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The Fiji Islands: Another look at paradise



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August 21, 2013 - (Editor's note: Former Goodrich resident Jillian Zirnhelt is a Peace Corps volunteer on one of the Fiji Islands. She has corresponded with The Citizen when possible over the last few months via e-mail.)

Where Jillian Zirnhelt now lives and works there are no white sandy beaches, she rarely sees the ocean and electricity is a luxury.

Although certain parts of the more than 300 South Pacific Islands of Fiji are known for tourism, lush rainforests and aqua blue water, once visitors leave those areas life for natives is often a struggle.

That's what Zirnhelt, 25, a 2006 Goodrich High School graduate is experiencing as she now lives in the Fiji Islands, located about 2,000 miles west of Australia in the south Pacific. She attended Grand Valley State University majoring in economics and international relations and during her junior year of college, she studied abroad in Shanghai, China.

"That was my first introduction to Asia and the Pacific," she said. "When I returned to GVSU to finish my bachelor's degree I knew Peace Corps was on the top of my list of things to do after graduation. I knew Peace Corps would give me the opportunity to live in one place in the developing world for an extended period of time. At the same time, it gave me the chance to do development work. After Peace Corps I would like to get an advanced degree in international development."

The Peace Corps was established in 1960, when then-Sen. John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew a federal government agency devoted to world peace and friendship. Today, about 8,000 serve in the Peace Corps in 76 countries worldwide.

"I was willing to go to any of them," said Zirnhelt. "But the South Pacific never crossed my mind until the day I was given my placement."

Zirnhelt is on one of the islands of Vanua Levu the northern most part of Fiji in the province of Macuata and the village of Dreketi. She arrived in Fiji in September of 2012. After two months in training on other Fiji Islands she arrived in Dreketi on Nov. 3. She will be in in Fiji until Nov.1, 2014 as a health promotion volunteer. Each day she walks about 15 minutes to the local health center where she assists a Fijian doctor and two nurses working at the center.

"I spend sessions instructing patients on healthy lifestyles," she said. "At least one or two days a week we travel to local villages and schools to check blood pressure and sugar levels. This is a push by the government of Fiji to prevent non-communicable diseases. We educate them on a better diet and healthy eating habits."

The province of Macuata on Vanua Levu is home to some of the poorest people on Fiji, she said.

"My life here is very confined to my house and the people that make up the community. We spend a lot of time together. The things that matter to the people in the U.S. do not make it on our radar here. We sit on the floor to eat, socialize, and nap. We don't have electricity or television for that matter. We take quick showers under a spigot that shoots out cold water and hand wash our clothes. We don't have refrigerators, so we can't keep anything cold. Most people cook over an open fire because gas is too expensive. During dry season I walk down dusty paths in the hot sun. There is nowhere to catch a ride. If I want to go long distances I hop on an old, open, crowded, and very hot bus that moves at a snail's pace."

"Parents pay for their children's school fees by selling Kava, a root crop that they pound to a fine powder, mix with water, and drink," she said. "It is a cultural tradition, but also their escape drink from the drags of life, if you know what I mean."

"Without electricity the number of things you are able to do is very limited—more limited than I ever imagined," she said. "I simply miss flipping a switch on and off for light. I miss hot showers. I miss coffee shops and toilets that I don't have to manually fill up with water every time I want to flush. I also miss American sports. The only sports here are rugby, netball, and cricket—I won't go any further."

While Zirnhelt misses the conveniences of life at home, there are some aspects she can live without.

"What I don't miss is the fast pace of American life," she said. "I don't miss the rush, the media or advertisements or how much money is involved in everything we do or how many things we have. I don't miss how life is more about the future than the present. In Fiji the villagers live for the day and each other's company is the most important thing to them. In the U.S. people need to be reminded of this. Relationships with friends and family are more important than things."

In Dreketi, where Zirnhelt lives, there are about 60 percent Fijians and 40 percent Indo-Fijians.

"The Indo-Fijians live closest to me on neighboring settlements so I spend a significant amount of time with them going to the temple for Hindu services and celebrating religious holidays," she said. "The Fijians are Christian and have a church in each village that they attend every Sunday. The Indo-Fijians around here are rice and sugarcane farmers. Many also own small businesses. Fiji's development has mostly been because of the farming and business savvy of the Indo-Fijians. They altered the course of this country significantly. One of the biggest industries in my area is logging. As you can imagine, this leads to extensive soil erosion. They are not planting trees at a fast enough pace to keep up with the number they are taking down."

Zirnhelt said the native Fijians still live in villages where there is a chief and a headman elected to be the leader of the village. The headman is usually the most successful farmer and very active in the village. When he is elected he delegates the daily chores. Whether the village needs to be cleaned, or the farm needs to be attended to, the headman makes the announcement the day before. The women take care of the household and do all of the cooking, cleaning, and looking after the children. They also do a lot of the fishing for crab and prawn. The men go to the farm. Still, political instability has also been a factor in stunted economic growth.

Zirnhelt added that Fiji has fertile land, so there's not a problem with having enough food.

"The issue comes in making sure they get a balanced meal," she said. "And that's where Peace Corps comes in. We are the first group to be given the role of community health promotion facilitators through a growing relationship with the Ministry of Health. The reason being, the life expectancy in Fiji has dropped significantly over the past 20 years due to non-communicable diseases. Diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and cancer are taking lives of otherwise very healthy people. Just 100 years ago the people lived long lives, only dying from accidents or infections. The introduction of small shops selling snacks high in sugar and salt has taken them away from extensive farming. It has become detrimental to their health. They are essentially addicted. We are here to help them to go back to eating from the garden."

Zirnhelt said she doesn't go a day without being told how much money Americans have.

"They always tell us that a relative or friend of theirs lives in the U.S. and ask if I know them. Most Fijians that live in North America live in Sacramento, California, Seattle, Washington, or Vancouver, Canada, so they think we are all from one of those three places. They watch Hollywood movies, so they think American life is all glitz and glamour."

Zirnhelt said the western regions of the Fiji Islands are more for tourists.

"I have been to Western Fiji to Sigatoka, Nadi, and The Yasawa Group. If I do, it's on a hike through the bush up in the hills where I can see the sea far off in the distance," she said. "The Fijians that do have resorts on their land benefit a great deal from the work and it offers a market easily accessible for their goods. In other parts of Fiji they have to travel very long distances to sell their goods. This does not mean that these people are better off."

Jillian is the daughter of Tim and Janell Zirnhelt of Goodrich.

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