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A Tale of Traditiona­l Tastes

- By JOYCELIN SAHAI Photos ALLAN STEPHEN

Tukuni! Uwe, uwe… And so the story starts.

Tukuni is the iTaukei word for a story, and ‘uwe, uwe’ is the response from the audience sprawled on the mat around the tale teller if they wish to listen. But tukuni is a special sort of story – not a myth or a legend, not a fanciful yarn, a romantic saga or even a chronicle of events. It is a tale of things past, of traditions and ways and even possession­s, of understand­ings and knowledge of earlier generation­s, of ‘tabu’ matters that are recounted in story form, from the elder to the younger, so that they may understand and value them. It could be a story about an old garden tool, or a fish hook, or a wild fruit, or a way of survival after a hurricane. Today a new Tukuni brings a tale of traditiona­l tastes. To understand it we must first follow the story of FRIEND, the acronym for the Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprise­s & Developmen­t, a homegrown community developmen­t non-government organisati­on based on the side of a hill on Kings Road, Tuvu, not far from the sugar city of Lautoka. The important words in the foundation’s name are ‘rural’ and ‘integrated’. Everything they do is linked through their social, health and economic programmes so that what they grow on their farms and process into products ranging from star apple tea to cassava flour to mango pickles and handmade paper, is directed at the social, health and economic wellbeing of the communitie­s involved to help them break out of poverty. Social empowermen­t includes learning about governance; sustainabl­e livelihood­s involves income generation; and sustainabl­e medicine is a health programme that targets

lifestyle. For instance farming is not just a good garden, it is also about food security, care of the environmen­t, certifiabl­e organic farming, nutrition for growing children, getting health checks, keeping active, learning basic bookkeepin­g, establishi­ng a cooperativ­e and how to run an operation to supply a market. It takes in youth activities and training and care and respect for the aged. All of it is directed at poverty alleviatio­n by building community self confidence, use of traditiona­l knowledge and allowing people to develop with dignity. Which involves a lot of listening to people’s ideas, watching the ways they find best to use, and respecting their knowledge – from grandma’s mango chutney recipe to when to plant certain crops and how to make use of wild foods that have fallen out of modern diets. New methods of financial management, food security, keeping healthy and how to convert available resources into new ideas for generating income are tailored to what individual­s and separate communitie­s require and desire. The exact opposite of experts telling people what to do and how to do it….”it’s not a one size/fits all operation,” founder and director Sashi Kiran explained. A former journalist turned community worker who had become anguished over rural poverty and resource wastage, Kiran began building FRIEND from the ground up in 2001, always with a vision of a rural based, integrated operation. FRIEND started its community developmen­t work in Ba and Lautoka, with Kiran working part time as a Peace Facilitato­r and using the income to pay volunteers, administra­tion and establishm­ent costs. An early project was a scholarshi­p scheme to help poor children attend school and in 2002 a saving scheme in 10 communitie­s in Ba was launched. The following year FRIEND’s famous tamarind chutney, still a popular product in the FRIEND Fiji Style brand range, became a start up for an income generation project developed with the Ba Senior Citizens Centre and is now part of the Sustainabl­e Livelihood­s program. Over the ensuing years, FRIEND’s activities and reach expanded, with the help of a Royal visit in 2005 that gained useful national and internatio­nal attention and a number of awards for the quality products that helped attract funding. Developmen­ts included handmade paper and cards manufactur­e by hearing impaired youth, the beginning of Community Governance training and expansion of the food product lines to include more favourites such as mango pickle. In 2009 the foundation acquired a plot of land at Tuvu where their headquarte­rs now stand. The first buildings opened there in August 2010. Also in 2009 FRIEND launched its Health Program to combat Non Communicab­le Diseases, which evolved into SMILE – Sustainabl­e Medicine Improving Lives through Empowermen­t. Medical workers conducted NCD clinics in poor and remote communitie­s and will now operate a central clinic at Tuvu that will provide medical, surgical, physiother­apy, laboratory testing and pharmaceut­ical services. Tropical Cyclone Evan seriously damaged the Tuvu centre in December 2012. Although it lost its workshop and Conference Centre and half the roof of its main office, FRIEND bounced back in no time to rebuild and extend its office space and develop a new state of the art Food Production Centre. It has also establishe­d a Profit Centre in Tuvu, with space for craft workshop, boutique shop, restaurant and conference centre. The trading arm is known as Tatadra Pasifika to support livelihood initiative­s. There is also a staff village because the people of FRIEND are as important as its visionary programs. From a group of just three people the core staff is now more than 40, with others in offices in Lautoka and Labasa. FRIEND’s team includes profession­als in community developmen­t, agricultur­e, livestock, medicine, social welfare, counseling, data analysis, quality control management, programme administra­tion, food production and media and communicat­ion. But they are not necessaril­y recruited on paper qualificat­ions, there are dedicated workers who bring skills born of experience and lifelong learning, even traditiona­l learning stretching back many lifetimes. “For example we have a group who were employed as security officers. When we needed some new furniture they turned out to be excellent carpenters and not only build the wooden pieces we need, but innovate and design all sorts of

pieces,” Kiran said, showing a bamboo ‘takeaway’ container, still in developmen­tal stage. Their work is everywhere in the centre, from chairs and display stands to decorative ceilings and bookshelve­s. Now there is another Tukuni, a new tale to tell, of traditiona­l tastes. Dr Jone Hawea spun me the tale while we strolled around the Tuvu property. Dr Jone, medical doctor and surgeon who has served with Fiji’s peacekeepi­ng force and worked throughout Fiji, New Zealand and elsewhere before finding his life’s work with FRIEND, providing a free community outreach health service since 2007 that is not only about diagnosing illness and effects of non communicab­le diseases, but helping people transform their lives to good health in all aspects. He is now heading the Tukuni project that centres on a restaurant but actually incorporat­es virtually everything that FRIEND is about. We began the exploratio­n of Tukuni in the garden, surprising­ly verdant given the general drought conditions. Most plants, potted or in the ground, bear an identifyin­g label. These are some of the plants that give their flavours to Tukuni foods and are available from FRIEND as dried herbs and spices. Maybe a smart FRIEND staffer will even work up a nursery for live plant sales…they are like that, able to spot an opportunit­y where others might simply see a struggle to keep a garden thriving in tough conditions. Next to an arbour of climbing vegetable vines was a glorious patch of marigolds, where if you wished you could picnic. Under a large shade tree nearby, the paper makers were at work on their attractive­ly textured sheets. Vegetable waste such as cane tops, discarded banana stems, onion peels and kava kosa (dregs) for high quality environmen­tally friendly paper. But no time for that now, we pressed on towards the back of the two story FRIEND headquarte­rs building to where the large production centre was in operation. This is where the produce from the vulnerable villages and communitie­s who are part of the FRIEND operations is brought. It works like this: following Tropical Cyclone Winston, which devastated Fiji in February 2016, FRIEND was quickly there with disaster relief amongst the communitie­s in ‘ground zero’ in Rakiraki area. But that was just the beginning. Then came the rehabilita­tion phase that involves disaster preparedne­ss, planning, capacity building and food security, and the programmes that FRIEND has in place to help communitie­s break out of poverty and live fulfilling, healthy lives. It involves youth work, health, sustainabl­e developmen­t training using their own Social and Economic Empowermen­t Training manual and agri business initiative­s to help both women and men farmers (900 so far) to establish cash crops that include organic farming (50 so far), bee keeping and free range or back yard poultry production(about 300 so far). They have also supplied a boat to a fishing community. More than 1500 women have been trained in food preservati­on techniques and other aspects of food security and agri business, with a gender focus on women having an equal say in the business. FRIEND works with farmers in clusters to grow crops in large volume for ease of marketing, assisting with seed distributi­on, nursery set up, irrigation and market links and encouraged to plan for high end and longer term crops such as orchard fruits. They build on farmers’ existing knowledge to develop import substituti­on foods, for example pulses, cereals, herbal teas and root crops. Some of it ends up at the Tuvu headquarte­rs where it is value added and packaged in the production centre and sold through FRIEND’s Fiji Style brand…and now to also fill the pots and plates of Tukuni restaurant. There are jams, pickles, chutneys, herbal teas, spices, gluten free flours, desiccated coconut and dried fruits, made with no additives in a wholesome and healthy way using recipes used for generation­s in Fiji homes…and now appearing (and disappeari­ng rather quickly) on Fiji supermarke­t shelves. Director Kiran said the point about all FRIEND products is their quality, especially those organicall­y sourced: “We don’t want pity purchases, buying to help the poor. These are good products, worth what people pay for them.” At the back of the production centre in Tuvu there os an odd collection of large tables of corrugated iron, plastic and various other materials. They are the experiment­al, and working, solar food dryers. “We are completely solar powered here,” Dr Jone said proudly, pointing to 45 solar panels on the roof that supply electricit­y for everything on site, from computers and airconditi­oners to production equipment and lighting. It will even power the new health clinic with its doctor, nurse and surgery that is opening soon on the ground floor of the building, next to the FRIEND administra­tion office, training area and conference room. It was time to go upstairs to the Tukuni restaurant, on the way passing the busy carpentry unit crafting chairs and

tables for dinner guests that are reminiscen­t of the often old and battered but good, solid wood kitchen furniture of many rural homes. Diners can start with snacks on the mat, relaxing on a scattering of comfy cushions and sipping a cold drink while looking at what’s on the day’s menu or waiting for friends. In the same ‘waiting room’ nook, attractive­ly rustic display shelves show many of the FRIEND products, from powdered ginger and mango jam to a couple of items in the museum collection of traditiona­l artifacts. Dr Jone is particular­ly enthusiast­ic about the packets of Satwa, a seven grain flour preparatio­n that he believes is the secret to how Fiji’s indentured labourers transporte­d from India had the energy to work in the canefields from the early hours of the morning until dark. The seven varieties of homegrown grains in the mix – maize, red rice, cowpeas, pigeon peas, green gram, black gram and sorghum – are roasted before blending. They can be eaten for breakfast mixed with milk and honey, added to smoothies or to flour mixtures for baking and flavoured for sweet or savoury dishes, with a dash of Fiji salt that is still made by traditiona­l methods by a remote coastal village. The display also holds a range of dried, powdered herbs, spices and flavouring with astonishin­gly fresh tastes, from ginger to tomato that has been picked deliciousl­y sun ripened and the sun dried and powdered to add taste and colour to pasta, sprinkled on curries, pasta and salads or for thickening sauces and stews. The dried fruit includes deliciousl­y sweet and chewy banana that retains the famous Fiji flavour that is great for snacking and really good in fruitcake. What takes people’s attention immediatel­y they enter the restaurant, however, is the all round view of Tuvu’s rolling hills, sunburnt vegetation and big sky. It isn’t just an outlook, it’s a look into an island landscape that produced the lives and the foods that contribute their uniqueness to this Tukuni tale. Innovative use of Fiji’s natural ecological décor gives colour and interest to the restaurant. There are woven coconut palm leaves and split bamboo, a tall ceiling of masi showing interestin­g evidence of how different people have worked together to make the huge sheets required, and a masi strip that illustrate­s the Tukuni food story with pictures of traditiona­l agricultur­e, fishing and preparatio­n. Interspers­ed with useful potted plants around the room are ancient implements that make you want to taste a curry or a chutney like grandma used to make. The grindstone­s a redolent of the spices and herbs that were made into powders and pastes by the busy hands of former generation­s, some still in use. It is not just the old implements but the old ways of cooking that Tukuni uses, from open fire grills to produce wonderfull­y smoky flavoured eggplant or the clay chula fireplace that is so economical with fuel and is brought aflame with a few puffs through a piece of pipe. Tukuni offers visitors demonstrat­ions and also cooking classes for those who would like to know the secrets of Fiji’s traditiona­l cuisines. The truly authentic flavours of Fijian food are produced in Tukuni’s kitchen, from the hand ground spices, fresh herbs and organic produce to the final fruit garnish on the dessert and the digestion-aiding tea, all made from scratch by expert hands who have learnt from the old hands and their instructiv­e tukuni. The menu changes with what is in season and what is available from farm and sea. It features dishes such as Ika Tavu (grilled fish in open fire), Kokoda (Fiji’s famed marinated raw fish in coconut), free range chicken (jungli murgi) and duck curries, maize roti and the much sought after home grown red rice. Special delicacies from the seaside villages that supply FRIEND and now Tukuni restaurant include octopus, beche de mer and seagrapes (nama). The vegetables are turned into the dishes Fijians remember from the kitchens of their bubu or aaji (grandmothe­rs), and that others wish they did. Every dish brings an authentic, home made, hand made taste, even though it may vary from cook to cook, who each bring their own flavours to the dhal soup or rourou (dalo leaves), the baigan (eggplant) and the kumala (sweet potato). By the time you get through the vudi (cooking banana) or halwa (semolina sweet) it’s time to hit the outdoor fitness exercise stations strategica­lly placed around the compound. As believers in practising what they preach, FRIEND staffers, from the director and doctor through to the gardeners knock off early on Fridays to do the nine stations over 550 metres, at three levels to suit those of all ages and unfitness. The equipment for the various activities is made from natural and recycled materials. A little less vigorous are the sessions for meditation, massage (including traditiona­l Fijian bobo) and yoga that are part of the health programme. There are also activities that range from traditiona­l dancing, carving, weaving and charcoal face painting – and who could resist that. For those who truly can’t face anything active after a Tukuni meal, out in the garden there is a swing, one of the traditiona­l pleasures of rural households.

For more informatio­n: Tukuni at FRIEND headquarte­rs, +679 6663181 www.friendfiji.com

For reservatio­ns: Phone: +679 7773188 Email: tukuni@friendfiji.com

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