Seventy-four-year-old Suruj Mati was pleasantly surprised when the team from the World Council of Churches (WCC) arrived on her doorstep in January.
‘Oh, come in!’ she joyfully welcomed them into her home, squinting into their faces, wondering who they were.
The multi-ethnically diverse entourage from Fiji, Africa, Samoa, Europe and Egypt captivated Ms. Mati.
‘Thank you, this is the first time I’ve received people like you,’ she beamed.
Her small, corrugated humble, one room home at Nanuku Settlement in the outskirts of Suva City in Fiji, frail and creaking in the strong winds of impending Cyclone Tino, has been a haven for Ms Mati for over 50 years.
‘When we first moved here in 1974, goats lived here,’ she related often straining to understand the questions from the visiting team.
‘There were no other houses around. We needed a place to live, life here in the city is not cheap and we wanted a roof over our heads.’
‘So, we built here, among the animals!’
Since then, hundreds of homes populate Nanuku, making it one of the most densely populated area in Fiji.
Many decades later, her children grown and gone, hard of hearing and struggling to see well, Ms. Mati has chosen to stay at Nanuku.
‘It’s just more affordable here,’ she said.
Ms. Mati is a face, amongst many faces that depict the poverty and hardships of life for 28.1 percent of the Fijian population.
According to the Asian Development Bank findings based on data gathered in 2013, around 252,000 people live below the poverty line.
Ms. Mati depends on social welfare cash and food benefits for survival like most that call Nanuku home.
Nanuku is classified as an informal settlement that begins from within the boundaries of Suva’s city limits, extending well into the mangrove swamps. On rainy days, typical of the location, her compound quickly fills with water. Other times, flood waters, sometimes knee high, and even higher during high tides, do more than just upset flower beds.
Despite the floods, more city dwellers have moved to settlements like Nanuku because of the high costs of living and housing in the city.
Four pilgrimage teams from the World Council of Churches visited various locations around the country focusing on key thematic areas namely ‘Climate Change, ‘Climate Induced Displacement’, ‘Indigenous Land Rights and Extractive Industries’ and ‘Gender Justice/People with Disabilities/Interfaith Dialogue & Ecological Justice/Ocean Health and Care for Creation.’
Pilgrimage Team Visit 3 (PTV-3) on Justice related issues visited Nanuku Settlement.
Team leader Ms. Berit Hagen Agoy from the Church of Norway said WCC is visiting many places across the word and learning about the lives, struggles, challenges and living conditions of people.
‘It helps us gain a better understanding of how we can help people to live with justice and peace,’ she said.
The team visited other homes in Nanuku and the stories were the same. Struggles with economic security, access to quality health services, food insecurity and crime.
They also discovered that some churches, like the Methodist Church had already setup within the communities and assisting where it could.
Deputy Secretary General of the World Council of Church Professor Isabel Phiri said the team heard similar stories across the world.
Growing rates of poverty and the widening gap between the rich and poor countries and even within country spelled the rise of unjust and inequal treatment of people and suffering.
Acting to restore justice for people is now an imperative for all churches because it is a Christian duty.
The WCC was hosted in Fiji by the Pacific Conference of Churches.
WCC also held its committee meeting at the Jovili Meo Mission Centre of PTC where most of the team members were billeted.