Discovering Fiji: Unlocking the potential of Buca bay

Peni Baleira, with cap, with players of Caucau Rugby Club. Picture: FILIPE MARAYAWA

Last year’s Nabua street brawls are long gone.

They were events that remind us of how precarious the future will be if youths — our future leaders — are unguided and show disrespect for the law.

Those acts of hooliganism that made national headlines in October 2021 caused many families in the area to cringe in fear and parents to worry about their family’s security.

As a result, 45 men were later arrested and taken to court.

One resident of Nabua took the experience from those horror attacks and turned it into something magnificent.

For that to happen, he had to leave behind his family and travel for almost 250 kilometres to Buca Bay on Vanua Levu where he was brought up.

His assignment was to remould damaged youths.

His weapon was rugby.

“After the brawls, I realised how unemployment, crime and substance abuse could ruin our youths if we did nothing,” said Nabua resident and retired soldier Peni Baleira.

“I had just retired, so equipped with gym equipment I bought with the help of friends I went to check out the youths of Buca Village.”

Baleira discovered that the root causes of problems that were fuelling the clashes back in Suva were slowly rearing their ugly heads in the village.

His heart and mind were challenged, but he was optimistic that sports could bring behavioural change.

“I got together a few young men whom I was told were facing problems and tried to motivate them.

“The Marist Sevens was coming up so I sold them the idea of forming a team from the village to take part in the tournament.”

There was no money to start things off yet Baleira’s proposition was received overwhelmingly.

In no time, word got around like wildfire and boys from villagers beyond Buca Bay expressed interest in joining the team.

Hence, Caucau Rugby Club was formed, a revival of Caucau ni Buca, a team that had spawned a few rugby greats of the yesteryears including Joe Rauto, Tiko Bucaonadi and Eliki Vakadranu.

“These names show that we have raw sporting talents here in the bay, they’ve always been here. We just need discipline, commitment and a bit of help.”

For those who don’t know, from the hidden paradise of Savusavu, the Hibiscus Highway will take you through an 80-kilometres stretch of road that ends at Loa Village, the middle of the Buca Bay.

Overlooking the islands of Kioa and Rabi, the bay is named after Buca, one of the many villages in the peninsula and the home of sevens rugby icon and two time Olympian, Jerry Tuwai.

Buca and neighbouring Tukavesi belong to the district of Natewa, headquartered in Natewa Bay but nestled in Buca Bay between the districts of Cakaudrove and Tunuloa.

The Sunday Times team also discovered that Buca River, which runs beside the village, was the birthplace and home of the famous fish god Dakuwaqa.

Among a few of its attributes, Buca Bay serves as a terminus for ferries that travel between Vanua Levu and the Garden Island of Taveuni.

Along its coastline are the villages of Vunikura and Loa from the district of Cakaudrove, and Buca and Tukavesi in the district of Natewa.

There are three forms of power used by villagers in the bay.

Some use diesel generators while others use solar or hydro power.

The people who live in Buca Bay are mostly subsistence farmers.

At the Vunikura end of Buca Bay is a place called Natuvu.

This is the site of The Mission at Natuvu Creek, a non-denominational faith-based clinic which provides a variety of free medical services to the local community, not only along Buca Bay, but to many other villagers and districts in the province of Cakaudrove.

Many young boys of Buca Bay dream of following the footsteps of perhaps their most famous kinsman, Tuwai, who continues to play the game of 7s with artistic brilliance, making a name for himself in the rugby world.

Many aspire to reach the impassable benchmark he has set.

But due to lack of support, exposure and poor sports infrastructure, among others, their dreams often fizzle out untimely.

“Growing up, I was a fan of Paula Dranisinukula,” Epeli Tukania from Loa Village testified.

“One day, I want to be like him and don the Fiji jersey. I need support and exposure to proper coaching and training facilities.”

Epeli was one of the many young men groomed by Baleira for the 46th Fiji Bitter Marist 7s in Suva.

The former Under-20 rugby squad member has hopes of becoming a teacher one day.

But if there is something that will stop him – it is his latent rugby dream.

The Sunday Times team caught up with Epeli and his team mates a few days before they departed Vanua Levu for Suva.

Many had never enjoyed the privilege of seeing the lights of the capital.

To be in Suva was a once in a lifetime chance.

Baleira said during his time with the boys, he discovered that despite their occasional bad choices and habits they were exceptional in many ways and had pleasant personalities.

Moreover, they were all interested in rugby.

“Village elders and church leaders had been trying for some time to engage with them, but to no success.”

“Once rugby came in, the church, worship and the vanua easily engaged with them at a level they could identify with.”

From just a few Buca boys initially, in two months Caucau team evolved to an army of 30.

Baleira provided the coaching skills and the vanua of Navai (Tukavesi) and Kama (Buca) provided all the boy’s accommodation and meals for an exhausting two months.

In between gruesome rugby drills, they were exposed to other learning opportunities to empower them holistically.

For instance, in one session they were lectured by the police on the danger of substance abuse and in another they planted mangrove seedlings as a way of teaching them to be responsible custodians of the natural environment.

“Our journey was amazing. With the help of the vanua and the church, we got them out of mischief-making, substance abuse and alcohol,” Baleira said.

Baleira took his 30 men to Suva during the Marist 7s tournament although he could only afford to field one team.

The rest joined in the cheering squad.

He said he wanted to give others the opportunity to travel and see the big world outside Buca Bay.

A player that had impressed Baleira was Jone Kulaca, a young dalo and yaqona farmer from Kanakana Village in the adjoining district of Tunuloa.

The halfback was grateful for the holistic learning and backbreaking rugby training they were part of.

“Before we’d only train hard physically, but this year we also expanded our knowledge and learned a few things that challenged us mentally and would help in our decision-making,” Kulaca said.

“I spent a lot of time just drinking homemade brew and following my peers. Now the training Peni gave us has empowered me to know who I am and my purpose in the community.

“My mum, who looks after me, and my siblings are my motivation. I want to make them proud from now on.”

To ensure the sustainability of what Baleira started this year in Buca, there are now plans to make the training an annual affair.

The idea is not only to prepare youths of Buca Bay to take part in rugby competitions outside Vanua Levu, but also to enhance their training program by including economic and personal development activities.

In the shade of trees along the stretch of the bay linger the shadows of young boys who could potentially be the Jerry Tuwai of the future if given the correct boost.

The young men of Buca Bay have a lot of potential.

They just need a nudge to propel them forward.

Buca Village elder Mosese Bukavou said the two-month of guidance that Caucau team was exposed to, in a very short while, moulded the young men into responsible youths.

“We’ve noticed that while the boys were in camp there was no drinking and disturbing of village peace,” Mr Bukavou said.

“Our police officers based at Tukavesi also told us that they had noticed a change in the boys and there was a drastic drop in crime.”

As a spinoff from the rugby empowerment program in Buca Bay, moves are underway to use each youth member of team Caucau to form a cluster of 10 boys.

These youth clusters will then form solesolevaki (traditional way of working together) groups involved in activities such as farming, small business startups and community volunteerism.

Opportunities are also available for collaborative work across clusters and villages.

The idea is to make Buca Bay a safe place, where youths are civicminded, active and understand their role and family, communal and national responsibilities.

“I believe in my mates. We’ve sacrificed a lot together and now the onus is on us to put to practice what we’ve learned,” Tukania said.

Despite the chaos it brought, the Nabua brawls were not all chaos.

Good too came out of it.

It took one man to identify the silver lining in the black cloud and transplant the good in it on the shores of Buca Bay.

The burden is now on the villagers and youths to build on the momentum established by Baleira and to ensure that the 2022 Caucau rugby program becomes sustainable and vibrant to face the future and beyond.

“I came from Suva to plant a seed in the village and I helped a group of boys. I have told them and all village elders that they need to see that this seed grows,” Baleira added.

Caucau rugby team was made up of boys from the villages of Vunikura, Loa, Buca, Tukavesi, Kanakana, Karoko and Koroivonu.

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