“Oh wow, we have the same birthday” I said gently, sitting cross legged on the floor opposite a woman of my exact age, her name was Kaliti. She smiled weakly. She had been pleased to see me but there was an unbelievable sadness to her that made me want to talk softly and slowly so as not to break her.
It was my third week in Fiji volunteering at the womans commune, a housing commission for Fiji’s destitute. The property houses 124 flats that are rented out for $5 a week to anyone that has nowhere else to go. As a Naturopath, I had come to make house calls on all the residents and do some basic health checks.
Two other women sat with us. Outside you could hear the five children that also lived here playing and giggling. This was my seventh family I’d visited today so I was familiar with the setup of the houses- very little furniture, a small kitchen with nothing in it, a couple of mats on the floor which served as the sitting area/bed for this family of eight and an over powering smell that I can only describe as the smell of poverty.
Slowly this family began to warm to me and through broken English I learned of their story. Kaliti had just come from the hospital after an operation to remove an ovarian cyst. She had been living here helping her auntie who had recently become the sole carer of Kaliti’s 5 cousins. In January, the children’s mother had died from pneumonia, closely followed by their father from tuberculosis in June. Now they all lived here with their grandmother.
The grandmother was 61 years old. She looked tired and stressed. When I asked her about her own health, she began to cry. Through tears she told me that she had recently been diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure and fatty liver disease. She cried not because of her conditions but because of how scared she was that her grandchildren may have no one to care for them if something was to happen to her. On her death bed, her daughter had asked her to take care of the children and the grandmother had pleaded with her that she wasn’t strong enough to raise more children. But she had no choice.
The children are all in primary school. They have no shoes to wear to school. They out grew their sandals and now their thongs have worn out too. All five children have lice, ringworm and scabies.
This wasn’t the first grandmother I had met who was now the sole carer of her grandchildren. It was a common story line. Fijian people place high importance on loyalty to family. It’s inspiring. They will give so much of what they have to others even when they have hardly anything left to give.
For me this had been the hardest part of my house calls. Seeing how much help these people needed and yet they refuse to stop giving away the little they do have.
In the world where I grew up, a world that seems so far away from this one, we have so much. A life of poverty in Australia is often related to drug or alcohol abuse or wasted opportunity but in Fiji the people that live this way are here just because of where they were born. The most common scenarios I saw were women hiding with their children from domestic violence, or unemployment usually due to injury, disability, being a single parent, old age or just plain old bad luck. Every family was affected by illness, scarcity and depression. Every house call was another heartbreaking story.