Sunday, October 30, 2011

Journal Entry

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. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Letter Home

Dear Family,

This hasn't been an amazing day but included some things that are needed to make some progress in a couple areas. We spent several hours in a very hot clerk's office trying to sort, organize and discard very old manuals, old letters from the 1st presidency, old VT/HT messages, etc.  Opened old tithing envelopes that were there too – and never opened - which was particularly disturbing. All was very dirty and we went all dressed and clean in ignorance.  We're not done yet but the garbage men came by and took 7 boxes for us.  We also met with the former bishop's wife (her husband died while serving) to get her input on the very out of date MLS records.  If it wasn't so important it would be humorous... "oh, he's Methodist now", "he's dead", "she's moved but I think her cousin's mother might know where she  lives", "he's 7th day Adventist because the church is nearer to him", etc. Unfortunately, many are not known to her either.

At this point we are feeling like we need to help get things going at the church for those who attend and then keep on the search for more.  Sunday was pretty sad last week, nothing was prepared and it lasted from 9:30am -about 1:30pm when dad told the bishop that our bottoms were tired and our heads had quit working.  Conference was on for 1 1/2 sessions but only the missionaries and one family stayed after the sacrament was passed following the first session.  Some sort of a potluck was going on and people were milling around.  There was no leadership and we couldn't understand just what was happening.

Tuesday night dad met with the bishop and his only counselor to try to get some planning in place.  Planning is a foreign thought here and there is evidence of it's lack everywhere. Yes, there is LOTS to do and we know it will come in very small steps.

Tonight we had 1st discussion set up with a referral.  Once again her neighbor's children greeted us with the fact that she was gone.  Last time we thought we heard a another neighbor refer to us as the "mormon devils". We'll give it another try.  I think she liked our 1st visit a couple weeks ago, perhaps her being gone was legitimate or perhaps her neighbors have influenced her.  After leaving there we went to a member who is recently taking care of her sick aging mother-in-law who is Hindu.  She had asked for a blessing which dad gave and it was more of comfort since he felt that she will not live long. Yesterday we had "tea" with a man we met some weeks ago when we were out for our morning walk. For some reason he felt impressed to tell us how dismal the care is in a Fijian hospital and that we should avoid going to one at all costs (another has told us you provide the nursing care and food for a family member) and that ambulances are nonexistent. Makes us feel real secure. 

Guess not all days are golden for missionaries. Time for #2 shower of the day.

mom and dad

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Settling Down in Ba

We finally got our truck, final instructions, and well-wishes from the Mission Office staff in Suva and left for our assignment to Ba -- perhaps the only "non-beautiful" sounding name in all the islands.  Here's some of the countryside in the area which is a beautiful farming community revolving primarily around the sugar cane industry.  Cane grows for 6 months and then is harvested (mostly by hand) for 6 months and then the cycle starts anew.  There are fewer tropical trees around than on the east side of the island but still lots of coconut palms, mango, breadfruit, and some papaya.  Here we are standing in front of a harvested cane field:

 The Ba river borders the south side of town.  Yesterday when we were driving over the bridge there were fish leaping a foot or more out of the water in some feeding frenzy.  It was strange & exciting.

A cane field is dense and tall (perhaps 8 feet or so).  Very little machinery (we've heard some farms use them but we have yet to see any), and most of cutting is done with a wicked "cane knife".  The picture below the field is of cane trucks lined up at the factory which runs 24 hours a day.

The area is hot and humid, we feel "sticky" all the time.  In some ways, Ba feels like we've moved to India with a few Fijians living in the area.  The town is 80% Hindi and all the shops and industry seem owned by or run by Indians.  That means that when you're downtown, most stores have Indian music blaring in them (a strange custom to us since you can barely hear yourself), incense smells, and to us, an odd assortment of goods.
Today is Diwali, the biggest Hindu celebration of the year.  The town is decked out in lights, people walking in beautiful sarongs, and fireworks going off endlessly (that's been going on for days leading up to this festival.  Ba is a small town filled with small shops that sell things designed to not work or break down immediately.  The saying goes that if any manufacturer anywhere makes a defective product, it is shipped to Fiji for sale.  But we think lots of things were never really defective, they just plain aren't made to work -- they look like they might work, but alas, they don't.  It's very strange.  We went to buy a mop and the worker asked us if we wanted one that would be good for 2 or 3 uses.  What?  We also bought a scrub brush but found out it wasn't designed to work at all.  We see in the markets lots of food but little that is recognizable with the exception of the open market where fruits and a few vegetables are available.  Look at those heaps of red and green hot chili peppers!
 Since the water is not reliably clean, we use a multiple phased filter system provided by the mission home for each apartment.  Before using the fresh produce, Annie soaks everything we purchase in bleach water, then rinses them in tap water and then the  filtered water before we use it.  The tiny bananas are fabulous as is the pineapple, the beans were not, the grapes, oranges and carrots (best in the world) are imported from New Zealand.  The squash/pumpkin is an experiment, we'll see what it really is when we cook it.

We have had very blue times and needed all the help and prayers we can get.  Everything is new, everything is difficult, everything is dirty -- Oh, did I mention this is a 3rd world country?  That explains why most of the people, particularly Fijians live in desperately poor villages.  We have just never really been exposed close up before.  Homes are corrugated tin shacks or cinder block.  Many have no facilities at all, or very little.  Members of the Ba ward are few (about 30-40 active) and they have had no bishop for over a year.  In the parking lot on Sunday, there is one car (ours) and we feel chagrined at the fact that we can drive but by Church rules cannot take anyone with us.  The people either walk (most barefooted) 30-90 minutes, or they hire a "transport," which is a small Toyota truck that goes along the highway and you jump in until you get to the general area you're going.  But most cost $3-10 (Fijian dollars)per person per trip and few Fijians can afford it.  Public transportation is cheaper but does not run on Sundays except on the major road. By way of understanding one Fijian dollar is worth about 56 US cents. The challenges are immense -- it is difficult for people to come to meetings during the week, and cannot stay too late on Sundays.  There is really no leadership structure and no base of knowledge to make that work anyway ("organization and efficiency" are not words found in the structure or cultural experience of Fiji).  Our inactive Relief Society President was a member for 4 months when called but never previously heard of RS, had no counselors, and no training (she's been inactive since shortly after the call).  So this will be one of the great challenges we have and a place where we might make some contribution (leadership training).

But for all our challenges, they simply melt away into insignificance when we are with the people.  They are smiley and happy in the midst of nothing, and they freely share everything they have with you.  Here's some of the beautiful people we have visited:
 The Ratu family are amazing.  Sister Ratu is the seminary teacher, defacto RS, YW, and Primary leader.  She immediately recognized the Spirit and truth of the gospel when taught.  Her husband went years before he joined and one day while sleeping and in a dream, an angel appeared at his bedside and said three times: "Are you going to be baptized or no?"  He arose and told his wife to call the missionaries and was shortly thereafter baptized and quit his 20 year smoking immediately. They fixed us a meal of Roti (grilled chewy tortilla type bread), fish cooked in coconut milk, curry chicken, some sort of greens, and plantain type banana.  All was cooked outside on a fire, the common method here (when this family heard we had a gas stove they offered their propane tank which they said they couldn't afford the $45 fill up cost which lasts 3-6 months). As is their custom, they sit there and watch you eat what is likely more and better food than they ever have themselves, and then when you're done and leave the men eat, then afterward the women and children eat if anything remains. Their 3 older boys are preparing for missions.
 Some neighborhood kids followed us into a chapel in Tavua where we travelled for a District meeting.  Everyone comes and goes as they please here.  When at a home, kids from the village wander in and out when they hear the singing or note that visitors have come.  These kids just came off the street and sat down in the Church where the missionaries were having a training.  They seemed to love the singing.
Last night we visited a home of an inactive member and his wife who wants to be baptized but since they are not legally married and he was married previously they have been unable to proceed.  No electricity, no facilities, an extremely humble  but welcome home -- it was hard to even walk into and sit down (our Americanism some times takes over momentarily).  But oh how sweet these people were.  The husband works each night and reads scriptures on his breaks, then when he returns in the morning he shares what he learned with the family and they all practice bearing testimony to each other.  We hope to help them work out their legal problems so she can be baptized soon.

So what have we to complain about?  When we are reminded that much of the world lives this way, we are  quickly "put in our place."  On Sunday we were listening to General Conference (they just received the DVD's).  And after listening to the talks about trials and difficulties and being loved by Heavenly Father, Annie turned to me and said: "You hear these things differently here don't you."  Indeed.