Ogea’s Jimilai Store Stands the Test of Time


In 1971 a school teacher originally from Waciwaci, Lakeba was posted to the Matuatabu Primary School in Ogea, and along with him went his 19-year-old daughter Sulueti.

Alas, for Sulueti that innocent jaunt to Ogea became a lifetime affair when she fell in love with Jimilai Kotobalavu (deceased) whom she describes as the only man that caught her eye. Fifty-two years later, Sulueti still lives in her house in Ogea and operates a business they established in the late 1990s called Jimilai Store.

According to Sulueti, running the business has been a testing ground for her. “We decided from the onset that we will use the business to develop our lives and our small family and we were successful all the way,” she said.

Now operating the island’s only shop named after her late husband Jimilai, Sulueti has become a successful woman in business and a source of income for the Ogea villagers.

“Our stock comes in on the franchise boats and this ensures that our shop is never out of stock at the same time we buy artifacts such as tanoas and resell them to a major business in Suva.” “Apart from the island tanoas we also take in other artefacts like church gongs, the traditional Lali and these are marketed to handicraft outlets on the mainland,” Sulueti said.

Ogea Island has some of the largest forests of vesi trees (Intsia Bijuga) in the Lau Group and a big tree, of up to 50 metres height, with a highly buttressed trunk, has huge cultural significance. In Ogea, Sulueti said the tree has a regrowth rate of four sprigs sprouting from the trunk of a felled tree and this has sustained the forests for many years till today.

“This God-given gift has sustained us over the years and the products from Ogea and our neighbouring island have a standing of their own in Fiji.”

“But business is business and we buy these according to their sizes with set prices,” she explained.

At the age of 70, Sulueti not only runs her business but also manages the women’s group on Ogea Island and has represented the group in a few women’s expos held in Suva organised by the Ministry of Women.

“One thing I always stressed to my fellow women here is to never fear venturing into business. I am just like them, a village woman with not much education but management skills has to be very strict in such a village setting where everyone is related to you.”

“It is strictly business for me and one rule I live by is never to give credit which is one reason my business is still operating today.”

It was while attending the 2018 Women’s Expo, that she got the news that her beloved husband had passed away back in the island.

“I was distraught and missed out on the funeral as here on Ogea the deceased are buried the same day after confirmation by the health officials.”

“I came back to Ogea and for a while, the pain of losing my husband distracted me from the business but my son encouraged me to refocus and continue the legacy of my husband.”

Sulueti has three sons, with one helping her out in Ogea, and tasked with maintaining their store stocks and other aspects of the business.

“We have never run out of stock in our shop. As we speak today four boats from Fulaga (Lau Groups) have come and gone just to buy from us and return as their shops have exhausted their supplies.”

However, it has not been always smooth sailing for Sulueti as she recalls the days when the family had to cut copra to earn money just to get by. After the birth of her third son, she decided with her husband to venture into business to enable them to provide for their three sons.

“It has been a life full of challenges but perseverance is a must if one is to survive in this kind of environment.”

“But today I am glad that Ogea has progressed despite the sea inundation we currently face. Many of our youth have benefitted from the Government’s employment scheme by going to New Zealand and have returned to build better houses for their families.”

Sulueti, however, is concerned with the effects of climate change on Ogea.

For Ogea islanders, the advice by the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara in the early 1980s during a Lau Provincial Council meeting held in Tubou, Lakeba, to the people of Lau to be prepared as the sea level will keep rising has now become a reality.

And now close to 40 years later, Ogea has borne the full brunt of rising sea levels.

Signs of this natural calamity has manifested itself with the village cricket pitch and village green now a pool of seawater with most of the village houses subjected to sea inundation at high tide.

“We remain hopeful that Government will hear our plea and that the recent visit by a government delegation led by the provincial administrator Lau, Iakobo Waqanidrola will be fruitful,” Sulueti said.

Ogea, with a population of 110 and 48 households, can be described as one of the remotest islands in the Lau Seascape.

As one of the rockiest islands in the group, the only habitable spot has been occupied by the village.

Mr Waqanidrola said while relocation was an option, other solutions will need to be explored to ensure the survival and habitability of Ogea village.

“Of course, we will have to discuss this further with our senior management and find ways where we can work with our partners to alleviate the seawater inundation currently faced by Ogea villagers,” Mr Waqanidrola said.

However, he added that Ogea was not alone and the islands of Lau with their geographical location will need a ‘whole of government’ approach with the support of partners to address the issues they face especially the challenges brought about by climate change.