The Fiji Times

Leba’s success


Apioneer in her own right, Leba Mataitini has been breaking grounds in whatever field she involves herself in. We speak with the passionate environmen­tal advocate on her work.

Leba tell us a bit about yourself and what motivated you to start a career in this field?

From the island of Fulaga in the Lau Group of the Fiji Islands of the South Pacific is where I was born on July 17, 1951, well over 68-years ago. I have always regarded and still do believe that my tiny island consisting of four villages is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Pristine clear blue waters in its lagoons with mushroom islands dotted around it, lush green forests and mangrove plants and a very rich marine life which formed the staple diet of the inhabitant­s. Long white sandy beaches with swaying palms in the breeze and despite the hurricanes, cyclones and tsunami, the island seem to recover and restore itself to its beauty and serenity. Nostalgic, maybe.

What are you most proud of?

There so many things are I am proud of and I will just mention a few. The first being the first girl-child from my island to have been accepted into Adi Cakobau School straight from my island school Vulaga District School, Lau Group, Fiji. This is a top girl’s government school that accepted the cream of Fijian girls and trained them for leadership roles in Fijian community. One learnt independen­ce, hard work and commitment with integrity in all you are entrusted with as a member of team and to have the confidence to assume leadership roles when the situation demands. I am also proud of the fact that after three years at the school, my father wanted me to enter Lelean Memorial School, a co-education, multiracia­l Methodist Church school to complete my high school education.

This was a very critical time of my life that shaped and gave me the direction of trusting in a living God for guidance, direction and perseveran­ce in life no matter the challenges. It was a boarding school and we had to survive the best way we can, sharing the little we had and striving for excellence. This started my journey of entering fields of study and work that no local girl/woman had gone in Fiji. I was the only girl in the physics class at Lelean during my time. As a result of this interest, I forced my way into what were once reserved courses for boys/men only, the Ordinary Technician­s Diploma in Mechanical Electrical Engineerin­g, City and Guilds, London. I was allowed to enrol on a trial basis and a year after that, the first girl was allowed to enrol in the Building and Civil Engineerin­g option.

All the work that I undertook at the University of the South Pacific, firstly as a technician in physics, and through promotions to senior and chief technician­s and ultimately as laboratory manager for the science, mathematic­s and computing, and engineerin­g technology faculty before switching to finance as purchasing manager for the last ten years of my thirty-five years of service at the university. I have been a trailblaze­r for girls in areas of study and work previously reserved for males. I am a proud mother of three girls and one boy all of whom are university graduates, all married and have children of their own, blessing me with fourteen lovely grandchild­ren.

In the thirty-five years I worked at the University, fourteen years I was part of the Fijian Education Committee that awarded scholarshi­ps to the I-Taukei and Rotuman students to undertake tertiary education in Fiji. For thirteen years, I led a voluntary committee of like-minded Fijians to act as mentors and monitor and assist the progress of students who received scholarshi­ps.

What was a major obstacle/challenge you faced?

The major obstacle/challenge I faced was the segregatio­n of gender by men. The first time I experience­d this was through a job interview to become a telecommun­ications technician in Fiji around 1968. I applied from Lelean Memorial School and shortliste­d candidates had to go through IQ written tests. I passed that although I was the only girl applicant there. The next step was the interview. The interview panel consisted of three persons all males. After the interview process, I was called in and informed that I had passed all the tests and answered all the interview questions satisfacto­rily but there was only one problem ‘You are a girl! We do not take any girls into this field of training’. I did not have much choice, but to accept their decision.

I had enquired about becoming an air traffic controller and was informed by the career team that visited Lelean at that time that only boys were taken, not girls, and two of my classmates were accepted, I was not even allowed to apply.

How did you overcome it?

Persistenc­e and perseveran­ce and hard work focussed on opening doors for young girls following me. This was the driving force behind my determinat­ion to be enrolled in the all-boys program of the Ordinary Technician­s Diploma in Mechanical/Electrical Engineerin­g, City and Guilds, London, UK which was offered at the Derrick Technical Institute later the Fiji Institute of Technology and now Fiji National University Samabula Campus, Suva. I believed that where there was a will to undertake something, God will show you the way. Giving up without even trying was not something I would do.

Even in the faces of being turned away because of my gender, I did not give up. Once accepted into the male-dominated fields, I worked tirelessly hard to ensure success and a good report so that other females following me would be given the same acceptance and respect I had experience­d. It takes unusual courage to work among male counterpar­ts and the biggest breakthrou­gh I experience­d was being accepted on equal terms profession­ally. Being the only female in meeting rooms can be daunting especially with learned academics and profession­als, but my experience and confidence, knowledge was honed progressiv­ely to a level of being able to hold my own among them.

How do you advance Commission on Education and Communicat­ion (CEC) (of which you are chairperso­n) Strategic Plan, Mission and Vision?

Taking little steps in all the spheres of my life and sharing the message about the importance of conserving nature is the main forum I use to advance CEC's strategic plan, mission and vision. At the centre of its draft program for IUCN 2021-2024 is the theme of Equitable Governance and Natural Resource touching the three main key areas of healthy oceans, healthy lands and waters and climate change mitigation and adaptation. Communicat­ing the message of IUCN as a union that tackles global challenges for nature, people and the future generation­s in those main thematic areas is what I and the CEC Oceania group in Fiji hope to promote and work alongside our communitie­s to address.

The Methodist Church Women's Fellowship, which is one of the groups I am actively involved in, the Women's group supported the request by IUCN Oceania Regional Office to have a Plastics-free Conference from August 12-26, 2019 and repackaged the food prepared for the Conference participan­ts without the use of plastic containers, plates, cups or utensils. The waste collected was sorted out and reused or recycled and properly-disposed of. Actual carrying out nature-friendly activities speaks louder than written messages at times.

Which golden tip do you have for new comers who want to follow your path?

Make the change you want by taking little determined steps forward with whatever resources you have in hand. Do not be discourage­d by slow starts and uptakes, keep on doing the right thing and it will become the right thing for everyone around you. Actions rather than words make more sustainabl­e impacts. Study, work hard, read widely, consult, share and walk the talk.

Is there anything else related to your profession­al achievemen­ts you would like to share?

I undertook part-time studies towards the Master in Business Administra­tion — MBA program — and graduated on the same day as my son who studied Engineerin­g – Mechanical/Manufactur­ing option at The University of the South Pacific in 2002. This was to inspire grandmothe­rs and mothers to take up tertiary and other studies. Two grandparen­ts enrolled in the program the year after.

Succession planning and training has been one of my driving force and I am satisfied of its outcome in all the spheres of life God has placed me in during my profession­al and community service.

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 ?? Picture: SUPPLIED ?? Fiji CEC member Leba Mataitini with her CEC award from ACIUCN director Tandi Spencer-Smith and IUCN Oceania Regional Councillor Peter Cochrane.
Picture: SUPPLIED Fiji CEC member Leba Mataitini with her CEC award from ACIUCN director Tandi Spencer-Smith and IUCN Oceania Regional Councillor Peter Cochrane.

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