I looked up from my barbecue to watch the waves crashing on the reef. A mini-bus drew up and slowed down. The driver tooted his horn and the passengers waved and shouted a greeting. It was not for me however. “Cola Chanta!!” they shouted. The object of their attention smiled and waved back from her barbecue stall, next to the roundabout at Korotogo on the Coral Coast. “See you later friend!” she responded.
Chanta Seng owns and operates her barbecue stall, working with other women from Korotogo. The stall is very popular, both with locals in Korotogo and Sigatoka as well as those who are regular on the Suva/Lautoka route and find her roadside cafe, across the road from the beach a wonderful spot to enjoy a lunch time barbecue or hotdog or an evening plate of palau. For Chanta, Korotogo is home. It is a far cry from how her life began.
Chanta was born in a refugee camp in Thailand to Cambodian parents who had fled the violent and oppressive regime of Pol Pot, made famous in the film, “The Killing Fields”. The family had lost everything – their land, home, possessions under the regime.
Her family returned to Cambodia in 1992 when the United Nations United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was established to ensure implementation of the Agreements on the Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict, signed in Paris on 23 October 1991. The mandate included aspects relating to human rights, the organization and conduct of elections, military arrangements, civil administration, maintenance of law and order, repatriation and resettlement of refugees and displaced persons and rehabilitation of Cambodian infrastructure.
Interestingly, a number of Fijians served in UNTAC. For Chanta and many Cambodians, their nation was born in 1992.
As a result of living the first 11 years of her life as a refugee, Chanta was illiterate, even in her own language of Khmer. The family, having lost everything under the regime settled in Pursat, a rural area where most people survive on subsistence crops and live in poverty. She did not even have access to education as culture dictated that the males of the family receive priority in education, even if they are younger than their sisters. Little Chanta began her new life in Cambodia selling fruit on the street or in the market, to earn money for her family.
It is not only a difficult life for women and girls in Cambodia, it is also very dangerous. Trafficking or slavery of women and girls is rife in Cambodia. Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking. The traffickers are reportedly organized crime syndicates, parents, relatives, friends, intimate partners, and neighbours. Cambodia has a problem of sex tourism involving children. Some children are sold by their own parents. Others are lured by what they think are legitimate job offers like waitressing, but then are forced into prostitution. Children are often held captive, beaten, and starved to force them into prostitution. (Read more at http://www.uri.edu/artsci/wms/hughes/cambodia.htm)
You can imagine how difficult it must have been for this young woman who knew nothing of the world, let alone Fiji, to travel thousands of kilometres to this island nation. In Fiji she is one of only 4 Cambodians living in the country.
Sitting at Chanta and her husband’s house in Korotogo, I hear laughter coming out of the kitchen where my wife and Chanta are catching up. I remember that when my wife and I met Chanta in 2003 she was incredibly shy. When we would visit her and her husband she would hide in the room because she was embarrassed at not being able to speak English. Now she expresses herself freely and passionately.
Chanta is now a Fijian. She is proud of not only her blue passport but of her voter registration card. For her Korotogo is home. She goes to all the events in the koro, drinks yaqona with the women and on weekends her barbecue stall is local hangout. Earlier this year, when she left to visit her sick sister in Cambodia, the women of the village sat her down and told her that Korotogo was her home and that she was one of them.
Back at the barbecue stall, one of Chanta’s friends, Bulou, says something to her in Nadroga dialect and then tells me, “she’s going to speak Nadro soon; and Hindi too.” Chanta and another friend Sila both laugh loudly. The night Drue Slatter won the Hibiscus crown, the women gathered at the home of one adopted daughter of Korotogo to celebrate the victory of another.
Chanta’s story echoes that of many who have struggled and overcome obstacles. Her story resonates with that of the Girmitiyas and others who found in Fiji not only a new life but a new culture of deep understanding, acceptance and love for the other.
In a globalised world, many of our Fijian brothers and sisters struggle to find acceptance and a sense of belonging in the countries in which they settle. Here in Fiji, despite all our differences and difficulties – there is still openness, and an acceptance of the other. Yet it goes beyond mere acceptance.
Perhaps it is because deep down we realise that we are all just people trying to live life – to love, to work, to find happiness and make a home for ourselves and our children and be part of a community. That is at the heart of all our actions. That perhaps is the core of our common humanity.
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”