Run down heritage homes

The Warbrooke home. Picture: MATILDA SIMMONS

IT’S a house that holds so much history.

The Harbormasters house which is listed on the UNESCO world heritage list has been home to many interesting figures from the 19th century some of whom played an important role in World War II.

It sits on a hill overlooking the seaport town of Levuka; silent yet decaying.

Current resident Nemani Maraiwai who is the 11th owner has had to live within its crumbling walls, and derelict structure.

“I have decided to put the house up on the market and I’m very sad about it but we’ve got to be realistic. I only have retirement enough for my wife, the coffin and the medical bills. It’s just too expensive but we’re losing everything quickly,” he said sadly.

Mr Maraiwai is one of several residents whose homes were damaged when STC Winston struck in 2016.

Because of certain guidelines under the UNESCO Heritage listing, he says they cannot restructure or modernise the home from its original design.

To renovate his home to its original structure would cost around $100,000 and they are hoping for assistance.

“The Heritage experts say that I have to rebuild everything. That is the immensity of the budget to bring it to its original construction. It would be absolutely impossible to expect the current owners to fix the house. Most come back to retire… we just don’t have that money.”

“The Government is slow in fixing it. If they had fixed it, it probably would have assisted me to retain the house and so on but the key thing about these heritage properties is living in it. There are frustration and a bit of sadness, this is the sentiment and the emotion of the people of Levuka,” said Mr Maraiwai.

The 2017/2018 National Budget had allocated $150,000 to cover the rehabilitation works on the Levuka Heritage Site and a further $4.9million was allocated to the Department of Heritage and Arts to look after “Fiji’s rich cultural and natural heritage.”

But emailed questions and several calls to the director of the Department of Heritage and Arts, Collin Yabaki, and the Minister for Education, Heritage and Arts, Rosy Akbar have not been forthcoming.

Another owner, Andrew Bechu says he can’t wait any longer and has taken upon himself to renovate his home.

Heavily damaged by the Category five Cyclone Winston which struck in 2016, his UNESCO Heritage Listed home is still yet to be completely repaired.

“The roof of this house was completely blown off; we were left with almost just the foundation,” he shared.

“We had to rebuild the bathroom, the kitchen and the windows. After the cyclone, officials from the Department of Heritage told us that this would be the first house that would be rebuilt. I told them to provide the material I’ll do the labour, but there has been nothing.”

“This house is over 100-years-old and I’ve tried to keep to its original structure but what can you do when you have limited resources.”

Mr Bechu said he spent $8000 of his own money to renovate the house.

“There is nothing moving… it’s stagnant, they need to let us know whether this town is really a Heritage Town. They told us to cover the building to protect it from the rain and sun and they would provide the material but until today there has been no help coming. So I just fixed it on my own. I can’t wait, it’s been more than two years.”

For Henry Warbrooke, it’s the 114-year-old family legacy that he wants to preserve.

His house was bought by his great great grandfather, John Warbrooke in 1905. But the home has since fallen into disrepair including negligence from former residents.

Mr Warbrooke was the only one from his family who returned to Levuka after his parents died more than a decade ago.

He said old family relics and other ornaments were taken by former tenants and he has since tried to recover whatever is left.

The house was further damaged in the 2016 cyclone.

The Levuka Town Council field worker said despite several pleas, he has decided to carry out repairs on his own.

“We’re not bothered anymore, there have been too many false promises on the repairs of our homes. I’ve just decided to slowly finish the renovations.”

When The Fiji Times visited his home, there were several men making a cement structure to hold the base of the building.

The house is bereft of its former glory.

Mr Warbrooke lives on one side of the house as the wood and floors of the house are rotting.

A Fiji State Party Progress Report presented to UNESCO in 2015 said the major causes of the poor conditions of structures in Levuka were concrete degradation, dry and wet rot, and corrosion of tin roofing.

It stated the humid tropical climate of Levuka and its close proximity to the sea were the other causes.

It added that of the 196 heritage buildings surveyed, about four per cent of the buildings has since disappeared.

Added to this was the lack of funding, nonavailability of the correct building materials, no access to skilled trades and craftsmen and a poor planning approach, the report read.

“Let me cut to the chase, the problem with the Department of Heritage is that they have no money, I don’t know how to tell them but it must be told,” said Mr Maraiwai.

“There’s a lot of talk about the good things that can be done but unfortunately there is no money in the Department of Heritage. I also feel that it’s under the wrong ministry. The only link it’s under the Ministry of Education is because of UNESCO. But it’s a misfit because under the Ministry of Education in my view the heritage buildings are a very low priority, as a result, it hasn’t got that dedication, the budget and that get on with it to get it
done. The other thing is – Levuka can get de-listed. If it is –it’s an embarrassment to the government because they’ve worked hard on it for a number of years to get it listed. If they don’t want it to be de-listed then get on with it. Have a tighter plan with a better budget. I feel at the strategic
end where the Minister sits there are not enough serious attitudes about our Heritage town and as a result, there is no cabinet paper to request for more money and a clear timeline for us to paint it, fix it, and get it done.”

Another resident of Levuka, David Kirtan, an Englishman who moved to Levuka and who is also a member of the Fiji Heritage Council says a lot more should be done in Levuka.

“It (Council) was dormant for two years after the cyclone and why I don’t know because that’s the time it should be active. It should protect and conserve what heritage you have here. Most of what you have here is what you’d call a settlement heritage from the 18th and 19th century. The early settler type of heritage. There are a number of traditional i- Taukei sites which we’d like to see recognised but owners don’t want it publicised.
There still needs to be more work done in terms of awareness among ordinary folks in the village and what the potential benefi ts are. I don’t think we’ve realised the enormous benefi ts at all, we’ve only scratched the surface but there’s more that could be done in terms of identifying people from the rural areas who could set up tourism and guiding businesses and even small homestays etc. For now, homeowners like Nemani Maraiwai could only look sadly at the dilapidated colonial structure that has been home to his family for more than a decade.

“You know it’s not only about the building, but it’s also about the people who have to live with it. We have been suffering in silence for a long time.”

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