Winds of Change for Wheel­bar­row Boys

mailife - - Contents - Story and Pho­tos by JONE LU­VEN­I­TOGA

Where most would have thrown in the towel and sur­ren­dered, Jone Vakasa bears the scars of an on­go­ing bat­tle, a lop­sided grin that re­veals gaps from miss­ing teeth, and an air of hu­mil­ity. It has been enough for the 57 year old founder of the Suva Wheel­bar­row As­so­ci­a­tion, SWA, to have reached his goal of im­prov­ing chances at a bet­ter life for the ring of col­leagues he now works with. The wheel­bar­row busi­ness he com­manded for the past 11 years is the en­cour­age­ment he of­fers to those in dire need of fi­nan­cial sup­port or a plat­form on which to mend the bro­ken wings of their dreams. Since he joined the fleet of wheel­bar­row op­er­a­tors in Suva in 2005, one thing be­came the ba­sis of his strug­gles: that this high de­mand busi­ness was or­gan­ised by peo­ple who swin­dled their cus­tomers out of their shop­ping goods to any­thing else they could lay their hands on. It up­set him to see of­ten the same faces cry­ing over their miss­ing pur­chases, but still need­ing to use the wheel­bar­row ser­vice to carry their goods. It set him on a course to change the sys­tem for the bet­ter. He also wanted to do his best to make changes to help and sup­port the few who were try­ing to make an hon­est liv­ing. Two of them are now liv­ing ex­am­ples of how his strug­gles have had re­sults. Henry Waqavakatoga was 22 years old when he joined the SWA to sup­port his fam­ily and his ed­u­ca­tion. He was broke and in dire need of as­sis­tance when Jone Vakasa took him un­der his wing. In 2014, Waqavakatoga’s pho­to­graph ap­peared in the me­dia, on­line and print, when he was leav­ing the SWA to join the School for Flight At­ten­dants in Nadi. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing he served for two years. To­day, at 27, he has changed his pro­fes­sion and cur­rently works as a bank teller with the West­pac. On 19 De­cem­ber 2014, maiL­ife on­line quoted, ‘that Po­lice Con­sta­ble 5180 Vil­iame Ka­pai­wai still held his SWA ID close to his heart as a sym­bol of how far he had come in life and to prove to oth­ers that any­thing was pos­si­ble – with the right com­bi­na­tion of de­ter­mi­na­tion, hon­esty and hard work.’ “Do not look down on your­self; you can be any­thing you want to be­come. Re­mem­ber that at the end of your strug­gles is a re­ward,” he said in an in­ter­view af­ter his grad­u­a­tion. The former Gram­mar­ian also said “that life as a wheel­bar­row boy gave him the courage to over­come all as­pects

of train­ing at the Nasova Po­lice Academy.” For Jone Vakasa, their sto­ries have been a high point in his ef­forts and proof of his be­lief that any­thing in life with­out hon­esty is bound for dis­as­ter. Be­hind the ela­tion with this suc­cess are the bat­tle scars of his long strug­gles to men­tor and re­model the wheel­bar­row busi­ness. “I walked into the busi­ness at the peak of its dark days and try­ing to make amends and im­prove­ments through rea­son­ing was like barking up a con­crete wall,” he said. Vakasa be­lieved that ev­ery­one in the busi­ness at that time was steal­ing from ev­ery cus­tomer they could. Drug move­ments, child labour, pick­pock­ets and thiev­ery also thrived, he said. “Four peo­ple were known to have be­gun the wheel­bar­row busi­ness, op­er­at­ing un­der the mar­ket ven­dors fee. “Al­most overnight, they were em­ploy­ing a colos­sal num­ber of more than 300 from all age groups, op­er­at­ing all over the cap­i­tal.” The large num­ber made it too dif­fi­cult for the po­lice to trace any com­plaints from frus­trated cus­tomers, he said. “It was the norm for po­lice of­fi­cers man­ning the Suva Mar­ket Po­lice Post to see peo­ple in tears, re­port­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of their shop­ping.” So had the wheel­bar­row op­er­a­tors, who, like the stolen goods, could also van­ish. They would only reap­pear days later when they went about their busi­ness again. “The worst times were the fes­tive sea­sons when peo­ple lost their weekly shop­ping. Valu­able car­goes were also switched while bar­rows were pass­ing each other. It was a hid­den dog eat dog busi­ness,” Vakasa said. Street fights, he said, were the only means of set­tling quar­rels amongst the hun­dreds of op­er­a­tors scav­eng­ing for the piece of pie that kept get­ting thin­ner by the day. For two years af­ter his plan to re­ha­bil­i­tate the wheel­bar­row busi­ness were known, Vakasa said he faced a bar­rage of never end­ing in­sults, con­fronta­tions and at times phys­i­cal force. He was stir­ring waters al­ready murky with crim­i­nal­ity and risks were be­com­ing more dan­ger­ous daily. He fi­nally sought as­sis­tance from the po­lice. From 2007 to 2009, Cor­po­ral Akimo Gu’s work­ing hours were shared be­tween Cen­tral Po­lice Sta­tion and the Suva Mar­ket Po­lice Post. He was handed a file with the di­rec­tive to sup­port Jone Vakasa and his ideas for sal­vaging the much-needed wheel­bar­row ser­vice as means of com­bat­ing the ris­ing crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties con­nected with it. The changes were to be pro­pelled through the Dua­vata Pol­icy, a Com­mu­nity Polic­ing Part­ner­ship project. “The main aim of the project was to sup­port any means for re-ed­u­cat­ing and re­form­ing the SWA, the shoeshine boys and street kids,” CPL Gu said. In the search for good men to help with the life re­form­ing poli­cies, they found a rare gem in raggedy cloth­ing with a crooked smile that was miss­ing a lot of teeth, Cpl Gu said. “Vakasa’s ap­proach for as­sis­tance was per­fect to spear­head the project,” he said. It be­came the break­through needed to com­bat the ris­ing crime rate at a place where thou­sands of peo­ple went daily. His first im­pres­sion on his first day left Cpl Gu aghast at the high pile of re­ports from shop­pers los­ing goods to wheel­bar­row op­er­a­tors. Then there was the al­most daily news­pa­per cov­er­age of child labour, said to be on the rise. Pic­tures of chil­dren stag­ger­ing be­hind wheel­bar­rows laden with root crops and other goods ap­peared in the press. Cpl Gu soon joined other em­bar­rassed of­fi­cers who were be­ing in­sulted by frus­trated cus­tomers try­ing to track valu­able items stolen by wheel­bar­row op­er­a­tors. “We were called a waste of tax­pay­ers money.” From in­for­ma­tion gath­ered around the mar­ket area, Cpl Gu said he found that more than 300 wheel­bar­rows that were il­le­gally op­er­at­ing around the city were owned by four mar­ket ven­dors. “Their an­swer was that they were pro­vid­ing a needed ser­vice to as­sist shop­pers laden with many items to carry them from one point to an­other.” Cpl Gu said par­ents were send­ing their chil­dren in num­bers to join the wheel­bar­row ser­vice. These ac­tiv­i­ties were doc­u­mented daily by Vakasa for the first two years, he said. “The only thing thought ap­pro­pri­ate was to reg­is­ter the ser­vice.” In 2007, with the guid­ance of the Min­istry of Women and So­cial Wel­fare un­der its in­terim min­is­ter, Lau­fitu Malani, to­gether with the Com­mu­nity Polic­ing Unit, they be­gan talks with the Suva City Coun­cil on the le­gal­i­sa­tion of the busi­ness. On the same year, Cpl Gu said Ms Malani took them un­der her min­istry’s wing to or­gan­ise work­shops to pre­pare them on their new ven­ture to­wards small busi­ness own­er­ship. On March 2007, a to­tal of 20 wheel­bar­rows with cer­ti­fied iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­bers were do­nated to the group by the so­cial wel­fare min­istry. Dur­ing the next three months, they en­coun­tered a wave of at­tacks cul­mi­nat­ing when wheel­bar­rows were stolen from the Mar­ket Po­lice Post. How­ever it was no longer a lone bat­tle, but a team ef­fort by those who chose to de­fend the new ini­tia­tive. The In­dian High Com­mis­sion heard their plight and do­nated 50 new wheel­bar­rows. “That was the turn­ing point,” Cpl Gu said. By 2009, the Bank of Bar­oda had fol­lowed with an­other 50 wheel­bar­rows as the re­form story grew in strength from a dusty be­gin­ning. Un­der its reg­is­tra­tion reg­u­la­tions, the SWA be­gan a pay­ment of $5 per op­er­a­tor in taxes weekly, while the reg­is­tered bar­row op­er­a­tions went home with $300 to $400 weekly. Suva City Coun­cil Ad­min­is­tra­tion Of­fi­cer Mr Save­rio Ieli said a fee of $5.00 per week for ev­ery in­di­vid­ual agreed by the op­er­a­tors in con­sul­ta­tions held in 2009. How­ever it was ac­ti­vated only in 2011. “From a to­tal of 100 wheel­bar­row boys legally in op­er­a­tion to­day, the SWA now con­trib­utes a pro­jected amount of $500 month, amount­ing to $24,000 an­nu­ally to Suva City’s mu­nic­i­pal taxes. For the past 7 years since the SWA taxes were ac­ti­vated in 2011, their pro­jected con­tri­bu­tion to­tals $168,000-00 in taxes. “That amount is poured back to the re­fur­bish­ments of ven­dors ar­eas, restora­tion plans and con­struc­tion for new ex­ten­sions within the mar­ket place,” Mr Ieli said. Since the SWA reg­is­tra­tion, he said the coun­cil has seen a dras­tic drop in re­ported crimes at the Suva mar­ket po­lice post. “We are now left with petty crimes like a few scuf­fles and pick­pocket in­ci­dents that are done by those who are not as­so­ci­ated with the SWA,” he said. “They now have a crime com­mit­tee that or­ga­nizes a le­git­i­mate con­trol over them­selves, the mar­ket ven­dors and the thou­sands that fre­quent the mar­ket on a daily ba­sis.”

He said the SWA are not only em­ploy­ees of the mar­kets but are cus­to­di­ans of the law to as­sist the com­mu­nity polic­ing mar­ket branch for the mar­ket area. Ob­serv­ing the growth within the SWA, the coun­cil ap­proved a pol­icy to man­age the wheel­bar­row op­er­a­tions at the mar­ket, he said. In 2009, the coun­cil ini­ti­ated a loan scheme with the Bank of Bar­oda to fi­nance the SWA with new wheel­bar­rows so the op­er­a­tors could be self-re­liant by own­ing their own wheel­bar­rows rather than hir­ing from mar­ket ven­dors. “The bank started the mi­cro fi­nance scheme by sup­ply­ing 50 wheel­bar­rows to the as­so­ci­a­tion and opened ac­counts for their re­pay­ments at the rate of $10 per week for 6 months.” He said the scheme was deemed a suc­cess be­cause of the 100% com­mit­ments of the bor­row­ers to re­pay­ing their debts. “These op­er­a­tors now earn a de­cent in­come and over the pe­riod of many busi­ness years, a few also have ad­di­tional in­comes through own­ing stalls and sell­ing mar­ket pro­duce.” Un­til to­day, the owner of reg­is­tered wheel­bar­row num­ber 001 is left with only his bat­tle scars to wit­ness his years of strug­gle. He still car­ries the same crooked smile dis­fig­ured in con­fronta­tions with former own­ers of the once il­le­gal busi­ness dur­ing a pe­riod full of drama. But one with a happy end­ing. Vakasa is hap­pily sur­rounded by a young gen­er­a­tion that some­times mocks him for his ‘school dropout’ English. As for Cpl Akimo Gu, he spent four years work­ing with Vakasa when their ini­tial aim was to take just two years to achieve their goal. But it was in those ex­tra two years that he found a greater pur­pose to be­ing a po­lice­man. He now car­ries out his du­ties with the quote from Mark Twain in mind, that ‘the two most im­por­tant days in your life are the day you’re born and the day you find out why.’ “We found our pur­pose in life.”

Change agent…Jone Vakasa

Cor­po­ral Akimo Gu and a mem­ber of SWA.

News­pa­per cut­tings of wheel­bar­row boys who made it

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