21 May 2024
Podcast Ep 8: Simione Bula is empowering inclusion in the Pacific

In Pacific Island countries such as Fiji, the first education for a young child is often learning traditional knowledge. And for humanitarian Simione Bula, preserving and protecting this valuable knowledge is vital to navigating future disasters in the region. 

Simione is a highly experienced disaster management and disability inclusion specialist, with nearly two decades of experience across organisations like the Pacific Disability Forum, Samoa’s Disaster Management Office and CBM Australia. 

In this episode, Simione shares his experiences growing up on a remote island of Fiji and learning the traditional warning signs of approaching disaster. He chats with Sally about the intimate connection between people, land and sea, how he transitioned from being a school teacher to becoming a humanitarian, and how the best place to start with disability inclusion is to put disability aside—and see people with disabilities as people first. 

Host: Sally Cunningham       

Guest: Simione Bula 

Producer, engineer and composer: Jill Farrar   

You can find out more about RedR Australia’s roster here. 

You can join our conversations on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. 


SALLY: This Humanitarian Conversations podcast was recorded on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, also known as Melbourne, Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and we acknowledge and seek to champion the continued connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to land, waterways and skies. And we pay our respects to all First Nations people whose communities we work in across the world. Hello and welcome to Humanitarian Conversations, a RedR Australia podcast which explores what it means to be humanitarian in today's world. I'm Sally Cunningham. Today on Humanitarian Conversations, I’m chatting with Simione Bula, a highly knowledgeable humanitarian with deep experience in disaster management and disability inclusion. Simi started working in disaster management nearly two decades ago during his first job as a school teacher in Fiji.  Alongside teaching, Simi also supported disaster management plans for his school, which, during times of natural disaster, doubled as an evacuation centre. He has since worked in multiple roles for the Pacific Disability Forum and, as a RedR Australia roster member, deployed to Samoa to work in their Disaster Management Office as a Disaster Risk Management Specialist. Simi is currently based in Fiji, working for CBM Australia as a Pacific Field Officer and supporting programs for people with disabilities, advocating for inclusive change and building partnerships across the Pacific. Simi, thanks for joining me today. 

SIMIONE: Thank you. It's an honor to be in this podcast and to share my story and also, hopefully help others in terms of preparing for disaster and also help them in ensuring that they are safe during disaster events. Vinaka. 

SALLY: We're gonna start right at the beginning. So can you tell us a little bit about where you call home? What was it like growing up on a small island of Fiji?  

SIMIONE: First, I'm a Fijian man, I am from an island that's located about eight hours’ boat ride from Suva, the capital of Fiji. I also have maternal links to another island, Dravuni Island in Kadavu. And for me, growing up, I was very fortunate that I had a very good support group that raised me while growing up in the island. And I was fortunate to have my paternal and maternal grandparents, and also my parents, and my family members. And this provided support mechanisms for me, that enabled me to grow holistically as a child. And we experience a lot of inconsistencies in boat services. This means that sometimes [you] might not be able to have batteries for your radio for your torches when disaster strikes. Also, there is highly likely of basic groceries being out of stock in the village shops. And that really teach you to be resilient. And one thing that I learned since I was a child is that when the land and the ocean is respected in terms of how we use it, protect it and care for it, it gives us its fruits in abundance.  

SALLY: Yeah, that's lovely. Can I ask you what were you taught about bad weather events and staying safe when you were small?  

SIMIONE: Growing up in the islands, traditional knowledge is the first signs we have to learn, even before we start formal education. It is part of our daily conversation during mealtimes, chore times, when we are at the plantation, and even during storytelling time in the evening before we go to sleep. And that's basically how we share our knowledge and how knowledge is passed down from generation to generation—through these different storytelling parts of our daily lives. And in terms of knowledge and signs of bad weather and disaster events, it is usually through plants, animals, wind directions, and other environmental patterns. One of the biggest signs for us is through the breadfruit tree. And in my village, the breadfruit tree is everywhere. And usually, breadfruit would have one or two fruit per branch. But occasionally it will have three or more fruit in one branch. And when this happens, that is a sign for us that in about six to eight months, there is a cyclone coming and it will impact our island. And that kind of timeline, it provides us with the information on what preparedness activities we need to start to ensure our safety. Another sign for us is the appearing of [a] certain bird. We call it the iKoti, which is a certain type of seagull that has tail feathers that look like scissors. And when these birds are flying around on a shore or around the sea in front of our village, this indicates that the cyclone is approaching and it will reach us within days. And knowing these signs, it enables us to ensure better preparedness, and put in place measures that will keep us safe through the bad weather and return to normal life as quickly as we can without heavy reliance on humanitarian aid. Because we know that even if there's a boat that's coming, it will reach us not right on the next day, but we might have to wait sometimes for 48 hours, or even up to a week or two before we start receiving these different humanitarian support. And the thing for me is the sustainability of this knowledge. We rely on different generations to be passing this knowledge down to the next and then on to the next and the rest. And sometimes there's gaps in terms of passing this knowledge through. And I feel that there's really a big need to document this traditional knowledge, because different areas have different plants, have different animals, have different environmental patterns. Having this traditional knowledge and complementing it with meteorological signs and forecasts, that will really, really strengthen how we prepare for disaster to ensure safety and quality of life for them, and the future generation.  

SALLY: Yeah, I think that's a really good point as well, like, retaining all the traditional knowledge and experience and it complements the new package of what early warning signs are. So can you share stories; you've told us about that amazing breadfruit tree that knows six months in advance that a storm is coming—that's amazing. But some of your knowledge about the plants and the trees and the other methods to protect the community when it comes to food security post-disaster. 

SIMIONE: Food security for me is ensured through sustainable practices. For us, it's about ensuring we're not exhausting fish stocks and other seafood supply to extinction. On the other hand, a holistic approach towards planting and agricultural activities should be ensured to protect the environment from any damages or further harm. This involves proper planning—what to plant, where and when to plant, and how to plant, and also includes what kind of buddy plants do you need to plant with your food source that will minimise or eradicate the use of manufactured pesticides and weedicides and other planting supplements. And planting is not just about ensuring that you plant what you eat. It's also ensuring that you plant certain plants in areas to stop the soil from eroding. And that is knowledge that for me, it's very priceless. One of the things that I usually see in all village men's plantations is store houses, or what we call in our village the Lololo, which is a small storehouse to store the yam harvest, and also to store the seedlings for the next planting. You do not eat everything that you have. You need to also be thinking of seeds that will help you to replant. We do not only rely on one food source; we also ensure that within our plantation, there are crops for daily consumption. There are crops for certain events, and there are crops that's dedicated to ensuring disaster preparedness and readiness. Also, they are very resilient, that even when the stem of the crop is damaged, the root crop that you eat does not get damaged. One is called the via plant, which is a taro-looking-like plant that grows in a very muddy area. If disaster is approaching within 24 to 48 hours, what we usually do is we go into our plantation and all the root crops with so many leaves like cassava and very tall stems, we cut them off so that when the wind comes, it doesn't uproot the root crop. And also we would start preparing food. We would dig a small pit outside our kitchen and bury all these root crops and then just pull out the ones that we need to eat for the day and keep them fresh for right up to a week. And then when the disaster, when it finishes, we still have food at home and harvest the food that's been damaged. That's when we start utilising those resilient crops. And I think now that most of this knowledge, it’s kind of been eroding away because of the focus on income generation, rather than resilience building. And most of the planting is focused on getting as much income as possible, rather than, while planting, we're not harming or damaging the environment, which is a knowledge that's been passed down. Right now, we're experiencing a stoppage or a gap in passing that knowledge on.  

SALLY: Yeah, it's a different model of farming isn't it.  


SALLY: From that very rich community experience growing up, we know that you started your career as a teacher. So things started to change for you there no doubt. Can you tell us a little about these beginnings and how this was your pathway into humanitarian work? 

SIMIONE: I started my career as a teacher back in 2005. And being a teacher in Fiji, your role is not specific to the classroom. There are also other roles that are assigned to you as a teacher. In my earlier years of teaching, I was assigned roles such as occupational health and safety focal point, road safety focal point, disaster management focal point. And these are the three major other roles that was assigned to me during teaching, that really helped me and really supported me in terms of diverting my career path towards being a humanitarian. Because one, it was really interesting for me to work around identifying risks, also developing escape routes, developing evacuation plans for the school and looking at how do I ensure that teachers and students, they are able to teach and learn in an environment that is safe. And then when it comes to disaster management, and I was teaching in one of the schools that was identified as an evacuation center, that brings me to a different perspective again around risk management. You get to ask yourself, Is this safe? Do we need to do this? Do I need to do that? Being a disaster risk management specialist was never part of the thought. But it was a time that these seeds were planted.  

SALLY: Yeah, that's lovely. We’re really looking forward to hearing about your role in disability inclusion. And I'm really interested to hear about the Pacific Disability Forum. I know you have experience with this group. Can you give us a little bit a...explain a little bit about what they do? 

SIMIONE: The Pacific Disability Forum, it is basically where my career on disability inclusion started. I was working at the Pacific Disability Forum for about six to seven years, and have participated in different roles. And one of the responsibilities that's really common for me across the different roles is the humanitarian work. The Pacific Disability Forum is an organisation of and for people with disabilities. They are governed and led by people with disabilities themselves. And it's an organisation of multiple members. Most of the members are organisations of people with disabilities across the Pacific; across 21 Pacific Island countries and territories. And this work has been ongoing since 2007. It brings the voice of people with disabilities, not just from one country, but from the region. 

SALLY: That's wonderful. What a great organisation. On a more specific level, what are some of the challenges people living with disability face in some remote parts of the Pacific? 

SIMIONE: In the Pacific, there is a lot of challenges, especially with the barriers they face on a daily life. One of the biggest barriers that they have to encounter on a daily basis is the attitudinal barriers—the perspective of people towards disability. And in most cases, not just in remote places, but also in areas that's really close to urban centers where there's a lot of sensitisation happening, most people, when they see a person with disability, they do not look past the impairment of the person. You know, and that perception, it really impacts how a person with disabilities is included in society. Also, you have the physical barrier. And currently, in the Pacific, most of the building codes, most of these building codes does not include the experiences of people with disabilities. That impacts their access to services, access to goods, access to supermarkets, access to schools, that really is a huge issue. And this is something that is impacting people with disabilities in urban areas, and also in semi-urban areas. And in remote areas, these are worse off. Most of them will just stay in their houses and won't move around. And it also impacts how they are integrated into the community and also impacts how they raise their voice to be able to talk about their needs. Just to talk about a story in Vanuatu, during Cyclone Pam, a deaf mother in her village, when the call came to move to the evacuation centre, the person was totally unaware of what's going on. Because all she sees is people running around, going here, going there. And unfortunately, it impacted the person trying to escape the full brunt of Cyclone Pam. And it affected her family, and also it affected the lead time that they needed to have for them to be able to escape. If we are to ensure that we're saving lives for everyone, people with disabilities really need to be at the center of it, because of the need to access early warning. When we conducted our needs assessment in Fiji during Cyclone Winston, there was a couple of people with disabilities that we assessed telling us that they do not want to go to the evacuation center. They said that they would rather stay at home and die instead of going into an evacuation center and experience the attitude, the perception of people within the evacuation centre. You know, say for example, an adult that needs to have a diaper changed on an hourly basis, in a room full of people. Most evacuation centers in Fiji is just open space. There's hardly where you have safe spaces for these kind of things. They'd rather have that experience at home, because it's a very much personal experience, instead of going into an evacuation center and letting themselves be exposed to people's looks, to people's thoughts and perceptions. That impacts how they make decisions on their lives during disaster events. And it's really encouraging to see that there are some countries that are already working on ensuring standards, that are conducting accessibility audit of the evacuation centers to ensure that it is accessible to people with disabilities. And while this happening, there's still a long way to go regarding disability inclusiveness.  

SALLY: Yeah dignity and disaster, it's important. That really explains it quite well. So given that and your experience, what would you like more people to know about living with a disability, so the community can take part in it in a more constructive and productive and supportive way? 

SIMIONE: For me, first and foremost, you see the person with a disability as just another person that's a member of your own community. And look beyond the impairment of the person. I think that's the first step and it's the most easiest step towards inclusion, in which you don't see the person's impairment, but you see that person as a person. The second one is: talk to the people with disabilities. They are the best people to be able to tell us what is needed to be done around disability inclusion.  

SALLY: Absolutely.  

SIMIONE: That's at an individual level. And also at a national level, you have organisations of people with disabilities that are led by people with disabilities themselves. Talk to them around, what do they need? What are the challenges that they face on a daily life? For me, those are the first two steps which does not cost money. It costs just a little bit of change in attitudes around how you approach disability inclusion. Because once you have that, you'll be able to realise that this person with a disability has the same rights as I have in society. Then that means this person needs to have access to education. This person needs to be in an evacuation centre. And also for me, I'll be able to walk into a bathroom to go and change after I had a shower in an evacuation centre. So that means also ensuring that there is a space for the person with a disability to do the same in privacy. So for me at the national level, looking at harmonisation—legal harmonisation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It mandates every player across different sectors, that disability inclusion needs to happen. There is quite a lot of political will at the moment around disability inclusion. A lot of leaders are saying we are doing this on disability inclusion; we are planning to do this on disability inclusion. But for me, to put a challenge out there, is people need to put money where their mouth is. At the moment, the budget that's dedicated towards disability inclusion is not enough. There needs to be more budget. And if we do our development right, and we integrate disaster risks within development, and ensuring disability inclusion within this development, it will be really helpful for disaster preparedness [and] disaster response. Because we know that when we're going into an evacuation center, which is usually a school, it is already accessible to people with disabilities. The last one for me is disability desegregated data. This is something that's missing a lot. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of people with disabilities and their experiences. However, there needs to be also a lot of this data that's collected—quantitative and also qualitative data by governments, by donors, and also by development partners, in ensuring that we continue to move to ensure the participation of people with disabilities. 

SALLY: I think that's really good advice. Thank you. So it sounds like a lot has been happening over the last decade or so. Are we making progress in [the] disability inclusion space? 

SIMIONE: There is progress. But very little progress. I really appreciate the political will in the last couple of years around governments in the Pacific ratifying the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. That was a huge step, and at the moment there's only one country that's left. And also in some countries, they have developed legislation around rights of people with disabilities. Also, there are countries in which they have allocated a certain amount of budget that is directly targeted towards inclusion of people with disabilities, and social protection measures. However, while this progress are happening, and it's good, there's still quite a lot of work that still needs to be done. One is around data, as I have mentioned earlier. And I think, for me, that is where progress is a bit slow, very, very slow. Because if you look at it at the moment, they still struggling to get an education, they still struggling to get an employment, they still struggling to access good health, they're still struggling to find the money to pay for their transportation, to be able to access services. And for some people with disabilities in the Pacific or in Fiji at the moment, their only source of income or livelihood is the disability allowance. We know that it's not enough. You know, there really needs to be opportunities for them to be able to have sustained livelihood. So in terms of progress, I see that there is progress, but there's still quite a lot of work that needs to be done. 

SALLY: I thought that's what you might say, Simi. You've got me excited about it, Simi, you are such an expert in this space. So I've got one last question for you. What makes you passionate about working in disability inclusion? 

SIMIONE: Coming into the space was more of a career move than a move of passion. However, getting to understand the lived experiences of people with disabilities, hearing their stories, and getting to see the impact of your work, those are some of the things that really drives the work that I do. And getting to do those first two things: look beyond the impairment and start talking to the person with disability. That's really what changes everything. And when you talk about data, we know that those statistics represent people. And when we talk about projects, we know that those projects are implemented for people. Having people at the center of the work that we do, that is really the biggest driving factor in terms of the passion within the work.  

SALLY: Absolutely. Makes perfect sense. Thank you. You've been really generous with your knowledge and experience today, Simi. Honestly I'm so thrilled to have someone who can advocate so strongly for disability inclusion. Thank you again. We really appreciate the work you've done for RedR Australia and CBM Australia. Thank you. 

SIMIONE: Thank you. Thank you, Sally. 

SALLY: Bula vinaka. 

SIMIONE: Vinaka vaka levu.