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Generosity in Fiji

Generosity knows no geographic bounds.  It is a universal language.  It can be given and received in any country.  The power of it—no matter how big or small—is profound.

Read below from the blog of Ethan White.  I’ve known the White family for years.  Just recently their oldest son Ethan took off to work for the Peace Corp in Fiji.  Here’s his wonderful blog on giving a bucket of crackers—yes, crackers.  Ethan’s full blog can be found here.

This past week I decided it was time for me to start doing my own laundry. Although I certainly don’t mind letting ladies in the village do it for me, it didn’t feel responsible to just let them do it, I wasn’t sure how to pay them back, and I thought that showing Fijians a white, six foot, bearded man scrubbing his own dirty underwear would be a great way to break down some gender stereotypes. I was only kinda right about the last part: everyone knows that I do my own laundry, but even the ladies in the village told me to find a woman to do it for me. Rome wasn’t built in a day…
There are several ways to wash clothes in Fiji, the oldest being a short walk to the nearest stream and the newest being a washing machine. I opted to use a method that involves the equivalent of a 5-gallon bucket and a 4-foot section of PVC pipe that is a few inches in diameter. It called a gulong and apparently has its origins in the Philippines. I’m not really sure how to spell it, so Google away my intrepid readers. I’m really bad at it, either using way too much soap or not enough, and half of my clothes come out clean while the other half is still dirty. Like with most things that Fijians do on a daily basis, I proved yet again that I am woefully under qualified to live here.

Unlike in the States, five gallons buckets aren’t everywhere. They use three gallon cracker (or biscuit if you are Fijian) buckets instead. Now, you’ve got to understand that Fijians eat crackers every day for their morning and afternoon tea, and in a week a family can mow through quite a few crackers. But why anyone would need to buy THREE GALLONS OF CRACKERS is beyond me. Anyway, I bought my cracker bucket yesterday but had no use for THREE GALLONS OF CRACKERS, so I wandered around Navuso Agriculture passing them out to families as fast as I could, so that I could do my laundry and wear underwear again.

Every house that I went into would first laugh, because I’m a white guy passing out crackers at 5 PM and that’s not something that happens. But after laughing, the damndest thing would happen. The family would get serious, accepting the crackers, looking me in the eye, thanking me sincerely, and shaking my hands. The old ladies would kiss my cheek, try to force fruit or eggs or dinner into my hands, and everyone continued repeating, “God bless you” as I walked from their house into another. I could hear them shouting (in Fijian) between rooms of the house, and it always went more or less something like this:

“Who is it!?”

“It’s Icani! He brought us biscuits!”

“He did? That is so kind! Give him some bananas! Can he stay for dinner? God bless you Ethan!”

I didn’t even really do anything, and people wouldn’t stop thanking me. I gave away a buck or two or crackers to ten different families that have already helped me out so much the last couple of months. Even though I did almost nothing for these families, even though I didn’t even fill an earnest need, my giving authentically touched all of the families.

The families all already had crackers, and more crackers are a two-minute walk away and cost next to nothing. The equivalent in the States would be like giving someone a loaf of generic, cheap bread when they already have bread on the counter, but you were going out of town and had to give it to someone before it went stale. It would be appreciated, but not thought of twice.

As I write this, I’m reminded of the Lords’ Prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread…” (If Jesus were Fijian, he would have said daily biscuits, not daily bread.) The point I want to make isn’t one of spiritual prowess or anything inherently Christian, but of simplicity. You could summarize the prayer like this: “God, you are great. You do what you got to do. Take care of us spiritually and physically. You are life. Thanks. Amen.” From what I’ve seen and heard, this is how many of my Fijian friends view spirituality and life. It’s a simple view that doesn’t require anything besides patience, grace, humility, and simplicity.

When I started this post, it was actually just going to be about poverty, riches, and laundry. How crazy the differences are between the two worlds I am a part of. This week I bought a $12 USD cracker bucket and borrowed a piece of PVC pipe to do laundry, and one of my friends in the States bought a new washer and dryer for $800 USD. And it is easy, so easy, to look at those numbers and go, “Well frick. America is rich and Fiji is poor. Those underprivileged and impoverished people have to hand wash their clothes in the river, or reuse junk buckets and leftover pipes. Blah, blah, I should start supporting an international organization that does blah, blah and blah, blah.” And that is partly true. America has more resources, jobs, technology, money, etc. It isn’t bad to be aware of the financial divide. It isn’t bad to want to share your resources.

But it is a mistake to look at look at the cost and convenience of laundry and draw the conclusion that America is ahead and Fiji is behind. Have you ever been so thankful for someone giving you a dollars’ worth of something that you already have, that you invited them for dinner? I haven’t. Or have you tried to give them something in return, to thank them for their giving? Nope, those are my bananas; you know where the store is. What about insisting that you don’t receive so many of what they are giving, so that they can continue giving to other families? Definitely not, I want it all of it. I’ve always thanked people based on what the value was of the gift. But these Fijians thanked me not because of what I gave, but because I gave.

It’s not wrong to spend $800 on a washer and dryer, that’s great. Whatever’s clever. Jealousy probably isn’t a healthy response to it, so let’s avoid that. But at the same time, I don’t want pity for my $12 gulong, and I don’t think Fijians do either. Each situation makes sense for the culture that it is within. And when you can make the mental move from what you have to that you have, from the value of a gift to the heart of a gift, life is much more satisfying.

About Bill High

Bill High is an author of several books and co-author with David Green of Giving It All Away and Getting It All Back Again: The Way of Living Generously: www.givingitallawaybook.com. You can find him at www.billhigh.com and sign up for his blogs there.

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