Having seen firsthand the utter devastation disasters like the Aitape tsunami inflicted on rural communities of Papua New Guinea in 1998, Tevita Ravumaidama insists on incorporating disaster risk management (DRM) training in all community projects he is involved in these days.
Irrespective of whether the project is developmental or humanitarian in nature, the long-time community development leader and executive director of Partners in Community Development Fiji (PCDF) knows that disaster preparedness, and DRM training in communities does save lives.
“That was a terrible tragedy,” recalls Tevita of the tsunami, which claimed more than 2500 lives.
“I was then working for World Vision PNG, and we were among a number of international NGOs that worked on the recovery response of survivors of the Aitape tsunami.”
Today, a disaster ready programme is part of any community project PCDF implements. Training with community members includes reviewing the ‘do’s and don’ts’ before, during and after a disaster.
Key to DRM is establishing and training a disaster committee in the communities they work in. With Fiji experiencing two super cyclones of category five proportions, Tropical Cyclone Winston in 2016, and more recently Tropical Cyclone Yasa last December, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that DRM training works.
“We noted during our damage assessments that communities that have undergone training and have formed disaster committees had quick turnaround,” says Tevita.
“They have been trained. They know what to do. Because of the training, the disaster committee was able to advise their own community on when to start preparing, where to move and what to do.
“When disaster arrives, everybody is in the right place. The elderlies and the disabled have been moved to the community’s evacuation centre, with everyone else.”
PCDF has initiated disaster ready trainings in nearly 20 villages in Ra province, on the northern coastline of Fiji’s main island. Similar training is now being taken to other communities in the neighbouring provinces of Tailevu and Ba.
Tevita himself comes from Bua, one of three provinces on Fiji’s northern island of Vanua Levu. He became executive director of PCDF in December 2009, after a short stint teaching agricultural science in secondary school. Before this, he had worked for Habitat for Humanity in its Fiji and PNG offices, and with World Vision’s Solomon Islands, PNG, Australia, Vanuatu and Fiji operations.
He trained as an agriculturalist at the local agricultural college in Koronivia, as well as at the University of the South Pacific, working for the Fiji Ministry of Agriculture upon graduation for about five and half years before joining the World Vision office in Suva.
Tevita’s long experience in community development is being put to great use at PCDF with its focus on education and capacity enhancement, natural resource management, health improvement and internal development. Components of DRM and gender are incorporated across all its work in Fiji, with a particular focus on detached, remote and under-developed rural communities.
For him, a bottom-up rather than top-down approach is key. Benefitting communities get to have a say and are consulted on the kind of development they need before such development happens. In this way, project ownership becomes a non-issue.
“We slot in time for research, to identify the needs of a community before we develop a programme, so the programme is based on the community’s needs. It’s not based on what we think is best for that community.
“We slot in time for research, to identify the needs of a community before we develop a programme, so the programme is based on the community’s needs. It’s not based on what we think is best for that community.”
“If the community writes, we’ll have to go back to the community. If the provincial office or government stakeholders approach us, we will try to verify, validate it. One thing we usually do is to collect the primary information, and we will get it right from the village and link it to the secondary information from stakeholders.
“So it’s not like we just say, “Oh! I think we have to target that village.” No, it’s not that thinking anymore. It’s the reality. It’s what is on the ground that we work on. The approach we’re doing in PCDF, and what we’re good at, is to see the needs of the community first because funding will come to support what we do best.”
To be an effective community worker and leader, Tevita believes patience, hard work and the tenacity to stay focused are key virtues. Being aware of the cultural and traditional environment and structures that you work in are equally important. This he said was a vital lesson he learnt in a health programme World Vision was running at a remote community in Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu.
“This was a very remote tribe in an area called Big Bush Bay, and our work there was to last three years, yet the first two years was spent just trying to get this community to trust and believe in us.
“Traditional beliefs were still very strong among them, and even the good health practice of boiling drinking water was so foreign to them. But two years of persistence and hard work paid off, and during the third and final year of the programme, we were successful in building a health clinic in the area, and getting their children to attend school.”
Another project which tested Tevita’s experience in community development was in Morobe Province in PNG. This time he was working for the Habitat for Humanity NGO’s Save and Build project.
“Here, I learnt very quickly that to motivate the community to save money in order to build their house, I need not ask them of their income. Rather, I got them to list their weekly expenses, how they use their income in a week.
“As part of this exercise, they will add up their weekly expenses and very quickly they themselves will come to the realisation that they can save their money [and] that four to six months down the road, they would be able to save enough to build their own home.
“Such a simple exercise was very empowering to this local community.”
PCDF is now benefiting from the rich breadth of experience and perseverance and dedication to community work Tevita brings with his leadership. Even external development partners have recognised this as an admirable strength of the NGO that Tevita heads. In commenting on the role PCDF played in the Fiji Agricultural Partnerships Project of 2020 between the Fijian Government and the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, an external
“PCDF as the Lead Implementing Partner (LIP) performed strongly overall and was largely responsible for the encouraging results achieved by Component 3 of the project. Strengths of PCDF included its community-focused approach and its existing deep understanding of the cultural context of the target communities, as wellas the methodology piloted successfully under PHVA [Partnership in High Value Agriculture]. The strong performance of PCDF was especially commendable given the short period (18 months as compared to the planned 3 years) during which Component 3 activities were implemented, and the budget constraints.”
Years of working with local communities in the Pacific have also taught Tevita the vital need for self-care. Weeks of travel and working in the field, many times exposed to the mercies of the elements, do take its toll on the human body and health.
After six years of working in Solomon Islands, including the difficult years of ethnic tensions in the nation, Tevita handed in his resignation and returned to his village in Fiji for a “complete rest.” I spent my time fishing and gardening, was how he described this time. He was also infected with malaria while working in Solomon Islands and lives with the illness to this day.
“I couldn’t run away from malaria because it’s everywhere. I don’t take tablets to protect myself but I take them to recover. I have to develop that immunity in myself.
“Some others cannot cope and be flexible. Some of my friends find it too hard. But I think having malaria had helped me in my work in Solomons, Vanuatu, PNG and being invited to do short term work in Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Taiwan, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.”
Tevita believes the coronavirus pandemic has helped built resilence and unity in PCDF. During Suva’s brief lockdown in 2020, Tevita said PCDF staff learnt to work better together although they could not work under the same roof. More interaction was encouraged through the use of technology in the form of the internet and mobile telephones.
So what keeps Tevita going now into his 35th year as a community development leader in the Pacific?
“I think the drive is, I have the heart for the people to serve. Even in the last two weeks, I was doing Zoom meetings at night from one o’clock to four o’clock in the morning with IFAD in Rome. We finished off with that last week. After that Zoom meeting, I left for home at 4:30 in the morning, changed my clothes and came back straight to work.
“I managed my life properly as well. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t socialise.”
“I do lots of work in the church, prayer meetings and church services. I love to look after people. At home, I have three children who are not mine. They stay with me, and I look after them. Before I got married, I used to look after my siblings, the younger ones. When I got married, my wife and I looked after other family members.
“Before we had our own children, I already had my relatives at home. I love that and I continue to do it now that I’m 61 years old.”