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Another Round for Fiji

September 13, 2000

There are a few old plantation homes still standing in Fiji today. Most of them are run down, settling back into the soil of the islands. I was sitting in one such house one evening on the island of Taveuni, Fiji’s third largest island. The radio was on and a few people were playing cards. We all sat on large woven grass mats. Every so often the circle of a dozen people would clap once or twice as the kava was poured from a bowl in the middle and handed around.

Kava is the mildly narcotic drink made from pounding the root of the Yaqona plant and mixing it with water. It’s a daily ritual in many Fijian villages although most of the country will tell you they prefer to “drink grog” only on the weekend. Customs for drinking grog are many, having stretched over hundreds of centuries. The basic form is to sit in a circle around the kava bowl, clap once when you receive the half coconut shell cup of grog, drink it in one shot, and then clap twice.

On my turn I was given a small amount of grog, it being common to induce sickness in those unused to its effects. The house was very calm and you never would have guessed that it was the old ancestral home of the head chief of Fiji, and Fiji’s first President, Ratu Penaia. Or that I was sitting next to the island princess Adi Koila Ganalau, surrounded by her uncles and aunts.

That’s how the Fijians live. In a country where the common greeting bula! means, roughly translated, “life”, it’s easy to understand their easygoing attitude. But if you’ve been watching the news lately you probably aren’t thinking of Fiji as such a laid back place these days. Tensions between the indigenous Fijians and their island brothers, the Fijian Indians, exist. Many of the conflicts stem from the fact that indigenous Fijians are one of the only native peoples in the Pacific who retained ownership of their land -- nearly 95 percent – and the Fiji Indians, who came to the country with the British as indentured servants and stayed on to become Fijian citizens, can’t own any.

The coup of May 19, 2000 surprised everyone. I heard about it when I walked into a small hotel in Amman, Jordan and, after explaining my itinerary, was shocked to a) hear that the manager knew where Fiji was, and b) that, I quote, “they just had a small war there today.” Others heard through the BBC, CNN or various news agencies about George Speight and the rebels who took over the Parliament, calling for justice and “Fiji for Fijians!”

But this wasn’t Fiji’s first coup. In 1987 a fellow by the name of Colonel Sivieni Rabuka took parliament in a bloodless coup. The major difference was that the ’87 coup was supported by the Great Council of Chiefs and the ’00 not. “It’s stupid.” Says Adi Koila. And, after to talking to more and more people, you get the idea that the racial tensions are being played up for political gain and not the idealized reasons spewing forth over the news channels.

There doesn’t appear to be a huge problem between the two groups. Even though inter-marriage is rare, confined to the major cities, and Indians are still refused most land owning rights. And that one of the more popular remarks while driving down one of Fiji’s many roads under construction – the workers being mostly cheap labor Indians – is to yell out your window, “And you wonder why there are coups?!” as large land movers and trucks fly past you, kicking up dust. But as I ride with Adi Koila on her errands, buying various groceries and supplies for the people of her father’s village, I see nothing but smiles. Just like in that living room on the grass mat.

The effects of the coup have been more damaging than helpful for the average Fijian, indigenous and Indian. The economy is on the verge of collapse and many of the bright minds have left in search of a more stable climate. I’ve been asked several times how it would be possible to get an American green card for people looking to leave the island paradise, a place where the ocean looks like liquid air and the flowers bloom all year long. For future Fijians the strain on education won’t help prosperity. The education system, one that has done well to produce a country with over 85% literacy rate, runs on a “pay as you go” set up, where kids give money to take the annual exams. Now with most families out of work there isn’t extra income for books and tests; many kids still attending school do so without a lunch and depend on the kindness of their classmates for a few morsels at lunchtime.

That’s just one example of the Fijian style of life. Because these children usually eat in the traditional manner, each putting their portion in the middle of the table and grabbing what they like. Accordingly, they are well taken care of. The tribal system is communal and therefore its members are well looked after. This custom has crossed over from the tribal life through the missionary and colonial times to the independent present.

I was partaking in another custom called taki, the traditional way to have a drink: a group of people have one small glass and take turns gulping gulp-sized portions till the drink is gone. When I remembered what an Australian boy told me. Andrew, a 15-year-old, had just moved to Fiji with his mother and father a few months before. He is now attending a Fijian school, wearing the school uniform sulu, a wrap-around skirt, and white button-down shirt, and putting his food in for the communal lunch. “My friends really like it when we have left-over pizza.” He said. “In Fiji you’re raised by everyone, you have a huge family.”

I know Fiji will push on, making sure to look after itself, and slowly get back to the prosperity it was beginning to enjoy before the coup. But I can’t help but feel a bit frustrated that places, where handing out defines survival, keep on getting spoiled by those who want more than their share.

-Sarah Reed Bargren
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