MORE ON MY FIJI PEACE CORPS EXPERIENCE

To give a better you an idea of my life there, here is an email I sent to my fraternity publication and a few included photos.  As time allows I will try to set up a slide show to add to this section.
-Lukas
2/24/00


May 8, 1997
Dear Sir:

 I am currently working through the US Peace Corps with the Fijian Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry as an Aquaculture Extension Officer.

First Pond at Nasau Village

When I started my job in January 1996 I was placed in the province of Tailevu in the village of Wailotua.  This village is located in the cloud rain forests of the mountains near the eastern coast of Viti Levu, the main island.  My site is very rural with no electricity, phones, paved roads, or any reasonable radio reception except for shortwave (which I am very fond of now).  I live close to a native Fijian village and speak the Fijian language fluently - a requirement since, despite the official language being English, few people speak it well in my area.

 I have the responsibility to advise, teach and implement the farming of tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus, a fish often used in low technology fish culture) for a significant area in the Fiji Islands.  When I started I did not replace a previous Peace Corps Volunteer so there was only a single fish farmer existing (comprising 2 ponds).  Now I have 12 farmers who have 25 ponds and more are being added all the time.  It may seem a simple thing to start a fish farming operation but it is actually a complicated process due to cultural and motivational factors.

 Basically a fish farm is a based on the unit of an earthen pond that is constructed in suitable soil (with adequate drainage) to a depth of one meter and gravity-filled with water.  The farmer then fertilises the water with manure to foster an algal bloom, a source of food for the fish, as well as supplemental feeding with a feed twice a day.  A typical cycle lasts 4 months after which the pond should be harvested, drained, dried out for two weeks before refilling and stocking.  The fish are sold (usually) at pondside to local villagers in the area for about FJ$3-3.50/kg.  This provides both a profit for the farmer as well as a protein source for the local populace.
The difficulty is that in Fijian culture there is a tendency to always say “yes” even when it means “no”.  There have been cases where an extensionist has been invited to visit a possible farmer to look over a site (Fijians love to have visitors from other places) and the farmer starts a pond as a sign of respect to the extensionist.  Obviously if the newly minted fish farmer has no real desire to have the pond it will fail.  Therefore, when I go to see a possible farmer I have to gauge the seriousness of the requests and try to fathom if the desire is sincere and if the person is motivated enough to run a pond.

 Beyond fish farming I have had to adapt to a completely different culture.  Fiji is at the crossroads of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, although the Melanesian influence is the most pronounced racially.  There is also a large Indian population that was brought in by the former colonial power, Great Britain, to harvest the sugar cane crop.  In my area there are few Indians so I am mostly exposed to indigenous Fijian village life.  I have become rather used to the local culture and it’s become hard to remember what it was like before in America!

My day to day attire in Fiji - just kidding!

 To start with, when I approach a village I have to meet with the Turaga ni Koro (headman/mayor) to prepare to meet the Ratu or Tui (chief or king) and present an i sevusevu, or traditional offering of a bundle of yaqona roots.  This root is a ceremonial token of respect that is presented with a traditional speech that describes who you are, asks for prior forgiveness and shows your respect for the village, and more specifically, the hereditary leader.  The roots are then pounded into a powder that is strained to produce a muddy looking beverage that placed in a large bowl called a tanoa.  This beverage is drunk from halved coconut shells and the contents are emptied in one gulp.  Everyone sits on the floor crosslegged (you try it for hours when only a grass mat separates you from a wooden or concrete floor!) and it is a major insult to put your knees up, although you can stretch out your legs.  The drink is a narcotic and makes you very relaxed and is somewhat similar to being buzzed from drinking alcohol.  I must present one of these every time I visit a new area, and sometimes drink it for pleasure as well.

 Other remarkable differences are the way personal contact plays a role.  Handshakes are long and may last through an entire conversation.  It is common to be led by the hand and seeing men holding hands is not uncommon.  (Men and women holding hands is a no-no though, no public displays of affection between the sexes.) To gain someone’s attention you can tap them on the thigh.  The first couple of questions are: “Are you married?  How old are you?  Where are you from?  What is your religion?”  Fijians are mostly Christian, although the Indians are a mix of Hindu, Moslem or Sikh.

 I attend church whenever I am at home near the village - mostly for cultural reasons (although I associate myself with Unitarian/Universalist views, the church is Methodist and as long as I am here, so am I).  I get a lot of respect for going to church and it cements my place in the local community.  I also have a local girlfriend, much to the delight of my villagers.
The ministry provided a house on the local agricultural station for me to use.  It has running water from a private dam and is very large for a single person.  It took a while to get used to no refrigeration and using benzene lights, but I don’t even notice it anymore.  All my clothes washing is by hand, and I seriously doubt that hand-washing is less rough than machine washing after this experience!  The temperature in Fiji is variable from over 100 to below 60.  Coming from the Northeastern US I figure I would be immune to cold, but the temperatures below 80 now seen cold to me and I have to dress warmer.  I have a lot of problems with mold and the dampness.  Right now it is the wet season and we just survived our second cyclone this year.  This makes it very hard to dry any clothes.  Also my area is cut off from the rest of the world by numerous floods (70-90 feet above normal river level).  In fact I am in Suva because my area was cut off by a landslide over the weekend.

 I hope that this is a good start for an article.  I got the idea from a friend in my group who had her story published.  Obviously I would like to try and get an article written and not just a small blurb.  The Peace Corps has something called the “third goal” which is “to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people”.  I can send you pictures (and there is the possibility that I be able to scan picutures in two weeks or so).  I am using a friend’s email account so if I don’t respond immediately it is because I am back in the “bush”, where there is no email, of course.

My sister and I at Boma Falls on the Island of Taveuni

 I hope to hear from you soon.  Please include any questions that you have about my life here in Fiji.

Yours truly,
Lukas Manomaitis


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