Peace is not Tabu

By Jheri St.James

     Fiji, endowed with forest, mineral and fish resources, is one of the most developed of the Pacific Island economies, though still with a large subsistence sector. Sugar processing makes up one-third of industrial activity, and these exports and a growing tourist industry—300,000 to 400,000 tourists annually—are the major sources of foreign exchange. Lapped by warm azure waters, the diving and snorkeling are superb.

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     Fijians are a Melanesian island people in the area known as Oceania where, in myth, Forever, Darkness and the Sea have always existed—created in a clamshell in the beginning, together with Papa Earth and Rangi Sky. This tight space was enlarged by a deity named Tangaroa (Tanaoa) or by Papa Rangi. Light was let in and creation proceeded.

     Fijian gods ensure favorable winds for sailing, success in war, and deliverance from sickness. There are gods born as gods, and gods who were men—the spirits of ancestors and chiefs of renown—global gods, and local gods. Degei was the most important general god. He lived on the slopes of the Kauvadra Mountains near the Ra coast, the site of origin of Fijian traditions, perhaps of the clamshell itself. Degei is the creator of the people and is also a huge snake, living in a cave in the northernmost peak of the Kauvadra Range. Earth tremors and thunder were attributed to his uneasy turning within the cave. By association with Degei, snakes have an honored place in Fijian traditions and legends—on islands where no snake existed. Gods also manifested themselves in living creatures or trees, and in certain inanimate objects, recognized as gods’ abodes but not worshipped in themselves. Indeed, the Fijians have had no religious idols of worship.

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     Today, Fiji (Viti) is an independent republic in the southwest Pacific Ocean, comprising 332 coral reef-fringed islands, about 110 inhabited. In this volcanic archipelago of about 7,095 sq. mi., Viti Levu (capital city: Suva) and Vanua Levu are the two largest islands. Discovered by Dutch navigator Abel Tasman (1643), the islands were visited by Capt. James Cook (1774) and settled by Europeans in 1804. Britain annexed Fiji in 1874.

     Over the course of time Britain brought over tens of thousands of indentured servants from India; they eventually came to outnumber the native population (Melanesian and Polynesian). So for nearly 50 years, until the military coup of 1987, the indigenous people of Fiji represented an ethnic minority in their own land. This coup was the result of concerns over foreign government domination by the Indian community. A 1990 constitution favored native Melanesian control, but led to heavy Indian emigration. The population loss resulted in economic difficulties, but ensured that Melanesians became the majority. Amendments enacted in 1997 made the constitution more equitable. Free and peaceful elections in 1999 resulted in a government led by an Indo-Fijian, but another coup in May 2000 ushered in a prolonged period of political turmoil. Parliamentary elections held in August 2001 provided Fiji with a democratically elected government and gave a mandate to the government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase. Fiji’s president since July 2000 is Ratu Josefa Iloilovatu Uluivuda.

     During this period of conflict and political change, the tenacious Fijian people managed to hold onto their traditional rites and practices—meke (narrative dance); bure (house) construction; kava ceremonies, tapa-cloth making and pottery. Today Fiji is a blend of Melanesian, Polynesian, Micronesian, Indian, Chinese and European influences.

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     From birth to death, Fijians were guided by observances of things that they must do and tabu—things that they must not do. Some of these included closing the eyes when a man planted coconuts lest he be blinded. The knife used for cutting seed yams must not be used for any other purpose or heated by being placed near a fire. It was tabu to call after fishermen asking them where they were going, as they would catch nothing. No person might reach for an object above a chief’s head without first asking permission. Indeed, the simplest acts were regulated by tabu. In the important relationships of the communal life, tabu filled the place occupied by a code of laws in other societies.

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     Volcanic soil is new, constantly expanding ground, perhaps in Fiji as a result of the snake god Degei’s uneasy turnings in his cave. And yet Fiji has dealt with the same problems as any of the oldest lands on earth—warfare, bloodshed, inequity—while always retaining its cultural traditions. Richard A. Loomis of Laguna Beach was the collector of Fijian soil. He collected it from the city of Nadi, in Viti Levu, the main island in the Fiji chain of islands. Mrs. Loomis works for a preschool in Laguna Beach, Anneliese’s School. Anneliese, the owner, also has a small resort property on Kadavu Island, the fourth largest in Fiji, a 45- minute flight from the main airport in Nadi. “The place where I got the soil was on the perimeter of a large hotel where we were attending a trade show for Anneliese’s resort, Papageno Resort. The name was chosen after Mozart’s opera ‘The Magic Flute,’ because of the Kadavu shining parrot which is native to that island. The soil is sandy and came from an area next to a sugar cane field, one of many constituting the main industry in Fiji. The hotel we stayed in is in an area called ‘the coral coast’ about halfway between Suva and Nadi on the southern side of the island. About every five or ten miles there is a large resort hotel surrounded by sugar cane. I was told to take my soil sample in the UPS box provided to the front desk of the hotel and UPS would pick it up. Well, none of the hotels had ever heard of UPS. We ended up making some phone calls and found a UPS office in Suva. So we sent the sample with an acquaintance to Suva to be shipped to the states.” Our sincere thanks go out to Mr. and Mrs. Loomis for all they went through to make certain that by adding some of this volcanic archipelago, island soil to Common Ground 191, we assure a small portion of the myth, legend and reality of sweet Fiji represent peace forever. And peace is not tabu.





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