The saga of contemporary Fiji– the clash between the country’s opposing political forces – can be very bruising if you become a participant. For its attempts to explain why Frank Bainimarama isn’t the devil incarnate, Grubsheet has been threatened with bashing, shooting and hanging. And all in the space of the past week. Why? Because we’re deemed to be “treasonous” – alleged beneficiaries of Bainimarama’s “illegal” rule. Quite how isn’t immediately clear unless you regard threats to your personal safety as a benefit. It all gets pretty tiresome, especially when people are actively trying to find out where you live and there are website postings urging any Fijian who encounters you to beat you to a pulp.
The corruption trial of Laisenia Qarase – the deposed prime minister – has taken the already fevered atmosphere on some anti-government websites to a new level. They’ve always been venues for feral behaviour but an obvious element of desperation has set in among the more extreme of the regime’s opponents. With preparations underway in earnest for the return to democracy in Fiji – and thousands registering to vote – it seems to have dawned on these people that the game is getting away. The previous government is not going to be restored. And everything that convinced its supporters otherwise – their dreams of Fiji’s bigger neighbours bringing Bainimarama to heel – have turned to dust. It’s triggered an unprecedented level of fury and the emergence of a distinct “scorched earth” mentality along the lines of “if we can’t win, let’s destroy”. Is it merely a lunatic fringe? It’s impossible to know but there do seem to be a lot of lunatics loitering in cyberspace right now.
Grubsheet is a particular target of this venom. The combination of being opinionated and Kai Valagi (European) seems to drive some of these indigenous supremacists apoplectic. I’m often asked by my Australian friends “why bother?” Why on earth subject yourself to insult – and perhaps worse – when it’s a firefight over the direction of a minor Pacific country of less than a million people? Good question and I’ll try to answer it as best I can. It’s because of an accident of history, of being born to missionary parents who went to Fiji in their twenties and strived for most of their lives for some of the ideals I’m still pursuing. And especially a multiracial Fiji. Amid the cyber baying for my blood, some people are asking “who the hell is this Davis guy anyway?” So perhaps a little personal history might help.
They called me Graham Hunt Davis, Graham because they liked the name and Hunt after John Hunt, one of the most famous of the pioneering Methodist missionaries in whose steps my father and mother followed. Young Australians, Peter and Betty Davis came to Fiji by flying boat in 1952 and were posted to Lakeba, the chiefly island in the Lau group, where they were the only resident Kai Valagi in scores of miles of ocean. My mother was 22, my father 25 and they immersed themselves in the Fijian language, their church work and the rhythms of island life. In 1953, my mother went by copra boat to Suva to give birth to me at the famous Nurse Morrison’s, the maternity annex at the Colonial War Memorial Hospital. My father went too, because the birth was planned around a much bigger event – the Methodist Church annual conference, which he always attended. In fact, in a masterly exercise in family planning, The Davis kids were carefully crafted around that October event– so much so that my two brothers and I were all born in the tenth month – them a day apart – at three-yearly intervals. It had to be that way because medical services in isolated parts of Fiji were rudimentary and my parents were naturally keen to give my mother and me the best possible assistance if something went wrong.
In those days, fathers weren’t present at the birth. So while the celebrated Dr Donald Oldmeadow was delivering my mother of me, my father was playing Canasta – a popular card game – with friends on the crest of the hill in Gordon Street. There was apparently talk of calling me Canasta in the excitement of the moment when the call came through. But maybe because my parents never, ever touched a drop of alcohol, sobriety came naturally and that idea mercifully went no further. I was born at five minutes to midnight two months before Queen Elizabeth visited Fiji for the first time. I’ve seen my parents’ boss – the Reverend Stanley Cowled – in the official film of the visit but by then, they’d whisked me away from perhaps the biggest thing to have ever happened in Fiji onto the copra boat home to Lakeba.
We lived in a sprawling missionary house on the hill above the village of Tubou, the seat of the Tui Nayau,, the paramount chief of the Lau group. Methodist missionaries always lived modestly because they were paid a pittance. But while their timber houses were also modest, they were always in the best position and were often the envy of the colonial administrators. All of our houses in Fiji were on hills with spectacular views because the missionaries had long ago worked out that this was the best place to get the cooling sea breezes and escape the occasional tsunami.
The Tui Nayau at the time was Ratu Tevita Uluilakeba III, the father of the most famous Tui Nayau of all – his successor and the founder of independent Fiji, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Ratu Tevita was a hugely commanding presence. Every time he appeared on the rara, the village green, everyone would sink to the ground and stay there until he’d moved on. And he was also something of an eccentric, the owner of Lakeba’s only car – a 1940s Morris. In those days there were no roads on the island and everyone walked or traveled on horseback. So the Tui Nayau would drive his pampered Morris round and round the rara, with his subjects dropping to the ground every time he wound past.
With my father and mother immersed in the life of the church and the community, I was reared by our house girl, Sapela, who wore her hair in the braided locks of many Lauan girls at the time. We were hugely attached and I grew up speaking the Fijian language and playing with i’Taukei children, with the nearest Kai Valagi far across the seas. A copra boat came every five weeks with the mail and provisions and occasionally a British “Dee-Oh” or District Officer would come to stay. But my parents’ letters from the time reek of the isolation, of no telephone and only short wave radio as a means of contact with the outside world.
Like everyone in Fiji in the 1950s, we grew up with the sound of the static of the uncertain radio signal, beaming off the ionosphere from London or Melbourne into our Philips receiver. It’s strange what you remember as a child. “BBC World Service.The News, read by Peter King”. Twenty four years later, I handed the same Peter King his news bulletin when I joined the BBC World Service as a sub-editor. From Lakeba to London. The longest of journeys.
As they say, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be and I apologise for this personal diversion and for covering only my earliest years. But few things irritate me more than the claims of my critics that I have no place commenting on events in Fiji. Really? I’ve grown up in the country in villages, towns and cities (after Lakeba came Savusavu, Lautoka and Suva). I’ve spent countless hours listening to the sermons of talatalas and village church choirs and observing all the rituals and observances of the Vanua. And – in a darker right of passage – I was also sexually abused like so many other children in Fiji. So I think I know enough about the country to write about it. It’s a place where hypocrisy and cant flourish alongside beauty and inspiration. Where even some of its most respected citizens don’t always practice what they preach. Yet for all its faults, it also inspires intense affection from citizens of every hue and leaves an indelible mark on anyone fortunate enough to live there. It’s encapsulated in that old phrase – “you can take the boy out of Fiji but you can’t take Fiji out of the boy”.
We’ve all been reared acknowledging the special place of the i’Taukei in national life. They’re owners and custodians of most of the land, custodians of the rich traditions of the Vanua, backbones of the country’s security and provide much of its employment base. Above all, they’re first among equals as the First Fijians. But every Fijian of whatever race feels pride when Fiji excels, whether in a rugby test or a foreign battlefield. When I first saw the voter registration commercial – the “I’m Fijian” one – I was as startled as most people. What do you mean “I’m Fijian”? You mean me? A kumala vula? All our lives, we’ve been conditioned to believe that the term belongs to the i’Taukei. It’s not ours, it’s theirs. Yet here are all these multiracial faces, including that wonderful, grinning, toothless Indo-Fijian lady at the end, proudly declaring- “I’m Fijian!”
Akuila Yabaki, the talatala who heads the Citizens Constitutional Forum, tells me CCF polling shows that only 20 per cent of i’Taukei want to share the name with other citizens. So the act of imposing it to describe the entire population doesn’t mean it has been embraced and it could be a long time before the majority of First Fijians are comfortable with the new arrangement.
To the other 80 per cent – and especially those who argue that I don’t have a right to be Fijian – I direct a personal plea: Yalo vinaka, please grant the rest of us the privilege of belonging in the land of our birth. We don’t seek to dispossess you, to deprive you of your land or your rights. We don’t seek to weaken your culture or your traditions. We acknowledge your central importance in national life. The other races in Fiji – your fellow citizens – just want to feel they also belong.
My late father always said; “Never underestimate the capacity of the Fijian people for forgiveness”. Now – a generation on – I, for one, hope that the i’Taukei can never be underestimated for something else – their capacity to share. Because time and again, we’re reminded that for all the hatred generated by Fiji’s politics, your average i’Taukei basically has a yalo vinaka – a kind heart. It’s what gets the country through its many challenges every time. Including, I hope, the challenge of forging a new identity for everyone.