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Fiji Islands: an archipelago suspended between Melanesian and Polynesian worlds

At the end of the summer 2012 I was getting ready to do my first far away travel on my own. I was hoping to associate learning of English with a new experience involving solidarity toward a developing country. It took thirty hours by plane with a stop in Korea to cover the distance between Lyon and Nadi. I was literally going at the other end of the Earth in a country where very few Turkish people had ever been.

When the flight Paris-Seoul took off it was already night time in France, and the giant was swallowed into the night, going to the unknown. I was invaded by a feeling of freedom. The wings of the plane were mine and I was only one with it. It was I who took off and flought into cotton-like clouds.


I switched on my Mac and reread the beginning of my diary started three days before. The only things that sometimes brought me back to reality were the turbulences we were going through reminding me I was not a part of the plane. My fingers kept on typing. “Ah I’d never get use to those turbulences. When they come I feel like the plane is going twice as fast as if to face them and that it is going blindly.” The fear of flying was still irrational and paralysed me, making my stomach knotted. “I read somewhere that water can be 7000 yards deep” I wrote in my diary. I thought of what I would do if the plane crashed. The sudden fall in mid-flight was my prime fear. I would scream, call my mother and thought of everyone I love. Once out of turbulence the giant slide on a carpet of snow, of which the spectral colour was hidden by the dark of the night…

After another long flight I landed in a place that a few weeks earlier I was unable to place on a map. I was picturing the archipelago like little meringues topped with Chantilly on a turquoise sea and I was not far from the truth. This state, lost in the south pacific, was made of several hundreds of volcanic islands but only tens of them were inhabited by hardly 1 million of people. In this isolated zone in between malesian and Polynesian worlds I felt that time had stopped; or rather that time was never a big matter. Nothing happened at the time planned. It’s “Fiji Time” as the inhabitants said laughingly. Two ethnicities share the islands: the Fijians as an oceanic people, and people who came from India during the twentieth century to cultivate the sugar canne by the order of the British government. 

Fiji was a British colony since 1874. Its independence was only given in 1970. Since then several putsches were undertaken to destitute the Fijian with Indian origin from the power by the natives of the islands. It is only recently that the two ethnic groups share the Fijian nationality and the rights coming with it. However, I was feeling that the Indo-Fijians were still considered as a lower class sometimes. 

If there is a place where there is no difference between the ethnic origins is in the kitchen. There is Lolo (a coconut cream sometimes mixed with garlic, chilli, curcuma or pepper), in every dish, as for instance, fish, seafood, chicken and vegetable curries. The dish came with roti or nan, the traditional Indian bread. It is not uncommon to find fish and chips in the local pubs. Since cannibalism had been given up there is not much red meat to eat.

At the beginning I was living at Nadi in the North of the main island and I was working in a local ASP.
I was shocked by the number of poisoned dogs. When they were brought to us their bodies were shaking and they were getting cold. The better we could do was to stay with them until their death and diminishing their sufferings. Even though this problem is present in France I was a little reassured to live in a country were the dignity of animals are more present in people’s mind.

Then I moved to Suva the capital in the South part of the island so as to be closer to association linked with human right and to make the country progress in this domain. It was only six years after the putsch of 2006. Back then, the armed forces and government were in full disagreement. The government wanted to pass laws for forgiving the responsible of the putsch. The chief of the army took the power and keep the government members in their homes. Then he dissolved the parliament and put in place a new prime minister. The archipelago was going through a democratic transition, turning a new page of its history by writing a new constitution to reform the old political institutions and to erase the ethnic difference.

My heart bit with the civilians. A big number of associations were promising drafts of constitution to the government. The government had been campaigning so as to everyone could submit articles proposals for the constitution. I was helping every time I could from the capital Suva where I was living, or at the far end of the archipelago where I was travelling. Thus I had assisted to a number of village’s ceremonies shoulders and legs covered by the traditional sulu. Some of the ceremonies were organised to welcome me when I was going to another island. Respect, sociability and communion with others were very important values as well as kind smiles.

During those ceremonies I could not escape from Cava, a muddy water coloured drink, made from a local kind of pepper tree. How a pepper tree extract can be turned into a mud tasting drink? I have no idea. You need to turn those roots into powder and add water to it ending with a slimy mixture that will be filtrate through vegetal fibres. This drink is put in a container where everyone drinks during politic or religious ceremonies. Some of it is put into a half empty coconut that is offered first to the high authority or the guest. Before drinking you need to clap your hands once. Then you drink all the liquid in one gulp and clap your hands thrice. When the guest had done so, everyone does the same.

When I was visiting the neighbouring islands, I tasted the best meal I ever had, the Lovo. The food is cooked underground on white hot stones and covered with earth and banana tree leaves. Things like the dalo (between potatoes and chestnut), manioc, vegetables and meets, have this delicious taste of smoke while traditional songs and dances sublimate the picture. You feel at peace with the world sitting on pandanus carpets, made with a plant you could find everywhere on the coast with its roots shaped like fans.

When very young, girls learn to weave the pandanus leaves. They need to be dried, the thorns need to be removed, the leaves need to be boiled and dried again and then scrap with seashells to make them flexible. Then they cut them in about half an inch large strips. Those strips will then be woven together to make a carpet, tablecloth or matt. In her youth, on the Taurus Mountain, my mother was also weaving carpets. Was this work not the same? A minute work only made by young women.

Indeed, the region where my mother grew up is famous for its long-haired carpets. Only women worked in the factories to make them. The only men were the owners of the factories. Being able to weave a carpet was part of the young girl’s qualities. With this work they could bring money to the family. However, they did not keep any money for themselves; giving all their wages to their parents. For those young flowers it was a way to be on their own, to put their emotions, thoughts and dreams in colours, knots and patterns in their carpets. What were they dreaming about, weaving with frail hands? Were they dreaming what they were weaving? For those countryside girls hardly growing out of childhood it was maybe a kind of meditation, a way to escape their harsh everyday life where there was no room for them to be on their own. In both cases their work did not bring them any benefices. Items made with Pandanus is often a present for a wedding, baptism, burial or other ceremonies made by village chiefs.

When back in Suva, I was resuming my everyday routine. I was living with an indo-Fijian family with a remarried mother, her thirtyish son, and her two daughters who were a little older than me. There were also two other volunteers a German girl and a Norwegian girl. I didn’t see them very often because they were spending their weekends in touristic places and during the week after a few volunteering hours, they would go to the HQ of the international people near the swimming pool of the Holiday Inn of the town. Then together they would spend their evenings and part of the night in bars.

Every morning, I was going to the Olympic swimming pool of Suva to swim half a mile before going to work. However, it seemed I was not the only one who wanted to be there when the place was almost empty. Indeed, the Sevens, the very popular and almost unbeatable rugby team of the country, about to become Olympic champion, were using the swimming pool in the same time as me.
If rugby and the English tongue are inherited from the British colonisation, Fijians have their own culture. English people cannot juggle with fire, dance south pacific dances, or walk bare feet on stones warmed for hours in a sacred fire. It is their way to invoke the spirits and the ancestral power that is on the islands.

I was organising awareness to goalball sport for visual impaired people whenever I could. It is a sport played in team with a ball with bells inside. There are three players in each team shifting between attack and defence periods. In order to have people with sight and visual impaired ones on an equality foot, every one wear masks so no one could see. This sport was classified in Paralympics games so I felt that Fiji could be represented with this game. Besides, Turkey has one of the best goalball team. We did not have a gymnasium but a circular square with a concrete floor instead of a rectangular one. Furthermore, we were playing without knees or elbows protections, which are often used to prevent those body parts to be hurt by contact with the floor. Moreover, the noises of the cars were breaking the silence needed for this sport. That was lucky we had a ball.

One of the players told me that it was the first time he was doing sport since the accident when he lost his sight. The universe became very bright all of the sudden, painting my horizon with multicoloured arabesques although my trip was punctuated by storms. Everyone wanting to have an independent life had to face the back of the coin proportionally to the intensity of the experience you live.

Indeed, the aftertaste of this travel was made of a too much concentrated sample evilly balanced with all the humane vices that people can do under cover of humanitarian missions. Project Abroad, the British organisation who put me in touch with Fijian partners, is not an NGO as it pretends to be on its different communication supports. It is a private company which is very rich, thanks to money taken on the world misery. Playing with people wanting to be helping others Project abroad knows how to use the weakness of developing countries to abuse people who want to have experiences in humanitarian mission and local partners. Indeed, I discover that the money given to those local partners was ridiculous compared with the fees asked from the volunteers. Volunteers had to pay an extra to their host families to use the internet and the washing machine. But it was nothing compared to the support of the local team. It has to be said that this support depends on the level of involvement of each employees given the mediocre wages paid by the British agency. Unfortunately I was so young when I learnt that working in humanitarian does not mean you do not have such vices.

I had a personal experience with one of the employees and very recently I learned that he had been condemned for ten years in jail for rape…. 

Translation : Charlène Karlinski

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