What you're about to read is the final event we took part in, created, or witnessed in the Fijian Highlands. It occurred on a Saturday, fifteen days before we were scheduled to leave the islands and thirteen days before we initially desired to leave Nakavika. It was because of this event and the clash of cultures - at a tsunami scale - that we decided to leave early. This event still has us doubting ourselves even today. It still remains a point of dissonance and misunderstanding between ourselves and an opinionated few in the village. It's time to discuss our fundraiser.
Who Deserves It More?
Doors closed, suitcases gutted, and eyes the size of saucers, we finally took a look at the amount of donations we brought and accumulated between the three of us on the project. Thanks to our outreach pre-trip, we had quite a supply list to offer Nakavika. 70+ items of clothing stared back at us, asking, "What are you going to do with all of us?"
The daunting number of goods made us start from the ground up.
Why give the village donations?
Because the families' farming incomes don't allow for much extraneous spending - to buy things such as well-made clothing, bags, and games - we could provide these things to alleviate a little parental stress and bring some new fun to the kids.
If we don't have enough for everyone, who deserves the items more?
We didn't want to only use our donations as prizes in the classroom, which made us feel a little like cultural imperialists...or the witch in Hansel and Gretel. And to look at the families in hopes of finding the ones most obviously in need seemed like an insensitive, improbable path to walk down.
Instead, we started brainstorming other ideas, noting first the actions we would take in this situation at home and then looking at the world through Fijian glasses.
Would it be wrong to sell these items to those who want them most?
We received these items for free from people who wanted to assist the less fortunate with things they may want or need. Immediately, with this suggestion, we crossed into a delicate situation where morality and equality were our main concerns. Charge the Fijians an incredibly reasonable cost for well-made clothing (between $.50 and $2 USD). Offer backpacks at a much lower price than was available locally. Sell balloons and plastic rings for mere pennies to the kids who considered these items higher than Christmas presents (of which they usually got none).
Where would all the profits go?
Without a doubt, every cent spent on the items would go right back to the village, geared toward a project objective of supplying the public dispensary with excellent first aid and fever reducer for children. On top of the fundraising earnings, we promised to double the final amount with our project funds to buying more goods. By the end of it all, the village would have more material goods, more health supplies at their disposal, and most importantly, a feeling of empowerment and pride in the fact that they directly contributed to the health of the village youth.
It was an intriguing concept, but we had to first run it past our friends.
A Concept Worth Spreading
I believe told our idea to the second person, the word had spread across the entire village with clarity unmatched by any other "telephone" message. Though few mothers actually knew why we were in the village at all (regardless of our publicity attempts), no one misunderstood that on Saturday the "kaivalangis" were hosting a fundraiser, selling clothing along bags and other toys.
I think it is a very good idea.
That would work. I can give you permission to use the community hall.
Your clothes are better than our clothes. The price can be a little higher.
We heard agreement all around. The anticipation for the event was visible. Mothers made a point to visit us beforehand in order to know the exact time we would begin. And with Fiji time being what it is - completely relative - we repeatedly reminded them, "3pm on the dot," which they clarified as "American time."
Saturday morning, as we sorted the clothes and determined pricing with our Fijian mentor, Vitalina (the dispensary manager and "nurse"), we found ourselves encircled by eager bargain shoppers hoping to snag something before the main event. With every new pair of eyeballs that glanced in, trying to reserve items and displaying their fists full of money, we assured them of our guidelines for all:
We are going to start at 3pm in the community hall. We will have one representative per family, probably a mother, come into the hall to shop for each of their family's children under 18 years of age. One item per young child is all we can do, because we want each family to have the opportunity to buy something. Only two people can shop and be in the hall at a time. This is because we want to speak with everyone and make sure you all know why we are selling things we received for free. We want you all to know where this money is going, that we are doubling the final amount with our own project funds, and that medical supplies for children will be at your disposal for free, because you donated a little bit today.
Continuously checking with Vita to see if we were in line, and asking Abel to translate to those with confused looks, we tried to cover our bases. It felt like our fundraiser had the most potential for success with our project objectives, leaps and bounds over anything else we'd tried. I was so excited, I forgot my camera and camcorder at home.
The Unfortunate Results of a Well-Intentioned Idea
Imagine the clamor of a crowded gym at a small town regional basketball tournament, thousands of feet stomping the bleachers causing the air to vibrate. Imagine Black Friday crowds shivering outside Walmart at 4:59am, eyeballing the unfortunate fellow about to rip open the doors for the stampede. Imagine wanting so badly for someone to hear your message, a message that would clarify a seemingly sketchy concept into that of a laudable and worthwhile endeavor. This was the energy of our fundraiser.
Children called to their mothers from the open windows the color and style of t-shirt they wanted. The door into the hall nearly busted off its hinges. We were cursed at from windows, and Jackie braved a verbal beating by a close alliance. We became invisible, our pleas for calm suffocated in an auditory wave. We asked with humor, asked with patience, asked with annoyance, asked with strangled force, "Please, don't scream, so we can tell everyone why we're having a fundraiser. Please wait outside patiently. We want everyone to line up and have a fair shot at getting what they need!"
We are Americans. We understandably function in ways that would be understood at home. We thought we were being incredibly fair, even against the deafening pressures from every opinionated person thinking like an individual rather than a community member. And we ran our methods past our Fijian gurus multiple times, fearing the potential for this kind of disaster.
Our treatment was akin to that if we had slapped a couple their children around. A level of disrespect we couldn't have anticipated came crashing down on us. And what was most disappointing was that those who treated us poorly, which numbered in the fives, were the ones we had spent the most time with: our hosts and neighbors of two months.
What was meant to be an exercise that inspired the village to help itself and feel empowered became the toughest test of our patience and understanding and one that segregated the project from those we had relied on the most. Vita and the headmaster, our biggest advocates, stood behind us saying:
We understand why people would have been upset, but what they did was wrong. They should have respected the way you wanted to conduct your event.
Without their backing, we would have felt like boneless blobs of former humanity, hoping to slither out of the village unnoticed.
And Then the Bitter Icing on the Cake
We walked with heads hanging to our home to speak with the person who hurt us the most: our host mother. Seated in a circle in the common room with her, her husband, and Abel (determined to help us patch things up), we tried to talk to her about her blatant dismissal of our guidelines to get what she wanted. Our conversation morphed into something that made me thoroughly uncomfortable, and our twenty minute chatting session soon intermixed with violence, yelling, rash behavior (none of which we took part in) that eventually had me running out of the house to avoid.
Meeting the creek below with wet eyes and now muddy feet, I looked to the illuminated hillside and thought:
Gosh... what's going on?! This is ...like a movie! Ridiculous! Are we out of line? This isn't how people treat each other. It's like the Lord of the Flies... I can't handle this anymore.
Walking silently to the school for some space, Garrett and I knew in our guts what the answer to our dilemma was. And oddly, it seemed the world knew as well. A full, blinding moon danced on the tip of a nearby mountain, conducting a visual symphony of elements across the sky. A mist, a setting sun, brilliant streaks of illuminated clouds, it was surreal and beyond imagination.
Man, this place is gorgeous. How ironic is it that the moment we decide to leave is the most beautiful moment of them all.
That night, we slept elsewhere.