A Lesson in Cultural Survival - Part Two

Leonard Lea Frazer

(Meanwhile back in the Fijian village of Devokula)

The seventy-eight year-old chief was escorted from his shade-bure on the far side of the village green to his private mats on a specially elevated and covered area beside the open visitors shade-bure. Dressed entirely in tapa cloth, including a tapa turban and a large flat shell breastplate, he remained silent. The chief’s vatanivanua sat nearby and two warrior-escorts stood guard brandishing massive and ornate wooden clubs. These men wore loincloths, also made from tapa, coconut fiber arm and leg-bands, black face paint and coconut oil on their bodies.

Our vatanivanua, wearing a grass skirt and face paint, kneeled on the ground 20 feet from the chief holding our yaqona package. He delivered a fast talking respectful presentation to the chief. This was the ‘sevu-sevu’ ceremony. Interrupted at intervals by the chief’s spokesman, with a grateful “vinaka” or “thank you,” our spokesman continued. After the ancestral gods or ‘Vu’ had been asked for permission to begin the  proceedings and all other requests and salutations were given, the chief’s vatanivanua accepted the gift of yaqona and proceeded to make an equally respectful presentation.

A group of five natives dressed in brown grass-skirts, face paint and body oil arrived on the scene carrying a huge wooden mixing bowl or ‘tanoa’ and started to mix water with powdered yagona, held in a cloth bag, in the bowl. The mixer was assisted by a water-carrier and a server who sat on the ground around the tanoa. Attached to the side of the tanoa was a fibre rope decorated with cowry shells. This string of shells was carefully positioned on the ground to point in my direction. It indicated that I was the guest of honour and would be allowed to drink first, followed by the vatanivanua, then the chief, and then the chief’s vatanivanua.

The yagona mixer poured out a small bowl or ‘bilo’ of the light-brown coloured kava and the server held this coconut shell bilo with both hands, arms extended straight out in front of him. He slowly stood up, then with a straight back and slightly bent knees he moved the bilo through the air as if he were witching for water and eventually found me at the edge of the crowd. The server moved the bilo into his chest as he kneeled before me; then his outstretched arms offered me the yagona drink. I clapped my hands together twice, saying, “Bula,” and took the bilo in both hands.

When one drinks yagona in Fiji at a sevusevu ceremony or at an informal social gathering, there is always a certain amount of formality and, usually, only one person is allowed to drink at one time.

I raised the bowl to my lips, closed my eyes and drank the yagona back in one slow tip of the bilo. The Fijians positioned around the Tanoa watched and waited as I drank, and as soon as I finished my bowl they all clapped three times and chanted together, “O moca,” or “You finished.”

When the spokesman and the chief had each taken their bowl of kava, the bearers of the Tanoa retreated from sight, taking the mixing bowl with them. Soon after the chief excused himself through his spokesman, and retired to his sleeping bure.

The male Devokula dancers entertained us with several wild and energetic spear-dances. They were backed musically by a group of mixed singers and musicians and delivered harmonies, the kind that are unique to Fiji Islanders. Four young women performed two colourful fan-dances, bringing the mekes and the first part of the program to a close.

A short tour of the village, conducted by Jeremiah, included medicinal uses of many trees and plants growing in the village and traditional methods of food storage.

Lunch was served in a special eating bure and included yams, taro root, tapioca, bread fruit, fish, and chicken, all cooked in an underground oven known as a ‘lovo.’ We sat on floor mats around the prepared meal with young Fijian girls who fanned the food to ward off flying insects. Everyone stopped for lunch and the words “mai kana” or “come in and eat” could be heard throughout the village.

After an excellent feast we were given the option of resting in one of the guest bures, walking on the beach, or snorkelling in the ocean.

The second half of the program consisted of more spear-dancing and mekes and inspirational Fijians singing. “Each meke,” explained Jeremiah, “is developed by a composer or ‘daunivuca,’ at the request of a group in the village. The daunivuca is inspired by the ‘Vu’ (ancestral gods) to document a story or event and preserve the highlights in the words of the song and the dance movements. As one elder said, “These mekes are our traditional Fijian newspapers.”

Our vatanivanua introduced one meke, entitled, “The Cry of Our People,” explaining that after the Fijian government phased out the traditional hereditary chief method of local government, many Fijians were not happy with having only one form of government.  “It’s our way of saying that we are still here,” offered Jeremiah, “and that our traditional ways still have their place in the lives of the people.”

The afternoon entertainment was followed by musical numbers where members of the audience were invited to dance with the villagers.

“The main objective of the project,” says Jeremiah, “is to uplift the standard of living for our people. With five youth clubs working together, we’ve got smaller projects also.  We all live in our own village. Whenever we have people [tourists] coming to Devokula Village, I give them the signal to come out. Whoever is free, comes. On every school holiday we use the school kids. And in this program we teach the culture and traditions of our people to the youth.”

As I was leaving the village I found myself reflecting on the many parallels between the Devokula Project in Fiji and First Nations Cultural Programs in Northern British Columbia, Canada. The similarities in the arts, history, traditional governance, respect for Chief and Elders, the use of “Culture Camp” type programs and the underlying belief in the supernatural makes a striking statement for aboriginal peoples everywhere.

 A Fijian girl doing a fan-dance.
A Fijian girl doing a fan-dance.
The Village Chief prepares to drink his yaqona from 
a coconut shell.
The Village Chief prepares to drink his yaqona from a coconut shell.

 The back-up singers during the Devokula 
The back-up singers during the Devokula dancing.
Young Fijian students waiting to perform at 
Young Fijian students waiting to perform at Devokula.

A student dancer at the Devokula Village in Fiji.
A student dancer at the Devokula Village in Fiji.