Naivalu’s Un­told Love Story

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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.

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