Author’s Note: It was such a great year – finishing my doctoral fieldwork in Thailand, defending my dissertation, graduation, sailing the South Seas and getting off the boat to begin a six-month consultancy with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Pacific Regional Office based in the Fiji Islands. After a long fruitless job search, it was my first big break back into the working world after half a dozen years in graduate school.
“UNICEF Pacific works with the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. These 14 countries and territories are home to about one million children under the age of 18, living in more than 660 islands and atolls covering an area the size of the US and Canada.” United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Pacific Islands.
The New Year 1996 began in the Fiji Islands at UNICEF’s Regional Office for the Pacific. I was on a six-month consulting assignment to investigate the impact of rapid social change on Pacific Island youth, in relation to substance abuse (alcohol, tobacco and Kava), and the implications for issues such as violence, crime, unemployment and sexual risk behavior.
In collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), UNICEF Pacific Islands organized and hosted a regional “train the trainer” workshop for government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community leaders from 14 Pacific Island nations to share experiences and develop targeted health promotion and prevention initiatives.
Far from uplifting, the drug and alcohol work was a welcome break from HIV/AIDS which had been the focus of most of my work in recent years. It was also a refreshing change to be tackling the complex issues related to misuse of alcohol, which are often overlooked, as responsible alcohol consumption is common and widely condoned, and yet at times also abused, including by those tasked to address alcohol-related problems.
Participants from a range of NGOs and government ministries were in positions to address these issues in their home countries. But the severity of the problem was brought starkly to the fore when an alcohol-related sexual assault occurred during the workshop, perpetrated by one of the delegates supposedly tasked to address these issues in his home country.
On the positive side, important outcomes from the workshop included the establishment of laws regulating two key areas of alcohol marketing to reduce its impact on Fijian youth, both of which associated alcohol with youth sports. First, the logo of Fiji’s popular local beer “The Sportsman’s Beer” was changed to “Ahh Your Beer.” Second, all advertising of alcoholic beverages was banned from sporting events in Fiji.
The downside was that beer banners flying at sports stadiums were replaced with non-alcoholic, sweet fizzy drinks – which entail their own health problems, particularly obesity. But at least they were promoting an alternative to alcohol.
Kava is consumed widely in many Pacific Island communities both socially and ceremonially. The locally produced and culturally valued beverage ‘Kava’ is also promoted as a healthier alternative to alcohol. Even local churches promote Kava use over alcohol.
Known as yaqona or simply grog in Fiji, Kava is a mildly narcotic drink made from mixing the powdered root of a species of pepper plant with water and results in a numb feeling around the mouth, lips and tongue and a sense of relaxation. It is also an important export crop from major producer countries (e.g. Fiji) to other countries in the Pacific, and as an ingredient for health supplements and pharmaceutical products sold in Europe and the US.
Kava is cheaper than alcohol, and thus less likely to be a drain on household finances. There is little scientific evidence of harm to physical health from drinking all but extremely large amounts of Kava. Both men and women drink it together in social gatherings.
Violence or assault, which is often associated with alcohol misuse, are much less common – especially sexual assault, due to Kava’s effect as a sedative and muscle relaxant (so it is not possible from the male standpoint!) And when the drinking stops, the usual result is simply to fall peacefully to sleep.
During this time, I joined two WHO consultants to conduct a regional study on alcohol consumption in the Pacific, and published the findings in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review. Data were gathered in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Tonga, and were reported along with a discussion of the nature of alcohol-related problems in the island nations.
Per capita consumption was found to be highest in the Cook Islands, which compared with other countries had the highest ratio of liquor outlets and lowest alcohol taxation regime. As an alcohol prevention measure, it was concluded that the promotion of responsible consumption, together with the option for abstinence for those who wish it, is an acceptable strategy for the Pacific.
After completing my consulting assignment with UNICEF, I agreed to assist Rob Kay, author of several popular Pacific travel guides (including the online “Fiji Guide”), to update his earlier edition of “Fiji: A Travel Survival Kit.” My research on Kava had taken me to some of Fiji’s more remote outer islands anyway, so I was also able to visit tourist and traveler destinations in these places for the updated guide book.
In such a small country, everyone at these places would know Rob, but not me. So my ‘undercover’ reporting was more likely to generate an unbiased opinion about the quality of food, accommodation and service at these resorts.
Flying Sunflower Airlines to the far-flung Lau Islands of Moala and Vanua Balavu to the east, then by ferry to Kandavu Island in the south, pampered at times in 5-star resorts, I took detailed notes on the quality of the food, general accommodation, cleanliness, room décor, bedding, pricing and service, etc. Elsewhere, I sweltered in ‘prison-cell-like’ but lower cost ‘budget’ backpacker accommodation.
In the rugged interior of the main island Viti Levu, I joined some of my former colleagues from the Fiji YMCA for some four-wheeling along ridge tops in the setting sun and through swollen rivers of Sigatoka Valley.
On to the Coral Coast, and then to Taveuni Island, I went scuba diving on the famous ‘white wall’ of live coral. Swept along with the strong current and entranced by the passing circus of colors, I lost track of my depth and suddenly realized that my dive partner was far above me – as I drifted deeper and dangerously into the early stages of nitrogen narcosis! Fortunately, I came to my senses in time to rejoin my dive partner at a safe depth.
My job networking finally paid off when someone I had met at a regional HIV/AIDS conference in Thailand called UNICEF Fiji and offered me the STD/HIV/AIDS Project Officer position with UNICEF, Cambodia! I would soon be a full-time ‘expat’ again!
Despite all the exotic travel around Fiji, I was pretty burned out, and ready for a change. The pervasive social problems of alcohol misuse, drugs and HIV/AIDS were wearing on me a bit. But it was all still rolling along, back to Asia, and to all that Cambodia had to offer, including: Pol Pot, poverty, civil war, corruption, beggars, amputees, HIV/AIDS…
Stay tuned for more stories, coming soon!