Fiji, the Land of Smiles

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 113, Spring 2015.
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[photo by Wanda Walker]
Fijian midwives Merewairita Valu and Chandra Kanta enjoying the beach at the Midwifery Today Australia conference

It is interesting how visions and dreams work out. I always had a feeling that I would visit Fiji. There was a sweet spot in my heart for this country long before I set foot on it.

Facebook has proven itself to be a great way to meet midwives from other countries, and this is how I met sister midwives from Fiji. I made friends with Merewairita Valu, who then introduced me to Chandra Kanta. Sometimes you meet people on e-mail or Facebook and you know immediately that you are going to be the best of friends. That is how it was with both Merewairita and Chandra. Our like-mindedness was immediately felt and our concern for motherbaby and midwives was an obvious calling.

Eneyda Spradlin-Ramos, my Midwifery Today conference-planning friend, and I went to Fiji after a fabulous conference in Byron Bay, Australia. When you have already flown as far as Australia, why not keep going and head to the beautiful islands of Fiji? Merewairita and Chandra attended the conference in Australia and then accompanied us to Fiji. Our friend and sister midwife Suzanne Thomson also planned to meet up with us. Suzanne’s church built a health center on the island of Gau eleven years ago and every two years she takes supplies to the center for the people of Gau. This was her year to do that—a wonderful coincidence. We stayed with Suzanne and her dear friends and even got to experience a Kava ceremony held in our honor. (Kava is a traditional drink of the South Seas.)

The Fijian midwives are well trained and there are many midwives and nurses scattered on their 110 populated islands. Merewairita and Chandra teach midwifery at a university, so Eneyda, Suzanne and I had the opportunity to teach a study day there for the midwives and the student midwives.

We learned a lot about Fiji and its birth situation. About five years ago, the government decided that all women needed to come to the main island of Viti Levu to birth in one of the large hospitals. Mothers come to the island around 28 weeks, depending on their risks, to have prenatal care in the city; they often wait all day for a short visit. This displacement has caused a lot of difficulties for the women, their families and the social structure. As the Inuit learned, this migration for birth to large centers affects the social structure of communities and many social problems can be caused by it. When Canada trained women of the community of Nunavik to be midwives who brought birth back to their community, alcoholism, divorce, sexual abuse, domestic violence and other social issues declined drastically. Some excellent articles about that are Bringing Birth Back to the Community: Midwifery in the Inuit Villages of Nunavik and Heeding Warnings from the Canary, the Whale, and the Inuit.

Fiji has well-trained midwives and nurses already posted in many island communities. Where they don’t, they have midwives that could possibly be posted in these locations if fewer midwives have to be in the hospitals. Most births took place in the local communities five years ago. I have great hope that the government will realize that with the help of their midwives, birth can return (and belongs) in the community the birthing woman is from. While we were there, we knew of a young woman who had come to stay with relatives. She was quite depressed and displaced. Women belong with their closest loved ones when they are pregnant.

We now know so much about the baby’s brain wiring and how important a healthy and happy pregnancy is for the unborn child. My friend and colleague Dr. Fernando Molina has researched brain wiring in the baby. He states:

It is well known that the environment in which a pregnant mother lives, together with the emotional support she receives, will have a direct impact in the optimal wiring of neurons in the limbic system within the developing brain of the unborn child. In other words, there is a parallel development of structure and function within the baby’s brain, which depends on the experiences the mother is going through—call it love, peace, joy, or continuous stress, anxiety, fear.

Neuroscience is teaching us that there are critical periods during pregnancy and afterwards, where babies’ neurons need to fire together and wire together. This fire/wire depends on the sensory stimuli mother is experiencing through her five senses and the emotions she is living. So, these neural pathways will be the basis of the structural organization in the unborn child’s brain, which will lead to higher cognitive functions later in life.

What is the importance of this? Research has shown that babies exposed to excess stress and anxiety while in the womb have greater risks of problems later in life, such as personality disorders, ADD and impaired immune systems.

Moreover, the baby’s microbiome will be best served in his/her own home and community with a vaginal birth, skin-to-skin contact and delayed cord clamping. Our knowledge of so many of these issues should lead us to the conclusion that keeping mom in her own home is best. This will make for a much healthier mother and baby emotionally, physically and spiritually.

While in Fiji, another opportunity we had was to go visiting in the local community with one of the nurses to check how things were going in the health centers and in the small hospitals. We took a small boat to the first village we visited and checked on the health center there. We found that the nurse assigned to the place was not there. He was supposed to be there! To say the least, our visiting nurse-professor was very upset by this situation. She then took us to several small hospitals that were all doing very well.

We also visited a lovely, very isolated village about a 45-minute drive over hill and dale. A woman was weaving mats used for the floor of a bure (a Fijian house). With her quick and nimble hands, she showed us how this is done. Eneyda really wanted to drink fresh coconut milk and in this village the men were only too happy to accommodate by climbing up the coconut-producing tree and cutting some down for us. Everything was going well in this community. The people in the village were very disappointed we weren’t spending the night. This roll-out-the-red-carpet hospitality is what we received everywhere we went in Fiji.

In the small island of Leleuvia, we stayed overnight in a traditional bure. The sign that greeted us read, “Leave your shoes behind and bury your toes in the sand.” So we did! We also ate well, went snorkeling and swimming and truly enjoyed our time. Of course, we did conference planning, which we seem to do wherever we go. We are hoping to do a conference in the South Seas on Fiji in the city of Suva in 2016!

When we got back to Los Angeles, Eneyda said, “No one is smiling here like they do in Fiji.” Fiji really is a friendly place—the land of smiles. (I can’t wait to go back!)

Toward better birth,

About Author: Jan Tritten

Jan Tritten is the founder, editor, and mother of Midwifery Today magazine and conferences. Her love for and study of midwifery sprang from the beautiful homebirth of her second daughter—after a disappointing, medicalized first birth in the hospital. After giving birth at home, she kept studying birth books because, “she thought there was something more here.” She became a homebirth midwife in 1977 and continued helping moms who wanted a better birth experience. Jan started Midwifery Today in 1986 to spread the good word about midwifery care, using her experience to guide editorial and conferences. Her mission is to make loving midwifery care the norm for birthing women and their babies in the United States and around the world. Meet Jan at our conferences around the world!

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