Shayal Devi, Saturday, June 25, 2016.
WHILE many are focused on infrastructural rehabilitation after Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston, a group of dedicated Empower Pacific counsellors are working behind the scenes to provide services to those struggling to cope in the aftermath.
Four months on, these individuals are still travelling to some of the most-affected villages in Ra after having visited areas in Yasawa, Taveuni and other outer islands.
Empower Pacific has since provided assistance to more than 15,000 people across the country.
With this month expected to be the last of the outreach program, The Fiji Times spoke to Harrison Kautoga and Kelera Batibasaga, two senior counsellors with the NGO who have been on the ground since Winston.
Mere hours after Winston swept through parts of the country, Empower Pacific deployed a team of counsellors after liaising with disaster management authorities.
This was done to provide support to those who were left traumatised by the Category 5 storm.
Team leader Harrison Kautoga, a counsellor for more than eight years, said one of the main areas where services was mobilised was Ra Province, especially villages in the interior.
"We started off with psychological first aid counselling, that is to assess the safety, risks and health of children, women and all the family members," the 32-year-old said.
"Most of the villages in the interior had not been touched, maybe services have gone once like food rations, but they really need more."
Similar sentiments were echoed by his colleague Kelera Batibasaga, who said this was the first time in her eight-year stint as a counsellor to visit some of the villages in Ra.
"Out in Ra, it's a bit of a challenge because of the different environment," the 40-year-old said.
"When we usually go out into the community, we do things like training but if they (people) are identified by other stakeholders like the Health or Women's Ministry, then we go for counselling.
"Here, it's a new thing in that we are going to places we have never visited before."
Reception from villagers
Many living in urban and semi-urban centres are familiar with what counselling services entail.
However, for the population living in the highlands of Ra, this was a service they were not familiar with.
This meant that counsellors like Mr Kautoga and Mrs Batibasaga had to work hard to create awareness on the type of work they were involved in.
This was made easier by the provincial office as the roko tui Ra liaised with various turaga-ni-koro and explained the work Empower Pacific was doing on the ground.
"We had to explain what the services — counselling — was all about and they (people) thought counselling was when someone came to give advice on what to do or how to build houses," Mr Kautoga said.
"The provincial office helped them come to terms with what we were going to talk about, which was a real big help," Mrs Batibasaga explained.
Mr Kautoga said the reception from villagers was really good.
"They feel positive and there is a sense of hope for them to move on," he said.
"We have tried to clear that blockage and show people what is there to help support them. The outreach is expected to end later this month, but it depends on what the funding is like."
He said providing training at villages helped people develop communication skills they could use when dealing with anger, stress and time management.
Those who sought counselling services in the aftermath of Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston discussed how difficult it was to cope with the situation.
Mr Kautoga said many people were stressed about rebuilding homes and rehabilitating farmlands.
"In terms of counselling, it helps to talk about what is happening and that is where we deal with these traumatic issues," he said.
Apart from adults, the team dealt with children affected after the cyclone.
Mr Kautoga said they trained parents on how to support children during this time because they tended to be scared whenever the weather started to deteriorate.
"Their schoolwork is affected and that is the feedback from some of the villages and this is a normal reaction after the cyclone."
He said parents needed to be supportive of their children and not scold them when they were feeling scared.
"Talking about issues really helps them and provides a therapeutic intervention for them. It also informs people on what opportunities are available or what they can hope for to rebuild their lives.
"Right now, they have started to see the services Government is providing, like the Help for Homes initiative, and their anxiety levels have started to decrease."
Food issues remained in some of the villages and Mr Kautoga said they would be passing on requests to the provincial office.
First time for counselling
In the hinterlands of Ra, Elesi Dausimoce is one of the hundreds who have been displaced by Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston.
After their modest dwelling was destroyed, she was left feeling helpless and felt anxious about starting to rebuild.
Having no one but her husband to confide in, she was relieved when a team of Empower Pacific counsellors visited their temporary shelter in Navuniyaumunu Village in Ra this week.
"Nothing was left after the cyclone — we recovered the materials we could and my husband created a temporary home for us," the 25-year-old said.
A mother-of-three, Mrs Dausimoce said their main concern was rebuilding their home but talking with the counsellors had helped her see that life could begin anew.
The family has also pledged their faith in God, saying prayer has helped them in the most turbulent times.
She said those affected could lift a heavy burden off their shoulders if they talked about their problems instead of keeping it to themselves.
The family has since started to replant dalo, watermelon and vegetables on their farm, saying this would be sold to vendors in Rakiraki for additional income.
Hers is one of the many stories Empower Pacific counsellors have encountered during their outreach programs.
The organisation has also conducted counselling sessions in areas like Malake, Naivutu, Navavai and Narayaba.