Winds of Change for Wheelbarrow Boys
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