ETHNIC RELATIONS IN FIJI:
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PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE AND THE RECENT SHIFT
IN THE ETHNIC BALANCE
by Stephanie Sienkiewicz
Underlying Models of Ethnic Relations
- Chapter 6
- Fijians Always View Interaction as Interaction Between Separate Communities
- Indian Culture Views Society as a Combination of Groups of People Rather than Individuals
The previous chapter has shown that the stereotypes which Fijians and Indians hold about themselves and about each other are sometimes untrue and often distort the reality of the situation. Additionally, the chapter suggested that people believe these stereotypes about themselves, however incorrect, because to believe in the stereotypes allows them to retain a positive self image. Previous chapters have also suggested that since Fijians and Indians choose to believe in the stereotypes, these two ethnic groups take on opposing national roles within Fiji. Most Fijians are comfortable with Indian dominance of the business sector and most Indians willingly deny any notion of "culture" for themselves and attribute "culture" to the Fijian population. This chapter will point out that Fijians and Indians not only believe the stereotypes about themselves because they promote a positive sense of identity, but also because each community is comfortable with the notion that different communal groups can have different roles in society, and that these groups should remain separate and interact on the basis of this separation. With this model, the different ethnic groups have different destinies; this is an accepted view in Fiji.
I will demonstrate how this model of interaction on the basis of community affiliation is apparent in Fijian culture. Fijians always view contact between individuals as contact between two representatives of different communities, thus viewing the interaction as a meeting of two communities. A sevusevu (a ceremony introducing someone from one community to another community), for example, is phrased as a meeting of two communities coming together under the authority of two separate chiefs.
While in Fiji, I spent much more time with Fijians than with members of the Indian community. I therefore acquired less evidence of how the Indian community is accustomed to thinking of society as made up of groups of people rather than individuals. It is still apparent however, in certain aspects of Indian culture. The caste system in India prepared Indian indentured servants for accepting ethnic separation within a country. Arranged marriages are both a past and contemporary feature of Indian culture which demonstrate that Indians view people as parts of the greater community rather than as isolated individuals.
An earlier chapter has also explained that the British enforced a model of ethnic relations in which the Fijian and Indian communities had different roles within the colony. The British brought Indians to Fiji to labor so that the Fijians could concentrate on preserving their culture while the British ruled. Therefore, the British colonial approach, the establishment of a plural society, also reinforced this model of communalism.
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Fijians Always View Interaction as Interaction Between Separate Communities
One aspect of Fijian culture which highlights the Fijian tendency to view society as a collection of semi-autonomous communities is the sevusevu. A sevusevu is a ceremony of great importance to Fijians. This must be performed whenever a newcomer arrives in the village and is an essential element of all rites of passage and other ceremonies. The sevusevu involves the drinking of yaqona, or kava, while attendants sit in a circle. Yaqona, or grog, is a very central symbol in Fijian culture. The root of a yaqona plant is ground into a powder which is mixed with water; Fijians sit around a tanoa (large wooden bowl for distributing yaqona) and drink the liquid out of bilo (half coconut shells). The Fiji Handbook, by David Stanley, provides a description of yaqona and the yaqona ceremony.
Yaqona (kava), a tranquilizing, nonalcoholic drink that numbs the tongue and lips, comes from the waka (dried root) of the pepper plant (Macropiper methysticum). This ceremonial preparation is the most honored feature of the formal life of Fijians, Tongans, and Samoans. It is performed with the utmost gravity according to a sacramental ritual to mark births, marriages, deaths, official visits, the installation of a new chief, etc
The guests present a bundle of waka [kava roots] to the hosts, along with a short speech explaining their visit, a custom known as a sevusevu. The sevusevu is received by the hosts and acknowledged with a short speech of acceptance. [1999: 57]
Asesela Ravuvu, in The Fijian Way of Life, described the sevusevu as a "ceremonial offering of yaqona by the host to the guest, or the guest to his host and done in respect of recognition and acceptance of one another" (1983: 120). One informant described a sevusevu as a means of welcoming someone and/or introducing someone. She said too that if a person sees people drinking grog, he/she must go and buy grog in order to enter into that house and drink with its occupants. To enter into a house men must chant "Dua, dua, dua." Men inside the house call out, "Oh e dua" to let the men outside know that they may come inside. "Dua, dua, dua" means "The One, the one, the one." It refers to recognizing a common authority above the people who are performing the sevusevu. This authority may be God and/or the chief. The people who are attending and those holding the sevusevu are thus doing so in the name of a higher authority who symbolizes the society as a whole. The sevusevu is a presentation of one representative of a group to a representative of another community, or a presentation from one community to another. "Oh e dua" means "Yes, one." This shows acceptance of the authority of the One, and the symbolism of this figure for the rest of the community. Women chant "Mai na vaka dua," meaning "Come like one," while outside and wait for the women inside to reply, "Oh e dua." When arriving for a sevusevu, Fijians must use these methods of asking for entry because it frames the ceremony as an interaction between two groups rather than between individuals, and stresses that members of each group are united in their shared allegiance to a common authority.
The person who speaks during the sevusevu represents an entire community behind the speaker. The guest party who arrives at the sevusevu elects a spokesman to speak during the ceremony. When a newcomer enters a community, he/she has a spokesman who is already a member of that community speak on his/her behalf. But the spokesman does not just speak for one individual to a community, the individual comes from a community and the speaker represents the entire community from which the guest came. A spokesman is usually the turaga ni mataqali, or head of the mataqali (lineage), on important ceremonial occasions, such as weddings and funerals.
One can see how this ceremony represents the coming together of two communities. The spokesman for the guest or the mataqali describes to the host that, "This is his/her sevusevu. He/she hopes that you accept it." He also explains other circumstances of the situation which necessitated the sevusevu. The receiving party usually replies, "Vinaka" (thank you) throughout the speech. The sevusevu is given as a gift to the high chief of the village or community that is receiving the sevusevu. The interaction is thus between communities rather than between individuals. With explanation as to why the sevusevu is being presented, the presenting party hands over yaqona (a bundle of roots or packets of powdered yaqona) to the spokesman for the receiving party. There are usually allusions to the vu or ancestral spirits within the speeches as well as reference to the chief and "all behind him" which means the spirits. This phrasing draws attention to the fact that a chief is a symbol of all of the people whom he represents.
An example of the way a sevusevu frames every interaction between individuals as an interaction between communities is the sevusevu done on the behalf of myself and my professors which asked permission from my family for me to leave at the end of my term abroad in Fiji. Fijians conceptualize the act of saying goodbye, which in the Western world is a personal matter, as an interaction between two communities. This specific kind of sevusevu is called a tatau; it is a sevusevu which asks permission for someone to leave a community.
The man who spoke on behalf of myself and my professors immediately framed the interaction under the authority of the chiefs. He began the sevusevu,
In the chiefly way to my inside the house in Narewa [the village in which I lived], with the village in the chiefly way to the big house of Navatu [the yavusa, or clan, of the family I lived with], to the young chief the Tu Malake [the chief of Narewa], and the young chief, the Tui Navitilevu [the high chief of the region].
The speaker clearly placed the family with which I lived in the context of the communal village and placed himself and my professors in another community, Rakiraki or Navuavua, in which they were living. He does this by saying the sevusevu comes from Rakiraki/Navuavua and that it comes from the highest ranking chief of that village, the Tui Navitilevu. He continued,
In the evening today we come up here from and journey from the inside of the village of Rakiraki like the two came here. The couple [the professors] see the yaqona carried here in front of your face this day. Today it is her tatau, Stephanie. Her living and being taken care of inside this family, maybe then leaving on Saturday, the two think, the couple, that they present her tatau. Thank you for looking after and receiving [her into the family], for helping taking care of her courses inside our village of Narewa. With just a small offering, we ask for your forgiveness. She is going back again, the young girl, Stephanie, to America. She goes with good health, goes to achieve her work. That is the message able to be said inside your chiefly house. The offering from my village Navuavua [the village of the speaker and my professors] from the young chief the Tui Navitilevu, the offering again of those two, the couple, our offering those who support [the speaker and his family]. The going her, my offering, the man. I am the voice, the small yaqona of the tatau. And the thanks from Stephanie, look straight to the village to my big house of Navatu, of Malake and the inside the house [may the chief have a willing following].
Generally, during any kind of sevusevu, a representative of the host community responds to the guest's presentation and therefore to his/her community; this retains smooth relations between the communities. The recipient takes the yaqona from the original presenter and makes a speech back to the presenting group. He/she does this explaining, "We accept this sevusevu." He/she then expands upon the topics which the presenting group brought up in their speech. Again, the opposing party usually says, "Vinaka" throughout the speech. During the tatau which took place as I left the village in which I lived, the man receiving the sevusevu, who acted as a representative of the family that hosted me, responded to the first man's offering. His response again frames the interaction as that between two communities rather than between individuals. He describes that the vanua (the land and its people) instead of the family or village accepts the yaqona; the community rather than the single family receives the offering. He said,
I welcome [you all]. Touch sir the chiefly yaqona about the vanua and about the being concerned about each other, about the taking of that that has happened to the young girl, about the family and her having had like father and like mother. It is a big thing respecting and honoring [meaning the way in which I was respected and honored by the family]. I know it is not an easy thing, the receiving inside the family, the chiefly way about the tatau [It is hard to receive a tatau for someone inside your family to leave]. Yes, like one time we welcome [a guest] and another time we say goodbye to each other; one time we are sad, another time we're happy.
Community interaction is again outlined when the speaker conceives of the yaqona as a gift from the chief of the community where the professors resided and from the professors, on behalf of the larger American community.
The yaqona presented from the chief, the Tuinavitilevu, and the yavusa of the two, the chiefly couple [the professors] inside the government of America, yaqona given to the big God sends here the blessing. Blessed is the girl, and the two are blessed, the chiefly couple who are leading the school children who came to take the course in our place. Bless to just confirm our way of being related, straight is the road of the yaqona of the tatau.
After the sevusevu is finished, the speaker announces the end of the ceremony and indicates that the people present may start drinking the grog. During my tatau, the people present ended the sevusevu by chanting, "Mana eh dina amu dua do, yaqona saka e levu." "Ama dua
dua." The finale of the speech and the chant mean "one voice" and can be interpreted as, "May no one ever question the chief's authority." The chief's authority can never be questioned because he is the ultimate symbol of the community. To question his position would be to disregard the entire community.
Seating arrangements during the sevusevu also demonstrate that both the chief and the spokesman represent the rest of the community in which they belong. The chief should sit in the front of the room facing the tanoa, or kava bowl. The chief ought to be at the culmination of everyone's viewpoint at the sevusevu since he is the representation of the entire community. During a sevusevu which introduced me to a high-ranking chief, and consequently to the three villages over which he had authority, the high chief sat higher than the rest of the people in the room. He was at the front of the arrangement and sat in a chair while the rest of us sat on mats on the floor. His "talking chief," the man who spoke on his behalf, sat next to him on the floor. This man, as the chief's and community's spokesman, should also be very visible in the room because he too represents the whole community while conducting the sevusevu. We, as guests, all sat behind our spokesman. The man who spoke on our behalf sat in front of us as a representation of all of us behind him.
The order of drinking at a sevusevu also indicates that individuals are always members of a larger community and that a sevusevu is an interaction between communities. After the youngest male host in the room (usually) mixes the yaqona with water, the drinking begins. The drinking order indicates hierarchy within the community. Guests are generally given the first bowl of kava. This is often, in fact, because the chief was offered the first bowl and he honors the guest by indicating the grog should go to him/her first. At one sevusevu I witnessed, the guest who lived furthest away drank the first bowl. If a chief is present, he is always offered the first however. Elders and those with the highest authority in the group drink first. One villager told me that a chief once stepped down and handed the chiefdom over to another man by indicating that this other man should have the first bowl. If members of two different mataqali are present at a sevusevu, indicating two mataqali are present, a member of a higher ranking mataqali drinks first (since mataqali are ranked within a yavusa). This format indicates that contact between individuals must occur as part of a ranked hierarchical community wherein the authority of the chief and of society's regulations are recognized and people represent the communities in which they live.
The sevusevu demonstrates that ceremonies focus on the community, or the leader of the community who represents the entire community, rather than on the individual for whom the rite is held. Even at a wedding or funeral, a yaqona presentation will be given in the name of a chief to another chief, rather than from a non-chiefly individual to another individual or to those most closely related to the person or people undergoing the rite. At a wedding I attended, for example, at one point, a representative of the bride's family made a speech during a sevusevu that focused upon the bride's immersion in her and the groom's family rather than upon her individually. The speech, which the bride's grandfather made, informed the community that the bride had left her former status as a daughter in her father's mataqali and moved into her new status as a wife in her husband's mataqali. He said that she can't cry to her father or mother any longer. She belongs to the husband and his family now. Her problems were thereafter the groom's family's problems.
A sevusevu recognizes the authority of a high chief; it is proper to begin with a reference to this head of the community. The sevusevu, therefore, exemplifies that Fijians are primarily part of their communities. This is their primary identity. When individuals come together, they always meet as representatives of two communities. An individual that exists independent of the Fijian community cannot belong to that community. The head of the community has total control over the community just as the community has total control over the individual. An individual's identity results from his/her various social ties. A Fijian derives his/her sense of self from his/her surrounding community. This community-oriented identity explains why Fijians must consider any interaction as a point of interaction between two communities. Since individuals see themselves as extensions of their community, interaction can be nothing other than this.
In her book, Body, Self, and Society, Anne Becker described the Fijian's identity as resulting from his/her community orientation,
In Fiji, as in other Melanesian and Polynesian cultures, social action is guided by the tight affiliation of individuals with their communities. Fijian identity is grounded in one's connections to the immediate kinship group and social network. Ideally, individual activity is devoted to developing and reinforcing social relationships and promoting collective interests. Characterological traits and practices demonstrating self-sacrifice, generosity, and self-effacement in deference to community goals are highly valued and actively cultivated. [1995: 16-17]
As Fijians are accustomed to thinking of themselves as enmeshed in their community, inseparable from their role as it exists in that community, so they consider any interaction between individuals as contact between extensions of two communities. This worldview allows Fijians to accept the model in which different ethnic groups within Fiji take on different roles in the country. Fijians, therefore, think it normal that Fijians and Indians remain separate and fill different roles.
Fijians frequently explained that Fijians and Indians should remain separated because they are just too dissimilar to each other. A Fijian man demonstrated the attitude that Fijians and Indians are simply different in the following comment, "I think that they are Indians and we are Fijians." The political system, wherein Fijians and Indians have their own representatives reflects the notion of ethnic separation. Some Fijians I spoke with felt that there should not be an Indian Prime Minister, that only a Fijian should be allowed to be Prime Minister, as the previous 1990 constitution decreed (the 1997 constitution allowed members of non-Fijian ethnic groups to be Prime Minister). One Fijian man told me this and also that he thought there would be a coup because the new Prime Minister is Indian. He equated Indians to foreigners and said that Fijians wanted someone from their own country to lead them. He said,
Like what happened in India, very soon there'll be a coup again. What happened to Gandhi and all of the British living in India, their houses, all their belongings, they gave them 24 hours to pack up and go. Butadroka said, "One Fijian always fights for the right of a Fijian." He was in Parliament, now he's not. It's Chaudhry now. There are some of the Fijian political parties [that will take over by means of a coup]
But we Fijians, we just want our government to be headed by a Fijian
They keep changing the constitution
The [present constitution] is why there is an Indian Prime Minister. But the Fijians want a Fijian Prime Minister. Even from India now
they don't want anyone from somewhere else to be Prime Minister, European or part-European. And we Fijians, we give them the right.
Another Fijian man, following the separatist notion of ethnic relations, told me that the Indian Prime Minister would only help Indians and would not help out Fijians. He said, "Chaudhry is favoring the Indians. He is removing all of the Fijians from the top positions and replacing and is replacing them with Indians." About Fijians and Indians he said, "We are a different kind of people." And another Fijian told me, "Fijians don't want an Indian Prime Minister. Because this is our land. And we don't want any other people, other than Fijian, to lead us. So that is the view of most Fijian people."
One Fijian man clearly explained that he thinks Fijians and Indians are too different to culturally intermix. When I asked him if he thought that there was much crossing over between Fijian and Indian culture he said, "There is a vast difference there. Maybe some, but not many [are adopting the ways of the opposing ethnic group]. Because [Indians] love living individually, on their own." I asked him if he thought that the cultures will not remain distinctly separated and if they will gradually become more like each other.
In some sense no. But intermarriage, that will cause a little. What if I said, "Okay, you come live with us, raise your children here." How do you feel? Those are the kinds of things. This is from your inner feelings, if you want to come and stay with us, come and eat with us, drink grog with us, meet with us, same religion. Then we have the same tune.
When I asked this man if he thought the two cultures were just too different for intermixing he said, "That's what I'm saying. We beat the lali (a wooden slit gong which calls church to session), we go to church. Those people there, they go to the farm. It's a vast difference. Or they are firing the [fire]cracker. That kind of thing." These ideas about the insurmountable difference between the Fijian and Indian communities make the notion of communalism and a plural society acceptable. It is permissible for different ethnic groups to have different destinies.
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Indian Culture Views Society as a Combination of Groups of People Rather than Individuals
Indians are also accustomed to thinking of the world as made up of different communities and not as a large pool of autonomous individuals. Since Indian culture contains this aspect, it is acceptable that ethnic groups in Fiji remain separate and interact with one another as groups. When Indians first came to Fiji as indentured servants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the caste system was vibrant in India. These immigrants were, therefore, familiar with the idea of citizens of one country being divided up into smaller groups of people. Under the caste system, Indians were divided into different social status levels which accompanied the acceptable occupations for each caste. And because the castes were divided by occupation, Indians in Fiji were accustomed to the notion that the different groups within a society would have a different role, their unique position in the larger community which was essential for that larger society to survive. This familiarity with divisions within the greater nation fit in with the notion of separation of labor along ethnic lines as it occurs in Fiji.
Indians were also familiar with the idea of subcultures within a culture because of the different religions found within Indian culture. Muslims did not involve themselves in the caste system. But, people of all religions in the Indian community were familiar with the notion of separate groups within society because of the different religions encompassed by Indian culture. These include Islam, Sikhism and various factions of Hinduism. The Indian community is and has been accustomed to the model of subcultures within a larger whole.
One important aspect of Indian culture which highlights how Indians continue to see interaction between individuals as contact between two communities is the practice of arranged marriage. An Indian man explained to me that in arranged marriages, the parents have the power to choose what family the husband will be from. He said also that less divorce is possible with arranged marriages because both families push their children to get along with their new spouse. This demonstrates how marriage is a community affair more than it is an event between two individuals. The community involvement ensures a good marriage. He noted too that it is a mark of respect to follow one's parents' choice of a mate because they have more experience: "The other family might not be of very good repute." Then, the family will not allow the match. The involvement of the community in the marriage arrangements for an individual indicate that the individual has a social identity which is primary to any personal identity. Arranged marriages ensure that people do not marry into families with bad reputations. This shows that marriage has social ramifications for the larger family and community, not just for the individual.
Indians who first came to Fiji considered the world to be made of various groups of people, separate communities who interacted based on their community identities. People had social identities which emerged from the group to which they belonged. In addition to these notions, the caste system also oriented Indians to a model of labor separation in accordance with this separation of groups. The ethnic separation in Fiji, in which both Fijians and the British believed, fit into the Indian worldview, therefore. It is also evident that Indians view individuals as enmeshed in their community, inseparable from their social identity.
There is, however, more questioning of the model of ethnic separation in politics among Indians in Fiji than among Fijians. Indians I interviewed think the system of ethnic political representation is foolish. One man, in reference to the Fijian system of communal voting (wherein voters choose three candidates, one from each ethnic category in Fiji: Fijian, Indian, and General Electors) told me, "The government has no power at all. When we vote, we have three votes, not one. In other countries, one man one vote. Here, three votes...not one vote." And another man described a good chief as someone who "looks after everyone the same, Indians and Fijians."
Yet the idea that the two ethnic groups should interact on the basis of their separation does exist in the Indian community of Fiji. One young Indian woman exhibited the view that it is appropriate for different ethnic groups to remain separate as she described Fiji as a country belonging to Fijians in which Indians are guests. It is obvious that she thinks that Fijians and Indians are too different to mix together because she differentiated between them in this manner. She told me, "Usually Fiji belongs to the Fijians because Indians were brought." Also Indians readily describe differences between the Fijian and Indian communities rather than between individuals within those groups; the fact that they conceive of the two as distinct entities which can be described evidences how they view the two groups as inevitably separate. Indians told me that the Indian community places a high value on education, for instance, in opposition to the Fijian lag behind. He said,
Indians are very particular in school, they study. For the schools, most of the credit goes to the Indians. They are the ones who invented primary schools
and they are the people now who have started their own university
Well, the Fijians are there too. They have started to these government schools
At the moment both [ethnic groups] are education oriented.
He went on to note that Indians are generally considered to perform better in school. Because Indian informants described differences between the communities, as disconnected entities, it is clear that Indians view contact between individuals as contact between separate communities. This fits with the model of ethnic separation in Fiji and has allowed it to endure.
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This chapter has shown that the two dominant ethnic groups in Fiji believe that it is acceptable for different communities to take on different roles within a country. Fijians always view interaction between individuals as contact between two communities. Within Fijian culture, the individual is an extension of his/her community. It is understandable, then, that Fijians can embrace this model that different ethnic groups have different roles to fill and therefore different destinies. Indians also look upon society as the combination of separate subgroups or communities. Indian culture posits that the individual is a representative of his/her community as that community controls an individual's life choices. This view that it is acceptable for communities rather than individuals to interact resembles the Fijian view of community interaction and thus fits into the model of ethnic separation found in Fiji.
An earlier chapter has also shown that British colonialism functioned on the basis of a separation of labor along ethnic lines. And, each ethnic group in Fiji already held the notion that it is appropriate for groups to remain separate and interact on the basis of that separation, to encounter one another as representatives of communities rather than as individuals, This was accounted for in each of their respective cultures prior to contact with the other two ethnic groups. So as a result of these preexisting views, each of the three groups, Fijians, Indians, and the British, could accept, for the nation, a model of ethnic division and isolation as well as a model of labor separation along ethnic lines. The acceptance of this model has allowed for the situation of balanced ethnic relations that exists within Fiji today. Fijians and Indians accede to stereotypes about their respective ethnic group because these give them a positive sense of identity but also because they are accustomed to viewing the world as an intersection of various communities rather than as a conglomeration of autonomous individuals.
The next chapter will explore the land lease issue in Fiji. As described in the earlier chapter on the history of colonialism and ethnic relations in Fiji, Fijians control the majority of the land in Fiji. This land is own by Fijian mataqali and cannot be sold. Indian tenants therefore lease this land from the Fijian owners. The majority of these are presently expiring, in the past few years or in the few years to come. Land leases have become an issue, therefore, as Fijian land owners must decide if they will renew their leases to Indian tenants. The next chapter will explore how the land lease issue has called the ethnic stereotypes and the balance which has been affected into question. This issue has the potential to disrupt this long-kept ethnic balance.
On to Conclusion...
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