Jackie, you've come into the village at an incredibly rare time. Gare, this is big. Abel just told me Elias, Mario and Eta's father, just died an hour before we pulled up. He had a heart attack. I'm not sure what happens next, but all the boys are stressed and silent. I asked what we can do, but no one had an answer. Let's just make some coffee and crackers and wait until they have some instructions for us.
The air was wet and heavy. We didn't know it at the time, but it was the start of our project's downhill descent into disarray.
Speak Softly, It's Mourning
We cancelled Jackie's welcome class with the kids and offered her to stay with us for the night, while the village took care of the funeral arrangements and her host family dealt with their shock. However, it seemed her hosts were still in a hospitable mood and had dinner waiting.
Feeling for our "home alone" situation, Vita insisted we join her dinner table alongside Jackie. We didn't protest. She wanted to mother us in the midst of the uncontrollable; her kindness was unwavering. And when Garrett burst out laughing during the meal, she smiled and said:
Oh, Gah-re-tee, you must lower your voice because we are in mourning.
Her instructions were spoken with understanding rather than disappointment, and with that, we found our new Fijian guru, our go-to on everything we couldn't understand about the village.
With a long day of carrier rides and frantic errands behind us, I was too pooped to attend to the fundraiser that night. Though fundraisers are a festive occasion, the spokesman didn't cancel it in wake of the recent death. The funds were to go to a local girl's university fees for medical school, so it went on, albeit with a somber tone, and Jackie got her first glimpse of kava culture, while I snoozed off a day of pain.
My First Broken Bone
I popped some Aleve and closed my eyes, reliving the day.
Earlier that morning, as Abel and I ran to meet the carrier at sunrise, my flip-flop broke, forcing me to grab it and awkwardly run half-barefoot downhill on the rocky kilometer between the village and carrier. Only able to see a few feet in front of me due to my head lamp illumination, I didn't see the mound of road apples with adequate time.
I tried to clear it and ended up falling dramatically, my tumble only to be halted by Abel's quick save. My pants ripped, my clothes muddied, and my second toe folded in half under the weight of my falling body. It grew incredibly numb. I cursed the dark skies, but Abel's concern and kind words made me think, "I don't have to get pissed right now if I don't want to." I hobbled the rest of the day, in utter pain, but continued to smile.
The next morning, both joints on my toe were bruised and stiff. I had trouble walking for weeks.
The Communal Effort
Boys started darting from Nakavika to inform the various neighboring villages of the passing of Elias. Our young friend, Anna, constantly had adults in her house crying and praying with the widow, Vittorina. People made trips into town to bring the vast amounts of food needed for the expanding village come funeral time.
We didn't know how to contribute and express our sympathies. Asking a few select people, the answers ranged from nothing to big donations of money, depending on the nature of the person. It was an awkward situation to be in.
We landed on offering our services of documentation, hoping to create a memory for the family and the village of the entire process. Most of the residents were distraught by the unexpected death, and our coverage was something unique we could offer that they were unable to provide themselves. However, many had trouble understanding we would make a movie in the end, not just show them what we filmed right after the record button depressed.
The Shift in Normalcy
Attempting to make Jackie's experience of the village as typical as possible, we showed her our classes, utilized the numerous donations she brought, and took her on our regular excursions. Seeing Jackie navigate the difficult terrain to our favorite watering hole, Garrett and I realized how far we had come in our Fiji time. We ambled without much difficulty, a vast improvement from our starting points. Even with a newly broken toe, I no longer went at .3 miles per hour.
As the funeral date approached, more and more family returned to the village. And with the influx in mouths came an influx in slaughterings. Living closest to the underground lovo oven, men started using our house as HQ for every pig and cow undertaking. It became a regular occurrence to hear desperate squeals while reading a book or taking a nap.
The long hours of cooking meant the men camped out and needed our supplies regularly. Taking into account we were the foreigners in the equation, I tried to avoid getting angry at the unwashed flatware, the missing food, the broken glasses, the cigarette smoke constantly wafting into my room, and the frequent inquiries to use our head lamps to their bitter ends...with bloody hands.
I forgot the normally reserved etiquette of the women in the village and took the male disrespect of our house very personally. Imploring the spokesman for his help, I hoped I could get the men to clean up after themselves and not ruin the house I was in charge of maintaining. It wouldn't have happened under Fane's watch, but I don't think she would have expressed her similar thoughts to the men if it had.
My pleas didn't stop the men. Our food continued to disappear, and I think I only added to the rapidly mounting stress of those around us.
The entire week was a delicate tap dance. Should we pull away during this difficult time for the village? Would that be hurtful to not participate in the funeral process? Or should we infuse ourselves into the situation? What is customary and acceptable for us to do in order to express our sympathies and desire to help? Are people using this opportunity to take advantage of us? Should I feel disrespected by this treatment and act upon it? Am I out of line speaking this loudly or encouraging the kids to sing our hygiene jingles? Am I supposed to act like a Fijian woman or act like myself? Will they tell us if we're doing something wrong?
Tapitty-tap-tap. We danced ourselves closer and closer to a dangerous edge.
How would you have dealt with the issues we had during this stressful week? Have you experienced a similar situation as a foreigner in a small community? Comment below and share this post to keep the conversation going!