In the 42 years since independence, there can have been few Fiji Days more inspiring than Wednesday’s celebration, or one so filled with hope for a better future. It was a magical day in which the country united both formally and informally and our spirits soared with the unveiling of the new-look Fiji Airways. The stunning new livery to be worn by the airline’s new A330s couldn’t be more authentic. It speaks to every Fijian in a way that we can all identify with, certainly judging from the enthusiastic, even ecstatic response of the audience at the re-branding function at the Village Six cinema complex in Suva. As the new aircraft loomed into view on the big screen and the locally-created fuselage motif was finally revealed, there were gasps of appreciation and spontaneous applause. There’s only one description for the new design. A triumph. It certainly makes the current Air Pacific aircraft look very tired and old in one fell swoop.
Everyone will have had their own experience of Fiji Day but what was striking for Grubsheet this year was the positive note to everything. The Bainimarama Government decided that we’d all grown a bit complacent about the importance of our national day. So it commissioned an advertising campaign aimed at getting us to reconnect with the celebration, encouraging us to “put up a flag and put down a lovo”. The television and print campaign – with its underlying message of racial and social unity – was polished, inspirational and another unadulterated success. Thousands of people – many of them decked in the flag – turned out at formal Fiji Day celebrations across the country. And then afterwards, they returned to their homes and neighbourhoods to celebrate.
Grubsheet was pretty cynical about the lovo bit until I spoke to a Indo-Fijian lady in one of the government offices when we all went back to work. “You wouldn’t have had a lovo, would you?, I said, expecting her to tell me about a curry lunch. “Yes!”, she replied. “We dug a pit and heated the stones and cooked all the usual things – dalo, chicken, pork. And then we had all the neighbours around”, she said. The new Fiji? No, just the old, only better.
Grubsheet watched the march through Suva marveling at this year’s turnout, reputedly the biggest Fiji Day crowd ever. How fantastic that Suva turned on a beautiful day after the miserable weather of the past. How wonderful that so many people joined the procession, calling out “Bula vinaka” and “Happy Fiji Day” to the many spectators along the route. It was a river of blue winding its way from the Flea Market through town to Albert Park, interspersed with the brass bands, kids on their parent’s shoulders, the extroverts breaking into their dance routines to the usual kailas and general merriment.
Grubsheet was standing outside the Holiday Inn, where during the coup of 1987, I witnessed Indo-Fijians being beaten by the racist mob, the dream of a united Fiji shattered. It was the worst of times that no-one who lived through them will ever forget. Yet twenty-five years on, that dream is being slowly rebuilt. And as I stood on precisely the same spot and watched the multiracial crowd pass by, in the highest of spirits and with the old tensions gone, I was struck by the enormity of the change. It is the best of times – or at least a hell of a lot better than it was then.
And so to the military parade – the official Fiji Day celebration to which the invitations say “formal, medals to be worn”. There were certainly lots of them on the chests of our fighting men. Whatever can be said about the RFMF, they certainly know how to put on a good show. From the time the parade commander, Lt Col Sitiveni Qiliho, bellowed out his first command, we were treated to an immaculate display of discipline and precision. The blue berets of the United Nations worn by some of the soldiers also reminded us of the RFMF’s valued contribution to keeping the peace way beyond our own shores. The enthusiastic applause that erupted for the parading troops is ample evidence that whatever the views of a handful of human rights advocates, many ordinary people appreciate their contribution to our collective security. They help keep us safe and unmolested, the greatest human right of all.
For Grubsheet, two things stood out as the President left the parade ground and the occasion dissolved into friendly informality. The first was the sight of the American military attaché, Colonel Boswell of the US Marines, in friendly conservation with local officers, including the RFMF Chief of Staff, Brigadier-General Mohammed Aziz. The Aussies and the Kiwis were again nowhere to be seen. The second was the sight of the Military Commander and Prime Minister, Voreqe Bainmarama, seeming relaxed and utterly at ease with the crowd. He posed happily with the redoubtable Bubu Kini, the elderly Naitasiri lady who is a regular at almost every public event. And as he stood there, ordinary people, and especially children, started to come forward to shake his hand and be photographed with him. Tentatively at first and then en mass as it became obvious that the PM was thoroughly enjoying the encounter.
It is the antithesis of the image of the feared dictator portrayed by the anti-government blogs. It is the Prime Minister’s political opponents who have cause to fear him at the ballot box when democracy returns. Because Grubsheet has never seen a Fijian leader more relaxed and connected in the presence of ordinary people. Not Ratu Mara, not Timoci Bavadra, not Sitiveni Rabuka, not Mahendra Chaudhry and not Laisenia Qarase. They all had an element of reserve and awkwardness that is totally absent in Commodore Bainimarama. He will be a star campaigner come election time.
And then the evening’s events, first the official Fiji Day cocktail party at Government House hosted by the President, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau – resplendent in a red bula shirt – and the supremely elegant First Lady Adi Koila Nailatikau. The guest list ranged across the broad church of the Fijian elite. Earlier in the evening, the President had broadcast an unusually pungent Fiji Day message in which he openly campaigned against calls for the country to be declared a Christian State. Grubsheet wondered about the private thoughts of some of the Methodist Church leaders present at Government House. And of one of the Government’s staunchest critics who was also present – the Rewa high chief Ro Teimumu Kepa. Yet this was a day for remembering the ties that bind rather the issues that divide. Glasses suitably charged, the President proposed a toast to Fiji Day and everyone responded with one voice. Government House has never looked better and is certainly one of the most majestic legacies of colonial rule.
And so finally across town to the Air Pacific launch – undoubtedly the hottest ticket of the year for Fiji’s beau monde. The invitation stipulated formal wear, which had the men dusting off dinner suits long forgotten at the back of the closet and the women sliding into their slinkiest ball gowns. Sweltering Suva frankly isn’t the best place to be dressed up like a penguin and the Prime Minister very sensibly broke the dress rules and turned up in a bula shirt. Now that’s real leadership in Grubsheet’s books and the precedent has been set for breaking all the sartorial rules at future events.
In his speech, Commodore Bainimarama said he could think of nothing that symbolised Fiji’s independence more than its national airline and now it would carry the nation’s name when Air Pacific becomes Fiji Airways next year. “It is essential to Fiji’s sense of worth and the independence that we celebrate on this day. It makes us all proud. It makes our spirits soar.” We all drank to that too. And then had another. And another. It was that kind of day. The best of days. A day that Fiji shone brightly again. A day for dreaming.