Monday, March 7, 2016

Peace Corps volunteer and husband raise money for Fiji

Brooke McDavid plants mangroves with children on Fiji.

The following article was published in the News-Miner March 6 and is reprinted here with permission. It concerns Brooke McDavid, who earned her master's in natural resources management this past December, and her husband, Solo Nagalo. The couple met  in Fiji when she was a Peace Corps volunteer. The couple is hosting a fundraiser for Nagalo's home village, Vuya, which was severely damaged Feb. 22 by Tropical Cyclone Winston. The fundraiser starts at 8 p.m. March 11 at Ivory Jacks. There will be live music and kava will be served.

By David James
When Solomone Nagalo was courting his now-wife Brooke McDavid, a Peace Corps volunteer in his village in Fiji, he said, “I always asked about Alaska. She said ‘Alaska is a good place.’ I said, ‘How can I know if I don’t see Alaska?’”

Solo Nagalo and Brooke David are seen in Fiji before a kava ceremony.
Today, Nagalo lives in Fairbanks, which may seem unlikely, but not to a man fond of saying, “Sometimes I break rules.”

Nagalo, who uses Solo as a first name, was born on the island of Vanua Levu. Originally from the village of Vuya, he was taken away at age 3 by a man he refers to as his grandfather to the town of Seaqaqa where he attended school and learned to farm, fish and hunt. Though not a blood relative, his relationship with the older man was still considered familial in a culture where, as McDavid described it, family relations are “fluid."

“When a new baby is born in one family, that family is not one family,” Nagalo said. “It’s the whole village. It’s everyone’s child.”

In 2012, Nagalo returned to Vuya, where he spied the young American woman helping with sustainable development projects.

“The first thing I asked was if she could have a girlfriend,” he remembered. “They said the government says it’s not allowed, and I said, ‘Don’t listen to the government.’ I went to ask my uncle, who had been in America, ‘If you want someone to be your friend, how can you get him close to you?’ He told me, ‘Ask them, how are you? How was your day?’ So I invited her one night to drink grog at the place I was staying.”

Solo Nagalo and Brooke McDavid hike Castner Glacier.
Grog refers to kava, a popular beverage in the South Pacific brewed from the dried and pounded roots of the kava bush (kava, or Piper methysticum, belongs to the pepper family). It’s a powerful relaxant, Nagalo said. “It can make you so drunk you can’t even walk. It makes all your muscles weak. If you drink grog for many hours, some people, they can’t stand up. It’s really good. You should try it one day.”

McDavid, originally from West Virginia, added, “It’s the center of social life now. You all sit around the basin of kava on the floor, and there’s one person who passes the cup to everyone. You sit and talk.”

During that first visit, Nagalo was the only one in the group who spoke to McDavid in English, spurring a friendship that a year later blossomed into romance. Nagalo said, “I never thought about having her as my girlfriend. I was thinking, just like, taking care of her.” However, he also noted that, “I would bring her coconut, anything that she liked. I climbed a coconut tree every day because of her.”
Nagalo was living a largely subsistence lifestyle, working his small plantation in Vuya and fishing. The village headman had declared McDavid off limits to the local men but since he had only recently returned, Nagalo decided the rule didn’t apply to him.

A year-and-a-half after meeting, the couple eloped in a civil ceremony in January 2014. In Vuya, however, where many traditions still hold sway, the marriage was not considered valid. “We had to do a formal apology to the village for the elopement and for dating and not telling anybody,” McDavid said. “Then we had a village wedding in July.”

McDavid had already extended her two-year Peace Corps commitment, but last spring it came time to return to Fairbanks, where she wanted to finish her master’s degree in natural resources management at UAF. Nagalo, who had never been out of Fiji, came too.

The couple landed in Los Angeles. When they stepped out of the airport, Nagalo asked McDavid, “is the air conditioning still on outside?” Later, he saw his first squirrel and mistook it for a mongoose.
After that it was north to Fairbanks, where they arrived in May on a 45-degree day. “When I got to Fairbanks I opened the door and I breathed,” he recalled. “It was the first time I breathed cold.”

The couple headed out to Goldstream Valley where a friend had offered temporary use of her cabin. Upon leaving town, Nagalo, whose impressions of America mostly came from movies, asked her, “Are you taking me back to the village?”

They soon settled into their own Goldstream cabin. Nagalo did some construction work last summer then took a night job at Safeway. McDavid finished her degree in December and now works for the Department of Fish and Game.

Of his new home, Nagalo said, “I like Alaska. In Fiji I work in the sun for 24 hours every day. It’s so hot. Here, you want to feel warm, you go inside the house. You have the sun, it’s hot but there’s cold. It goes together. I was driving today. The sun was hitting the glass of my car. I can feel the heat. I was thinking, if this was in Fiji, you would be sweating.”

He enjoys hiking and wants to learn carpentry. He also wants to try fishing and hunting since these are things he grew up doing (because he grew up in Fiji spearing wild boar, a neighbor somewhat jokingly gave him a bear spear for use here). He also wants to earn his GED since like many rural Fijians he didn’t finish school. His English, which bears a melodic Island accent, is quite fluent despite being his third language (Fijian is his primary language, and he also speaks Hindi).

“For me it’s very hard to leave my family,” he said of being so far from Fiji, adding that other than that, “I just miss the ocean.” He doesn’t miss the heat however. Recognizing that this winter has been extraordinarily mild and he still hasn’t experienced severe cold, he knows his commitment to Alaska has yet to be fully tested, but so far he greatly likes being here.

“I know it’s different from Fiji,” he said, “but I’m gonna try.”

A village in need
Solo Nagalo’s village of Vuya was severely damaged when Tropical Cyclone Winston struck on Feb. 22. The Category 5 storm brought the strongest winds ever recorded in Fiji and caused at least 42 deaths throughout the country. Just weeks previously, the village had received electricity for the first time, and the infrastructure was wiped out. Nagalo and his wife, Brooke McDavid, will host a fundraiser starting at 8 p.m. March 11 at Ivory Jacks, 2581 Goldstream Road. Admission is free, and they will be offering kava. There will also be live music and a tropical drink special from Ursa Major Distilling. All ages are welcome. Donations will be accepted there, and can also be given to the Vuya Village Cyclone Relief Fund at
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks and is writing a series  for the News-Miner called Becoming Alaskan.

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