Public housing and the Development State – Raiwaqa and Raiwai Speak Back – Sereima Damuni
I was born and bred in one of those well-known Raiwaqa 4 storey buildings, and I still live in this area with my daughter and family and friends. We struggle but we are happy in this place. It is home.
Raiwaqa holds fond memories for me, and also pain. It is a place like no other in Fiji. Everybody knows Raiwaqa and Raiwai. The colour, the noise, the neighbours, the struggles but also the good people in the crowded public rental units, the very small houses trying to fit as many people as possible, for survival.
People of all walks of life are seen every day in Raiwaqa and Raiwai. People who live in Suva know we used to call ourselves RRA (Raiwaqa Revolutionary Army) in local slang as we were a big tribe or gang there, looking after each other in hard times.
Safety is found in poverty only when people create it. I still remember during my childhood days if there were no food at home, I would just walk into my neighbour’s house and feel at home to sit and eat. Others did it to us. Children were like brothers and sisters and it was like a village in an urban setting. It was important to call out to each other every day, to make sure that we all knew who was in the houses around. We did this to stay safe and know what was going on. This was an important care economy in a place with high poverty. It is still here today but much less.
As women from poor backgrounds in Fiji, we must talk more about care and solidarity economy. This is not just about kindness, but it is a strategy of poor people. It is for social protection. We are working on this at DIVA for Equality because it’s really important to poor people. When it is gone, we will be really poor. This blog is also saying how important is low-cost housing.
Raiwaqa and Raiwai is a big part of the history of Fiji. This is the heart of Suva. The area tells stories of all the people who came from the outer islands for work. Many famous Fiji people came from here. The place is full of mixed rural and urban families who came with a dream of getting better houses through the Rental Board when they came to Suva many years ago. The government at the time said that they would rent first, then move to a Housing Authority house. Then maybe later they can move to private housing after some time. I heard that in the early years after Fiji independence, it was said that we would rise up to ownership of our homes. For most of us, the dream never came. We ended up staying for many generations in beloved Raiwaqa and Raiwai. Rough as it was, we know it well, and it is home.
But things have been changing over the past 2 decades. It has been 10 years since the Govt. demolished the Raiwai and Raiwaqa 4 storey buildings. I was 23 years old in 2003, when all tenants were advised to vacate the flats due to the structural deficiency of buildings in earthquake situations. The buildings had not been maintained really, by the government of the time, and then they said the buildings were not fit for humans.
I remember that we were very scared, parents talked to each other and to the government and churches. People discussed options. So many meetings I remember were held. People were confused and lots of stories around what will happen to us.
It took some time and families for years tried to figure out what to do when the change came. We were given 4 options in 2005 as a way of encouragement to vacate but many resisted and held out in the small chance it might be reversed and we could stay in our homes : Public rental board last resort in 2008 was to give cash incentives, since more than half of the tenants continued to stay on. Some of the tenants had to be forcefully removed through the court system if they refused to move out. Sad story was, the cash incentives range only from $500.00 to $3,000.00, depending on the weekly household income of a tenant and it was not enough to build more than lean-to shelters.
In the end, many moved further away from the area to 9 Miles, Davuilevu and further. This is hard if you are a house worker, or a casual labourer or cleaner because you now were living miles from work and higher costs in bus fare to get to work.
Many lost their jobs at the time. There were a lot more depression, drinking and fighting. We all tried to work out plans for a new life away from Raiwai and Raiwaqa. Many families split up as children went to the village to relatives or far away to go to school, and adults stayed in Suva for work. Or one parent went and one stayed.
Another type of family affected were those who had an income of more than $300 per month but living from small paycheck to paycheck. They were told to vacate their flat without a cash incentive. They really struggled to move. Then we also heard that the PRB Board of Directors directed that new low-cost housing would be built on the removed sites. They were told to apply for an allocation.
However, those assurances were given in June 2008. I am 39 years old now and from 2008 to 2018, I have yet to see a housing block much less a brick laid on the bare land where the 4 storeys stood in Raiwaqa.
Some blocks in Raiwai are built now, with much higher rent, and they are now full too. But in Raiwaqa, none so far.
Instead of more secure and safer houses in Raiwaqa area, we see more squatters because of more poverty and bigger population perhaps. Informal settlements are pushed from one side to other, sometimes left alone, other times moved. There is some new housing now near Jittu through People’s Community Network, for a few families. But that had some problems too.
People migrate from one place to the next with no rest when you are in settlements because you never know if a landowner will object to you, or another person will charge you a lot to pull water and electricity, or you can’t even pay rent in those settlements to have a small room. But it is still home for so many people now. There are a lot of marginalised groups – single women-headed houses where many women left with their children due to violence, widows rejected by husband’s family or told to leave the family house when he dies, LGBTQI people who have left home, people with disabilities. This is where we work.
Sometimes I think that something else is happening in Raiwaqa that we are not being told. I hope the Government reads this blog and answers. My main question – In a few years time will there be little or no public housing in Raiwaqa and Raiwai? Is that the real plan?
I think rich people will move in, and we will be pushed aside, again. Why say this? From Damodar fancy supermarkets with the mangroves cleared, and new fancy apartments for university staff and expatriates, we see the change coming. We see the old Raiwaqa Municipal market, where buildings are being vacated over time and very quietly. No work is done to the buildings but they are left to fall down. They are also hazards for children in the daytime, and safety problems for women and girls especially at night if we walk to Hot Bread Kitchen and the shops.
So as grassroots women activists, we are watching carefully and writing now about this. We think there will be fancy buildings built to replace our homes. We think if we do not speak up, only the middle class or upper-class people will afford the rent and leave poor people in poverty.
I for one, want to make sure that this does not happen because I know that most families here in Raiwai and Raiwaqa are low-income earners. We are only able to pay for public housing rentals. Most homes live with only enough to cater for food within a week and daily school and living. We struggle and find it hard to cover medical and other bills.
We think that Raiwaqa and Raiwai have always been and will always be housing for poor people of Suva. The people of Raiwaqa and Raiwai are not an experiment to be played around with.
I wish the government can come up with a plan for us to stay here, to be recognised for our place in the economy of Fiji, for our history in Suva and overall in the country.
So I call upon the government in place to look into this matter now.
-They must be open about the plans and listen to us.
-I want them to keep up to their end of the bargain since Fiji’s independence to the people who came through Raiwaqa and Raiwai.
-I want them to make use of the vacant land in Raiwaqa and built new safe and affordable low-cost housing and facilities for families who are living in informal settlements and already in the public housing.
-The government must not demolish anymore.
-We must have a healthy and better living by rebuilding the damaged old Raiwaqa Municipal market into a new and affordable one for market vendors who right now are all squashed in a small space in a corner of the park, to sell their goods in a much bigger and cleaner place.
-We need some good parks with big trees for the children.
-We need well-maintained schools and safe roads and streets.
-We need employment services.
-We need better police and fire service.
The people here are the engine of Suva, and many workers in the central division come from our neighbourhood. We provide labour at government departments and businesses.
Talk to us. Work with us. Please respect the people of Raiwai and Raiwaqa.