Toga Reaches for the Sky
WALKING to school barefoot and collecting cow dung in the afternoons as manure for the school gardens is how Toga Matamoana Loco spent his childhood days while both his parents taught at Vatukacevaceva Primary School in Rakiraki. The school where Loco spent six years of his life is about eight miles from Rakiraki Town towards the Nakauvadra Hills. He attended Class 1 to 6 before his parents transferred to Suva. Now the 30-year-old Saioko Villager from Nakorotubu in Ra is a Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force arm of the British Armed Forces. His father Kuliniasi and his late mother,Taufa Fa, gave Loco a proper rural boy upbringing which helped this go-getter achieve his goals in life. “It was fun. We had a sugar cane farm and would spend some afternoons and weekends working onit,” he said. “It was a humbling experience and laid the foundation for how my personality and character developed in later years.” In 1989, Loco’s family moved to Suva where he attended Dudley Intermediate School for two years. “My first day at Dudley was a bit of a culture shock – travelling to school in a school bus, wearing shoes to school, having spending money and mixing with kids who came from all sorts of background.” Loco later attended Mahatma Gandhi Memorial High School,Form 3 to 7. “That was another experience, attending school with mostly Gujarati kids. I learnt a lot from how they looked at life and how they seem to have their life planned – with most of them taking over their father’s business or studying Accounting at USP and then emigrating to either New Zealand or Australia.” Loco graduated with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Economics after a three year study stint at the University of the South Pacific 1996-1999. He then joined Telecom Fiji Ltd (TFL) as a Graduate Management Trainee. “I did various roles within TFL until February 2005. During this time, I was doing some part time work as a marker for the USP Extension Centre. I used to mark Economics assignments for students doing Foundation studies. In my free time, I
enrolled at the Alliance Francaise in Suva to learn French, which was jolly good fun.” In July 2005, Loco went to the United Kingdom to attend a four day officer andaircrew selection at theRoyal Air Force Station in Cranwell, Lincolnshire. “I passed and waited almost 15 months to start the Initial Officer Training Course at the Royal Air Force College in Cranwell in October 2006. I passed out in May 2007.” Growing up in Fiji during the coups of 1987 and 2000, Loco had a very negative viewpoint of the military and military officers in general. “I always thought that the RFMF as an institution was a waste of taxpayer funds as there was no threat of Fiji becoming overthrown by its neighbours.” Having a mind of an economist, Loco saw both coups as slowing the economy. “In my mind, both coups were responsible for slowing Fiji’s economic prosperity – I’m a student of economics so anyone or anything that was a barrier to economic progress was evil. My views have changed since then,” he said. “It wasn’t until I started doing more in depth research into how professional militaries are run that my viewpoint started to change.“I came across one of Tony’s Blair’s speech where he said that the British military should be aorce for Good. That resonated with me for quite a long time. I then read Colin Powell’s biography and was mightily impressed with how he progressed from a working class black family in the Bronx to becoming the first non-white to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US Military. That experience tipped the scale for me.” Loco came to a conclusion that militaries or governments are run by leaders, human beings just like you and me. “If we train the leaders with principles of good leadership/ governance and with good values that drive their decisionmaking process then we have a fighting chance of success in using the military as a Force for Good (as opposed to being a Force for Bad). That drove me to aim for joining up as a Commissioned Officer as opposed to joining the NonCommissioned rank.” Loco adheres to a quote by Edmund Burke which states
‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ “I did not want to be the good men that did nothing. I wanted to be a conduit for doing good and joining the RAF as an officer was part of that journey.” As a Flight Lieutenant (which is equivalent to a Captain in the Army or Lieutenant in the Navy), Loco works as part of a small team that trains the Royal Air Force Expeditionary Air Wings Headquarters staff before they deploy anywhere in the world. On the home front, Loco is married to Sandra Loco (nee Bothma) who is from Centurion, Gauteng, South Africa. Centurion is a town between Pretoria and Johannesburg. The couple met in church at Guildford, Surrey in March 2006 and now have two daughters and a son – Felicity is 7, Larissa is 5 and Toby is 3 years old. “I was living at Aldershot, Hampshire at the time, waiting to get into the RAF. I used to attend Guilford Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Church every Saturday and there she was. We became friendly and the rest is history as they say.“Believe it or not I later proposed to her on bended knees with a ring.” The first time Loco went to South Africa was in March 2007 when he asked Sandra’s dad for her hand in marriage. “He didn’t say yes straight away. All he said was ‘we shall see’”. Loco and Sandra got married in Pretoria, South Africa in January 2008 and he has visited South Africa seven times since then. “Given the racial history (apartheid) of South Africa, me being a black man and marrying Sandra was quite unusual. Sandra is Afrikaans of Dutch ancestry. In her society, marrying a black man is almost unthinkable let alone unheard of, however when two people fall in love, skin color, cultural and language differences become secondary.” “What helped us a lot in our journey is our faith in God. That’s the common denominator that drives and binds us together.“We both come from conservative Christian upbringings so we were raised with the same values and beliefs, albeit on different parts of the world. That’s the glue that holds us together when our relationship is tested with cultural expectations and differences.” Not one to forget his roots, Loco brought Sandra to Fiji in December 2007 when they spent a week in his village. “Some village kids were fascinated by the sight of a white woman. We were swimming in the sea with some village kids one day and they kept saying in the Ra dialect ‘u sa vulavula dina na duana’ (ohhh her legs are so white).” In August 2013, Loco came for a second visit to Fiji, this time along with his two daughters Felicity and Larissa, to see his sick mother. “Just weeks after we left, Mum passed away,” he said. Loco misses home and his Fiji family. “I miss my Mum but mostly I miss socialising with friends and family that we have back home. I remember my late grandfather (Mum’s dad) used to hold an ‘eat together’ every time someone achieved something.” “It created this bond amongst the family members which I don’t get to experience here since most of my extended family live in Fiji.” An older sister, Inise also married a British Army soldier and is living in the UK, As a volunteer for Fiji Support Network (FSN) since 2009, Loco said one of the big challenges that he has come across is our cultural tendency to believe stories we hear around the talanoa circles as opposed to doing the research for ourselves and getting the correct information on issues. “We need to be more thirsty and inquisitive for information. Information is power. If we have the wrong information, we have no power. If we have the correct information, then we are in a much better place to control and shape our destiny.” Loco recently graduated with a Master of Science (MSc) in Performance Management and Workplace Learning. “It took me five years of parttime study to get it done,pheww! It was a journey of discovery; both discovering how much capacity I can generate by multitasking and discovery of new knowledge and facts.” “My Msc journey was fraught with failures as well as success. I failed my first assignment, got the feedback. I made the changes and resubmitted. I failed my dissertation, got the feedback. I made the changes and resubmitted. In both instances, success eventually came.”
It was challenging for Loco, having to juggle raising three little children, holding a fulltime job and a host of other duties that he gets involved in, like church and community events. Loco considers life in the forces as quite good as he has met lots of different people, visited different places that he could only dream of as a small boy growing up in rural Rakiraki and he has learnt a lot of new skills that he wouldn’t have learnt anywhere else. “I have learnt how to ski (lol!) It was comical for the first day and half learning how to balance but I got there in the end.” During his first few years in the RAF, Loco found the transition challenging. “It was a steep learning curve; adapting to how the RAF does its business, understanding the nuances of the British culture and more importantly learning to understand the different regional accents in the UK. I am in a much better place now.” Loco’s advice is to those wanting the same career path as he took is to dream big, work hard and stay humble. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not good enough. No one except me and God gave me a chance to join up as a Commissioned Officer in HM RAF. Even my own family members were quite skeptical and thought I was aiming for the moon (vanavananavula). I took the first step in faith, did the research, filled out the paperwork and worked at it. I prayed about it a lot and the rest is history.” Loco added not to let failure define you. “Some of us will never realize our full potential because we are so scared to fail. Failure is deferred success if you learn the lesson every time and make the improvements on the next attempt. Success will eventually come.”
Fiji meets South Africa…the Locos
Toga after receiving his masters degree.