a day in the life of amateur cultural preservation

This morning, Tai Don and I went around the village to talk to qases (elders) about the Sabeto language, to record their words before, well, they die. It was kind of a hit-and-miss that highlights some of the difficulties of doing cultural and linguistic preservation.

First, we went over to Momo Sivas, the chief of the Narokorokoyawa side of the village.[1] At the last village meeting, he asked for the old Sabeto stories that the renowned Fijianist Paul Geraghty had provided for us. Momo Siva doesn’t have a phone, so we just showed up – and lo and behold, he wasn’t there. So, next one.

We then went over to the Koroiaca side of the village to speak to Tai Vibote, a kind old woman that multiple people suggested we speak to about TatavaSabeto. We weren’t entirely prepared, but she was extremely helpful, tearing apart some of my notions of similarities between TatavaSabeto and VosavakaBau, the national dialect. The VosavakaBau word kerekere, meaning “request”, derived from kerea, or “please may I have…”, I had been told by several other elders to be the same in TatavaSabeto.

Turns out, it’s not. It should be tetere, for kerekere, and terenavia, for kerea. I’ve probably heard them at some point in my time here, but even people who use TatavaSabeto with me have fairly consistently used the VosavakaBau kerekere with me. A few other shockers followed, but Dons got the notes with him.

Tai Vibote then recommended a few other qases to speak to – there aren’t many left, as diabetes and other lifestyle diseases have been taking their toll on many elders.

On the way back, we decided to talk to Tai Lulu, one of the eldest folks in the village, at 82 years old. He apologized before we began for his nanuma malumalumu, or weak memory. Fiya, says Don. Then Don makes me do the prayer. So of course, I thanked God for the good weather, because that’s the level my Fijian is at.

And unfortunately, Tai Lulu wasn’t exaggerating about his weak memory. Mostly, he told us about the American soldiers in WWII, about how they did such great things for the village (bringing clothes, cement houses, Christianity) and personally thanked me for these things. Which is kind of a weird experience, but in a way it’s nice to know that America hasn’t fucked up everywhere all the time.

Nonetheless, the visit with Tai Lulu was a little depressing – his speech was riddled with “qi sa nomudeinia…” (“I forget…”) and he had only half a story for us, which he told multiple times. When we were leaving, Don said that Tai Lulu used to tell him stories when he was a kid. The encounter was a little depressing, frankly, especially as Tai Lulu repeatedly bragged that he was the only old man left in the village (not quite true, but not far from the truth).

So when I did my shopping in the afternoon, I stopped in a café and ruminated on the demise of Fijian culture and language. But when I got back and saw Tai Don we agreed and discussed ways to intensify our campaign for the Sabeto language, including putting up posters in the village saying “Kilatia na Lem TatavaSabeto?” with a list of commonly misused words, or doing short sessions with students focusing on separating their Bauan and Sabeto. And then on the way to a nonexistent village meeting, Don and I danced, silly walking down the dark village path to Fijianized pop music, earning shushes from those conducting 7 o’clock prayers and gleeful glances from kids who may not know that the Sleeping Giant mountains were once alive but have seen the same mountains in the Punjas Biscuits commercial they can recite by heart.

[1] He’s invited me over for tea many times before I realized he was the chief (because the chief on the other side is much bigger/more important/venerated) and I accepted. I don’t remember if I used the formalities, but he’s always been very friendly, and joking calls me Ratu Tomasi (Chief Tom) sometimes.

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