It’s been 19 months since I entered service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji. I knew this experience would take me far out of my comfort zone and shape my future. Little did I know though that leaving everything I knew would only lead me to, in the words of T.S. Eliot, “arrive where I started, and know the place for the first time”. Peace Corps is about cross-cultural exchange. It’s a lived commitment to bridging gaps in experience and creating understanding among peoples. In a way, it’s about coming home.
It’s been a month now that I’ve been back in Massachusetts on temporary leave, following the destructive Tropical Cyclone Winston which laid waste to the island on which I reside and to much of Fiji. A month to reflect from a distance, from where I started. Since living in Fiji I constantly ask myself, how are my two homes connected? And now since the storm, what does this disaster mean, to Fiji, to America, and to the world?
I was reminded of the material differences between my homes on my descent into T.F. Green; the sturdy houses framed by neatly fenced yards, parades of shiny cars snaking through perfectly paved roads… A stark contrast to the patchwork of Fijian islands framed by reef, parts glowing verdant with vegetation, blending into others stripped bare by Winston. As each day passes though, the differences blur and connections come into focus. Connections I feel compelled to share because of their significance to all of us interconnected peoples, from Fiji to America and beyond.
In the standard notion of the concept, Fiji is a “developing” country. This is the material difference that my descent into Providence made clear. Fiji lacks basic infrastructure, access to resources, and modern technology. These challenges are compounded by exploitation from foreign interests, climate change pressures, and a diabetes epidemic. Damages caused by Cyclone Winston have only exacerbated the issues. And yet, Fijians are some of the happiest people in the world. Even after the cyclone ravaged villages, people chose to stay put and carry on–smiling.
America is considered “developed”. We have consistent electricity, sanitary waste disposal, and efficient transportation. We have high life expectancy and GDP to match. But what does this mean if our 80 years feel empty? If all the goods we produce enslave us and services we provide don’t inspire us? America may be developed, but something is missing. We have the skeleton of life, but no flesh and blood. We’re losing that vital something which makes Fijians so happy: community. This is the flesh that protects them, the blood that provides what is essential to life; satisfying work, meaningful relationships, a sense of place. It’s the intangible backbone that remains when a disaster leaves the physical world unrecognizable.
Whether you live in an isolated island village in the Pacific or a bustling gateway city like New Bedford, MA, what we all innately desire is to feel productive and connected. Fiji and America are mirror images of one another: Community is suffering at the hands of “development”, and “development” is failing due to a lack of community. For Fijians and Americans alike to find greater health, wealth and happiness we must consciously develop with our values and desired future in mind, while concurrently cultivating community.
What might Fiji be like if this disaster were an opportunity to rebuild more resilient, modern infrastructure upon the backbone of community? What might American towns and cities be like if we took advantage of our modern infrastructure and creative powers while restoring community? A cyclone is a catastrophic. Isolation and poverty devastating. These disturbances though are the breaking down of old patterns of being and doing. The pieces are back in our hands–together we must re-imagine, regenerate. By acknowledging this we can empower each other to begin together: across neighborhoods and across oceans.
So what is the point of the Peace Corps? This realization: though my two homes are separated by thousands of miles our struggles are connected, and our strengths are complementary. Cross-cultural exchange illuminates what we have so we can value it, and what we lack so we can create it. By journeying beyond, we can come home… to a more beautiful one, wherever that may be.
“If you don’t leave, you can’t return.” –Eugenio Tavares
*I will be returning to Fiji in the next few weeks, once staff has determined whether returning to Koro is viable or if I’ll require a site change for the remainder of service. I look forward to making the best of whatever opportunity I’m offered to continue working with the people of Fiji who have made the last 1.5 years of my life so meaningful and transformative.