Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Country Divided

Everywhere I looked in Fiji, I saw duality:

  • Ethnic Fijians vs. Immigrants from India
  • A dry side in the west vs. a wet side to the east
  • Fancy resorts with tourists vs. Villages without electricity
  • Sugar cane and cattle farming vs. Tobacco and subsistence crops
  • Monotheism (Christianity and Islam) vs. Polytheism (Hindus and Fijian Ancestor Worship)
  • Automobiles vs. Horse riding
  • Anything goes dress code in the towns vs. Conservative traditional attire required in villages

Despite the bifurcation of life in Fiji, people here seem to navigate these differences without any difficulty.


This was made ever more clear to me when Josh and I visited a local village with a Fijian, Monica, as our guide. Before arriving in the village, Monica and I wrapped ourselves in sulus. After our business in the village was over, we took off the sulus revealing our shorts beneath. This surprised me as one of the villagers was with us throughout the entire event and he deemed it appropriate for us to hike without the sulus. Odd, I thought, but also surprisingly refreshing as this acceptance of two dress codes seems a handy way to maintain traditions while also keeping up with modernity.


The same juxtaposition of lifestyles is the case with the locals who work at the resorts. All day they are surrounded by tourists, mostly Australians, Kiwis, Europeans and Americans (from the USA) where they serve drinks and meals that easily costs $30 Fijian per person. And yet most women make less than $20 Fijian a day, typically about $2/hr. The resorts they work at have hot and cold water, electricity, air conditioning, and every modern convenience. At the end of the day, these people return home to small houses often without electricity or running water, and most definitely without hot showers and Internet service. And yet, many people make the long commutes (up to two hours each way by bus or on foot) to the resort so that they can supplement their families' gardens with store-bought goods.


Disclaimer: The following is what I have learned while here in assorted books and at the Fiji Museum in Suva, and is likely to be incomplete and possibility even inaccurate. My apologies in advance for any errors here; revisions are welcome in the comments section following this post.

The last example of the double-sided nature of Fiji that I will write about is the history of its peoples. The ethnic Fijians trace their ancestry to Melanisans and Polynesians (like most of South Pacific Islanders) and historically they practiced ancestor worship within tight-knit tribes or clans. Warring between the tribes was common and deadly. The winners ate their enemies so as to gain strength from them. And they were known to bury their enemies alive in the footings of their homes to ensure it would be strong. Sometime in the 1800s, Christian missionaries began successfully converting ethnic Fijians to Christianity and several battles were fought over whether Fiji would become a Christian nation.


In addition to fighting between Fijian tribes, people from Tonga attempted to colonize the islands. In an attempt to throw out the Tongans, Fijians agreed to join the British empire in 1874. This decision solidified Christianity in Fiji, but also opened the gates to waves of immigrants from India who the British brought over on 5-year contracts as indentured servants to work in the sugar cane industry. A few decades later in 1916, the practice of indenturing Indians was brought to an end and formerly indentured workers were permitted to stay in Fiji. And in 1970, Fiji became a sovereign nation again.


Today, the population of Fiji is split roughly 50/40 between ethnic Fijians and Indo-Fijians, who maintain mostly separate settlements, speak different languages (in addition to English) and practice different religions.

Perhaps the most striking difference between today's Fijian and Indian communities is the opportunity for the accumulation of wealth. Fijians own land communally and Fijians who have businesses and/or successful farms can be called on by relatives from their home villages to share whatever they have. In other words, Fijians accumulate wealth as a community only.


Indo-fijians, on the other hand, operate more similarly to westerners in that the profits of their labor accumulate to themselves and their immediate family only. The result of this is that many of the larger shops and industries are owned by Indo-fijians and this has created resentment in the hearts of some Fijians who wish they too could work hard and improve their individual circumstances. But alas, there does not seem to be much movement within the the ethnic Fijian community to change this traditional aspect of their culture and so one would expect the disparity in prosperity between ethnic Fijians and Indo-Fijians to continue to grow. These differences also boil over into the political realm and tensions exist unde the surface.


Luckily for us, wherever we traveled in Fiji we were made welcome. Our experience in Fiji was made all the more special by the country's diversity, despite us being the only white people in some of the places we visited.

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