on Foreignness and Language

There is a term that applies perfectly fine to Peace Corps volunteers that we never hear, likely because it has gained such divisive and political connotations. But it is a literal term that describes our position here, as Americans in Fiji, in a simple light, and which we can use to take our experience and make it a tool for empathy with the less fortunate.

We are immigrants.

Temporary immigrants, yes. Privileged immigrants, absolutely. But we are Americans living in Fiji, in this country that is foreign to us, and we are foreigners here. We are kaivalagi, we are gringos, we are wazungu.

As immigrants here, building lives here, we follow the balancing beam of survival and assimilation. As in America, possibly the most powerful way we can join in daily life is to understand and ultimately speak the language. Yes, English is spoken by most Fijians, but English is a colonial language, though Fijian English is a real thing. English is a tool for survival and adaptation, adaptation to dependency on tourism, adaptation to the reality of a bicultural or multicultural nation.

But Fijian languages, including Fiji Hindi, Standard Fijian/Bauan and the hundreds of local dialects, are how the majority of Fijians live their lives. Fijians can best explain themselves and their culture in their own language, like anyone. How do you translate a word like loloma? I say it’s community love, but that description misses much of it. Languages can only be understood by listening to them day-in day-out for months, years even, because they explain and describe very specific cultural environments. They explain the environments we seek to call home here.

This language-learning is a difficult task, to be certain. Most of us are raised in monolingual environments, and the Spanish or French classes we take in high school are mostly rote memorization and partner dialogues about donde esta la biblioteca when all you’re trying to do is get your older sibling to buy you liquor and talk to that cutie in your math class. Here, however, everything you learn about the language is reflected in your day to day living.

Growing up in Tanzania, my biggest regret far and away is not learning better Swahili. I could greet and ask prices, but little beyond that. Living here in Fiji has taught me that it would be more accurate to say that I grew up at an international school in Tanzania, because that was my daily life. As a result, I cannot say I really have much of an understanding of Tanzanian culture beyond the surface – though Tanzania is also one of the most ethnically/tribally and linguistically diverse countries on earth (over 130 languages are spoken, with the largest ethnic group making up a mere 17% of the population).

To learn Fijian languages also shows Fijians you consider their language, culture and way of life important, worthy of preserving. As they recently finished the third McDonalds and are building the second Burger King in the West here but have yet to build a Bulaccino in America, this is a significant task.

Opening for the WWII Monuments

More than a year ago, the Turaga ni Koro Samuela Naquto told me about the US soldiers that lived in Sabeto during WWII, leading me to ruins scattered all around the valley and mountainside and to Tai Vasu, who was six when the soldiers moved in. He pestered me for months to help him find the money to build memorials to the soldiers, and so I found a grant available on the US Embassy page, which looked rather underutilized.

They supported us in getting the grant – shoutout to Dmitri Tarakhovsky, especially. Though things were all months late, they got done. Come August 16th, 2016, we had three monuments built around Sabeto, two in the village and one at the hot springs. The fourth and final will be put up at Sabeto Christian Camp next week.

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Charge d’affairs Doug Sonnek and the village men in front of the memorial. Photo cred to the US Embassy/Dmitri Tarkhovsky.

 

We had the Deputy Chief of Mission, or Charge D’Affairs (beats me why we use a French title) Doug Sonnek, RPCV Niue, come out to the opening. We invited a number of members of the press, but we had only Fiji Sun show up. I might write a short piece on it and get it published in the Sun or the Times if I don’t see anything in the next few days. It’s always a slow news day in Fiji, so I don’t feel like I’m taking up any space in the newspaper, which is mostly rugby news anyway.

I also had two fellow PCVs come out from Lautoka, Nene and Sunny, so it was nice to have some PC support.

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They made a curtain with masi print drapes, which is pretty cool. Photo cred to the US Embassy/Dmitri Tarakhovsky

The ceremony started off in the chiefly bure, Erenavula. We had a qalovi and matakarawa, as they presented their yaqona to request entry to the village and we presented them with a tabua. Not even sure who provided that, but I’m very grateful.

In my welcome speech, I recounted the global history that led up to this moment, including the aggression of the Japanese army, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, American response. I also noted that this camp was only for the white servicemen; that the camp for the black soldiers was in Naisoso, and they were not allowed the same access to entertainment, quality of living conditions or benefits upon returning home.

We had Tai Vasu speak of what it was like at the time, how the village was transformed, and the tents they lived in in Natalau. The charge d’affairs touched on general Fiji-US history. We had two songs, including Wai Katakata, about the hot springs, which includes this verse;

Sotia ni Merika era yaco mai (American soldiers came here)

Wai katakata e viri na kena bai (And threw up the fence around the springs)

Tovolea mada mo mai sili kina (Try it, you should bathe in it)

Kena katakata e rui totoka dina (It’s heat is truly too pleasant)

Afterwards, we went to the hot springs and opened the one there. Folks there built another covering and we repeated the sevusevu welcoming and ribbon-cutting.

It was really nice to see all the women and men come out and put so much work into this, really made me feel grateful to be here. I helped the men build the shed and chain fencing around the engraving at the lawn, and the women decorated the shed, made the beautiful covering for the engravings, and made tea for the guests.

The charge d’affairs made off like a bandit, though, it must be said. He was given a tabua, two mats and two masi clothes. People had told me that if he couldn’t take them they would give them to me, so I was really hoping he would be flying back, but my luck ended there.

It was given a write-up in the Fiji Sun newspaper, but riddled with errors:/. Read it here.

fiji life updates

It’s halfway through August; and this is where I’m at.

The dictionary is in the final stage of editing. Master Meli, a headteacher that is also the son of well-respected ex-politician and chief of the Waruta clan Momo Avisai Tora is currently looking over the entries one last time before we go to press. The historical introduction is coming together as well.

Three out of four of the WWII monuments are finished, and we are having the official opening on Tuesday. I was getting a little stressed out last week worrying about planning as I was getting very vague answers from people who made me run around asking other people things, but people told me to stop worrying so I’m like fuck it, it’ll all work out. We have the Deputy Chief of Mission from the US Embassy as our Chief Guest, and have invited members of the media, both newsprint and TV.

Next month I’ll be going to Moala for a week with Alan to visit Tom and Carly. See that outer island lifestyle. Then I might host volunteers from the new group for a few days before I have David and Sam come in for two weeks in October. Early November will be the swearing-in for the new group, and with any luck, they’ll assign one here to Sabeto who I can show around before I COS and leave Fiji for San Francisco on December 1st.

garden update (and a love letter to tomatoes)

Six weeks ago I planted a little garden, with tomatoes, beans, marigolds and a couple loofas (vines from W. Africa whose seedpods encase shower loofas). How’s it doing?

Mixed results. The rows I made of beans and tomato plants were the biggest contrast. The beans, which had less shade, more clay-like soil and a strange tiny bug infestation, are almost all dead. There are about five left that have taken to the sticks. No big loss, I don’t really cook beans anyway.

The tomatoes, fortunately, are looking lovely. A few weeks ago we had a ceva – a southern wind that lasts for about eight days – and they were all rather sideways. On the advice of my yaca (namesake PCV who lives in the isolated Lau group of islands) I stuck in some sticks and tied them up, and they’ve boomed. A number have small yellow flowers, and I need to add to the trellis system asap.

I found an old desk frame and stuck it in the soil over my passion fruit vines and then threw a coconut leaf on top. Under it’s shade I added four bean plants of a different variety, a second loofa plant, two tomato plants and a pumpkin plant I grew from seeds harvested from dinner. Everything there is growing very well, and the passionfruit and loofa are climbing quickly. I will need to add more there to support the plants soon as well.

And the last bit of bad news: the marigold are almost all dead, only three left. I believe it was a combination of things: poor soil & excessive sun (most were planted near the beans) and also the kids who hang out around & occasionally crash into my garden, flattening the little flowers. Mostly I just ineffectively yell kua ni caqe tavaya so ke! Stop kicking bottles over there! And they kick the other direction until I’ve moved on.

Really hoping to eat these tomatoes before I go. They are both my favorite fruit and my favorite vegetable. Apart from the occasional pumpkin curry I have been going absolutely ham on tomatoes over the last month, as the prices of big, plump piles of tomatoes has crashed to $2 a pile, making lots of spaghetti sauce and chili. Tonight I paired it with rice, making a sauce with onions, garlic, Italian seasoning, fresh basil from Janet’s farm, tomatoes from Livai’s farm and chicken left over from an event at the school Thursday night.

Some things I may adapt to quickly when I leave Fiji, but I’m currently stumped on what I’ll eat without the market and climate. Can’t even imagine buying tomatoes at a supermarket, it just sounds unnatural.

making a little garden – tara e lia na vorau sewa

Recently, I’ve started a little garden. The only issue is I should’ve done it much earlier, but hopefully I’ll be eating my own tomatoes, beans and pumpkin on my way out the door in December.

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Tomatoes in the front, beans under the sticks, marigold to the right and back, passionfruit by the fence, pumpkin somewhere in the middle.

 

I bought seeds when I was in Suva about two months ago to see my yaca (namesake), who came in from the outer island of Moala for dental work. He had a pretty good garden out there until Cyclone Winston destroyed everything, so he had good advice on what to grow and whatnot. I bought seeds for beans, tomatoes, leafy greens (can’t recall which kind, but they are growing), marigold and carrots.

I planted them all in trays at Livai’s farm, using his steamed manure, an excellent fertilizer. I left them a bit long, more than a month, so when I got back from the US last month it was a top priority to bring back and transplant them. I started bringing back a tray at a time from the farm, and Chodhtu even insisted I take a few passionfruit vines.

First, I had to choose the spot. I elected to do it right outside the kindergarten, under a large tree recovering from the cyclone. To make the plots, I corralled a couple boys from the dorms and got their help in digging up and creating the rows. Then we planted the beans and the passionfruit. As the marigold are to protect the plants, I planted them on the far edge, closer to the fence, which I’ve since thought might have been a mistake, as their extra exposure to the sun means they look rather wilted most days.

After a week in which I found sticks for two of the four rows, I went back and picked up my tomatoes and leafy greens. I also planted a few loofa seeds in bottle pots, given to me by my brother Jim, PCV Senegal doing Agriculture. Two of the three seeds are booming (in their own cut bottles in the back).

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From left to right: marigolds, a leafy green, a different leafy green, two loofa vines in the back, some kind of bean and a few tomatoes. They’ve always called me a descriptive farmer.

 

The tomatoes were looking pretty poorly – tall, skinny, dying leaves, they had been left too long in the tray. So I quickly planted them and most look good. There is also an unknown bean type thing growing in the trays, which I’ve used to replace the other bean plants that have died. And to cap it all off, I was emptying my compost the other day and found two pumpkin seeds had sprouted. I transplanted them into other containers, and one of the two survived the transplant to the farm itself. And then did another line of marigolds, perpendicular to the first and slightly better shaded.

It’s quite rewarding, having a garden to tender. I’m afraid I need to build a fence around it though, because kids keep playing caqe tavaya – bottle-kicking – around it.

E Lia Na Vananumi

quickly-written poem on the US soldiers that stayed during WWII. we just started putting up the memorials, two done and just need painting, two to go.

 

E Lia na Vananumi

A Memorial/A Reminder

I

 

There were boots here, a whole division worth
For at least eighteen months.

White boys from Ohio lived in barracks under coconut trees
Waiting to land on beaches and run up hills against a storm of bullets.

Now there is only rock-filled concrete, decaying posts and twisted metal
Shoring up homes whose occupants know the old pine comes from Oregon
And the rocks from these rivers.

But seven decades ago there was eating, there was dancing, there were lovechildren, and there was war
Slowly building up in the hearts of men.

 

the best spaghetti sauce i’ve ever made

Ingredients

  • Canned tomatoes, quite modestly priced at <1 USD
  • Basil, picked yesterday from Janet and Semi’s overflowing garden
  • Cilantro, half a bundle from the market
  • Fresh tomatoes, a small pile priced in between “plentiful” and “cyclone”
  • Oregano, year-old and left over from the one and only care package from the folks
  • Green pepper, diced just the butt end
  • Onion, at first just three-quarters of one and then the whole
  • Garlic, diced about seven cloves because I’m unable to find a piece of a garlic crusher
  • Dashes, of salt and black pepper