We moved to our training villages on the 6th of September, and the last two weeks have been a lot of food, Fijian, and rugby. Biggest changes: lots of night-time frogs, lots of grog, and huge servings of food, including sugar and salt.
I was assigned to Nabitu, a chiefly village of around 150 indigenous Fijians, twenty minutes from Nausori town and an hour from the capital Suva. I’m living with a na and ta (mom and dad) in the house only – but the houses next door are full of our extended family. My na, Wata, is 48 and is a housewife, cooking us great (huge) meals, washing our clothes (with the unexpected help of a washing machine) and taking care of the house. My ta, Lepani, is the chief’s spokesperson (as decreed by his birth into that subclan, or mataqali), and spends his days working in Suva – still not entirely sure doing what though.
When we arrived (four hours late, Saturday evening), our LCF (language and cultural facilitator/Fijian teacher) introduced us to the headmen of the village with a sevusevu (welcoming ceremony). We sat as guests, in front of the tanoa (kava bowl), before sleeping soundly. The next day we attended church, as every respectable member of the community does here (and as we will likely be doing for the next two years). Church attendance is important for integration into the community, and is something I’ll use to hone my Fijian language skills.
There are quite a few taboos in the village. The important ones include dress code and respect for the head. Men are expected to wear long pants or a sulu (a male skirt), and women wear ankle-length skirts, hi-top shirts and covered upper arms. For men, this code dress is not strongly adhered to by the youth – at the community hall (vale va koro), young men will wear shirts and t-shirts, something us PC folks were warned not to do – Peace Corps tends to err on the side of conservatism, in order to gain the respect of the elders in the community. As for the head – people spend a lot of their days sitting cross-legged on the floor, so when you are in a room with floor-sitters you should say tulou or jilou repeatedly while bowing your head, as if trying to get to their level, until you sit next to them. Don’t touch the head of anyone older than you. Also, don’t stand in a doorway, or eat while walking.
There are a lot of historical and social notes I’d like to make, but for now I’ll just mention the role of religion here – indigenous Fijians tend to be very Christian, and combined with the insular society that often manifests itself on islands, I’ve encountered a fair amount of Islamaphobia. When I asked my ta what he thought about Obama’s 2008 election, he said that it was very bad news, because Obama is a Muslim. The priest asked us if we were Christian or Muslim, and was quite relieved to hear we weren’t Muslim (specificities were ignored). When someone mentioned 9/11, they asked if we knew any of “them” – Muslims. I of course explained that I have a number of Muslim friends, and that they hate al-Qaeda even more, because these radical groups have created an association of Islam with terrorism.
The first Muslim I have spoken to, an Indo-Fijian taxi driver (who was a rabid fan of Fiji First, a political party led by 2006 coup leader Frank Bainimarama) was pretty pleasant, but then said that Hindus were crazy because they have so many gods. I imagine views are different in cosmopolitan Suva, however. Here, Indo-Fijians are sometimes viewed as a threat to the indigenous way of life. I have six more weeks in the training village, to learn vosavakaviti (Fijian) and get ready to move to our permanent sites. To borrow a Spanish phrase, vamos a ver.