Naivalu’s Untold Love Story
By JOHN MITCHELL Photos by IVA ROKOVESA & ALLEN STEPHENS Make up by ALLURE BY WASHMINA Cover dress by 8 MOUNTAINS
SAINIMILI NAIVALU vividly remembers being told by doctors she would not live to see her 18th birthday. She was born with a rare disability called sacral agenesis and had no developed anus or female genitals. But her disability could not weaken her mind, body or spirit Like a miracle, she survived the odds and today the 32 year old still lives to tell her incredible survival story and the unexpected romance that now sweeps her off her deformed little feet. You cannot miss the bubbly Rewan on the pavement of Suva’s streets where she begs five days a week from her four-wheeled drive (a term she uses for her wheelchair). For this issue, maiLife invited Naivalu for a night out in Suva. She revealed many of her personal secrets with the hope people would appreciate her when they saw her on the streets. “I don’t mind talking about myself and my disability because I believe I need to tell my story so people can understand me better. I also want to inspire people living with disabilities who think little of themselves. “Doctors told me I would probably live until I was 17 years old but look at me. I’m 32 now. I am a rare human and I am special the way God made,” she said with infectious laughter. The Dakuibeqa, Beqa woman who has maternal links to Batiki Islands in Lomaiviti grew up in Toorak in the 1980s. Her dad was a church elder and her mum a housewife. She was one of three siblings. Despite her disability, Naivalu was active as a child and using a skateboard, played like every other kid. “Kids would watch me as I skateboarded to church, town and school. They were curious and loved touching and riding on it. As a result I was popular and made a lot of childhood friends.” “I was young and full of energy and wherever young girls would go I would go. Every time I went to play, my dad would get angry. He always said: “Can’t you keep still?” Wishing for a pair of legs capable of running and walking was never on Naivalu’s dream list. “In my world, being on wheelchair was normal. If by a miracle I could walk and run on legs I would definitely miss not being able to walk because this is me…this is my reality.”
Naivalu received her education at Early Intervention and Hilton Special School in Suva. After leaving school she worked at Safeway Electronic as switchboard operator before doing a few courses at the IT school, APTECH. She said she was always eager to learn new things and push her beyond her limit. “I remember them sending me back home because the school was not accessible so I crawled up the stairs even though they were filthy. My teachers’ eyes almost popped out.” So every Saturday, with her brother’s help, Naivalu went for classes, climbing out of her chair and crawling up the stairway using her hands. “My older brother was always there to carry me up any flight of stairs and to push me right from where we were staying in Toorak. Sometimes we didn’t have any fares but he’d still push me so I got to be spoiled like a little brat.” After both her parents died 10 years ago and her two
siblings got married, Naivalu felt she was alone in the world. But her loneliness did not last long. She found love in Wallis and Futuna native John Mafutuna. She went for rehabilitation at Tamavua Hospital in June 2015 after she developed sores on her feet. It was a trip that changed her life. John, a paraplegic, was at the same rehab centre. He had broken his spine while climbing a coconut tree and had to receive treatment. “I remember it was a Thursday evening. I took out my laptop and played some of my old classics. John heard them and was attracted to one of the ABBA songs. We ended up listening together.” “Next morning we went to the gym and he was in his corner. I looked at him while he was exercising and said “wow fresh meat. This is nice”. Naivalu said at that very moment she felt love churn in her stomach. “At rehab, dinner was early so by 7pm our stomachs were empty again. I’d ask the nurses to buy me tuna and noodles and we’d huddle in a corner and eat. We learned each other’s secrets. He shared his life with me and I shared my life with him.” Phone numbers were exchanged and a few mobile calls later, the wheelchair lovers moved in together and today remain committed to each other at their home in Villa Maria, off Mead Road. “He called me one day saying he was planning to take me to his place. It took time before he was able to say things like ‘I love you’. But all before that his actions were speaking louder than his words so I knew he genuinely loved me.” Although Sai and John may express their love differently than others, their understanding and emotional connection with the word are the same as anyone else’s. “My family laughed at me when they heard I am staying with the man, asking how we met and how we would remain together. I had been with a man previously but he walked out of our relationship after I told him I didn’t have that thing” “John was different. He said he would love me for who I am and even with my condition. I knew straight away this was the guy I would like to spend my life with.” “People think that being in a relationship you need to have sex. I tell them you can go without sex but still love each other. I told them love is different for me. It is more about companionship, trusting each other and understanding each other. “We have our ups and down but when I go home, he is always there. That is what I want and his love is perfectly enough for me. Who knows, we might get married soon. As for begging, Naivalu believes it helps support her and her partner and complements the assistance they receive from the Department of Social Welfare every month. “I’ve witnessed discrimination on the streets, being teased on the streets and verbally abused on the streets. I have also made numerous friends and have met a lot of people. There may be dangers out there but I am a survivor and this is where I will be for now.”
“I am a rare human and I am special,” Naivalu says.
Naivalu wheels her way into Suva City
Naivalu gets her face dolled up for the cameras.