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Life on wheels

Ruby Taylor-Newton
Friday, March 05, 2010

WHEN all of Suva is still asleep at 4am, the market is already abuzz with vendors, middlemen, buyers -- and the wheelbarrow boys.

Yes! surprisingly for many, these youths make it their business to rise early in the mornings and head for the wheelbarrow base at the market place in time for the loading of produce, rootcrops, vegetables and the like between middlemen and the small roadside market vendors before the sun is up.

The eldest of the group, Ilaitia Ratu, 31, of Ba, says wheelbarrowing is serious business for them and evey dollar counts.

The boys charge $2 per carriage and if you do a shopping round in the market with a wheelbarrow boy in tow for over five minutes, the charge increases to $5.

Ilaitia says Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest. A wheelbarrow boy can earn up to $60 on a good day.

"The least we earn in a day is $20 to $30," he says.

"Ka ga ni makutu, eh?" (it's all about being committed), says a talkative Nemani Tubutubu, 16.

Their other comrades, Jone Takale, 16, Inia Leveleve, 17, Joji Matanatabu, 17, and G-Punk, 19, say the best thing about wheelbarrowing is "you have money everyday".

Although many would consider them ruffians or thugs, beneath all that tough boy exterior is a caring soul who also has feelings and notices when people frown upon them.

"Some people can be downright rude when we ask if they need a wheelbarrow to carry their stuff," says Inia.

"They snap at us and rudely decline our offer, or tell us to get lost.

"Au sega ni vinakata na bara," (I don't want a wheelbarrow!) he imitates a rude customer, amidst laughter and joking from the rest. When that happens we just say "vinaka vakalevu (thank you very much) and leave calmly, " Ilaitia says.

"Some people think we'll steal their shopping and run away," G-Punk laughs.

"Some -- when they have a lot of shopping -- look at us as if saying they could use a wheelbarrow right now but then hesitate again because they don't trust people like us," he adds.

The wheelbarrow boys are no different to the average teenager and youth as they list out the things they like to do and what they spend their money on when they are free.

"Food, cigarettes, clothes, watch movies at Village 6, Internet and chat to friends on Bebo, or to watch the latest video clips, nightclubbing, play billiards," they all reveal.

"The time we have plenty money, we go to the movies, full chow Wishbone, KFC ... when no money, we drink tea and eat topoi there," Joji says pointing to the nearby food stalls in the market. This was met by loud laughing from all the other boys.

Joji says sometimes they come across friendly people especially islanders who are very generous with tips.

"Some give us $10 just for carrying their shopping to a waiting taxi or car," Joji says.

Ilaitia says most of the boys who end up there can't go to school simply because their parents can't afford to send them to school anymore.

G-Punk, a Lauan lad, stays in town with other boys, during the weekdays and only goes home on Sundays.

"Before I leave home, I pack some clothes and come. I feel it's better to stay in town because I don't have to pay bus fare everyday to come to the market," he says.

On "slack" days, the boys catch up on sleep in their wheelbarrows, go swimming, play cards or billiards.

"This place is like our home," he adds with a smile.

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