09 Jul 2024
Podcast Ep 9: Talei Tora on colonialism and conviction

Growing up around the buzz of the Radio Fiji studios, Talei Tora is a born storyteller. As the daughter of a radio announcer, Talei learnt from an early age the importance of how a story is told—and for whom. 

Fast forward to today and Talei is an extensively experienced communications expert, with more than two decades under her belt as a television and film producer, journalist and communications specialist. From her early experiences in the Fijian military, Talei transitioned her career to tell the unheard stories of her community through roles in the development sector, including as a roster member for RedR Australia. 

In this episode, Sally and Talei delve into two mammoth topics affecting the Pacific—colonialism and localisation. They discuss the role of storytelling in development and the importance of silence in Pacific culture. And we get a glimpse into Talei’s not-so-secret life—as a brewer and scientist for her ginger beer business, GingerLei. 

Host: Sally Cunningham 

Guest: Talei Tora 

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, I'm thrilled to be chatting with Talei Tora on Humanitarian Conversations. Talei is an accomplished communications specialist with 25 years' experience in strategic comms, hailing from Fiji. She has worked across government, development and in private organisations. Early in her career, Talei worked for the Fijian military, followed by the Fijian Ministry of Information, where she worked as a journalist, and a film and television producer. Pivoting to the humanitarian and development sector, Talei has worked with the Australian Aid-supported Market Development Facility, the Australian Government's Fiji Program Support Facility and, most recently, she worked for the Pacific Community, also known as SPC, where she supported their georesources and energy program. But wait, there's more. Talei has also some not-so-secret talents as a brewer, which I'm looking forward to hearing more about. Talei, thanks so much for joining us today on Humanitarian Conversations. 

TALEI: Bula vanaka, Sally, it's great to be joining you. And bula from Suva, Fiji. 

SALLY: So let's get stuck in, Talei. How did you start your career? I believe you worked in film and TV for the Fijian military, is that correct? 

TALEI: Well, I joined the army and ended up in the media cell. I come from a radio family. So my mum was a radio announcer with Radio Fiji, and so we grew up in the hallways and the studios of the Fiji Broadcasting Commission. And then I did journalism at the University of the South Pacific; followed in my sister's footsteps, who was also a radio journalist and also print as well. And then during that period, I decided to trot off to the army and serve my country. And ended up a recruit in the RFMF (Republic of Fiji Military Forces) media cell, where I got to ply my trade, so to speak. And then kind of just moved on to, you know, back then, it used to be called public relations. And so I did some work with the Fiji television. Then eventually it became communications. So you don't only just necessarily specialise in one, just radio, television, print, and now it's online, media, podcast, etc, video. 

SALLY: Well, it sounds like you were destined for that, right from the family roots. So can I ask you, how is storytelling and communications different in the development and humanitarian sector, specifically? And how did you make that shift? 

TALEI: I think it's inherent in all of us in the Pacific growing up, because our history is passed down orally. I always look back and I say, what made me want to storytell and storytell better? And I think it's because I had a gift to be able to tell the true stories of our people in our communities who were devastated in one form or another, or who were going through an issue, and that story needed to be elevated and it needed to be told. And it was an honor for them to be able to tell me and trust me and the team with that information, how we crafted that was so important, and how that was then presented back to our audience. And it's something that I take very, very seriously in my work and understanding the gravity of that information that is given to you and that you tell the story holistically from the community. And it's not a story of despair, it's not a story of being without, it's a story of triumph and resilience. And I think good storytellers, as we are in the Pacific, are able to now use modern mediums, like podcasts, for instance, like what we're doing now, and to be able to craft this message and then share it. We say all the time in comms, if you can capture their attention in the first three seconds, well done. And it's that—it's being able to do that. And I suppose that's kind of the transition that I took. 

SALLY: Yeah, that's wonderful. The idea of storytelling and truth telling, it's not always beautiful, but it's important. Now you are obviously a professional storyteller in a culture that values the storytelling which you've just unpacked. What does this mean for you personally, and is this important in your daily work? 

TALEI: I grew up in suburban Suva my whole life, and it's developed who I am. Whilst I am an indigenous Fijian—both my parents are indigenous Fijians, they too were brought up in the city—so for me it was, whilst we have a culture and traditions of storytelling and passing down information through the generations, there is also a culture of learning and understanding to appreciate silence. In the Fijian culture, if there is silence in your interview, it has very deep meaning, of which you have to learn during this period you don't push anymore. And it's the most respectful thing. You know, I was something that I had to learn. And always go back and say, Look, they didn't answer my question. Why didn't they answer it? And then, you know, growing and growing and growing, you keep doing this work and then, and so I think it's really moulded my storytelling craft.  

SALLY: Yeah, wonderful.

TALEI: And by now, I really pride myself that I can go into the field with a camera, pick up on the story, get the necessary footage that we need, and then come back and edit it. And telling it in such a way that the silent is incorporated without overstating it. And again, it's because while you know, as we say in comms reporting for development, it's reporting for the donor, but actually it's reporting for our people, so that they can see themselves in the stories that they're being told, that they're telling about themselves. Truth speaking. Like I said, it's such a responsibility—it's understanding your place in it all, and that not all stories are to be told. 

SALLY: Absolutely. Now, at the recent HNPW workshop in Geneva with Dr. Helen Durham, you talked about how the impact of colonialism continues in Fiji and the Pacific region. Would you mind telling us a little bit about why this is such an important topic? It's a big one.  

TALEI: Yeah, it's a big one. It's a big one, and it's something that we have to deconstruct. It's something that we have to talk about, and it's something that we've gotta be really cognizant of right now in the Pacific. You know, we're one of the last places, I think, in the world that was colonised. They had photography already. They had the locomotive. So we're talking about the 1800s. When you're talking about our history, it's only 150 years old, not a very long time ago. When we're talking about the birth of Christ, it's 2000 years ago, like, my goodness! Then our transition into independence...when you're talking about independence, I think it's really important for us to understand, like, are we truly independent within our own region? Yes, we have sovereignty. I'm not talking about sovereignty. But when you're talking about the word 'neocolonialism': new forms of aid that come with strings attached, and the way now we have the militarisation of the Pacific happening. They've been called by academics—they're preparing for World War Three to happen in our region. It was our region in World War Two that the war ended, like it was the last theater. And now with all of the military build-up, you see all of these governments coming in. So it's a very vulnerable space for our island right now. And it's scary. We [Helen and I] came up with colonialism and neocolonialism because we were talking about localisation. And I based it on when you're talking about localisation, first of all, whose buzzword is that? All the donors are saying it right now. Why? To make us feel like we're in charge? Are we really in charge? Because from where I'm sitting, we're not. You're making us feel like we are developing. You're making us feel like we're having the positions, but you're not giving us the agency. Again, it comes, I think, comes down to agency. 

SALLY: And you talk of it as a buzzword, but in practice and process, what does localisation...what should it look like? What is the end goal for Fijian communities and Pacific communities when it comes to what localisation should be from the inside out? 

TALEI: Localisation from the inside out is what should have happened from the very beginning. It should have been about the capacity building of young local change makers, if you may, to lead, because when we're leading, we're leading for our people. And that has not happened. And I think that's why there's this initiative on localisation, because this whole time it's not happened. It's always been us as the minions on the ground, having all the context and the knowledge, not necessarily having the positions to make the decisions for ourselves as best that we know how, of course, in consultation with our people. So when you talk about the end state, that was actually my closing question when we—Helen and I—spoke at the panel. I would like to know, really is it to give us these positions, if you're talking about jobs in particular? Because it seems to be led, really, mostly by aid agencies and donor-funded programs that always had a very top-heavy expat base. So when you're talking about localisation, one of the first things they did was just to increase the pay to what, for instance, the expats were earning. That's not localisation. You increase the pay without first doing an evaluation review to even find out first: wait, hold on, were those expats overpaid in the beginning? You know, by increasing my pay, it doesn't give me agency. I am still pushing on the fact that we want the agency. I want to be able to make the decisions and have the budget to back it up, just like you did with the expat. And so it's still with strings attached. You know, but I don't think to go to such extreme like there is no room for expats, because there's still a lot of expertise that we do not have in country. And if we did, there's a brain drain, we probably lost it. But right now I think, some local people that it has been given to as well, with the budget, and it created these local elites. But that was all in the name of localisation. In programs that actually went down the localisation model, went and exactly what the expat was getting, they've given to these locals who now have...they've created this elite. Is it working? Yes, I guess, but I don't know. Like, was that the way to go? And so is that our end state—to create local elites? Or to share the knowledge, share the wealth, share the decision making, give us the agency and share the budget for goodness sake. But a good example of how things happened was Covid-19. If there ever needed to be an example, which all of a sudden, after covid and the borders were open, they just went back to normal. But Covid-19 was a fantastic example of local-led solutions. 

SALLY: Yeah, absolutely, that makes a lot of sense. So I'm going to shift a bit. What are the big themes for Fiji at the moment that you would like more people to be talking about? 

TALEI: Something that I'd really like us to talk about is the last government denied that we have human trafficking. We know that it's happened. Just this week alone, four people have gone missing. One has been found, two have been found, but young girls. One is just in primary school. And there were cases from last year of girls going missing, and the police have no leads. We have an increase of meth use in the country, and yet they're still going after the marijuana farmers. Yeah, and then our budget is coming up. So let's see what this government has to say. 

SALLY: You're very politically engaged, Talei. I love it. 

TALEI: Too much! 

SALLY: So what would you like more people to know about Pacific Island people? 

TALEI: Oh, that's a very broad brush. In 2009, I attended the Pago Pago Festival of Pacific Arts in American Samoa. What really resonated out of that one is the resilience of our people, and that we are not defined by how small our oceans are, and it resonated right through with the speeches. We're not defined by how small our countries are rather, but by how large our ocean is, and we are the custodians of the world's largest ocean. Our ancestors, our forefathers and mothers, dared to traverse beyond the horizon to where the rest of the world did not go to seek new lands, to home their people, you know. And that's who we are. We were master navigators. We understood how to read the oceans, the wind, we still navigate by the stars. And we built ocean-voyaging vessels that were faster than any British naval ship that the colonialists brought at that point in time. We were one with the ocean, one with our land. And our people intermingled, they intermarried. We have different cultures yet we share one ocean. And in pidgin English, it's wansolwara: one people, one ocean. And so if there's anything that you know, I suppose that, if I would like something, it's like exactly that. We're not defined by how small our island states are, but we're defined by our resilience. Fiji having come across a Category Five cyclone and still, our people stood up the next day, went to look for food and water before aid got to them. And our people every day also trying to put bread and butter on the on the table and survive and live and with all of the changes in the catastrophic climate events that we're having, surviving continuously with everything that nature is currently thrown at us that has nothing to do with us. Our carbon footprint and our contribution to climate change is negligible. And yet, here we are, being as resilient as we can be. You know, that's what I'd like people to remember about us. 

SALLY: I agree that's a great story of ambition and resilience, and we see it. Now we're going to talk really about you. I don't want to miss the opportunity to talk about your talent as a brewer. Can you tell us a little bit about this? 

TALEI: So I own a little ginger beer company called Gingerlei. We started way back in 2017 in our kitchen here at home in Nasese. And because, you know, just drinking too many fizzy drinks. We've got...we live in a country with very high NCD [non-communicable diseases] rates, and that's because that's the easiest thing that's available on the shelf—the fizzy, sweet stuff. And so, yeah, I used to drink a lot of ginger ale, and then one day, I just like, too sweet. You didn't get any kind of, what do you call it? Diminishing returns. You had your first glass. The second one is like, why am I drinking this? And then I was like, oh, there's gotta be an alternative, you know, and fresh fruit juice, or fruit juice that comes from Australia and New Zealand is really expensive. And so it's like, okay, went online, down a rabbit hole, came across a ginger beer recipe, tried it. Many exploding bottles later, gave my friends a taste. They're like, this is really good! I was like, No, it's not. But it's magic, you know. It's like, how you can turn this concoction—ginger, water, sugar, I use lemongrass because I didn't have lemons—and it creates bubbles, you know. And so I did pure arts in school, you know, English and all of that, and didn't do any science. Terrible at maths. But I'm a bit of a scientist now. So it's been a wonderful journey. We then launched our business about two years ago, and it kind of exploded onto the market. We're not in supermarket shops yet. So basically what it is is like we make Fijian ginger beer from all-natural Fijian produce. We have a little nano brewery, but we're in the stage of scaling to some bigger equipment and really taking the plunge, so much so that I have left my job and am now a broke brewer. 

SALLY: Saving the world one ginger beer at a time. 

TALEI: One ginger beer at a time. So yeah, exciting days ahead. 

SALLY: That's a great plan. I'm looking forward to that when you're ready. 

TALEI: Don't worry, you guys will get the first taste. 

SALLY: That sounds wonderful. And it's a different skill set. You definitely sound like a scientist talking about that. 

TALEI: Yeah, understanding even really having to research ginger, and knowing that we have mature ginger and then young ginger, and the difference in tastes. I'm at a stage now that I can walk into the brewery and I can smell if something's off. 

SALLY: Yeah.  

TALEI: And so last year, I was part of a program for the Global Green Growth Institute, and I won the first Pacific pitching event. I pitched the business and I won a trip to Doha. And that was really eye opening and just amazing, just to see the green policies around green businesses and supporting small businesses. Because they're greening the desert, like in the middle of nowhere. And I've done peacekeeping, you know, I know desert. Iraq, the Sinai. But they've done it in terms of, like, hydroponics and re-channeling water, and it's amazing, absolutely amazing. And they also then gave us loans. It's interest-free loans that we get to pay back in six years. 

SALLY: Another big journey alongside the rest of your amazing work. 

TALEI: Thank you. I appreciate the support. 

SALLY: You have our support, absolutely. We're big fans of Talei over here. So look, that's kind of where we're going to wrap up. It's been a really great, giving conversation. Thank you so much. From your beginnings in a communications radio household to through the military and then humanitarian work and ginger beer on the side, and I'm sure there's 100 other things in between, you sound like such a busy, busy person. So I really appreciate your time and your stories today. Thank you so much, Talei. 

TALEI: Thank you for listening to my Ted Talk. 

SALLY: You've been listening to Humanitarian Conversations, a podcast by RedR Australia. You can learn more about our work at redr.org.au and we invite you to join our conversations on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. This episode was produced and engineered by Jill Farrar. I'm Sally Cunningham. Thanks for listening.