I shouldn’t wait so long to write – there have been so many important experiences and I couldn’t recall them all. What follows is a potpourri of recollections and experiences but first, some less important but interesting items on what it’s like to live here:
1. Annie and I are adjusting to the complications and uncomfortableness of living here. We are hot and sticky all the time except for a few moments after each shower but it’s not been as bad as we feared – it’s no fun but it’s not miserable (yet … they tell us we’re just moving into the hot season). Food has been a major issue and it’s amazing how physically and unconsciously you are tied to food that gives you a familiar comfort and level of nutrition. We long for vegetables, salads, and meat. There just doesn’t seem to be a way to get these things at all, or at an affordable price if available so we depend on our vitamin pills to balance our diet. The Fijian diet is very high in starch and carbohydrates (cassava & taro), and fruit (pineapple, papaya – which is called “paw paw” in Fijian, banana, and mango). They do eat fish when they can afford it but Ba is not near the ocean so the common person here does not catch their own fish (takes 30-45 minutes to get to the ocean).
2. Shopping is frustrating, time consuming, and a riot. Most shops are typically small with some theme emphasis but a little mix of a lot of things – mostly junk. If you want a nail you go here, hammer – to a different place, and strangely, there are many hardware stores but only one ever heard of a pair of pliers; some clothes here but not all clothing in one spot; buy bread here but meat there and fruit in a different place; find a needed item one place but they do not have two of them so you go elsewhere to find it. Indian music is absolutely blaring from speakers in many stores – so loud you can hardly hear yourself, and to us it is not pretty music. Many things available are made faulty, or are just plain junk and everything is dirty, whether it be on the grocery shelf or the shop shelf most items will likely have a moderate to heavy coating of dust and dirt on them. Not sure how they arrange all that dirt but somehow they do. The open market is the hub and it’s neat to see the people who have brought goods to market sitting mostly on the ground with a little cloth out and their fruit or vegetables neatly situated on it for sale. You buy most things by the “heap”. A heap of cassava or taro, a heap of pineapples, a heap of bananas, a heap of green leafy stuff (can’t as yet tell what it is), a heap of ginger root, etc. Eggs are never refrigerated, but then nothing here is because most villagers do not have electricity or refrigeration anyway. Most things are a dollar or two per heap, sometimes 3-4 dollars Fijian if it’s a large heap or an expensive item (right now, 56 cents American is equal to $1 Fijian). There may be 50 vendors with the same goods and we try to spread our purchases around to benefit different people each time we shop, which is usually a couple times a week.
3. We live in a very nice flat (by Fijian standards). Though we battle with ants, cockroaches, and mice, we seem to be able to keep them in check with Premetherin spray and we hope to find mice traps, which up to the present seem non-existent (we like what the Geckos do but prefer they stay outside). The flat is the ground floor of a home owned by the Special Administrator of Ba – something like a powerful mayor. His name is Arun Prasad and his wife is Josephine, with a son Arush (9) and daughter Aditi (8). They are very nice and solicitous of our welfare. Like nearly all people of means here, they are Indian and we live in a neighborhood on a hill mostly developed by his family that came to Fiji in the 1830’s as British indentured sugar cane workers. In time, they progressed and became a prominent family of educators and businessman in the area. The Ba population is about 80% Hindi and we actually feel more like we live in India with a few Fijians scattered around than the other way around. Most Fijians live in the villages outside of town and are quite poor – there are exceptions, but not many. Mr. Prasad is an absolute go-getter. He has done much to benefit the area and is energetic in his pursuit of projects and economic advancement with gender equality for all Fijians (we think gender equality may have some limits in his mind but overall he is quite progressive). He invited us to his office the other morning and introduced us to many of the key individuals who run things. He then asked if we would serve on the city council in some capacity as “advisors”. We have yet to see how that might be done appropriately given our missionary commission but it was gracious for him to offer and we plan to do it in some form or another. Fiji was run by the British for a long time and “morning tea” is an embedded ritual for the Indians. On the day we visited his office, Prasad’s assistants had arranged a lovely tea of sandwiches, cookies, and Milo (which is a chocolate malt drink) because we had formerly told him we do not drink tea. It was a little formal, very well presented, and fun to experience. A funny event happened one day earlier when Mr. Prasad was speaking about developing a racehorse track in Ba to draw tourists and dollars to the area. I told him I had worked on a racehorse track as a youth (exercising and grooming horses, and mucking out stalls). He immediately proposed to place me on the racehorse commission – which I politely turned down.
4. The area is lovely with many sugar cane fields and while not as lush tropical as the east side of the island, still there are plentiful coconut palms, banana trees, papaya, mango, and a variety of giant fruits like breadfruit, jack fruit, and sour-sop (not sure that is the correct or full name). The Myna birds are everywhere and vocal as can be with a beautiful vigorous call that starts early in the morning just before the sun rises about 5:30am and end about sundown, just in time for the Geckos to begin their night-time chirping – it’s all very cool. One of 4 sugar mills in the country is located here and we took a tour the other day – watching the cane go into the crushers, being shredded, cooked, and centrifuged until this beautiful sugar comes out. It was amazing. Jared would get a shock at the lack of safety measures at the plant where there are hazards everywhere, little protection for workers, and conditions that appear anything but sanitary. I think they spell the word safety like this - “anythingoes.”
Now to the important stuff – our experience with the people and the Church:
Most members are Fijian although we do have several Indian members. It’s kind of ironic that the citizenship of the area is mostly Indian but at this point the Church membership seems to be just the opposite. Indians are better educated and more organizationally savvy and therefore would provide leadership skills needed quite badly here but teaching them has not, in the past, been too successful. Most are Hindi but a few are Muslim. So the Church membership in Ba is largely made up of undereducated Fijians who can barely afford to even come to Church on Sundays. Education in Fiji costs money, precious money that many do not have so kids are educated in a sometimes spotty manner (perhaps some semesters or years they will not have funds to go), and the education level does not seem too rigorous. In Fijian culture, “organization” and time are largely foreign concepts – the idea of having leaders who have mutual vision and can cooperate, meetings that people can actually attend (most can’t afford to come into the Church and when they do, they are on island time which generally is 30-90 minutes late), and protocol that makes a meeting effective, are all things that people here have not had the blessing of learning or valuing. It’s interesting because those things are very “western” in thought and practice but seemingly so necessary for the Church to run anywhere.
Men in Fiji are often quite handsome, tall, lean, and very strong – the perfect rugby players, and rarely overweight (unlike the common image of other pacific island people). The saying goes: “In Fiji, men are real men, and the women are too!” But in general, the people are fabulous – warm, loving, and appreciative. They treat you as though you are very special when you visit them – not unlike the scene in “Other Side of Heaven” where the missionary and his native companion are walking along the beach and Groberg asks why the natives honor him so. They have some sense that you’ve left America and travelled far to be God’s representative to them.
When you arrive at a home in the village they warmly invite you in, no matter what else may be going on. They gather the kids and extended family together and you sit on the floor in a circle (usually little to no furniture). They want to begin with a hymn and oh my, you can’t believe how well they sing with such enthusiasm and volume. Most, both young and old know much of the hymnbook by heart and sing away without any self-consciousness. Since there are no windows (or they are always open if they do exist) and often no doors, others in the village hear you singing and then children from the village start appearing in the doorway or just come in and sit down. You’ve heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” well that was never more true than here. A village is often a big extended family anyway so in a home there may be parents, grand parents, in-laws, cousins, brothers and sisters in a dizzying combination that makes it very hard to keep track of who’s who and how they are connected (they don’t seem to have any trouble though!). We never can figure out where they all sleep.
We went to a village to visit some inactive members and when we finished the song, we heard the refrain being hum loudly from another home not far away. Then the words rang out: “Elders, will you come to visit me too?” After singing they pray with tenderness, reverence, and respect for Heavenly Father and then we share a message of love and encouragement. Since there are often non-members gathered, we address them and may invite them to learn more. Then everyone wants to sing again – always singing, before we pray and leave. Most Fijian homes have an evening (and sometime morning) devotional where they sing, pray, and read scripture or share testimony – it’s just routine.
Annie asked at the village home we visited recently how they get the coconuts down and husk them. An eleven year-old boy named Alvereti jumped onto the coconut tree trunk, shimmied up and picked one. The mother took it over to a piece of re-bar they had embedded in the ground and pushed the coconut onto the bar and with a few twists the husk was off. Then she grabbed a big “cane-knife” and whacked it a few times around the top and lifted off a lid, then passed it around for us to drink. Then, the little kids then grabbed it and began to scrape out the meat and munch on it while we talked.
That all sounds idyllic but things are far from such. Villagers usually don’t want for basic foods, which they grow in their own gardens or have available in nearby trees, but they have little variety and so little cash resources that they are crippled from exploring the world and progressing. They usually cook on a little fire outside the hut/home/shack and the outhouse is just a little corrugated metal walled hothouse somewhere near by. Things are dirty, buggy, and since the homes are open, birds, critters, and vermin seem to freely wander in and out.
Naming the kids is a curious and colorful activity. They all have multiple names, often a mix of both western and native. We met one old Indian fellow on the street who immediately asked us if we knew “Sister Bates.” Sister Bates and her husband served here 15 years ago and so endeared themselves to this man and his wife that they named a daughter, “Sister Bates.” Why not? (As a side note- By the end of our mission both of us had a new baby named after us.) We understand that genealogy is a nightmare here since the taking on of names does not follow a regularized protocol. Husband and wife often have different last names, have adopted various names, and their kids may have last names that do not reflect either of their parents. To make it more complicated, they also change names regularly. We might know them as so-and-so one week, only to later find them being called something else. It’s an oral tradition and makes perfect sense to them but the Lord will have to sort all these relationships out somewhere in the organized future so temple work can be done correctly.
We have given several blessings to people -- a treasured experience. They have so little in material goods, but are rich in faith and it seems natural to want to use the priesthood to bless them. Two days ago we were visiting in the Mateiwai family home where we are teaching the temple preparation lessons. A son had gotten a nasty infection in his leg and it was all swollen up and he was unable to get around. We asked the father (a relatively new convert) if he had given his son a blessing. He said that the missionaries had given him some oil but he didn’t know anything about giving blessings. So we anointed his son and then I talked him through giving a blessing that was done partly in English and part Fijian. It was a sweet experience. The next day we came back and the son was walking around smiling. They told us that soon after the blessing, the infected leg burst and fluids ran out and Beni immediately began to feel better. He said to his family, “Now I know this is the true church.” As we closed the lesson that night, Annie asked if they had any questions or wanted to share any feelings. They are often very quiet and thoughtful and you can’t rush things with them, so after some pause, the mother said: “Since you first came I noticed how humble Sister Sherry and you are. After you left the first time, I went into my room and said to Heavenly Father that I want to be more like Sister Sherry. You have blessed our family.”
At Church on Sunday, many of the less-active members we had visited attended. The stake president was there to put in a new bishop and then commented to the members that we were there and that they should “not squander this opportunity.” One of the returning members whom we had given a blessing to a few days before turned to Annie and said: “You are making a big difference here. I can see it in your eyes; I can feel it.”
While in a store the first day in Ba, we visited with a young adult woman named Tuliana. After our purchase we told her what we were doing as missionaries and asked if we could come to her home and share a message. She said she had relatives who were members and she had attended the LDS Church in another town. We set the appointment and went to the home of her sister where she was staying. We had a wonderful first discussion and then after we closed, her sister Olivia, brought out plate after plate of special fruits, candies, and even ice cream (don’t know how she pulled that off). We enjoyed visiting together and then Tuliana walked us back to the car. As we were setting up another appointment, Annie asked if her sister would like to also listen. She said that her sister would very much like that and that she had wanted to come in that day but was too busy getting all the treats ready. So the next week we came back to the home and taught both of them. Olivia was so excited to have us there and told us that it was all she could think about and what a privilege it was to have us there to share about God. She had tears in her eyes and said she’d never had visitors come to her home to talk about God before. It was an extraordinarily humbling experience to see her joy and simple faith.
Now for some of the more frank assessments of the difficulties in Ba Ward (and likely not too foreign to most places in Fiji):
a. There are 309 members on the MLS rolls with about 30 active. A history of problems including tithing and budget theft, flooding which made use of the chapel impossible for 6 months, leadership conflicts, and a membership which didn't get along with each other led to a depressed environment and significant inactivity.
b. After 16 months with no bishop, and virtually no organizational structure in the Ba ward, a new bishop and one counselor were sustained on October 30, 2011 by President Maiwiriwiri of the Latouka Stake, which includes Ba. They are wonderful men but have very little Church leadership experience and it will be a challenge for them to succeed. The bishop is completely uneducated and his only counselor has been a member for 1 year but was inactive for 7 months of that year until recently. The stake president asked if I would assist them in learning what a bishopric is and how to function.
c. There are few priesthood holders who attend (perhaps the congregation is made up of 80% women and children)
d. As in much of Fiji, we assume, travel to Church is very complicated and problematic. Members in villages would often like to come but can't afford the travel costs on Sundays when public transportation does not run. Thus, instead of a dollar and a half per person for a ride to town and back from many areas on public transportation, it costs a family 10-30 dollars for a private transport -- an almost prohibitive fee given their destitute cash circumstances (few are employed and those that are earn less that $100/week). Many walk great distances because they can’t afford a taxi or transport carrier (a little truck that you jump into and ride to the general area you’re headed).
e. These challenges have led us to a few conclusions: We should focus our efforts on conversion and reactivation with people who live closer to the chapel; we should seek out those men who have been ordained Priest, Elder, HP to reactivate first since we assume they once had testimonies and were active enough to be advanced in the priesthood; we should assist leaders in learning their duty and help the ward get organized and staffed (not assuming leadership positions ourselves, but assisting those who are called); and, we should continue to assist members to prepare for temple ordinances.
We love this work and the people make it all worthwhile. Any sacrifices we make to be here seem insignificant when you’re sitting in a home hearing these faithful people sing, seeing their smiles, listening to their sincere questions and testimony, and feeling the love of the Lord surrounding them and filling all with simple gratitude and joy.