In just a few days, we will officially be at the halfway mark in our mission – 9 months down, 9 to go. So I thought to do some reflection at this mid-way point:
We’ve been on a roller coaster of emotions and experience. We could never have imagined what it would be like nor could we have really prepared in any specific way. Our married years of serving in the Church was, of course, the best preparation but it would have to be considered as a “general” preparation of spirituality, service experience, and testimony.
Nothing could have prepared us for the difficulties of living in this “3rd world country” with its heat and humidity (so bad I’ve often said at the outset of the day – “Let the sweat-fest begin!”), dirt, bugs, illness, lack of education, and cultural barriers to success so deeply embedded that you wonder at times if the Fijians will be able to progress past the negative parts of village life & chiefs and laziness and addictive Cava drinking, and ineffective government. Then too, we’ve experienced two floods, weeks without water or electricity, and all the challenges associated with an entire region being under water. Add to those things the incessant noise from the diseased and roaming dogs barking & fighting constantly night and day; Indian music blaring from every store and home so loud you can’t hear yourself (and this is really bad music!); and “living noises” which seem right in your flat because houses have many windows and you never shut them because of the heat so there’s no barrier to sounds intruding from everywhere around you. And did I mention the monotonous, awful food? We rarely go out to eat in Ba or the other small towns around us because the food is truly terrible and we assume, unsanitary. Then too, we are isolated with no other missionary couples near us to visit with on occasion. There’s a lot more to complain about but all of them have combined to get us down so low at times that we’ve wondered if we’d be able to stick it out. We’ve mostly determined to pray more, murmur less, and make jokes about the trial where we can and that has lightened the load but we still get down, particularly when you’ve worked very hard and made no discernable progress on so many fronts. One day, in the ultimate expression of dealing with the challenges in humor, Annie was looking at our tin of pills where we have combined vitamin and mineral tablets of different sorts, and said, “which one do I take to kill myself?”
On the other hand, nothing could have prepared us for the sweet joy of working with the simple people of Fiji. I’ve commented before that they are not unintelligent, but they are under-privileged and that certainly leads to a lack of educational quality, experience, and broadness of mind. However, when we sit in these humble homes made mostly of a cement foundation, corrugated tin siding and roof, and almost nothing of value or possession on the inside, we are struck with how good these sweet people are and how simple their faith is, and how little you actually need to live and be happy. They seem perpetually happy and jovial – Fijians love to joke and laugh.
We taught a woman yesterday who is preparing to go to the temple (Adi Tabualevu). Her husband is not a member and she is a convert of a few years. She is blind in one eye (result of a bad “home remedy” for an eye irritation), is the mother of 4 boys, and is as pure and worthy and full of optimism as anyone could be. We have given her the booklet, Preparing to Enter the Holy Temple (from Elder Packer’s book) to be reading while we are teaching her the preparation lessons. We asked her how her reading was going and if she could understand the English. She first said, “yes”, but then reconsidered; “Not at first, but I pray to Heavenly Father and ask him to help me and then I keep reading it over and over until I understand.” Whenever we visit there’s another “common” story of faith from her that is oh, so uncommon. Her husband is a cane cutter (which means he is meagerly employed at a devilishly hard job of cutting sugar cane by hand with a big knife), and is therefore out of work 6 months a year. He does other “casual” jobs for cash and as everyone, does a little gardening for the daily food of roots, leaves, fruit, etc., but they truly have no money much of the time. When we were planning for her future trip to Suva to go to the temple (6 hours away by bus), we estimated it would cost her about $50 USD for bus fare, housing, food, garments, etc. That’s like a dream amount of money. We thought it would be difficult for her and not a happy prospect for her supportive but uninvolved husband. But she prayed that his heart would be softened and the other day he said to her, “we will do this, it’s for a good thing.”
The Tabualevu home has never had electricity and they have hoped for it someday. No electricity means, of course, no refrigerator (even if you could afford one), no light, no radio or music, etc. Recently, Sister Tabualevu has been praying for a way to get electricity. Just amazing how your faith is strengthened when you have no other means of resolution for needs. Not by any means, out of desperation or piteous appeal to God; just pure faith that you live by because you have so little control over anything. Anyway, the bishop brought over an electrician to see what it would take to get electricity into their home and they determined it was possible if the Church paid for the materials and the member electrician did the work for free. But one problem, she needed a “government approved” post to string the wire from. “Government required/approved” usually means, “impossibly expensive” because the government has no tax base from citizens so it gets most of its money through excessive fees for permits and permissions of every imaginable sort. She was told that the post would cost $800. We’re pretty sure they don’t make $800 in a whole year so that was a deal breaker. Give up? No, no. Sister Tabualevu said that she came home from getting that news and went right over in the corner of her house and knelt down and prayed that Heavenly Father would open a way for them. The next day she had the idea to go see an uncle who worked at the Fiji Sugar Company and told him of her plight. He said that she didn’t need to worry because he’d find a way to get her one from the plant for free (not sure if it’s legal, but it was an answer to prayer!). That’s her faith.
Speaking of faith, there’s a lot of sickness, disease, and injury complications due to infection here. Everything green grows great in Fiji, and everything “bacteria” does just as well. With agrarian lifestyle, running around bare foot, and lots of nicks and cuts, accidents and injuries, and bug bites, and poor nutrition – well, there’s a lot of serious sickness and infections -- and the healthcare is awful. We were told early on, “don't go to the hospital, people die there.” But people still go to these little clinics and hospitals, because they have no other choice. Fijians come from a chiefly society and one that was under British colonial rule for years and as a result of both these cultures and their lack of education and perhaps other factors, they often don’t ask someone “in authority" (like a government official or doctor) any questions. Generally it seems that you just do what you’re told and don’t ask questions. We’re always amazed at a conversation like this that we’ve had so many times that we don’t even bother anymore:
We ask, “What did the doctor say you have?”
“He didn’t say anything,” they reply.
“Did you ask him?”
“No, but he gave me some pills.”
“What kind of pills, what are they for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you ask?
Or even more laughable: a sister in the ward recently had swollen glands in her neck and a high fever so the doctor here in Ba said, “you should go to Latouka and have an x-ray.” Latouka is an hour away by bus and costs about $4 round-trip. Then you get to the overcrowded regional hospital and take a number and wait, wait, wait. If you’re lucky, you get in that day and they do an x-ray which everyone with any education knows will show nothing of the soft tissues in the neck but hey, “we should probably do an x-ray anyway.” So then you eventually get back the x-ray results and wait in another line for a doctor to interpret them. Then the doctor says, “you’re OK, there is nothing broken, here are some pills.” Nothing broken???
“Did you ask what the pills are for?”
“No . . .”
If you ask the doctor, as we did once in another circumstance, “can’t you just examine her neck, or look in her throat?” He replied; “the order from the doctor in Ba says to have an x-ray so that’s all I can do. If you want me to examine her neck, go back to Ba and have the doctor write another order.” Oh my goodness, are we really experiencing this? He’s right there, he could reach up and feel her neck, or take here temperature, or look in her throat in less than a few minutes, but no – can’t do that, because he has no orders. What a sad and ineffective system. In fact, as our favorite friend, Saimone Nairoqo says, “everything in Fiji is broken, even the weather.”
I mention all this just to emphasize that most health issues, even serious ones, essentially go untreated or are treated ineffectively. So the members depend on faith, prayers, and priesthood blessings. And sure enough, most terrible things are healed through their faith and the administration of those blessings. We have given more blessings here in 9 months than I’ve probably ever given in previous years combined and it’s wonderful and humbling. Recently one boy had a serious infection on the bottom of his foot and could not put any weight on it. We had stopped by his village that evening and he wanted a blessing, which we gave. A few days later we heard that the boil popped and drained right after the blessing and the next day he ran in a school race. “How about that big infection? No problem, we just asked for a blessing and by the morning we were better!” It doesn’t always work so perfectly but amazingly, it does work most of the time. It makes us reflect on the statements of the Savior to those of “little faith” who doubt God’s power. In this culture and with their needs, God just answers those needs more immediately than anything we’ve ever experienced or imagined.
So at this mid-way point, we feel blessed to have come and even for wading through the difficulties. We’re not saintly on that issue but we do feel refined and somehow accomplished for making it this far. And we think of the two we’ve taught and baptized (Tuliana Lewaseni and Miriama Saqali), the families we’ve helped prepare and go to the temple (Mateiwai, Nairoqo, Nava), the leaders we’ve helped to tutor, and the inactive members we’ve helped back into faith and all in all it’s been a good 9 months. We’ve learned and felt much of the divinity of human kind and the great need of the gospel throughout the world.
Some have asked if we will be in Ba all 18 months of our mission, and the answer is, we don’t know. Like all missionaries, we are presided over by a mission president (President and Sister Klingler) and we stay or go at his inspiration. Sometimes we think it would be nice to have a change of scenery and see another part of Fiji. On the other hand, we have a nice flat and feel accepted and loved here in Ba so would we really want to go to another – perhaps more difficult – area where we have to start all over again? Hmm, that doesn’t seem so enticing and all the areas couples are assigned to are difficult ones – that’s why they send us there. So we’ll do what all missionaries do, serve where we are asked to serve and try our best to be a blessing to these people while they are a blessing to us. In the end, we’ll probably gain more from our service to them than they will from us.
The scriptures have been a constant comfort and guide during these months. You do read them differently and notice things differently based on your circumstances and I’ve been endeared to missionaries past who shared similar experiences. Here’s a passages that describes something of our experience and which has become fondly embedded in my mind (from the Book of Mormon, Alma chapter 17):
“And they fasted much and prayed much that the Lord would grant unto them a portion of his Spirit to go with them, and abide with them, that they might be an instrument in the hands of God to bring, if it were possible, their brethren, the [Fijians] to the knowledge of the truth. And the Lord did visit them with his Spirit, and said unto them: Be comforted. And they were comforted. And the Lord said unto them also; Go forth among the [Fijians], thy brethren, and establish my word; yet ye shall be patient in long suffering and afflictions, that ye may show forth good examples unto them in me, and I will make an instrument of thee in my hands unto the salvation of many souls.”