Andrew Macalister in Suva
On a steamy Saturday morning in November, a team of eager volunteers gather in the Fijian capital, Suva, for a briefing by Eunice Heritage, the energetic president of the Fiji Red Cross’s newest branch.
Their role today, she explains, is to undertake their first activity in support of humanity - an assessment and clothing distribution exercise on the outskirts of the city.
Since their first meeting in September, the fledgling Suva branch has concentrated on introducing its 30 new members to the Red Cross Movement and its Principles. Now, after two month’s preparation, they are ready for action.
Winding along a narrow road to Naisogowaluvu settlement on the rolling green hills of Suva, Eunice’s enthusiasm for the task bubbles over. “Today is just the start,” she says. “I see big things for the branch. It’s going to be the biggest in Fiji.”
Before long, her team of volunteers are off along the steep tracks of the ramshackle settlement in their freshly-printed shirts, beginning an assessment of needs based on a checklist provided by Eunice.
Very soon, their visit confirms what was suspected - a number of families living in difficult circumstances as they chase the jobs and income that Suva promises.
In one household, the grandparents are looking after four grandchildren on their own, after the death of their son and the employment of their daughter out of town.
Sitting on the floor of their small tin home, the grandmother explains their only income is her husband’s Army pension and occasional remittances from their daughter. Two of the children have already dropped out of school to help make ends meet.
In another household the extended family is finding employment frustratingly elusive – they are surviving on the father’s part-time income and what the grandmother earns by making pandanus leaf mats. Their diet is a very basic mix of taro and cassava, supplemented only occasionally by fresh meat when money is available.
By the end of the morning, the four Red Cross teams have assessed the situation of about 50 vulnerable families in different settlements, providing a valuable starting point for the Suva branch.
After a small distribution of clothing to the families at Naisogowaluvu, Eunice pledges to return. “Today allowed us to assess the degree of poverty that exists here,” she says. “But we will be back.”
“It has also given our volunteers their first taste of Red Cross work. It will be interesting, after today, to see what their reaction is!”
The answer is rapidly forthcoming. Back at the Fiji Red Cross compound, Edward Lee, an information technology and litigation officer from a Suva law firm, says the day’s outing was “tiring, but interesting”.
“It was definitely worthwhile,” he beams, explaining that he had always wanted to join Red Cross “to find some better way of making use of my time by helping people.” Today provided his first opportunity to do so.
Similarly, Tiriseyani Naulivou, who works at the University of the South Pacific, says joining the branch has been an eye-opening experience. She knew, in general terms, that the Red Cross helped people, but has been surprised at what she has seen and learnt in the past few weeks.
Eunice is also enthused. Since that first branch meeting in September, her focus had been to first introduce the newcomers to the Red Cross Movement and its Principles.
“That was a must before we got into the field,” she says. “But, now, we are actually getting going on a programme. That is exciting.”
The branch has been tremendously helped by Eunice’s own experience, having revitalised the small Savusavu branch in the northern island of Vanua Levu, before moving to Suva for work last year.
It has also been boosted by her generosity. Eunice won an international volunteering award from her employer, an Australian-based bank, but chose to donate the A$1250 prize to the fledgling branch rather than keep it herself.
Active presence in capital
The branch has no office yet, and needs to do further fund-raising, but Eunice says that is just a matter of time. “Before long, I hope we will be running a second-hand shop, moving into first aid training, health and welfare work, and disaster response.”
Fiji Red Cross Director General, Alison Cupit, is delighted at the developments. While the National Society already has 14 branches scattered across the archipelago, it has never had an active presence in the capital city, which is home to about a quarter of Fiji’s population.
She says the new branch is the direct outcome of a Governance Workshop held in May, supported by the New Zealand Agency for International Development and New Zealand Red Cross.
“To date, National Office staff have sought to deliver programmes in the city, while trying to run a national administration. Now, however, the branch is set to take over the delivery of key activities, to free us up to focus on strategic matters.”
“On top of that, I’m sure the branch is going to make a real difference to people’s lives in the city, and expose more people to the principles and work of the Red Cross. These are all exciting things.”