok with it, until we were told not to be.

Some people think that the drink manufacturers should show that they are corporately socially responsible and instigate community awareness programs encouraging consumers to recycle, and provide recycling bins.  This is flawed logic.

Remember the days when every bottle proclaimed the owner?  Property of Tristrams, property of Coca Cola bottling, property of John Walker and Sons FOREVER and EVER.  Some time in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s the manufacturers came up with an idea (probably a very smart corporate lawyer) that if you stopped claiming ownership of the bottle, then the onus of responsible disposal shifted from the producer to the consumer.

So why is it now the problem of the producer to clean up the mess that each consumer chooses to make when they toss a bottle or other plastic item in the wrong place?  It isn’t – legally you bought the bottle, and it contained a drink.

Therefore, the solution can only be one – for consumers to take responsibility.  Of course, this can be done by pressuring producers, but not in the manner of asking them to take back their junk.  It ceased to be theirs the moment you paid for it.  That is why Coca Cola in Sydney called the police when Ian Kiernan of Clean Up Australia fame presented outside their corporate office with bags of bottles he wanted them to take back.

The only way that we can make any kind of dent on the producer is to stop consuming things, or insist through withholding our money that we want more responsible packaging.  However, people I know who insist on only “buying things that come in glass” are seen almost as weird as those who “only eat fruit that has dropped from the tree”, or vegans who also happen to be soy intolerant.  It is a culture of planned single use, planned obsolescence, and a conspiracy of silence regarding plastic waste.  The world is being consumed by consumers, I guess that is why the documentary is called “Consumed” not “Produced” as the producers have shifted responsibility.

There are whole beaches in Ghana that are choked metres high with electronic waste.  Developed countries send old and broken computers there by the container load as second hand goods rather than waste, with the euphamism that these broken computers are sent to “bridge the technological divide” between developed and third world nations.  Whole communities survive no longer on fishing, but on burning the computers to get rid of the plastic casing, and then extracting the small metal components for sale.  There is a lone Ghanian researcher who I think may also be just a “citizen scientist” like myself, who is taking photographs of the asset tags that are still stuck to the computers, keeping a data base, and is thinking that he will eventually mount a class action against the previous owners who might be such as ABC Council, or University of XYZ in the developed nation of your choice. I wonder if he ever will.

These same classes of people, who now have no reliable source of fresh drinking water or farming land or fishing grounds (where they once did), are then forced to consume food and drink items that come in plastic.  Carbonated drinks of all kinds, water in bottles of all kinds and the like are marketed as a status “feel good” item.  It is the domain of the poor to always strive for these small signs of status.  Now it is also the domain of the rich.  Bottled water is a perfect example.  The marketing of Fiji Water especially in social media is a case in point.

Also, the poor, who survive on trash, or are swamped by it, or out-fished by it, seem reluctant to pick much of it up.  Plastic drink bottles and aluminum cans for example are worth money in almost every country, even Fiji, however, not many people want to touch them once they leave a clean hand and end up as “trash”.

Why should the poor pick it up? The rich don’t seem to be interested in it either.  Culturally, the poor normally mimic the habits of the rich in the effort to appear not to be poor.  Perhaps it will take the rich to create a behavioural norm of picking up what is now classed as “trash” or “ocean debris” for the poor to mimic that behaviour, it seems to work for consumption!

Groups like the “Two Hands Project” seem to have cottoned on to this.  They post pictures of people who look to be not in poverty who pick up as much as their two hands can pick up in thirty minutes on beaches, parks, and other nice looking places.  Simple, effective, and a great tool for people with internet access.

It also can be taken as a consideration that most developing or third world nations (in the Pacific they are tiny islands or groups of Islands which are now termed SIDS or Small Island Developing States) still maintain a chiefly or feudal system, as well as a European style government.  The government of the day makes the rules, but daily life is still very traditional.  In the chiefly system, individuals would not normally come up with ideas and implement them alone, or even in groups, for fear of being perceived as not respecting the hierarchy of the chiefs and minor chiefs.  People have been taught to wait for leadership on an issue, and then follow direction.   Today in Fiji, there are still chiefs and village headmen, as well as a government.

In the past, when tribal wars and feuds were the determining factor in loyalty to one chief or another, and also the hierarchy amongst the chiefs, leadership was expected.  To maintain one’s status, or indeed life, one had to be a great strategist, very intelligent, a great leader, with an excellent and obedient, unquestioning warrior class, fisher class, farmer class, and a loyal village or villages.  Now that tribal wars and feuds are forbidden as an aftermath of Colonialism, chiefs are no longer chosen simply by leadership qualities, but often by birth.  The Western World has demanded that democracy be seen to prevail, or sanctions apply. Those born into a chiefly family may not have the necessary skills to be change agents and leaders.

However, as society still operates mainly on traditional values, people await leadership, but it does not necessarily come.  Action without leadership is seen in many ways as disrespectful to the community.  Action without leadership in the past was seen as a direct challenge to the chiefly title, and cause for a fight.  One had to be very sure of loyalty to the idea, and a very good chance of victory over the reigning chief to take independent action.

Could this be the reason that often the problem of trash seems so marked in the developing world?  People are awaiting leadership?  This is in no way a criticism of current leaders as all the rhetoric is there: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, but without the facility or infrastructure for the populace to do so.  I have never seen a recycling bin in Fiji except at one resort island, and at the Coca Cola Plant security office, oh, and at the mini bus stand in Sigatoka.

Recently in Suva, during a tropical depression (pre-cyclonic rain), many streets were flooded without a critical water level being reached.  Without exception, the flooding was attributed to blocked drains.  Most of the drains are blocked with plastic, but still, the solution does not seem obvious.  Agencies are assigned to clean the drains, without heed to the nature of the problem, and the underlying implications.  If we can’t stop the people buying plastic, then we must find a way to facilitate a paradigm change and enable the people to recycle it – really recycle it, not just post slogans REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE, without asking ourselves the question – Recycle where? Recycle how?

What is “trash” anyway?  It is just our perception.

Perhaps it is also a status thing – I am not that poor that I have to go into the gutter to pick up trash, but I am so poor that I can’t afford shoes for my children, and sometimes just feed them rice and milk, or less.  Also, I am not that poor that I need to pick up anything that has been discarded by another, and is therefore “trash”and make anything that I NEED out of it, like a bed, or a chair, or a chicken house, or even a house, or fuel.  Certainly in most developing nations, there is little extra head space for “art” either, and it is left to visiting artists with more ephemeral tastes for trash.  Trash art also is a great tool for those arty types, or those motivated by art.  However, as far as a change agent in the developing nations, it is often the case that those who have been marginalized do not necessarily choose to express their emotions artistically, as in the case of the black diaspora, black slaves sent to South America often depicted themselves as faceless.

This is where it gets interesting. I have not seen anywhere in all my research any one person or organization that has any real power, that has been able to connect the dots.

Most goods that are packaged in plastics and sold in developing nations are owned and produced by companies that are based in developed nations.  For example, Fiji Water is made in Fiji, sold worldwide, but owned in the USA.  Coca Cola Amatil has a bottling plant in Fiji which proclaims in the front office a commitment and obligation (from every employee) to be environmentally proactive and responsible, and owns or distributes alcohol, sports drinks, water, juice and soft drinks, and is owned by Coca Cola Amatil Australia.  The producer of 95% of Fiji’s chicken is Crest, owned by Goodman Fielder, also owned in Australasia.  Coca Cola Amatil got back into the beer and cider markets in Australia in December 2013.  For more information on brands see http://www.brewsnews.com.au/2013/12/back-in-beer-and-cider/

About CCA: An ASX Top 30 listed company, CCA is one of Australia’s largest premium branded beverage and food companies and one of the world’s top five Coca-Cola bottlers with territories in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Samoa. CCA has a premium spirits beverage business, with a portfolio which includes the premium Beam Global brands, and it acquired the Fiji Brewery and distillery in Fiji and the Vailima Brewery in Samoa in 2012. On December 17 CCA will reenter the Australian beer and cider market with Molson Coors’ brands Coors and Blue Moon; The Boston Beer Company’s Samuel Adams and Alehouse draught beer and Pressman’s Cider from the Australian Beer Company, CCA’s joint venture with the Casella group. Rekorderlig Cider will join the portfolio in early 2014.”

Source: http://www.brewsnews.com.au/2013/12/back-in-beer-and-cider/

The developed world feels powerless to help the developing or third world, and feel that it is not something that they can control.  Poverty, heartache, sea level rise, oceans devoid of fish, nations being swamped – what can we do, people may think, from here?

What we can do in developed nations is realize that most of the producers of plastic pollutants either at home, or in less developed nations, are based in our own back yards.  What we can do is use our consumer power (the only real power we seem to have any more) to either stop buying products produced by those companies in our weekly shop or lunch on the run.

What we can do is ask the question and find the answers to:

  • what other countries do you trade in?
  • what have you done about recycling there? not just platitudes, but profit figures, number of units produced, number of units recovered through recycling, number of recycling bins, amount of money spent on community programs such as beach cleaning machines, or scholarships
  • where do you get your water supply? (it takes over 2 litres of water to produce on litre of most bottled beverages including alcohol)
  • where do you dump your industrial waste and is it treated appropriately?

If the answers are not what you are hoping to hear, what are you going to do?  Could you forgo your bottled drink or packet of chips at the footy or would it just seem to reactionary?

I have come to the conclusion that if enough of us connect the dots we might see the following and maybe think about taking the appropriate consumer action:

  1. It is a fact that there is global warming and villages are being inundated by sea, and the polar ice is melting.
  2. It is a fact that plastic is killing wildlife, not just at sea, but on land.  Recently they found that cattle in India are dying from ingesting plastic bags that get stuck in their stomachs.
  3. It is a fact that obesity and diabetes are on the rise.  Fiji has the number one amputation rate per capita in the world from diabetes related infections.
  4. It is a fact that products that come in plastics are attractive, especially to those who can ill afford them.
  5. It is a fact that many families in Fiji and other developing nations do not have enough money for food, education, or other necessities, but still consume a large proportion of convenience foods which come wrapped in plastics.
  6. It is a fact that many plastics are worth money to recycle, but that there is not much of a perceived value as in developing nations, not many people pick them up and trade them in.
  7. It is a fact that in developing nations, diets have become so poor that there are a high proportion of mothers with anaemia, and infant deaths.
  8. It is a fact that most producers of plastic wrapped consumer items are based in developed countries, where they must exercise appropriate social responsibility, but continue to trade in developing nations with impunity as there is little robust compliance framework in place.
  9. It is a fact that weak or developing economies feel powerless to impose stringent compliance networks, and also are too busy trying to provide sanitation, education, and health care.
  10. It is a fact that civil servants responsible for environment in developing countries are victims of poor education and training and are not up-skilled to cope with the new demands and challenges that are mounting daily.
  11. It is a fact that teeth are rotting in children and adults in developing countries due to the amount of sugar in processed and packaged foods and carbonated drinks consumed, and lack of money for appropriate dental care.
  12. It is a fact that archaeologists of the future, or our own grandchildren will not need to dig up the ground to find out what motivated the generation of people with purchasing power since the mid 1960’s  – it will be everywhere, and visible, and evident.  It will be plastic leftovers from the items we “had to have”.
  13. It is a fact that most of these items we don’t actually “have to have” but most of them are actually luxuries, and the trimmings of wants rather than needs, but we have been marketed to so successfully that we see our immediate wants as needs.
  14. It is a fact that these wants are marketed to us for one reason and one reason only – to drive up profits, dividends and attract shareholders for major corporations that are based in developed nations, but trade also in developing nations, to the blissful ignorance of most consumers in the developed world.
  15. It is a fact that we know all this, but have yet to act.
DSCF1320

Sorry Mr Ram – my favourite taxi driver in Levuka Town!

Well, my two minute nutshell was an hour, so maybe I haven’t been able to crystalize my thoughts yet.  Maybe my nutshell takes the time of a long taxi ride to the airport.  In fact, most people I talk to about this are sorry taxi drivers, who are a captive audience.

Taxi drivers of the Pacific region – please take this as my apology!

Making a chicken house out of plastic bottles – part one

IMG_0595

Chicken house in progress

IMG_0604

IMG_0597

Top of completed wall

Recently, as those who know me are aware, I have been busying myself making a chicken house using hundreds of plastic bottles collected from the neighbourhood.

  • Step one – collect bottles
  • Step two – fill with food colouring and water and screw lids on tightly
  • Step three – dig a shallow trench about half the depth of a bottle lying down to anchor the wall

    IMG_0601

    Plastic bottle wall in progress

  • Step four – fill the trench with bottles about half a bottle width apart
  • Step  five – mix concrete (about one 40kg bag of cement to five 25kg bags of sand)
  • Step six – put concrete between the bottom layer of bottles and start stacking the bottles on top, row by row
  • IMG_0461

    Step one: dig a trench and fill with bottles

  • Steps seven to infinity – stay tuned – I have grand plans!   We will see whether they eventuate, but my grand design should incorporate the following:

  • I have already poked holes in several bottles to make some ventilation and drainage for the lower wall
  • I am going to insert some 30 Litre yellow plastic cooking oil drums into the wall with an opening on the outside for filling and catching rain water, and an opening on the inside for the chickens to drink from
  • I am going to use guttering and a vertical stack of linked 30 litre plastic drums to collect rain water and auto fill the drinkers
  • I have collected dumped kerosine stoves to use as the roof ventilation vents
  • I have already made a prototype of a roof whirlybird ventilator out of a 2 litre coke bottle
  • I have already planted pawpaw seeds outside the sunniest wall
  • I am going to insert wooden fruit boxes into the wall as nesting boxes, with hatches for egg collecting on the outside
  • I may even insert a fresh water pond inside for growing small fish and for the chickens to drink from
  • the whole thing has to be mongoose proof!

    IMG_0598

    One wall completed

Also, since I saw the flip flop art, it occurred to me that I could even partly shingle the roof with flipflops for insulation from the heat, but I am not sure… otherwise since I saw the angel wing flip flop art, perhaps I will breed artistic chooks, and install an art piece inside for their viewing pleasure.

It reminds me a little of one of my favourite books to read to the kids when they were little.  It was called “The Hilton Hen House”.

The construction is coming along so nicely that the teenagers are asking whether we can scrap the chickens and they can move into it as a teenage hangout.  I think that it will be really lovely actually, and am determined to sleep in there one night before we put the chickens in.

IMG_0462

Filling the bottles with water and food colouring

I know they make this kind of construction elsewhere in the world and make houses, schools and other structures, but I never realized it would be so easy (and fun).  If people here in Fiji who live in settlements (slums) had access to the money for concrete, the bottles are free.

Even the timber and iron has been salvaged and saved from landfill.

Perhaps I will write a grant proposal after this is finished.  A great video on the squatter settlement conditions is online at http://www.smh.com.au/multimedia/world/fijis-squatter-settlements-20091127-jwda.html

How to make a herb garden on wheels from recycled pallets

herb

Source:byronobserver.com

My friend Robyn who lives in Byron Bay but has close ties to Moturiki Island, Fiji,  posted this great herb garden on wheels from recycled pallets.  Thanks Robyn!

Also, it appears that if you get your hands dirty, you feel happier – who knew!  But, I must admit whenever the stress of life gets to me I take refuge in the garden, and the reward is that I haven’t had to buy fruit or vegetables for months now and I haven’t even bought any seeds, I just throw the bags of waste from the market vendors on the ground and see what germinates.

boyle

We eat: corn, tomatoes, ochra, pumpkin, sweet potato leaf, pumpkin leaf, beans, long beans, chilli, paw paw, bele, roro (taro leaf), soursop, banana, cucumber, dahnia, bitter gourd, eggplant, dalo, cassava, and the list goes on!

Often people go hungry here, and the papers are full of what they call “Food Security” which means that they are trying to get to a point where all the food needed for Fiji can be grown or farmed in Fiji.  However, every weekend I go to the very small market in Nakasi, and I bring home a van full of bags of “waste” from the market. This waste is called “rubbish” but it is mostly good food, and what isn’t good for cooking, I use on the garden and the seeds grow!

Normally this waste is not even separated, but just sent to landfill with all the millions of plastic bottles, cans and other stuff that is still perceived as waste here.

To see step by step how to make the herb garden on wheels check out Robyn’s post at http://byronobserver.com/2013/11/26/getting-down-and-dirty/

It also reminded me of this photo I saw today.

 

Fold up shipping container home – another solution

portabatch

Source:dornob.com

http://dornob.com/port-a-bach-modular-push-button-cargo-container-home/#axzz2dIixHHG4

This great idea would be perfect here in Fiji!  Solar panel, composting toilet, and folds down to handle extreme weather.

So many un-used shipping containers here.  Mountains of them sitting around in “container parks” for sale.  Each one costs about $5000 FJD (about $2500 USD) yet the habit here is to build corrugated iron homes for more than ten times the cost which are not cyclone resistant, let alone flood tolerant.

If these homes were also on wheels, they could be moved to higher ground in the event of cyclones and floods, often caused by tidal surges, or even the rising water of the ocean due to climate change which is as we speak, causing villages to relocate to higher ground.

Funeral in Fiji

Yesterday I got the sad news that the brother of a friend took his own life and his body was found in the river.  Today I am preparing to go down to the house and help with the funeral preparations.  I have been emailing another friend about this, and remembered how differently death is treated here from in my home in a developed country.

I wanted to share this with anyone who is interested, as it means a lot to me, and I will post updates out of respect for my friend, and for his loss.  I have taken out names for the sake of the family.

I have just copied some of my email text below:

Me: In any case, you can all get a bit of a rest from me today, as sadly I have to go and help a friend prepare their home for a funeral.  His younger brother took his life after having an affair and his body was found yesterday in the XXXX River so I had better get showered and get moving.

My friend:Oh my goodness, how awful. Good luck xx

Me:Weird that people can actually set out to commit suicide by drowning themselves, but here so many people can’t actually swim.  Fiji has one of the highest drowning rates per capita in the world

My friend: Yes, I remember reading some on your blog about swimming. Seems so strange as I thought it was all about the beaches! That was until you told me otherwise. Suicide is a terrible thing. Can’t understand it. So hard on the people left behind. To be so sad is tragic. So is the funeral today after only finding him yesterday? Much quicker than here. No autopsy or investigation?

Hope you’re ok today, and all the family involved.

Me: No, the funeral will be some time next week I guess when the wife and the mum return from xxxx (overseas).  They have just been told that he is sick in hospital and wants to see them so that they are not too distressed to travel.   The man lived in xxxx(overseas) with his wife and the mum just travelled there last few weeks to visit for 2 years (also how it is done here).  He came back to Fiji to check on the farm, do some planting and then go back.  The cassava and dalo crops are planted and then harvested after a year, so many people do that.  Just plant and forget, maybe get a caretaker to do some weeding and look after the house. 

Anyway, he took up with another woman for a month while he was here and it has somehow all gone pear shaped! 

His brother is my taxi driver, Mr XXXX, who is one of my two real friends here in Fiji.

I am going to help the ladies (cousins, aunties etc) to clean the house, clean the compound, start cutting firewood, digging up cassava and dalo for the funeral.  Here, death is very real, and burial is very down to earth.  You really know that the person is dead when you stand beside the grave which is dug in 6 feet of clay mud, and watch people actually pat down the earth by hand and with shovels.  It sounds horrific, but actually it is quite calming, and there really is a sense of closure for people. 

Often the inmates from the prison do the grave digging and filling as part of their community service, so there are also prison guards sitting on nearby graves with guard dogs.  The inmates wear their orange jumpsuits, and the ones I have witnessed are really kind and sensitive in their treatment of the gravesite and the relatives, and do it really “nicely” as they say here.  People always say, “do it nicely” for anything important which translates to “put your whole heart into it, as if it really matters, and go over and above what you are expected to do”.

After the funeral they all get together and have a big feast to remember the passing and as they say here “cover the person’s footsteps”.  A bit like a wake, but more a feeling like a huge casual Sunday BBQ at home, as all of the relatives from all over come and it is often the biggest celebration the person has in their whole life, even though they have passed.

Anyway, I am actually off to shower and prepare as my friend is collecting me soon in his taxi to take me down to the house.  This is a sombre topic, and my thoughts and apologies go out to anyone who is reading this and currently dealing with loss of their own.