A Lesson in Cultural Survival - Part One

Leonard Lea Frazer

I was given the chiefly honour of carrying the yaqona [kava] when we arrived at the Fijian village of Devokula. The yaqona plant is required to make a traditional, mud coloured drink that is used at the start of all indigenous Fijian ceremonies.

Our guide and driver, Mike Farnsworth, handed me the tangled bouquet of braided yaqona roots to hold.  The package wasn’t a very impressive looking gift from a western standpoint. However, the plant is in essence a spiritual messenger. It becomes a channel to the ancestral gods and in the ceremony, or ‘sevu-sevu,’ where yaqona is exchanged, mutual respect and permission to enter is initiated.

Yaqona drinking results in a relaxing, mellowing, state of being. The roots are the most powerful part. Resembling a larger rhubarb plant, yaqona can be found in many parts of South Pacific island groups. In Fiji it grows best in the fertile soils on the islands of Ovalau, Kandavu and Koro. Plantations on Ovalau, where Devokula is located, provide an important trading commodity and cash flow for local Fijians.

The Devokula village was designed to preserve the culture and traditions of the Fijian people. “They’re doing it for themselves,” explained Mike, as he waved to one of the villagers approaching us. “It’s unique in this country and in the South Pacific.”

From the main road where the “Ovalau Tours and Transport” minibus was parked we were about to walk down a jungle path escorted by a young, well-oiled, native boy in a grass-skirt. He carried a spear in one hand, a conch shell in the other and a wild boar’s tusk on the coconut-fibre string around his neck.  “He will lead us to the village,” continued Mike, “where we will be met by another fellow who will take us to where we will watch the first part of the program. This man will act as our spokesman or ‘vatanivanua’ for the day and present the sevu-sevu to the chief on our behalf.  The presentation will be done in Fijian, so you won’t understand what is said except, perhaps, the name of your country.”

The sevu-sevu that we were bringing to the chief was basically a way of asking for three things: One, to accept us into the village; two, to thank the Elders, the Chief and Bolakula Youth Group of the Levuka-i-ra clan for allowing us to visit and become members of the village for the day; and three, to ask, in advance, for a pardon for any social blunders that may occur.

The Fijian boy in the grass-skirt led our small group of ten Australians, Americans, New Zealanders and Canadians down a dirt trail towards the ocean. As he reached the edge of the village the boy stopped and blew a warning signal of our arrival with his conch. Soon, we entered Devokula, a village built by the youth of the surrounding communities using traditional Fijian methods. There were no concrete blocks, corrugated iron roofs or overhead power lines, as found in present-day village settings.

Stepping into the village was like stepping back in time 200 years. Each house or   ‘bure’ was built on a raised bed, skirted on all sides by a hand-placed rock wall. There were post and beam main supports and smaller trees used to weave a basket-like framework. Leaf covered branches were used on the interior walls and flat braided palm fronds were stacked on the rooftop like shingles. The posts and beams in the interior were lashed together and decorated with brown and black coconut-fibre rope or ‘magi-magi’.  The doorways were located opposite each other at the front and back and both sides, to allow for air circulation.

“On hot days the bure is cool,” explained Jeremaia Tukutuku, our Vatanivanua. “On cold nights it is warm. We call it nature’s air-conditioning. In a Fijian house you’re not allowed to sit in the doorway. Either inside or out. The front and back doors are for mom and the kids and the side doors are for the head of the house.”

Fourteen bures had been constructed around the circumference of a central open area where the yaqona ceremonies, Fijian dancing, or ‘meke’ and other official business of the tribe takes place. The chief’s house was identified as the one with the large black fern roots at the peak of the roof. The tallest structure in the village was the ‘Bure Calau’ or the “House of God.” Every modern Fijian village has replaced this building with a westernized Christian church. A large hollow log, or ‘loli,’ was located beside the temple and protected from the elements by an open-walled shelter. The loli is used to send messages, like a drum, and to announce the arrival of visitors. Now, in modern times, the loli calls villagers to church.

Jeremaia escorted us to the visitors’ shade-bure where we would enjoy the entertainment. Pointing to the Bure Calau he said, “The missionaries spent the shortest time in Fiji than in any other country in the world, trying to evangelize us. They spent only thirty to thirty-five years in Fiji. They found out that all the things that they wanted to teach in the Bible were already in the life of Fijians. There was only a few things they came and changed. Ancestral gods were replaced by ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘Jehovah.’”

The Devokula Village site was designed by Jeremaia and built by the surrounding villages on designated land as a teaching tool and a way of providing for the education of local youth. Proceeds from conducted tours help pay the way for college and university for worthy students. “In this project,” noted Jeremaia, “we teach the culture and traditions of our people. This is because...  I told them, if you don’t know the culture and traditions of your people, though you live, you are nobody. I try to reach out to them so that they can hold onto their culture because that is their identity.”

(to be continued)

The old chief is escorted in with armed warriors.
The old chief is escorted in with armed warriors.
Our “vatanivanua’ presents the “yaqona” in the “sevu-sevu” 
Our “vatanivanua’ presents the “yaqona” in the “sevu-sevu” ceremony.

Fijian boys preparing the yaqona drink for the sevu-sevu.
Fijian boys preparing the yaqona drink for the sevu-sevu.