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Fighting the raging Wainimala

Sikeli Qounadovu
Sunday, January 28, 2018

That near death experience

THE often question is often asked, why love the job so much? Why take great risks?

My response often is: "Who else will tell their story? Who else will share their narrative?"

It is when our stories inspire and encourage people to give, assist and offer their support that gives this overwhelming feeling of satisfaction that is hard to describe and can never be traded.

Two weeks ago, this newspaper published a story of Suresh Chand, the father of three who is selling his homemade savouries along the streets of Lami to support his sickly wife and his three children. The response from our readers was overwhelming that Suresh had to come home to thank The Fiji Times. Since the story was published, good Samaritans have made contact to help the family.

So anyway, here we were in the highlands of Naitasiri closer to the Namosi and Navosa borders to capture the untold stories of the people of Nasava Village. Nasava is one of six villages in the district of Noemalu on the upper reaches of the Wainimala River.

Tucked away in a pristine environment, nestled under the Nataradamu, Delai Nasauvere, Delai Nasava and Delai Maraki mountain ranges, Nasava is home to 259 villagers — 181 of whom are children.

The materials for their homes made of corrugated iron roof, timber and concrete were all carried from Sawanikula Village which is their main access point to the outside world. Sawanikula Village is a three-hour drive from Suva on the road to Monasavu, Navulokani Rd.

There are other houses that are made out of bamboo. The village has a dam further inland that provides drinking water.

The Wainimala River lies beside the village and on the opposite side Nasauvere Village, where the school Nasauvere Primary School is located — providing education to children of Nasava, Nasauvere and Tubarua which is located further up the highlands.

Their main source of income is yaqona, villagers are benefiting from the price of yaqona, with the middlemen driving up to Sawanikula to buy yaqona at $100 per kg.

Root crops, vegetables and fruits are mainly used for daily consumption because poor access hinders the opportunity to be taken to the market.

The villagers shared their stories of how they have had to carry the sick in the middle of the night at the height of floodwaters and the pouring rain, only to arrive late because it took them about four hours to reach the nearest health facility. The severe injuries suffered trying to save a relative only to be told if they had arrived earlier, the relative would have been saved.

Women and children walking the treacherous trek to get to the nearest health facility is a norm for the women in the highlands of Naitasiri when it comes to clinic day. They have to carry their babies across the Wainimala River more than 20 times to reach the nearest health facility at Narokorokoyawa.

It was Sunday, January 14 and we were due to return the following day. But there was heavy rain and the once calm and collected Wainimala River had burst its banks.

The sweeping currents making thunderous sounds, coupled with strong winds, thunderstorms and lightning threatened us that I was on the verge of calling the office in Suva to cancel our pick-up that Monday morning.

But there was no Digicel network and both Jovesa (our photographer) and I did not have any Vodafone SIM card because that was the only network provider that accessed this part of the highland. So we decided to wait it out and see if the water had receded the following morning.

We woke up Monday morning to the songs of birds in the tree canopy, the beautiful ray of sunshine piercing through green mountain ranges and the children eagerly anticipating their first day of school.

Sadly though, they had to cross the river to get to Nasauvere Primary School. Hopefully in writing this piece, someone will be inspired to help build a foot-crossing or a bridge for these children.

Villagers wanted us to stay because they had heard over the radio the Naqali flats was under water. Jovesa and I both agreed though to trek down and wait at Nakorovou Village because it was much closer to the nearest road at Sawanikula.

After saying our goodbyes, we were off — just the two of us. Two visitors deep in the highlands of Naitasiri, finding their way down and while the water level had receded the current were still strong. It was this trek down that was a learning experience, at one time I had reached the opposite side of the river when Jovesa could not move because of the sweeping current, I had to go back and help him across. But the worst of all was my near death experience, when I was pulled by this raging river — the same river which has been a death trap for 20 people in the past decade, the youngest being a six-month-old baby.

Three hours after leaving Nasava, we were closing in on Narokorokoyawa Village when all of a sudden I was swept away by the current. Carrying my knapsack I saw flashes of my family, this gave me the confidence and I said to myself "I will not die here, not today".

So I let the current take me. I guess I was blessed that my head did not hit any rock while tumbling downriver.

When I finally managed to get across, I realised I had been swept a couple of metres.

I called on Jovesa to try and find another route and when he crossed safely, we talked asking why we risked our lives for this job? Who else will tell their story?

Maybe it was not the right decision to cross the river at that time, may be we should have been extra careful, and we have promised ourselves to be extra cautious the next time.

The incident is a learning experience to never cross a flooding river. And as I write this article, there have been contacts from the United Kingdom-based charity organisation Travel Teacher.

The organisation will be having a fundraising drive in the UK for children of Nasava and students of Nasauvere Primary School.

The group will be arriving in the country in July and hope to trek up the highlands as part of its fundraising drive.

Now, you tell me how would you feel when you knew your work has inspired and encouraged people thousands of miles away on the other side of the world?

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