Posted 04 September 2011, by Paula Tagivetaua, The Fiji Times (Access News Corporation), fijitimes.com
WHEN you pass the Levuka cannery, your nostrils will be attacked by the unmistakable smell of fish. I class it as stench because it does not smell good. There are places that have their peculiar smell. Some years ago when the rubbish dump was at Lami, you had to block your nose every time you went past because the stench from rotting refuse can nullify your sense of smell.
If you travel on the back road towards Nadera or from Nadera, you will smell that odour from the sewerage plant at Kinoya. It’s a foul smell and can stick to the back of your throat for as long as three minutes. I recall one time as our plane descended on Hong Kong, suddenly, at about 10,000 feet, a vile stench attacked our nostrils in the big plane. Then we heard the captain saying the stench was the smell of Hong Kong and there was no way they could avoid it because the stench hung like a fog over the island colony.
It was a pungent smell that attacked our nostrils. It was so strong and vile that I always imagined smelling it many years later. Levuka is like that. But the smell is endured because it is the smell from the factory that is now a lifeline for many people on Levuka and other villages on the island of Ovalau.
Source of livelihood
Pacific Fishing Company is the major employer on Ovalau. It employs about 700 women and about 300 men. They work shifts. Most of the women work as packers and stand in line like in an assembly plant packing fish. The last time I was in Levuka was in July when we saw Ema hurrying to somewhere we did not know.
We stopped and as Ema neared us, we turned around and she gave a typical Levuka Fijian swear. We asked where she was going and she gave another swear. The woman can swear, I tell you, as Levuka women do, but I take it in good faith because it is second nature to them. She said she was going to an OHS course. It was news to me. Ema is one of the women who works at PAFCO.
“Man, I had just knocked off this morning and at 8 o’clock, they called and told me I have to come to the course.
“I said they should pay my fare and they said I should just find my way to the course and I swore at them,” Ema said.
Ema had to attend the two-day workshop on OHS because all PAFCO staff were told it was necessary because their boss Bumble Bee deemed it.
“With this new boss, there will be many changes done at PAFCO,” Ema said. The OHS course was just one of the changes implemented at PAFCO and was deemed mandatory for the safety of the workers. Then I heard there were going to be many people laid off from PAFCO after renovations and repairs were completed. One of the temporary workers said the “beleti” would make many people redundant. I did not know what he meant but it was a worrying statement. I heard that people will have to go because of new technology which will be implemented at PAFCO sooner or later. It is a sad thing and would be a big blow for the women and men who work at PAFCO because they rely on their job at the cannery to send their children to school, buy food, buy things for the house and other things you can get from money. Their job at PAFCO is their main source of income.
Without a job at PAFCO they cannot find work any other place. PAFCO is like a source of life for them. So it is really distressing to think that many people will be laid off. As it is, the workers at PAFCO have been working on and off through the years. There are times when they do not work when there is no fish. That is when they resort to being simple villagers and have to go to the plantation to pull and plant cassava and catch fish in the sea for dinner. When the mother ship comes in with its load of tuna, most of the workers, mainly women, are called back to work and they smile and come alive again. Without PAFCO, it is hard to imagine what the women who have been employed by the cannery would do to earn money to send their kids to school, buy their books, sandals, uniforms and such.
Not many people in Fiji realise how important PAFCO has become to the lives of many people on Ovalau. It is their bread and butter, it is their only way to sustain their livelihood and meet the rising costs of living.
There was a time when the wharf at Levuka was full of fishing boats bringing their catch of tuna to unload for PAFCO. Business was thriving that time, from the late 70s into the early 80s. I remember the time very well. PAFCO was the main cannery and the fishing industry thrived.
The wharf at Levuka was always full of fishing boats from Taiwan, China and Korea and it was hard to distinguish who was from which race. They all seemed the same.
Every day, you would see the fishermen in their boats and now and then, a gang from one of the boats would come ashore and explore the one-street town of the old capital. Normally, seamen from the fishing boats would come ashore to buy liquor but there were those who came with wads of notes to look for the kabawaqas and lure them to their boats with promises of drinks and money in exchange for sex.
Kabawaqa is the loose term for prostitutes who sell their bodies for money on the fishing boats. The term was coined in Levuka. Prostitutes knew when the fishing boats would call in at Levuka to unload, take some days off their schedule, re-stock on supplies and back to sea. Nothing could stop the kabawaqas from getting to their clients on the boats. When Levuka port officials locked the gate to the wharf, the kabawaqas swam to the boats under the cover of darkness and climbed up the anchor chain or ladder.
They made appointments with their clients who kept a lookout for the girls who swam to the boat. As long as they got into the fishing boats, the port officials could not do anything and for the next two or three days, the kabawaqas would party get drunk from their client’s stock of liquor, eat their food, and then swim back to land loaded with money from the pockets of the Asian fishermen.
Prostitutes came from Suva to ply their trade in Levuka and returned when the fishing boats left. They were not ashamed.
It was nothing to be shamed of. They were making a living and enjoyed it. They drank free, ate free, were given gifts and then were paid for their services. The oldest profession in the world was in operation on the fishing boats at Levuka now it is no more. The Levuka wharf is virtually empty and the kabawaqas are no more. But there was a time when they made Levuka their town.