For the Women of Silana, Shelter is Much More Than a Roof

Fiji - Driving past a quarantined village due to a typhoid outbreak, I wondered just how much the Fijian communities could possibly tolerate. First a cyclone rips their homes away, now disease and isolation.  The Women of Silana village would today reveal just how much people can withstand anguish and still thrive.

I am en route to Silana Village, practically obliterated by Cyclone Winston, located on the coastal edge about two and a half hours drive from the capital of Suva, untouched by the cyclone. My assignment today with the IOM Emergency Response team in Fiji is to meet with the Women of Silana Village to identify their needs following the cyclone.

Following a ceremonious greeting with the Village Chief, lead by my valuable, informative guide and local colleague, by gaining the Chief’s blessing I would be able to talk with the village women.  Our arrival was timely as we were first invited to observe a formal meeting between the men of the village and local provincial council. The purpose of the meeting being to finalise an agreement for the people of Silana Village to relocate to higher, safer ground, away from the clutches of destructive waves.  As the meeting dialogue was in Fijian, following a post meeting Q&A session with my local colleague, I further understood consensus from the village lead to submission of a relocation request to Government, whereby families from totally destroyed houses (80%) would relocate over the coming year and families from partially destroyed houses (20%) would have a choice to remain or relocate.

As we sat around the floor of a community building roofed by tarps, with the sea breeze flowing though partially repaired window frames, the women were initially coy to engage in conversation. Younger non-school aged children in excessively over-sized clothes sat close by as their Mothers shared factual, almost point form conversation; “We look after the children, cook and clean. The men will make the important decisions and re-build our houses.” I noticed the traditional patriarchal social system that seemed normal in the rural areas was not so apparent in the urban areas of Fiji.

Politely thanking the group of women for sharing conversation, I then walked around the village with Lusiana, wife and Mother who expressed a beaming smile, signifying her resilience.  We stepped over sheets of corrugated iron, scattered branches and sunk our feet into pools of swampy water as the flimsy wooden makeshift bridge gave way.  Lusiana pointed to the deserted area where her home previously stood.

Point form conversation dissipated when I met Mere, Mother of 5, the village nurse, and only person in the village with basic First Aid skills. Mere’s stories were endless……

Silana village, Teilevu, Fiji, located on the coastal edge, about two and a half hours drive from the capital of Suva, was practically obliterated when Cyclone Winston hit more than a month ago. © IOM 2016


“An elderly woman died from being in the water too long, she panicked and left on her own from where she was advised to stay. She became stuck in the water past her waist, it was dark, they couldn’t find her”

“A flailing piece of corrugated iron sliced open a women’s leg. I could only use tape like builders use to close the open gash from her knee down to her foot”

“A young boy’s toe was sliced off” And the stories go on, as I’m sure you are beginning to envisage.

These were just a few stories of occurrences during the cyclone. Many of Mere’s stories followed in the cyclone aftermath:

“One women is still so traumatised that she freezes when she sees her child cry and becomes too frozen to console him” Mere says she tells her to talk about her feelings and experience. “Let it out….” Mere says. The woman is shy and seeks privacy to share her emotions, retreat that evidently doesn’t really exist now.  I consider what an inspiring, positive person Mere is!

My attention was diverted to the pile of soaked clothes forming a small mound on the floor beneath the partial tarpaulin roof, surrounded by what seemed to be a trillion or so buzzing flies.  A little embarrassed that Mere notices the direction of my gaze, she laughed as she demonstrated how she extracts the captured rainwater by poking a broom handle into the tarp pockets whilst her daughter holds the bucket. Voila!!...clothes washing water! Now that’s improvisation and resourcefulness.

Pots and pans and clothes that had been washed out to sea were identified as important items in need, almost deemed as important as shelter by some women.  The practical needs list goes on, as does the social.  With multiple families sharing inadequately curtained, partially walled houses (pseudo evacuation centres) due to their own houses being totally destroyed, privacy is non-existent.  Lusiana explained that bathing clothed is necessary, as is also holding the flimsy curtain across any of the 4 toilets shared by 32 village families.

I was quite taken-a-back just how open these women became in a one to one setting. I assumed due to the comfort of another women, albeit a stranger from a foreign culture that I was. I learned that when the desire for intimacy arises, venturing quite a way into the bush is the only place to find any privacy and even then it can be risky and humiliating.

I understand that for the Women of Silana, shelter is not just a roof over their heads.

Women’s names have been changed for privacy reasons.