Over the past ten years, the rate of diabetes in Fiji has skyrocketed, and as a result Peace Corps is currently deeply focused on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) related to poor diet and lack of exercise. Fittingly enough, the term for diabetes in Fijian is “matenisuka” – death by sugar. Ruminating on the situation in Fiji, I wrote a short third-person piece on it on a bus ride home from Nausori. Enjoy!
Death by Sugar
The pigeons pecked cautiously, sorting through the uneven gravel with the beaks in search of food scraps thrown from bus windows, as the TV inside the long, silent locomotive replayed Fiji’s victorious gambit in the Gold Coast Rugby 7’s tournament. The seats were all much too small for their occupants waists, and the wobbled over half-empty seats as the bus lurched into motion. A lone pasty foreigner, whose foreignness matters more than his name on this bus, ponders the dichotomy behind the rugger’s toned bulges and the passengers belt-munching bulges.
The first two factors he considers are gender and diet – most passengers have vaginas, or are assumed to as such by society, and their day-to-day thus been relegated to the kitchen and the aptly named rumunigade (resting room), where they deep-fry and subsequently salt, sugar and consume all manner of non-vegetable. Recalling his host father’s potbelly, our foreigner then thinks of the ubiquitous presence of grog, locally favored non-alcoholic intoxicant, whose earthy taste is moderated by the usage of chasers. Sessions around the tanoa (grog bowl) are thus most often accompanied by cigarette smoking, candy consumption and general inactivity. In all fairness, Whitey thinks, I have become rather fond of the tradition myself – grog’s sedating effects and Fijian’s comfortable silences are a pleasant rejection of unruly and animalistic alcoholic inebriation.
But bugger all that, thinks Whitey, let’s get historical; the real issue lies in my ancestor’s doings. Colonialism led inevitably to independence and the fashioning of grog as a national symbol, bringing it down from it’s chiefly status to that of the newly liberated masses. And while the imperialists had delivered the sport and physique of the egg-shaped ball to the island nation’s young men, their swarms of missionaries left the women with stagnant Christian patriarchal roles. Nowadays, their descendants, Whitey’s tavale (cousins, not necessarily actually related) ship cheap TVs and imported food to remote villages, having largely replaced their grandfather’s preaching with bookkeeping.
With a start, Whitey realizes his kinfolk have nearly eradicated all indigenous forms of exercise. But Whitey has to strike a balance: he wants to be historical without being coldly objective; to be sympathetic without being another fatalistic cultural relativist. Whitey doesn’t want to make up for his race’s crimes by ignoring the ability of Fijians to make their own choices. Fijians are neither newly-civilized (Christened) nor are they helpless victims – they are humans whose way of life is changing drastically at the expense of their health.
Whitey wants to see beyond the sad statistics – that one out of every three Fijians is diabetic; that every twelve hours one of Fiji’s roughly 900,00 inhabitants loses a limb to overconsumption of sugar and oil; that, in twenty years, if nothing changes, every other Fijian will be slowly destroyed by their daily breakfast, lunch and dinner (with several sickeningly sweet teatimes in-between). Kaivalagi sees his host family meals punctuated with consistent calls of kana vakalevu! (eat a lot!); he sees the cost of modernization in stretching waistlines. There are a lot of things he can picture himself doing the next two years in aid of Fiji’s diabetic struggle – supporting women’s rugby teams, teaching physical education in primary schools, cooking healthy meals with neighbors – but for now, on the dusty road back to the dining table, Whitey can only think of his host mother’s return from the hospital, and ponders whether she was sneaking sugar into the bland bedside porridge.