Rebecca and Will

Community Health Empowerment Facilitators with the Peace Corps in Fiji

The opinions/photos/contents of this blog are ours personally and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

This week’s theme: life

This week we saw:

  • An 18-hour-old pony getting kisses from her mom
  • Two butterflies mating
  • Eight baby sharks swimming in the ocean
  • Two newborn boys sleeping on their moms’ hospital beds
  • A 48-year-old diabetic woman with an amputated left leg and a bedsore on the back of her neck being admitted to the hospital

One woman is left permanently disabled every day in Fiji as a result of violence from her husband or partner, new research has found.

A report by the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre has also revealed that more than 70 women lose consciousness every day and about 40 others are injured.

Farm-to-table is so in, right? Turns out they’ve been doing it for centuries here in Fiji. We took a boat ride to a local plantation near the Bay of Islands to buy a sheep and four pigs for the office Christmas party and along the way, we got to see an unspoiled, naturally beautiful part of the world.

The Bay of Islands is a destination for yachties who spend months, even years, steering their boats through the world’s most pristine destinations.

The region has roughly 300 islands and limestone landforms cutting through turquoise water that is so calm and protected, it’s a designated hurricane shelter. We stopped along the way so Will could swim into one of the area’s many caves. I stayed in the boat to keep an eye on the livestock.

We are community health empowerment facilitators implementing goals laid out in the Community Health Empowerment Project strategic framework.

We are not clinicians, but we are here to do capacity building and behavior change among the clinicians, the local health volunteers, and the villagers. (A communications plan to complement the strategic plan would go far in aiding this mission, and I’ve already expressed the value of having one. We’ll see if this develops during the next two years.)

So now that I got those buzzwords in (strategic framework, capacity building, behavior change), let me break it down for you. Fiji’s Ministry of Health is doing what it can to reverse what is essentially a non-communicable disease (NCD) “crisis” in this country of nearly 900,000. With one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world:

  • One in three Fijians has diabetes
  • An amputation occurs every 12.6 hours in Fiji
  • Only 16 percent of Fijians live past 55 years old

Of course treating the NCDs is critical, but the ministry recognizes that educating the public about their behaviors will go along way in improving these deadly statistics.

That’s where we come in. We are working with the ministry to educate Fijians about what they can do to avoid NCDs: physical activity, healthy food choices, go to the doctor early instead of ignoring symptoms. We are working to build their capacity so that they have the knowledge to live healthy lives, and to teach their children about living healthy, long after we leave Fiji. 

Will and I are in a unique situation with an open field of development opportunities because we’re in a remote region that hasn’t had Peace Corps volunteers since the 70s, and those were education volunteers. We’re at the subdivisional level, which operates a hospital, a health center, a health inspector’s office, a dentist’s office, a maternal child health clinic, and multiple nursing stations throughout six islands. We have the opportunity to educate Fijians about:

  • NCD prevention
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Sanitation and hygiene
  • Women’s empowerment
  • Maternal-child health

So far we’ve given health talks to villagers and trained health workers about practices for women’s self-care and diabetes and hypertension prevention. Our subdivision is in the process of developing its business plan for the upcoming year, so things are a bit slow now. This gives us an opportunity to get to know our community and establish a relationship with the villagers, so they feel comfortable with us and trust us as we move forward together during these next two years.

Enough pretty pictures for now. Let us explain why we joined the Peace Corps at 30 (and 31).

Will and I wanted to join the Peace Corps for a while. The reasons varied (we wanted to do some global service, get international development experience, live in another country, etc.) but the most important, most constant reason: we wanted to take a break from the bubble that is Washington, DC and put humanity into our work. The Peace Corps gives us the opportunity to make a direct impact in the lives of the people we’re serving.

A nurse asked us the other day if our two years here will benefit us professionally. Perhaps not directly (though as a professional communicator I’m confident my resume will shine after my two years here), but surely the personal growth we experience will be present in our professional lives.

As government consultants for a private firm we had to stay billable, and that pressure led to a project or two (at least for me, not for Will) that made me feel like I wasn’t doing the sort of public service that I had done as a reporter, as a policy advisor, as an NGO communicator, and as a communications consultant on other government contracts. We have the education, the skills and the work experience that make us stellar consultants. Those attributes won’t disappear over the course of two years – they’ll only be strengthened by the development work we do here in Fiji.

So, to answer my grandma’s question of “Why can’t you be normal?” which is grandma speak for why can’t you just buy a house and have kids: this idea of joining the Peace Corps almost became an obsession for me. I needed to do this. I couldn’t think about having kids, buying a house, making big decisions until I served in the Peace Corps. I’ve lived my life deliberately, making steady professional and personal decisions and so the Peace Corps wasn’t some irrational, poorly thought out decision. It was years in the making. Although I can already tell that joining the Peace Corps is the most challenging thing I’ve done, I’m relieved that I didn’t pass up my opportunity to do so. 

Obviously life here is a bit different than our life in the U.S.

  • Sometimes we commute to work via boat
  • Last Friday we took a boat to pick up four pigs and a sheep for the hospital Christmas party 
  • Someone interrupted a senior nurse during a workshop to announce that fish were for sale outside for $12 a string 
  • Our blood pressure is the lowest it’s been in our lives (110/70 and 98/60) 
  • Will has lost 15 pounds (no burgers, pizza, beer on this li’l island) 
  • Christmas season is the hottest time of the year 
  • Practically everyone goes to church every Sunday, us included 
  • They pray before meals, teatime, meetings, workshops, trainings, any time they can 
  • Men wear skirts 
  • People make kissing noises to get your attention and don’t do it to be creepy/hit on you 
  • When people introduce themselves they state where they’re from in Fiji 
  • Fijians don’t swim when it’s hot but they swim when it rains 
  • When I saw there was a mosquito baked into a loaf of bread I bought, I just picked it out and kept eating 
  • We bought crackers from the store and seriously said, “Oh, it’s nice they seal them.”
  • We read a lot more
  • We’re relieved that we don’t have hot water for our showers
  • We only have electricity from 7:30 - 10:30 p.m.
  • We don’t have a refrigerator
  • We understand that the eggs we buy from the local farmer can be eaten without being refrigerated and we’re ok with that
  • The sounds of babies, goats, sheep, dogs, chickens and waves keep us up at night
  • Will eats pineapples, coconuts and raisins - three things he’d never eat at home
  • We hand wash our clothes
  • Sometimes we fight over the toilet
  • We cross the street to go to the beach multiple times a week

Did you know blue starfish exist?

I didn’t until one Saturday I saw one while we wading in the sea, and then I saw two more. There are good days and there are bad days and there are three blue starfish kind of days. 

Those days are pretty common, the ones where we see things or experience things and our reaction is, “What? This exists? Did we really just see this? How are we here right now?”

We received our first packages from our families in Fiji recently, and we were overjoyed to get them.  Like seriously overwhelmed-with-happiness-best-thing-that’s-happened-to-us overjoyed. Thanks, fams! Being so far from our friends and family has reminded us how truly important our loved ones are to us. We can’t begin to explain just how valuable each word of encouragement and consideration is from our loved ones back home, whether it’s an email, a text, a phone call, a quick Facebook message, or a massive care package filled with candy. 

Since we got our kitchen in order, it has been really nice to be able to cook our own meals. It feels good when we’re able to recreate favorites from home, or when we’re able to secure good vegetables from nice people on the island. Man, how it’s nice to get some tomatoes and leafy greens in the mix! This chronological assortment of photos gives you a sense of how our cooking has progressed: from pasta, to grilled sausages, to fresh salads, to our favorite so far—pizza!

I have a friend
His name is Dramamine
Thanks to his help
New islands I have seen

He wasn’t with me last Fall
When at sea fishing I did yack
But now he steadies me
From repeat attacks

I can now enjoy water
So clear above the reef
That I see colorful sea life
Happily swimming beneath

Although skipping across the waves
Used to worry me a bunch
My trusty Dramamine now saves me
From losing my lunch