In his previous column (July/August Issue 51) True Pacific ambassador and Me’a Kai author ROBERT OLIVER hinted at how his father has been a defining influence on his life: from moving his family first to Fiji and then Samoa in the 1970s and through a 42-year career with the YMCA, developing community-based development projects that responded to community needs. In this issue Robert tells us the story of his father, Dennis Oliver, and explains how he has been more than a father, but also an inspirational figure in his life.
MY DAD, MY INSPIRATION
My Dad’s connection with the YMCA began when he was a young boy and a top gymnast. The YMCA soon became his life. He spent 13 years in New Plymouth raising money and building programmes, four camps and an indoor sports stadium. He had achieved what he wanted there and was looking for a new challenge.
In 1971 he found that challenge in the Pacific when he moved Mum and us kids to Fiji.
The Rotary Club in Suva had built a Youth Club in the 1960s, establishing a number of sports. Relationships between sports groups, however, got a bit feisty. Trouble brewed. The Rotary Club asked the YMCA to come in to get the place running properly. That’s where Dad came in.
He quickly got the Youth Centre back up and running, no problem. The problem was, however, that the skills Dad had around gymnastics and camping were skills the Fijians didn’t need. They weren’t into gymnastics and half the country was out living a camping lifestyle anyway.
So the New Zealand council of the YMCA made a bold move. Although it had a fixed set of programmes based on its New Zealand operations, they gave Dad three months to find out what the needs of young Fijian people were, then to build new programmes around those needs.
One of the first things Dad noticed was a lack of carpenters; local builders wouldn’t hire young people because they lacked the basic skills required to undertake carpentry work. So he organised VSA (Volunteer Services Abroad) to send them an instructor and CORSO (a Pacific-based NGO active across New Zealand) to donate $5,000 worth of tools. During the day the gym became a carpentry school. It was immediately successful.
Dad then went out into the villages. Research told him the best way to serve agriculture and people in rural areas, where 80% of the population lived, was to set up clubs to deliver skills and resources at the level of need.
There were many highly skilled agricultural workers in the villages who couldn’t find work on farms. So he started clubs that used these skills to show other villagers how to grow and cultivate vegetables they could sell at the market and earn an income from. They included Chinese Greens, which were very popular. Growing from seeds in this fashion was a new way of thinking about vegetable cultivation. It taught a new set of skills to many people.
Within a few years there were a dozen rural clubs doing all sorts of things: building community centres, kindergartens, libraries, growing gardens. Some were even breeding goats! And this was part of a larger network of YMCA clubs that he established. Within four years, there were 100 clubs on 10 Islands with around 10,000 members.
Dad, as always, would be looking forward. What new needs are emerging?
In one particular area, inaccessible by road, he realised two-thirds of the put-puts used on the river were either not working or in desperate need of repair. The remaining third were trying to do the work of all of them. He learnt that with three simple parts the locals could be taught how to repair their own boats. So he set up the first outboard motor school.
A need for chainsaw repairs emerged, as well as sewing machine repairs and wood carving. So he set up five mobile schools that worked to constantly upgrade peoples’ skills while, at the same time establish what new needs were emerging.
By the late 1970s, with a vibrant YMCA established in Fiji, it was time for new challenges. The people of Samoa got wind of what had been happening and wanted YMCAs, too. Dad applied, got the job, and in 1978 we moved to Samoa.
His work in Samoa followed a pretty similar pattern, except in rural areas. Villagers were growing lots of good taro, but were getting ripped off and were paid miserably at the market. So he worked with the government marketers to ensure that this changed.
He ended up with around 35-36 clubs in Samoa and 6000 members. There were two carpentry schools, a motor mechanic school, and a mobile sewing machine school running all sorts of programmes. He was also aware that Samoans were leaving for New Zealand totally unprepared for what awaited them. They had no idea about laws, like being unable to keep a pig in your backyard. So he helped there, too, bringing the New Zealand High Commission on board.
Dad also took radical steps to address the issue of youth suicide, which at the time was the highest rate in the world. That initiative is deserving of an article of its own, but suffice to say, dad's work helped to reduce the rate by half.
We stayed in Samoa until 1982 before moving home and to Hastings, where Dad spent the rest of his career. But his connections to the Pacific remain strong.
He and Mum usually travel somewhere there every year. They also continue to go to the local Samoan Methodist Church. Their choir recently performed at his 80th birthday.
Dad was one of the groundbreakers for development. When he first went into the Pacific, listening was not a development approach. But he chose to listen. It helped that we lived local lives. We were living on social work funds, so we didn’t have expat-like packages. Our lives were Fijian. Then our lives were Samoan.
So you can imagine how having that kind of father influenced my thinking and development. He never overly directed our lives as a parent, but we certainly adopted much of his principals and ethics by osmosis. You look back over your life and you see how it all makes sense.
I often walk into situations where people will exclaim, “Oh, you’re Dennis Oliver’s son!” It’s helped me immensely and it means that the people sort of understand who I am straight away because of that.
I guess the commonality between what he did and what I hope I’m doing, is that we both have a profound love and reverence for the Pacific. In our own ways, we’re doing what we think helps to realise the existing assets of the region, rather than trying to enforce outside ways of being. In a way, it’s catalysing.
Because of Dad’s (continued) fondness for Samoa, I thought I’d leave you with a recipe from the Samoa chapter of Me’a Kai.
FAI'AI I'A SOSI ESI (COCONUT CRUSTED PARROTFISH)
Prepare your fish early in the day and leave it in the refrigerator to ‘set’ the coating, or freeze it until needed: the coating will then be less likely to fall off while cooking. The sauce can also be made ahead of time (it’s also great as a salsa-type dip with roast chicken and cooked shrimp). Once the fish and sauce are prepared, this is a very quick dish to finish, making it perfect for restaurant-style service or for large dinners with limited preparation time.
You will need:
• 10 portions parrotfish, skinned and boned (substitute: any delicate fish, eg snapper, bream, tilapia)
• 1 lime, juiced
• 1 cup flour
• 4 eggs, whisked with salt and pepper
• 8 cups grated fresh coconut (from about 4 coconuts; substitute: mix of unsweetened desiccated coconut and either fresh breadcrumbs or panko)
• vegetable oil
• 5 cups diced ripe pawpaw
• cup lime or cumquat juice
• cup sweet chilli sauce
• few leaves basil, mint or coriander
To prepare the fish, place the pieces in a shallow bowl and drizzle lime juice over them.
Place the flour, egg and coconut in three separate shallow bowls. Dredge the fish first in the flour, then in the egg and finally in the coconut, pressing the coconut on to form a good crust. Refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.
To make the sauce, blend all the ingredients in a food processor until smooth.
To serve, pan-fry the fish in a little vegetable oil for about five minutes each side, until lightly browned.
Serve with the pawpaw sauce.
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