Telling a Community’s Story
Kia Over There started as most things do with the question, “What if?” As marine conservation students, Brett and I were accustom to analyzing human environment interactions and determining what resources could be at risk. Most of our course work at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography dealt with assessing potential ramifications for overfishing, nutrient runoff, climate change, etc. But as we continually pondered the human effect on our environment, we began to contemplate the environmental effect on humans. What if the resource user is every bit as important as the resource itself? What if we are protecting our culture when we protect our environment?
To depict this idea we had to tell the story of a community that not only relied on its environment as a livelihood but also felt the repercussions of resource mismanagement. Happily, an alumni of our program, Tamara Mayer, had worked with a Fijian fishing island after graduating from Scripps, and just like that we were introduced to Kia, Fiji. The first stage was working with Tamara’s contacts at C3, a local conservation NGO. We were introduced to Akosita Rokomate and Maleli Qera. They serve as local representatives of C3 for Fiji and would aid us in establishing contact with the people of Kia.
At this point, I should explain that there are some important cultural procedures that one must follow when approaching traditional communities in Fiji. When proposing a visit or a stay with these communities, the chief must accept you and your purpose into the protection of his village. This process is known as sevu sevu and must be done in person. So for the time being Brett and I would have to operate on the promise and assumption of C3’s local representatives.
With that issue shelved, it was time to tackle the elephant in the room, funding. Brett and I each had a small fund to work with from the Scripps’ Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, but it would be nowhere near enough to cover the expense of video production and our extended stay. It seemed fate was on our side again, as our association with Scripps soon put us in contact with the Waitt Foundation.
As it turns out, the Waitt Foundation had developed a fund known as the ROC Grant. This grant was unique in that it had a rolling bimonthly application process and was designed to quickly fund small projects that were time sensitive. It seemed that at least logistically our project fit the bill for the expected scope of this grant, but would it align closely with Waitt’s mission? Waitt presented itself as an organization that was not only completely behind our conservation perspective but also as a group that appreciated conservation’s many unique approaches. With a small bit of paperwork, Brett and I had the means to set off on our journey to Kia.
Getting to Kia
Our first stop would be in Labasa. It is a small town (population ~20,000), and it marked the closest airport to our final destination. We would have to await our contact, Maleli Qera, here in order to find a boat to Kia. It turns out Kia is so remote that there is no regular transit to the island, and the only way to find passage is to have a fisherman from the village boat you there.
We had expected to wait a few days, but foul weather secured our presence for nearly a week. Just as I began to worry about the project, Maleli called our hotel and secured us passage to Kia. Brett and I scrambled to pull together our gear after a week of idleness had seen them slowly spread across our hotel room. Our heavily burdened forms bounced along behind Maleli as he weaved his way through street traffic to the market. We quickly procured some Kava root that was meant to be a gift during our sevu sevu ceremony.
As we emerged from a dark alley into the bright sunlight of this market, we were greeted with “Kia! Thank You!” Two men sitting against a wall smiled and waved to us and pointed at the bag of twisting brown roots hanging from my backpack. Their grin revealed that not only were they Kian, but they were expecting us.
As I boarded our small boat, I realized that I was about to live on an island of fishermen, and I was a known marine conservationist. Would I be accepted? Would I be met with contempt? This anxiety washed over me for the length of our boat ride to Kia, but as the boat skidded against the sand, this apprehension was swept away when droves of fishermen waded in the water to greet Brett and me.
We hopped out of the boat and took in our surroundings. The island couldn’t have been more than a mile in circumference but still sported a steep peak that climbed hundreds of feet above us. Only 30 yards from the shore sat the school compound and the village, a collection of small structures made from local timber, thatched roofs, and corrugated tin. I saw children playing, some men returning from the well, and a small group carrying…my gear. The locals had already graciously hoisted our belongings and were trucking them to our new home.
We were introduced to nearly half the village immediately. While their names faded for the moment, they would soon become etched in our memory during our extended stay. Among the new faces were Adi and Simi. They were to be our “Fiji mother and father” respectively. Brett and I were shown our 6’ by 6’ room to share. We quickly demonstrated our undergrad education and showed what a year or two of dorm-living can teach a young man. With our belongings settled in, we donned our sulus, a traditional garment much like a sarong, and prepared for our sevu sevu ceremony.
By the time Jonasa, the village chief, had returned from fishing, night had squarely fallen over Kia. Through the cover of darkness, Brett and I sheepishly waddled out into the village led by Simi. Once at Jonasa’s abode, we sat together with his family and Simi explained the reason for our visit. We then presented our sevu sevu and were asked to tell our story. And just like that the visit concluded and we were set.
The next few weeks passed rather quickly, but we gained a strong understanding of life in artisanal fishing villages. We were able to create a short video documentary, photograph the details of everyday culture, and write articles detailing the complexity of the Kian fishery.