Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Babies switched at birth at Labasa hospital

from w
I intended to repost some of this article in this blog but didn't get around to it. It's a strange story that has important repercussions about attitudes to race in Fiji. A friend Kalusi emailed the story to us today, and also I found it in Mailife on-line. Then I realized the magazine Mailife was one of the magazines Peceli brought back from Fiji for me and I found it on top of the piano!

In a twist of fate, the Indian baby (Filimone) was given to Catholic Fijian parents Tevita and Sofia Maleti while the Fijian baby (Asif) was given to the Muslim couple Farida and Azim Khan.

by Solomoni Biumaiono
Photography: Savenaca Viriviri

Now 14 years old, Flimone Sulivaliva is a slim and shy rural village boy. When we first saw him, he was on the front porch of their home in Matalolo Village, in the interior of Vanua Levu, joking and playing with his younger brother Emori and their grandfather. Just minutes earlier, after a 40 minute ride from the main road, we had met Filimone’s father Tevita near the village and asked if we could speak to him about his son. The Fijian father and his Indian-looking son had just returned from a two week camp at their farm up in the hills above their village, which is closer to Labasa but sits within the province of Cakaudrove.

Two days later we sailed across from Vanua Levu to Taveuni and visited 14 year old Sheik Asif Khan at his home in Qarawalu, a farming settlement to the south of the island. There a Fijian-looking heavily built Muslim boy with a solid presence stood on the porch and watched us coming in. As we tried to break the language barrier to convince his mother Farida Bi to an interview, Asif put on a pair of boxing gloves and started pounding on a punching bag hanging on their front porch.
They may live worlds apart, but under the fa├žade of social, cultural and religious indoctrinations, their genetic make-up does not lie.

Asif is Fijian and Filimone is Indian.

Asif and Filimone were mistakenly exchanged at birth at Labasa Hospital on the 1st of August, 1994. They were born three hours apart. The Indian baby, now Filimone, had a normal delivery, while the Fijian baby, now Asif, was delivered through a caesarean procedure.

In a twist of fate, the Indian baby (Filimone) was given to Catholic Fijian parents Tevita and Sofia Maleti while the Fijian baby (Asif) was given to the Muslim couple Farida and Azim Khan.

“I saw the forceps mark on the baby’s head (meaning he had been delivered normally),” says Fijian mother Sofia. “But I was too weak from the caesarean operation to inquire.”

Filimone became Tevita and Sofia’s eldest child in a family of three boys while Asif was Azim and Farida’s third child out of a family of four boys.

What was supposed to be a celebration of life for both families, has however through the years, become one that has been marked with confusion, complications and anguish.
Throughout their young lives, Filimone and Asif, alongside their mothers Sofia and Farida have been discriminated against and are constantly reminded, in a country plagued by racial tension, of the strange image they make as mother and child with vastly different ethnic features.

Asif dropped out of his predominantly Indo-Fijian school because of the discrimination he says he received for looking Fijian. Filimone suffers similar treatment from his school mates even though he still remains in school. Filimone is in class 8 but Asif stopped going to school three years ago, while still in class four.
Sitting in their wooden home in Matalolo village, a village with piped water but no electricity, Filimone was uncomfortable and emotional as his mother Sofia related their story to us. He sat cross-legged on the mat in traditional Fijian manner, head bowed. Mai Life carefully asked him how he was considered by his peers, and Filimone took a while to muster an answer, bowing his head closer to the mat.
He replied in fluent Fijian.

“Era dau rulaki yau ena yaca na ‘kai Idia’ ena levu na gauna ia au dau saga meu kakua ni kauwaitaka (They always tease me by calling me an ‘Indian’ but I try not to let their teasing affect me),” Filimone says.

“Au sega ni dau taleitaka na nodra dau kacivi au na yaca oqo (I don’t like it when they call me an Indian).”

While Sofia disapproves of the teasing, she believes most of Filimone’s schoolmates are just behaving their age, as even his younger brothers do the same when they argue with him.

“Kila o ira na gone era na gone tiko ga (Kids will always be kids),” she says.
She is more worried about what the future will hold for her son, and is concerned about what fellow villagers might do since Filimone stands to inherit the head of his mataqali title.

“Au sa dau tukuna tiko ga vua me vuli. Me vuli sara vakaukauwa me rawata vakavinaka na nona bula. Au kila tu e lomaqu ena sega ni ganiti koya na bula ena koro,” (I have advised him to work hard in school, get a good education so that he can support himself and have a good life, because I don’t think he will do well living as a villager),” mother, Sofia says.

“O tamana e ulumatua mai na nodratou matavuvale. Ni oti ga qo, o tamana ena rawa ni soli vua na na itutu ni liuliu ni nodratou mataqali. O Vilimone tale ga e neirau ulumatua. Eda sega ni kila tu na yalodra na lewe ni koro. Au sa leqataka tiko gona ke keirau sa na yali, ena tiko o ira era na sega ni vinakati koya baleta ni kai Idia. Eda sega ni kila tu na yalodra na tamata (His father is the eldest in his family. It looks like that he is next in line to become the head of their landowning unit. Filimone too is our eldest son but we don’t know how the rest of the villagers will think about this. I am worried that in the future when we have both passed away, some of them will not want him because he is Indian. We don’t know what people really think about him),” she says.

According to Sofia, Vilimone cannot be included in the ‘Vola Ni Kawa Bula’ (the official Fijian register of native landowners) because he is really Indian even though he has been accepted as their firstborn. However Mai Life is aware of instances where supposedly non-Fijians have been written into the Vola ni Kawa Bula at the advice and direction of the clan or tribe.
hings are a little different but the challenges are the same for Asif. His parents had to abandon their plans for him as he was steadfast in his decision not to go back to school because of the supposed discrimination he suffered at the hands of his teachers.
He attended South Taveuni Primary School from class 1 in 2000 but dropped out three years ago as, according to his mother, he was constantly tormented by his classmates and teachers.
The first incident was when a lady teacher singled him out in front of the class and berated him for not following what she had asked the students to do.

“She tell to him ‘Tum kai Viti bot karab’ (You Fijian, very bad),” Farida says in her broken English.

“Students tease him. All children saying like that to him.”
“After second day I brought him home.

Farida lodged a complaint with the relevant authorities and convinced Asif to go back to school.

“I give him all the things. After one week he go back to school,” she says.
But Farida explains that the teacher then approached Asif and chided him for telling his mother about the incident.

“He said mummy I don’t want to go back to school. I force him to go to school, I want him to get job,” she says.

The next incident was when he was in class 4 and involved a male teacher.
“In first term test, he only sat one paper after that he ran away from school. Came here crying saying ‘mummy master ame maris, master ame maris’ (master hit me),” Farida says.

At 3pm on the same day, Farida went to the road to wait for and confront the teacher as he had to drive past their home to get to his house.

“Next day I go to school and same time went to police station and get medical report.”

“Three, four months later I go to Naqara to ask but policeman tell me don’t know,” she says.

A policeman who was familiar with the case Umesh Shankaran died just last year.

Ram Sidal is the head-teacher of South Taveuni Primary and he confirmed that he has received complaints from Farida, and also been the subject of a complaint.
He said two other teachers were also named in the complaints and subjected to an investigation carried out by the Ministry of Education in 2004 and 2005.

Mr Sidal denied that there was any truth to Farida’s allegations. He alleged that Farida uses the incident to try to get money from the teachers, but could not provide any proof to back his claim.

Ever since that incident three years ago, Asif has been content with staying at home honing his boxing skills and learning to live off the land as a farmer. The family live in a tin house.

For Farida, Asif’s troubling experiences at school is just another chapter in the journey of tribulations she has endured ever since she brought him home from the hospital.

Farida has suffered like her son, ridiculed often by her community and accused of conceiving Asif through an extra marital affair.

“Muslim people tell him (her husband) to give this boy back to family and bring his own son back. Every time you know, Indian people say bad things to me and my son,” she says.

The Khan family was living in Tidritidri, Seaqaqa where they were farming a piece of land when Farida had Asif.

Farida and Azim started to argue a lot when they saw that Asif was different from their other two sons.

“Three months my husband fight with me. Me fight back because I had enough,” Farida says.

She says she was denied food for one whole week and forced to sleep in their fertilizer shed with Asif as her husband started accusing her of having an affair with a Fijian man.

Incidentally the man she was accused of having an affair with is directly related to Filimone’s father, Tevita.

Her husband threatened to divorce her because of Asif and she even suffered physical violence with a scar to prove that, but whenever the Police came she remained faithful to her husband and never laid any charges.

During this trying time, Farida was again pregnant with her youngest child Sheik Samir Khan.

According to Sofia, it was in late 1995, almost 18 months after the birth, when a family member told her of an Indian couple living in Seaqaqa who had a baby that looked Fijian.

“Na kena moniti tarava au sa gole sara ga meu laki raici rau mada na veitinani kai Idia qo. Na gauna oya keitou se tiko kina mai Koronivuli. Na noqu gole yani, keirau sota sara ga kei Farida, ni duri tu e tautuba. Na gauna ga keirau veiraici kina, keirau sa dui raica sara tu ga na matadrau na dui luvei keirau vei keirau (The following Monday I went down to Seaqaqa to see the Indian lady and her son. At that time we were living at Koronivuli village. I saw Farida holding the baby outside as I approached their house. The moment our eyes met, we saw our sons’ eyes in each other’s faces),” Sofia says.

It was a moment of redemption and deep emotion for both mothers.

The two shared their stories and established between themselves that their sons were exchanged at birth.

Filimone’s father Tevita says that many had suggested that the two families exchange again but Farida and Sofia themselves find it hard to part with their sons as they had weaned them and had grown attached to them. Vilimone and Asif are also not keen to leave the family they grew up in and the only home they have ever known.

“They say this is not your son but he was small baby when I bring him from hospital. This my son,” Farida says.

In a quirk of religious and cultural doctrines, Azim’s family also could not take Filimone back because he had eaten meat that contradicted their Muslim faith.

But both families are seeking closure from their traumatic experience and for the past few years have often visited each other.

Filimone and his family spent last Christmas holidaying at Qarawalu in Taveuni with Asif’s family.

Sofia says Asif had once agreed to come over to stay with them in one of their efforts and attempts to re-exchange, but in the last minute decided against it.
Tevita hopes that through such visits, the boys will grow to understand what had taken place and decide on their own what is best for them, as past efforts by the parents had proved futile.

Sofia admitted that she never liked talking about the incident at all, but with the passage of time she has come to accept what took place.

For Farida though, the thing that hurts the most was what she had to go through with her husband and members of her own community, as well as what has happened to her son in school.

The heavily built Asif likes boxing, while Filimone likes to play left link for his school’s soccer team. Filimone told Mai Life he is also considering a life as a Catholic priest.

Much has been said about the differences between Fiji’s two major ethnic groups, but the story of Filimone and Asif shows that a mother’s love is blind, and love conquers all.


meg said...

I read this in the magazine when it came out. It is SO sad! The race issue just complicates it more. I think the mothers are very brave and loving souls...

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Hello Meg,
Yes, the story has implications on how we treat people, now we perceive people to be different. Is it possible to read even one article about Fiji where the words 'Fijian' and 'Indian' are not mentioned?
We are heading for Fiji in a couple of weeks, though I'm not very comfortable with Suva's humidity, but the grandkids are there, so that's where we are going!

moira said...

I remember when this story first broke out while the boys were still very young some years ago now. I am so pleased to read about them again, now at the age of 14! I and the rest of my fellow workers were so touched and shed tears of both joy and sadness for the boys and their families. Such a beautiful beautiful story to write about. To Filimone and Asif, we shall follow your lives with great interest. Live your dreams, love the family you have and be good abiding citizens of Fiji.

God Bless

Children of Fiji said...

This story is one that cuts deeply at the core of what goes on at the grassroot level within the Fijian society be they of Indian or Fijian origin or other.

The two boys being pictured is a wonderful story of how two families can accept the initial error of what happened at the local hospital at which the switch occured.

What amazes me is what remedy has been offered to these boys & their families for this mishap at birth now that they are big.

Have they received some sort of formal apology or what from the hospitial hierachies in Fiji.

It is obvious that the boys just wants to get on with their lives likewise their families on both sides now that they both belong to an extended one.

This is not a novelty, it is real. At least someone should be held accountable to the origin of what went so wrong from their mum's hospital bed at the maternity unit they were born in.

We will indeed follow this story as the two boys as well as their families are now held in high regard regardless of race, religion creed or colour

We wish the two boys & their mums all the best.

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Thank you for visiting our blog. It goes to show how important it is for teachers in schools and other people to treat each child respectfully and look further than physical characteristics in a child. Prejudice is an awful thing. I think this story should be made into a movie or drama.

Anonymous said...

Fijians are a very racist group of people in the pacific. Talk about being christians, I dont know what bible they read.
The govt of Fiji is not doing anything about the two boys situation e.g compensation, education,counselling etc.
As for Asif he needs professional help now to cope with his anger.
Where are the authorities??Social welfare, Ministry of Education, George Groups,etc.

Missy Miss said...

To anonymous i maybe fijian indian myself even a hindu but its not just fijians who are racist alot of us fijian indians are racist too with the exception of me cause i see things differently rather then with prejudice. These boys dont just need love from their mothers but also from the two ethnic communities by putting aside their differences it will benefit them and the two ethinic communities as well. Fiji is just as much as my homeland like it is to the natives there. I may look indian in appearance but from within i am more fijian within. If people can just talk to one another with love and affection it solves everything and make things easier for everyone.

Missy miss said...

we should not allow the division the english caused for us between the native and indians to haunt us we must fight it through love

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Yes Missy,
Anonymous hasn't got it right. Most people I know are not racist, but sometimes it's more comfortable for people to stick with their own kin though they are also hospitable towards other groups. Well, most of the time! Also, some of the best-looking people have genes from more than one group anyway!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree to compensation from the government or Health Ministry for these two families.The nurses and doctors who were responsible should be held accountable.This is the worst nightmare one can imagine.It's still ongoing and for how long will they let the families suffer.I want to hear that they have been compensated and looked after.They have suffered because of negligence by hospital staffs.I thank the brave mothers and fathers for holding up their families.But authorities responsible should really support them.
Anonymous mother!