University of the South Pacific student shares optimism after experiences with natural disasters

Illustration by Emily Whang

By Augustine Minimbi

Elia Komaitoga is your typical Fijian lad. At 22 years of age, this tall, strapping bloke is a resident of Nakasi, a suburb about an hour out of the capital, Suva. 

Listen to Elia Komaitoga’s story

No stranger to hard work, Komaitoga farms at Nasilai, near the delta town of Nausori. The other half of his time is spent at the University of the South Pacific, where he is working towards a Bachelor of Commerce. 

His climate change experience began on Koro Island, in the very center of Fiji where in 2016 the strongest cyclone ever to hit the Pacific made landfall. 

“When I was in high school, I thought the answers to climate change and global warming was just a one way thing,” he said. 

Elia Komaitoga takes time out from a long spell of studies to rest and drink water. Studying, especially during the summer months in Fiji, can be very dehydrating due to the unbearable heat and humidity. Photo by Augustine Minimbi

As he relays his story, the atmosphere that the pavilion at the University of the South Pacific in Laucala gives is very tropical. There are birds chirping, leaves rustling and rarely a student in sight, a contrast from the torrential rain of only a few days prior.

Elia, like many in Fiji, has had an intimate experience of what happens when a murderous cyclone comes into your community and crushes everything. In fact, the Fijian word for cyclone: na cagilaba, literally means “the wind that kills.” 

The destruction meted out by Cyclone Winston in 2016 on his: Nacamaki, on Koro Island, a two-day boat ride from Suva, did just that. Fourty-four people died in Fiji during that cyclone.

“What had happened in Nacamaki, they just built their houses next to the sea. And so when the cyclone came, all the houses that were built near the ocean were wiped out,” Komaitoga recounted.

Such devastation is not just physical; it affects mental health too. 

“One of my uncles, I call him Ta Lailai. He’s the younger brother of my father. What had happened was that whenever there was a lot of rain and loud, really strong winds and the roofs… they’d be shaking. He’d just stop wherever he was in the house and he just crouched down and he’d be looking around and you could see it in his eyes. He was still very scared, still traumatized from Cyclone Winston.”

Elia Komaitoga’s aunt and great aunt, Atelina Tavaga and Litia Yava, burn rubbish after weeding. This is at Elia’s farm at Naselai village, Tailevu, where crops such as dalo and cassava are grown. Photo courtesy of Elia Komaitoga

As the climate crisis worsens, Komaitoga worries about the family farm in Nasilai.

“Whenever me or my uncles or my dad want to go to the farm and continue with the harvesting or continuing with the cleanup to weed out any other grass, we can’t do that due to the cyclones. Everyone’s forced to stay inside. Roads are closed, or flooded, or both; therefore, also affecting the progress of the farm,” Komaitoga said.

“When you are in school and you’re really focused, you’re progressing well with readings and assignments and quizzes and activities. And all of a sudden, some really big cyclone comes and then you’re stuck at home for a few days and it really, really stunts your progress.” 

“Sometimes, it makes me not want to continue with schooling again, because it’s really messed up my progress. It affects me emotionally and I’m not in the mood anymore. Not mentally set as I was before.”

Elia Komaitoga

Right: Elia Komaitoga walks in from the entrance to campus after a long period of study. Komaitoga is a third-year Bachelor of Commerce student at the University of the South Pacific, majoring in both Economics and Human Resource Management. Photo by Augustine Minimbi

Despite his dark recollection, Komaitoga is surprisingly optimistic when asked what the overall effect of climate change was on his family and himself.

“The effects, in my opinion, will make my family and myself stronger, to be smarter, to adapt, adapt faster, and much better to the current changing weather conditions,” Komaitoga said. 

Komaitoga’s family copes the same way many other Pacific families do for whom natural disasters are normal occurrences.

“How do we cope? We just really sit down and talk about it as a family. Talk about it and discuss it,” he said. “We let out our emotions and then we plan out from there, what to do, what not to do, what to buy, what not to buy. And we just continue to work from there.”

This aerial photo shows Kings Road, near FNU Koronivia Campus, with cars in the foreground. Flooding and inundation in this area is quite common during hurricane season, especially when the Rewa River bursts its banks after heavy rain. Photo courtesy of Ron Vave Photography
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By Augustine Minimbi

Augustine Tipuka Minimbi is a second-year student at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, volunteering as an announcer for Radio Pasifik, the university radio station. He has also done freelance reporting for the Sunday Bulletin, a Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea-based newspaper. He is an avid bookworm and is passionate about writing poems and short stories, so much so that he is currently writing a short story for an anthology put out by the Australia-based Hibiscus Three literature collective, to be published in February this year.

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