Fiji stories, Labasa, South Pacific culture, family, migration, Australia/Fiji relationship
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Jone Madraiwiwi, a thoughtful man
I read this article and wondered why Jone Madraiwiwi has been very quiet lately, but he certainly has been thinking about Fijian identity and ways of doing things, especially the culture of silence. The recent article. is
The apparent absence of
debate, particularly among the Taukei, is attributed by commentators to ‘a
culture of silence’. Open, vigorous public discourse is not yet a feature of
Taukei or Fijian society at large. It has been explained in terms of a cultural
milieu in which authority and communal structures coalesce to muffle
expression. While media controls and self-censorship have not helped, it is the
epistemology, ways of thinking, of the Taukei that invites closer scrutiny.
‘Silence’ does not
necessarily mean consent. It is the lack of oral and written expression about
issues passing for acquiescence. From the colonial era to the present, Taukei
took refuge in silence until the political climate improved. Social media
(Facebook, Twitter, blog sites etc.) represent a contemporary variation,
allowing disaffected Taukei to express opinions anonymously. An assertive
few, on opposing sides of the divide, eschew such inhibitions in that virtual
world. Safe haven notwithstanding, it is outside the wider public domain.
Sanctuary afforded by ‘silence’ comes at a price: uncontested interpretations
of issues and events become historical truth and received wisdom.
Reluctance persists among
Taukei to ventilate issues of interest openly whether the traditional system,
sustaining Taukei culture, the Taukei language,qoliqoli,the protection of land or the status
of indigenous people post-December 2006. It is compounded by several factors.
Blood and kinship ties remain significant. Personalities matter more than
issues. Opinions are an extension of the person and difficult to separate. And
the ubiquity of connections renders security in numbers of larger societies
Consequently, leaders take
offence easily because there is no distance between them and their audience.
The ‘personal’ element permeates and colours all relationships: traditional,
political, economic, social and religious. Social interaction is complicated by
the relative frequency with which people meet at weddings, funeral gatherings,
other‘oga’(traditional/social obligations) and
settings. The implications for free-flowing discourse are obvious: reluctance
to disagree for fear of offending.
Communal thinking is
interwoven with this ‘connectedness’. The group is preeminent and the
individual secondary. The latter is a component of the whole. His/her utility
lies in the credibility and weight lent to the consensus. It is sometimes
self-evident, but more often a combination of interventions from key persons or
groups and circumstances. There is little leeway for the self-validation
essential for the flow of ideas. Seniority determines one’s right of
audience and “who can and cannot speak”. Empowerment constitutes work in
progress particularly for women and youth.
Advocating a public
position necessitates taking a stand. It is not as simple as Nike’s ‘Just do
it’ slogan. Consequences arise: it obliges others to react. This may be
unsettling if they prefer not to be involved. Individuals or groups are
identified with a position, limiting their room for manoeuvre with possible
repercussions. In June 1977, as naïve law students, my good friend Graham Leung
and I wrote to the Fiji Times criticising then Governor-General Ratu Sir George
Cakobau’s decision not to invite Mr S. M. Koya to form government. The National
Federation Party had won a plurality in the May election. My fleeting temerity
was swiftly aborted by the opprobrium my politician mother endured.
Dissembling is a valued
cultural trait: maintenance of relationships and social cohesion is the highest
good. Consensus is valued and dissent discouraged. Where it arises or is
anticipated, the preceding discussion and ensuing outcome are framed in general
terms. It allows those present to project a ‘consensus’, interpreting
proceedings to their benefit. Individuals usually reserve judgment during this
process to gauge the tide of debate. Throughout this exercise, details are
glossed over and face is saved. Either way, it does not allow for closely
argued exchanges characteristic of intellectuals and academia.
There is also a sense that
indigenous identity is a Taukei prerogative. While not a view I share, the
assumption is only Taukei can appreciate the essence of indigeneity.
Disinclination to participate in public fora is the result.
Interestingly, the extent to which Taukei are committed to “a common and equal
citizenry” of the present dispensation is intriguing. Ambivalence in
acknowledging this country belongs to all Fijians continues. Fuelled by a
perception that shared identity has been unmatched by reciprocal gestures, for
example as in recognising the autochthonous and unique character of the Taukei
language. A simple illustration: Taukei wince at references to the Taukei
rather than Fijian language, bespeaking inferiority. Furthermore, use of
the phrase “iTaukei” in English displays egregious unfamiliarity with the
Taukei language itself (legislative fiat aside – The ‘i Taukei’ reference is
mandated by Fijian Affairs (Amendment) Decree No 31 of 2010). ‘I’
partially serves as the article as in‘Na i Taukei’(the
Taukei) or‘Na i Vola Tabu’(the
Holy Bible). The phrase ‘the iTaukei’ in English (lit.
‘the the Taukei’) sounds repetitive, awkward and pretentious to Taukei ears,
especially when uttered by non-Taukei.
These minor irritants
nevertheless demonstrate how the ‘culture’ curtails more honest dialogue.
Taukei keep these feelings to themselves, stoking victimhood. Shared, it serves
to heighten awareness and sensitivity among Fijians although that process may
be confronting. Those observations about use of ‘i Taukei’ exemplify the
spectacle of unchallenged perspectives morphing into accepted orthodoxy. Wadan
Narsey has expressed concern about this trait in analysing possible causes for
the ‘hibernation’ (Narsey’s description) of ‘Fijian’ (i.e. Taukei)
The manner in which Taukei
relate to authority bears on this discourse. The hierarchy of the traditional
system, although modified, continues to apply between leaders and led today.
Forthright, direct comment yields to endorsing the prevailing orthodoxy. It
safeguards the position of followers in terms of anticipated largesse, guising
their actual opinions. Taukei are accustomed to dealing with their rulers in
this way as a means of self-preservation. The extensive protestations of
support for the government, some of which is doubtless genuine, may be
understood in that light.
At the same time, some
perspective is useful. While the culture has tended to reinforce the status quo
by limiting challenges to authority, individuals capable of strong leadership
have been able to buck the system to attract a following. Navosavakadua,
Apolosi R Nawai, Ratu Emosi of Daku, Sairusi Nabogibogi and Ravuama Vunivalu
formerly, Butadroka, Ratu Osea Gavidi, Bavadra, Rabuka, George Speight and
Bainimarama more recently have lain claims to prominence.
Their populist appeal and
charisma, the promise of a better future and a pointed rebuke to the
‘establishment’ for supposed failings partly account for their success (though
Levelling of both the
Taukei community and wider society, particularly since independence, reflects
an irreversible trend: those from more representative backgrounds dominating
leadership. That dynamic will have a liberalising effect over time. A vision of
the future surfaced during debate in 2006 over theQoliqoliBill which sought to extend property
rights to Taukei fishing rights. It was protracted, vigorous even fierce but
open and peaceful. Such scenarios are attainable but an enabling environment is
The other relevant
consideration is that informed and sustained debate requires familiarity with
issues, intellectual inquiry and reflection. For Taukei, earning a living,
raising a family, undertaking tertiary studies and involvement with‘oga’consume their time, energies and
resources. It is one reason Taukei are often absent from activities such as
service clubs. ‘Service’ as they conceive it is material and financial support
provided to immediate and extended family; or bearing the educational and
boarding expense of close kin in straitened situations. Taken with obligations
to thevanuaand thelotu,there is a cost: capacities for
conceptualising and articulation thereof are appreciably diminished.
phenomenon of reading not being popular among the Taukei and wider population
is worrisome. It is more than a means for acquiring credentials. Exposure to
ideas, development of rational thought and nurturing of imagination engendered
by this process is critical. Reading moulds the shape, quality and frequency of
debate. It stimulates the ability to formulate, synthesise and articulate ideas
clearly and logically.
Despite that lack, the
situation is changing gradually. Regulation is being eased accompanied by
empowerment initiatives for women, youth, people with disabilities, rural
populations and other marginalised groups. Rising standards of education and
exposure especially in the form of foreign work experience, the present
dispensation, the pervasive presence of the media, in addition to accessibility
to information technology have all had an impact. The resulting paradox: a more
permissive social environment facilitating increasingly diverse opinion.
There remains a need to
provide more open, honest debate within Taukei and wider Fijian society, so
citizens are able to participate effectively in the issues of the day. It is
critical for our development as a nation and as part of the global village. For
this to happen, understanding this psyche of ‘silence’ makes possible remedial
measures through socialisation, educational initiatives, empowerment, community
and civil society support and other means. While ensuring the emerging
landscape is focused and engaging rather than visceral; promoting balance with
respect but not hostage to sectarian sensibilities. Journeying beyond a culture
of silence to where meaningful dialogue and debate become commonplace.
·Joni Madraiwiwi is a traditional leader, lawyer and a former
Vice President of Fiji (2005-6).
This article appeared in the March 2014 printed edition
of Repúblika on pages 26 and 27.
Babasiga (pronounced bambasinga) is the dry land of Macuata in northern Fiji - our place in the sun in Fiji. Peceli is from Fiji from the village is Vatuadova and the beach is Nukutatava. Peceli Ratawa passed away on 27th December 2015 so this is Wendy's blog now. Wendy is an Australian and today live in Geelong, Australia.