Thursday, 25 February 2016

Dipping my toes into working with the local men! - by Matt

[Apologies - haven't been able to take the camera yet to work so no photos to make it interesting!]

This week (after not being able to work at all last week because of the storm), I went wandering round on Monday to see what was going on and found a group of men on a Ute driving round picking up fallen (rotten and stinking) breadfruit to take to the tip. They invited me to join them so I spent a couple of hours doing that with them. The breadfruit rots quickly and attracts flies and the risk of disease so it’s one of the men’s jobs to clear them all away. That is once everyone has had their full on deep fried breadfruit chips of course. We tried making a few of these ourselves, and they were very tasty. Our effort at boiled and mashed breadfruit wasn't quite so successful!!. So work on Monday was finished by about 10:30am once we’d cleared all village trees.

On Tuesday I went for another walk to see what would happen this day. We also were in need of some supplies from the shop on the other island, so I needed to catch a lift to Fale. I found a group of men down at the beach scaling and gutting fish, munching away on the fresh liver, or fish eggs or something and generally joking around. I found out one was headed to Fale, so I sat around until they were done and then grabbed a ride. I managed to work out that he wasn’t staying at Fale, but was heading onto work with the men, so I asked if I could go for the ride too. So we went down the reef a little to a place where it is sandy. The barge was already there and about twenty men were in waste deep water filling sacks with sand. I found out the coarse coral sand is the Tokelau equivalent of builders mix and makes a good concrete when mixed with cement and fresh water. So I spent a couple of hours in the water with them (which I didn’t find cold, but they really did). Once the sacks were all full they are heaved up onto the barge and stacked on pallets and taken back to Fale to be unloaded and trucked to the other side of the islet to be washed in the rain before being used. At the end of that, after a quick trip to the shop, the days work was done (because of the cold) and I grabbed a lift back home.

Wednesday started at 8am with another load of sand from the water, followed by a trip home to get changed and a bite to eat, then back to Fale at about 1pm for another task that the men had to do on request from the Mayor. This was to take a pregnant women who was transverse breach and had to be medi-vac’d to Apia. Because of the stormy seas and huge waves pounding the south side and west side of the atoll, the all the men (in about 15 tin dingy’s – the standard boat here) and a barge full of men headed across the lagoon on very choppy water to the north side of the atoll where they took the woman and medical equipment for the journey across the reef and high tide and were pushed out through the breakers (still large and pretty risky) and then motored over the large swell to the waiting police boat. The journey was done twice, both times safely. Only half the men were actually needed for the task, but to my reckoning, this was more about an effort of community care and compassion, that everyone wanted to be part of (plus they seemed to mightily enjoy the bouncing blat over very choppy water in the middle of the lagoon – drenching us all – I enjoyed it anyway). After this all men were called back to the meeting house in Fale for a meal and to be given the plan for the following day. By the time I got home it was after 6:30pm and dark. Poor Chrissie had a long day of it.
Thursday, the men from Fenua Fala, where we stay, were put on the task of doing the boxing for a new ramp/driveway from the wharf where all the supplies are brought in. The ramp is mostly functional, to allow the vehicles to climb a steepish slope, but it was also very imperative that this task was completed before the big General Fono meeting starting next week where the new head of government for Tokelau will be elected. The morning involved a lot of sitting around for a number of the men as there wasn’t really enough work to keep us all occupied. Again – the focus is on being with each other, with the work being the vehicle for that. I found it a very interesting process watching how everything was done (and how many work- arounds are necessary, because of lack of equipment and tools). So I spend my time looking for insignificant little tasks that I could assist with, while staying out of people’s way (given that I often have no idea what’s going on, being surrounded by Tokelaun language which I understand very little of (except for “palagi” – white man -  which inevitably drops into the conversation when I’m around!) After a lunch cooked by village women we got a couple of concrete mixers going and I managed to find a wheel barrow (which required old concrete to be hammered off it first) and we set about pouring the ramp of about 12m x 3m x 150mm, which happened at a very fast rate with around forty men working at a steady sweating clip so that the whole job was finished in a little over 2 hours (about the same as it would have taking with trucks in NZ I would guess). I really enjoyed being part of a good physical job, that was easy to understand my task. It was amusing that at least at the outset, they insisted on only half filling my barrows. My guess is that they were thinking – this palagi fella is only half the size of all the others (at best), so better only half fill his barrow! Classic, because it’s true – though I can easily cope with a full barrow of concrete.

With the job done, the Mayor was so happy that he shouted a few rounds of the local drop – Vailima – a Samoan larger that normally can only be purchased at 3 bottles per adult. It was a fantastic atmosphere of music, laughing, conversations, games of Euka and WARM beer – the standard here. The boys were quite happy to drink the night away. I was worried about my family at home again and so was fortunate that the very generous foreman Lameko - married to a Te Arawa Maori women here – gave me a lift home after I’d joined for one beer. I was very torn, as it’s the sort of experiences that are so worth being part of, but I’m even more aware that I have to make sure that this adventure works for the whole family, and I’d already been away from them enough this week.

Today, Friday, I’ve taken the day to be at home with them. I’m not actually working officially – more just volunteering – so I’ve got some flexibility in theory. Though the other men are only getting NZ$2.30 an hour so – it’s more of a “work for the dole” type arrangement. It’s not a lot when you consider that most food and other supplies at the shop are at least double, sometimes triple the NZ cost. It’s a very simple way of life here. People make do with what they have, and depend heavily on their phenomenal fishing abilities and other food they can forage. 

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