Fieldwork Journal: Introduction into a Squatter Community in Suva, Fiji

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Welcome to my fieldwork journal! These articles will recount my experiences in the field with regards to my research on mobile money in Suva, Fiji. This article will recount my first entry into my research community which just so happens to also be a squatter community somewhere within the 20km stretch of land between Suva and Nausori. All names will be changed in the article to other Fijian names to protect my research participants according to ethical guidelines. Precise locations such as the village name will also be obscured. I hope you enjoy!

I first met Joni during my first days in Suva sitting in an open air cafeteria. He initially approached me wishing to sell bananas. He was carrying four plastic bags, each with a sizeable bunch inside for $6FJD. I purchased some as an excuse to strike up a brief conversation with him as I had come to Fiji with no prior contacts or “community in”. I thought nothing of the meeting though. I thought it would be one of those fleeting encounters where you never see the person again. However during the next days I would continuously run into him on the streets while I was conducting errands, each time wishing to sell more bananas. Each time I took the time to engage in conversation asking him questions about his life and circumstances. We had started to develop a little day to day friendship, maybe because when he asked me for a coke I would buy one for him. At the end of each of our brief conversations he would always depart with a wave and “God bless!”

On our next chance meeting I asked him if he was religious due to his departing sign offs. He confirmed. I asked which church he attended and suggested that perhaps I would also attend on Sunday. At this remark his face lit up and was very eager for me to come. I asked him what clothing would be appropriate. He generously offered to bring an appropriate shirt and tie for me on the day. I asked for his number in order to arrange meeting on Sunday, however he did not have his shared family’s phone on him, nor did he have its number committed to memory. Rather he required me to rip a page from my notebook to write my number on. Unfortunately I did not have my number committed to memory either. At this he grabbed my phone and entered a call code that revealed the number of my phone, which was then scribed onto the piece of paper. We did make rudimentary plans to meet outside the cinema at 7AM Sunday before taking the bus to church. The following days I did not see or hear from him, and when it came to Sunday I did not see him at our meeting point. I attributed the lull in our crossing paths to the torrential rain that never seemed to cease for a period of three days. I could only imagine that such weather was not very pleasant to commute or sell bananas in. Tourists who he may sell the bananas to may also opt to stay on the ship during these days.

On a day following, when there was a gap in the weather, we crossed paths again. He immediately exclaimed that he lost my number and therefore was unable to contact me. My number was given again in the same manner and I was asked to come join him fishing on the following day in his village. He tantalisingly described all of the food that we would cook before again walking the streets to sell his bananas. The next morning I was awoken by a phone call at 6AM asking me to “come now” and gave the name and location of his village. He said he would wait for me at the local shops outside of his village.

When I arrived at his village I was greeted by Joni and a group of smiling and enthusiastic boys between the ages of 14 and 19. When I was taken into the village I was a point of immediate curiosity with people giving me greetings from the houses that we were passing. We passed a house which we were to hire the boat from. Joni asked for $20FJD for the boat hire. He told me to wait outside while he ran inside to pay. A middle aged man was sitting outside the house repairing or untangling a fishing net. He tried to engage me in conversation from his position under the shade, however one of the boys told me not to talk too much with him. The boy said that he would ask money of me and that I should only give money to Joni as he was trustworthy. Joni returned and we departed. We passed another house at which we picked up a spade and long wooden stick. We wandered down to a waterway where the small boat was settled amongst the mud and mangroves. Joni and three of the other young boys jumped into the boat. Joni stood on the back of the boat and plunged the long wooden stick into the water and propelled us forward by digging and pushing the stick into the bottom of the creek. The creek then became too shallow to go any further when we reached the opening, so we pushed the boat out to sea across the expansive mud flats.

When we launched into the sea we pushed out to another group of boats. Some were occupied by the older brothers of the boys. Other boats were occupied by older groups such as husband and wife pairings. These boats were gathered in this shallow portion of the sea to find “underwater scorpions” to use as bait during the day of fishing. This is done by getting one boy to use the spade to dig up mud in the shallow water. The mud is then dumped into handhold nets held by another boy. The mud in the net is then sluiced in the water to drain the mud away to leave the underwater scorpions caught in the net. Some of the boys swam over to their brother’s boats and sat in them until all of our bait was gathered. When it was time to depart the brother’s boats pushed out to deeper water. We pushed off to a more coastal area that had a wide river to fish in. We dropped anchor and started a day of fishing with many catches by the boys and I. Passing boats were greeted with enthusiasm and the boys called one over to borrow their knife which was much sharper than ours. As lunch time came Joni asked me for some spare change in order to buy some lunch. I was confused as we were quite a distance from the village. I gave him the change and he swam ashore and legged it across the mud flats, feet sinking into the mud at every step making it difficult to run. He returned surprisingly quickly with two packets of Magi Two Minute Noodles. Joni ripped upon the sachets of flavouring, mixed them into the raw noodles, started consuming and shared them around. Over lunch I described my research plans. I explained that I was researching mobile practices, especially the use of mobile money, and that I was looking for a community to contextualise it in. They exclaimed that I should conduct the research in their village and area.

As the day was coming to an end, the tide had since risen and lowered back down to its shallowest, revealing the greatest expanse of mud flat. The tide was so low that our route back home was blocked and would require a great diversion. Rather than expend all that energy the boys decided to park the boat on the mudflat to wait for the tide to rise once again. The wait was filled with various games such as pushing a discarded rusty refrigerator around in the shallow waters, with a boy sitting inside like a go kart. Such running around and games were filled with laughs and noises imitating race cars. Names and pictures were drawn in the mud with sticks. One of the boys continuously wrote in the mud the initials of ***. I asked him what the initials stood for which he proudly replied “********” (the area where his village is located). The other boys equally affirmed their pride of the initials and the area they called their own. As the tide was rising slowly it was the perfect time to catch crabs hiding underneath the mud of shallow pools of water. After the water had risen over the mudflats we pushed our boat back along the newly formed coast, and back home.

The young boys and I started cooking the fish we had caught during the day for our late afternoon meal. A boy in his mid-teens, known for his expertise in the kitchen, was sautéing some onions and tomatoes on top of a camping style element placed on the floor. Another boy in his early 20s was outside scrapping the scales off the fish we had caught just an hour before, and latter covering them in flour. A school aged boy was scrapping coconut out of the shell. He was using a makeshift tool which consisted of a long flat piece of wood which he sat on, on top of the wooden steps leading out of the kitchen. The piece of wood extended long outwards between his legs and had a serrated end for which he scrapped the coconut into a bowl on the step below. A group of teenage boys were gathering round to build a fire in the outdoor segment of the kitchen with dry logs doused in kerosene, ready to boil the rice. Meanwhile young children, some barely old enough to walk, wandered through the kitchen, some playing games that consisted of chasing and tagging. Many more young adults and children, primarily male, mulled around watching the cooking process. The scene had elements of Neverland where adults did not seem to exist and where each boy in the brotherhood had an expertise and capability to look after themselves and one another. It was at this point one of the older boys remarked that, “this is where people come when they fall on hard times”. At this, I wondered whether this was perhaps a squatter community, a location where people migrated to and settled illegally on government owned land.

Squatter communities indeed do consist of a particularly young demographic which was clearly evident in this scene. It was also around 4pm which would suggest that if this was a squatter community, a proportion of the male adult figures would be involved in either formal or informal employment, or commuting home. They would not be present in the village undertaking sustenance activities to the same extent that they would in a traditional village. I also noticed that the community was on or adjacent to low lying land, close to the coast and intermingled amongst waterways and mangroves. Such land is prone to flooding and is not particularly fertile suggesting that they had settled there by necessity and circumstance, or merely to take advantage of non-subsistence activities within Suva. I made some inquiries to where the boys had come from, as squatter communities are characterised by a large proportion of migrants, especially from the outer islands. Many had come from the outer Fijian islands of Lau and Kadavu. Many also came from various locations on the island of Viti Levu which Suva is located on. Their home villages on Viti Levu however were at a distance which would make day to day travel to Suva time consuming and expensive. In comparison, this particular squatter community was located in the Suva-Nausori corridor approximately 15-20 minutes bus ride from Suva central making it prime real estate in terms of access to Suva and therefore informal employment. These inquiries alongside my observations confirmed with some degree of certainty that this was a squatter community, at least in general definition.

Joni’s mother returned home during the evening and regarded me with much curiosity and questioning. Her demeanor however was very welcoming and polite. Many times it was asked when I would return. On subsequent return visits she insisted that I stay in their household when I returned to Fiji in September. I got the impression that she thought I would be a good influence on the boys, as well as the fact that I would perhaps provide some sort of access to wealth. The household consisted of her, Joni, and her two younger primary school aged sons. On one occasion on a return visit, her husband who lives on the outer islands of Lau called her and I was immediately handed the phone. I recounted my experiences with Joni and the other boys to him. After gaining some repour he insisted that I accompany the family on a return trip to Lau in 2016. He was also excited to meet me on his return later in the 2015.

Also on a subsequent visit, I was taken to the house of one of Joni’s friends. This house was located at the very entrance of the village and was of a much higher standard than the other houses I had seen made of scarps of metal and wood skilfully but obviously patched together. This house had a separate large room for cooking also quite advanced in terms of the other houses I had seen. There were also couches and various woven mats on the solid secure floor. I was invited to sit on the couch by his mother and the rest of the younger boys sat on the floor near the entrance. His mother asked me questions about my research and turned to the boys at various times to ask them questions when she did not understand. I was fortunate that the boys had come to an adequate understanding of my research during our fishing trips. At many times the boys interjected to clarify points. After explaining the research she asserted that they were now my Fijian family and that I was to call her nana. She said that the village would teach me Fijian. I offered to contribute to the village as much as I could, perhaps as a tutor for many of the primary school aged children in the village. After leaving with the boys to undertake some more fishing, I got the feeling that my Fijian nana had a particular authority in the village, and that perhaps her approval was the consent I needed to undertake research there.

lucaswatt

lucaswatt

Lucas Watt is a PhD candidate with the school of Media and Communications at RMIT University. His project title is “The Domestication of Mobile Money in Fiji: An Ethnographic Study”.