Behind the News: The exodus

Moving back to the village can have serious impacts on health, livelihoods, security, housing, as well as education, social life and the environment. It can affect general well-being and disrupt communities. Picture: FILE

People everywhere are talking about the meteoric changes happening in the world – from the US and China to Trans-Tasman neighbours, Australia and New Zealand. Changes are also happening at home.

In urban centres (like where I work and live), where a few heads gather, murmurings of terminations and rising poverty dominate discussions.

Without a doubt, COVID-19 has shaped our lives and economy, and it continues to do so.

Businesses are closing down. Thousands of people have lost their jobs.

Thousands more are working on reduced hours. Families are struggling on shoe string budgets.

The poor are fast getting poorer.

All of these are causing a typical exodus of sorts – many iTaukei are slowly going back to their villages, some to their koro ni vasu (mum’s village).

This internal migration needs an eye for detail and some serious discussions around it.

While some people say those in the rural areas have been minimally affected, I say they have been affected nevertheless and therefore must be given some close attention.

When people travel to the villages during Christmas and New Year’s break, the village becomes a hive of fun and gaiety that even metropolitan pleasures cannot surpass.

There are endless nights of grog sessions and dances, there is feasting, relationships are rekindled, and families reunite, many after long periods of being apart.

That’s normal. But when, all at once, education grinds to a halt, thousands of breadwinners lose their jobs, salaries are slashed and daily livelihood sources are lost or affected, and rent, food and utility expenses suddenly seem unaffordable, the internal migration story looks different.

Moving back to the village (in large numbers) after many years of living in towns and cities is not straight forward and simple.

It can have serious impacts on health, livelihoods, security, housing, as well as education, social life and the environment.

It can affect general well-being and disrupt the community.

Both sides are impacted – the lives of migrating families and their dependants and those who live in the villages and look after communal resources.

Like a forceful eviction (here the evictor being COVID-19), leaving behind familiar surroundings, neighbours, friends, work and associations can be an emotional journey.

Some are thrown out of their homes because of non-payment of rent and the guilt, shame and anger associated with eviction can be a big mental burden.

For those without coping mechanisms, their mental health can be affected.

Imagine them taking all these emotional and psychological predicaments with them to the village and getting no remorse or comfort there.

This is the reality some are going through right now.

Some may develop a feeling of fear or anxiety, uncertain about how their kinsmen would receive them, especially after many years of “abandoning” the dela ni yavu (formal word for one’s exact home site).

Those who have left the village after a family conflict, quarrel or shameful circumstance may find old wounds reopen and become raw.

Rubbing shoulders against those that were wronged can bring distress and uneasiness.

Getting back into the village groove, settling in a new environment if someone was born and bred in the city, and getting accustomed to “doing as the Romans do” can demand a major shift in lifestyle.

Readjusting can be a challenge (e.g picking up a cane knife and fork to start a plantation after decades of buying at the market or taking part in communal chores).

For those who value privacy and prefer nuclear family arrangements, being in a space where communalism is paramount and “my home is yours” or “your business is mine”, can be disturbing and hard to grapple.

In the mind of the newcomer the drastic switch, which he or she was unprepared for, could become a
recipe for living in frustration.

Also, sticking to the unwritten codes that guide interpersonal relationships and behaviour between young and old, men and women, brothers and sisters etc can be strange to those from the towns and cities that don’t practise them.

As a result interacting and communication can be uncomfortable.

There’s also the pressure on available resources, which in many cases would have already been scarce or inadequate in the village.

In places with irregular shipping services (long periods of empty canteens), scarce water and arable land for farming, there will be a lot of strain on these resources.

Competition for these resources may spark conflict.

Inadequate housing can be a problem too.

Those without homes in the village will be forced to stay with their extended families  while their houses are being built.

There willbe overcrowding if the host family is already a big one, catering for three meals a day can be
backbreaking for women and daily expenses to sustain extra mouths can be a nightmare.

With the absence of genuine cordiality and care, too many people in a confined space can lead to frequent differences, strong verbal exchanges and sometimes violence, including  those against women and children.

Order and decorum in each village are kept in check by values and culture practised and respected
for generations.

Now, the new mix of villagers, including urbanites, can see the introduction of alien ideas and behaviour which in turn may brew misunderstandings and intolerance.

If not addressed appropriately, this may trigger dissent and hostility.

It is heartening to note that civil society groups are aware of the changes in village composition and dynamics since the pandemic and are having a conversation around them.

And I certainly agree with comments made this week in The Fiji Times by the director of Social Empowerment and Education Programme (SEEP), Chantelle Khan, that adaptive solutions should be explored for villagers, in close consultation with the Ministry of iTaukei Affairs and key stakeholders.

I hope the government has picked up on some of these during its series of budget consultation and will factor them while doing resource allocation in the upcoming national budget.

Despite some of my rather pessimistic ramblings, I believe the answers exist and they lie with our brothers and sisters in the villagers themselves.

COVID-19 may throw a lot at us, but with goodwill, camaraderie and many big-hearted people around its negative impacts can be minimised.

Until next week, stay blessed, stay healthy and stay safe.

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