Bula Fiji ! August 2010
Ordinarily I'm opposed to feeding wildlife in their natural habitat, but shark feeding in Fiji has a perfect excuse : Shark is a Fijian God . How can you not feed a God ?
Dakuwaqa , the Shark God is one of the best known gods in Fijian legends .He is the guardian of the reef entrance of the islands, his fights with all the other reef guardians is said to be the cause of all the great waves that regularly flood the inland valleys . The only fight Dakuwaqa ever lost was with the Kadavu octopus , and upon begging for his life Dakuwaqa promised he would never harm any people wherever they may be in any part of Fiji waters .He has kept his promise and Fijians have no fear of sharks when they are out fishing or swimming . To this day when local fishermen go out for a night's fishing they reverently pour a bowl of kava into the sea to honour their Shark God .
Shark Feeding tourism in Fiji booms in the face of controversy for the simple reason that this is undeniably the highlight of diving in Fiji . We were lucky to see in close quarters dozens of bull sharks as well as a tiger shark . Fiji maybe the " soft coral Capital of the World " but that's pretty much all there is , the seas are almost barren because of over-fishing . "The livelihood of the dive operators are at risk if this goes on," Boris , the dive-shop owner said, jutting his chin towards the humongous trawlers dotted all over the sea . They hailed from Taiwan, Japan, Korea and some as far away as Europe , all holding legitimate licenses sold them by the interim Military Government to fish in Fijian waters . To combat the decline in fishes, for the past 10 years the Fiji Locally- Managed Marine area Network ( FLMMA) has set up tabu or marine protected areas (MPA) , most are "no-take" zones for 3 to 5 years , but some are 10 years or more . Tabu originated from a local custom observed at the death of a Village Chief , when a part of his village's 'i qoliqoli', or fishing ground is set aside, for 100 nights no one is allowed to go near it or take anything from it - not fish, shellfish, invertebrates, corals .... living or non-living . The good news is this maneuver is showing some effect , the octopus which had disappeared from the Navatu district fishing ground for 30 years, returned just 3 years after the setting up of tabu area , and a red crab and some fish species which had disappeared from Navukavu for 50 years have also now returned . The bad news is poaching is a serious problem, and pollution and climate change are affecting many restorative projects , including the reintroduction of giant clams to Fiji . Moreover, rising sea levels ( 17 centimetres in less than 100 years ) is a big worry for these low-lying island states in the Pacific Ocean , so much so it prompted Leah, a Fijian school girl, to made an impassioned appeal for her country in the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009.
Shark pictures courtesy of Bruce
The Shark Feeding Show attracts all sorts . We ran into Jennie, nickname "Little Flying Fish "; she's a retired member of the Chinese Olympic Swim Team and now owns a swimming school in Hong Kong . " The classes cost an arm and a leg ! " I whispered to Boris as I explained who she was . The leg that stood out on board the boat, however, had to be Nigel's . Nigel was a British soldier on convalescent leave from a tour in Afghanistan, his thigh bore the proof of his military prowess in the form of a prominent scar from a gunshot wound , framed by a tatto of a AK47 machine gun and the fateful date the injury happened . " What went through your mind when you were shot ? " I asked . " I don't know......" He fumbled for the thought . "Oh, so it's just : ' Crap! I've been hit !' "" Yeah! That's pretty much it !"He grinned and stretched his legs. " How do the Afgans feel about you in their country ?" I was curious. " Afterall the Brits were the first Western Power to invade Afghan in recent history ."" Oh we're all right, the Afghans don't mind us Brits, it's the Americans they hate !" Nigel broke into a happy laugh, he was actually looking forward to another tour in Afghanistan.On balance, the sharks are far more civilized than humans.
I've wanted to visit Fiji ever since I first heard about it 30 years ago from my cousin Irene, who was a Peace Corps volunteer and worked as a science teacher for 2 years at the Nadogo Junior Secondary School, in Navualevu, Labasa . I'm finally going now because this is the first year we've direct flight from Hong Kong to Fiji, the new arrangement was possibly facilitated by the Shanghai Expo. Over 3 million people, most of them Chinese, passed through the Fiji pod in the Pacific Pavillion and Tourism Fiji has declared the Chinese tourism market its priority target . The kickoff was a lottery prize of return tickets for 2 to Fiji , compliment of Air Pacific, which was won by a lucky visitor from Guangdong. Fiji is quite chummy with China right now, just exactly how chummy is reflected by the immigration form I was given to fill in on arrival . " But it's in Chinese !" I exclaimed in surprise. I was further surprised to find since 2001, Fiji TV has been relaying programmes directly from China Central Television.
Sino-Fijian relationship has had its ups and downs . Fiji was the first Pacific Island country to recognise the People's Republic of China in 1975, and it has no diplomatic relations with Taiwan. But Oceania has always been, as Taipei Times described : "a longtime 'Yuan diplomacy' battleground for China and Taiwan ", because royalty of the Pacific Island nations shifts according to the size of the aid package. In 2005 China expressed "disappointment" at Fiji for having authorised the visit of the then Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, he was greeted by government delegates with "full traditional Fijian ceremony of welcome" - although he did not meet his counterpart President Josefa Iloilovatu, nor Prime Minister Qarase. Relations were slightly strained again when Fiji supported Taiwan's wish to join the World Health Organization. Nonetheless, Fiji never wavered from its official recognition of the "One China" policy .
After the 2006 coup the Commonwealth group of former British colonies, Australia, New Zealand , the United States and the European Union all imposed sanction on the Fijian Government, but Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, the first Chinese premier to visit the Pacific Islands, announced the PRC would provide more economic aid to the Pacific Island countries, abolish tariffs for exports and annul the debt from the poorer countries, distribute free anti-malaria medicines, and provide training for two thousand Pacific Islander government officials and technical staff. Commenting on the "look north" policy ( strengthen relations with Asia in general and China in particular ) in 2007, Finance Minister Mahendra Chaudhry said : "Fiji has friends in China, Korea, other Asian countries. We're no longer relying on Australia and New Zealand. And in any event, the United States was not doing much for Fiji anyway."An article in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 2008, stated : "China's aid to Fiji has skyrocketed since the coup in December 2006", from €650,000 to over €100,000,000."
It's not hard to see which way the wind blows. The Western countries are quick to promote chaos as long as it's done in the "right name ", and pontificate or deal out sanctions when things don't suit them, while China never gives lectures but instead gives water reserviors, roads and power stations .The past few years have seen more Pacific Islands minister visits to China than to any other country and China is set to overshadow Australia as the biggest power in the South Pacific. Australia promptly reacted by escalating defence cooperation with Japan and poured huge amount of resources to boost up the Indonesian Military . The increased Chinese presence is also rattling the US, leading to a flurried military deterrence maneuver in the Pacific to 'contain China' . Meanwhile the Island nations are happy to play the bidding game and milk the maximum benefit from the competing big nations . In March 2008, following unrest in Tibet, Fiji expressed its support for China's actions in dealing with the riot in Lhasa, and police in Fiji arrested seventeen people who were protesting in support of Tibet outside China's embassy in Suva . One good term deserves another, so when Fiji faced suspension from the 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum in 2009 for failing to hold democratic election, Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping paid Fiji a state visit and signed a number of cooperative deals . The present Sino-Fijian relationship is as Fiji's interim Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama smugly describes to the press : "Wonderful ! ".
I took time off between dives to visit the China Town in Suva . Suva is the capital of Fiji, situated on the eastern side of Viti Levu Island, it has a population of 247,000 and the country's largest market, as well as a thriving textile industry . Fiji is home to about one million people, 55% of the population are native Fijians, 38 % are Indians , while the Chinese at 8,000 people ( not counting the Fijians who are of partial Chinese extraction) make up only about 1% of the populace . The history of Chinese people in Fiji dates back to the 1850s, when Moy Ba Ling, also known as Houng Lee, sailed to Fiji from Australia as part of the gold rush. He later brought his family and fellow villagers over and settled in Levuka . Later arrivals came as merchants and harvested natural resources such as sandalwood and sea cucumbers, the latter a Chinese delicacy. The Chinese were credited for opening the first shops in rural Fiji . After the first two coups in 1987 the economy was in dire straits, desperate for investment the Fijian Government opened its doors to invite more Chinese in. Around a thousand Chinese, mostly Cantonese from China, settled in Fiji in the late 1980s and earl1990s . I met many of them in the Central Suva Market, working as vendors selling vegetables they've grown themselves in land leased from the Government. In February 1995, cashing in on the panic emmigration surge of Hong Kong people leading up to the hand-over in 1997, the Fijian Cabinet approved a plan to allow up to 7000 Hong Kong Chinese to immigrate to Fiji, on the condition that they pay F$30,000 to the Fijian Government, plus investment of F$100,000 in government-approved projects. Many who came invested in restaurants, retailing, and market gardening. A further wave of northern mainland Chinese arrived in the late 1990s , opening bakeries and other food outlets in Fijian villages . Today around 80% of the Chinese in Fiji speak Cantonese as their native language and 16% speak Shanghainese as their native
Historically the Chinese community has been held in warm regard by the locals because they're good for the economy, created jobs for the locals, generally hardworking, apolitical and kept to themselves. Unfortunately things have taken a dive recently . There has been "mild tension" from the local unskilled workers when it was discovered the so-called skilled Chinese workers "needed" by the textile industry were just cheap labour; then the Indian Fijians complain Chinese shops are taking over a lot of their business . After the 2000 coup, Fiji was again desperate for investment, but a 357-kilogram heroin bust and a Suva drug laboratory, at an estimated value of F$1 billion, was linked to new Chinese immigrants . This led to a call for a review of foreign investments legislation and vigorous screening of people coming into Fiji . The loudest voice against letting in more Chinese comes from the Methodist Church, the biggest Christian denomination in the country, because of perceived links to crimes like drug-trafficking and prostitution . The media stigma has driven a wedge between the old and new Chinese, and emboldened Fijian youths to assault Chinese market gardeners and farmers for cash, as they bring their produce to the market at around 3
or 4 a.m.
Fiji society is strongly male-dominated with a hereditary chief system still firmly in place . Both rural and urban dwellers ( native or foreign ) have to undertake the same communal obligations of community life as directed by the chief, which Boris found to his cost when he first started his business. Boris owns the Fiji Waidroka Dive at the Beqa Lagoon where we were staying, he's a Russian Jew who's made his home in Israel, but travels half way round the world to man his shop 6 months of the year. " I did everything by the book with the Government but nothing was going right, " he said ruefully " until a Fijian friend told me to seek the Village Chief for his blessing, then everything went smooth as butter " Now every little thing he wants to alter on his premises he would first appease the Chief with appropriate gifts to ensure cooperation .
Fiji, of 330 islands, has its moments of fame. The uninhabited Monuriki was the island in Tom Hanks' movie "Cast Away', the reality TV show "Treasure Island" was shot in the Mamanucas, the Resort Walu Beach on Malolo appeared in "The Resort", another reality TV show, while "Survivor Fiji "was filmed on Bounty Island , and Brooke Shield's "The Blue Lagoon" was filmed in Turtle Island . Recently Fiji has become a hotspot for celebrities having weddings, honeymoons and vacations . In 2006 Tori Spelling wed Dean McDermott in a private ceremony at the Wakaya Club in Fiji and Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and The Bachelorette's Trista Rehn all chose Fiji for their romantic honeymoons.
We mere mortals of modest means could only afford a day tour on the main island. I picked " Discover Fiji "because the brochure claimed it was the "Winner of Multiple International Tourism Awards ", but more importantly because the boss was the village chief.The Raiwaiqua Village which we visited was started by an Englishman, John Humphrey Danford, in the early 1800's , and the kids we saw in the village were his 7th generation Anglo-Fijian descendants . We were led to the Bure ( village meeting house ) by a warrier holding a club, and dutifully sat through the "tourists must sees" : the welcome yaqona ( kava ) ceremony, the war dance, " taralala & tuboto"( snake Dance ) and meke ( song and dance ), then we were let through the village to see how the handicraft souvenirs were made in then traditional way, and finally to a lovo lunch : a variety of foods - chicken, pork, fish, taro, tapioca ( manioc ) wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked in an underground oven of heated rocks, served buffet style .
Villages are the cornerstones of Fijian culture and way of life but I'm not sure how authentic the village we visited was ; but the young warrier with a cell-phone tucked under his grass skirt and readily gave me his Email address for forwarding photos I took of him, I presume is more representative of modern Fijian villagers . New way of living brings new ills, and there is much trouble in paradise.
The traditional family value is eroding fast and family unit has undergone dramatic changes in the last thirty years .The Fiji Women's Crisis Centre (FWCC) reports the rates of domestic violence, related homicides and suicides are climbing fast, as are divorces and single parent families. The subordinate role and economic dependency are reasons why Fijian women have tolerated violence. It is estimated that women make up only 30% of the total workforce and are concentrated at the lower paid jobs,but with increasing number of females as heads of household things are slowly changing. I read in the business page of Fiji Times, the oldest daily English-language newspaper in Fiji, a report titled " Talent, skills merge", about 5 young women graduating from a training course in painting, tiling and joinery, and were poised to enter the male-dominated construction industry . But the easiest way for pretty girls to climb out of poverty is to flaunt their prettiness . Fiji has more beauty contests than anywhere I'd ever been : Miss Hibiscus Festival crown ; Miss Perfect party hire ; Miss Shop 'N'Save queen ; Miss South Pacific , Miss Fiji Islands .............. all the girls claim to be deeply concerned about Fiji's social problems : theft and assault , alcohol and drug abuse, juvenile delinquency, unwanted pregnancy........the usual consequences of rapid rural migration to urban areas where jobs are hard to find and traditional social restraints are absent. Things must be pretty bad, for in the post office in Nadi I found
hundreds of yellow ribbons tied to every rail and pole, pleading for a second chance for prisoners . However, the news in the Fiji Times most alarming to me was the announcement by the Cakaudrove District Crime Prevention Committees to impose a curfew on all village students , from 6pm to 6 am they're not allowed in the street without an adult escort, in a bid to deter sexual predators !
Jack's Indian store in Nadi
The social woes are no doubt linked to the depressed economy and political instability . There was massive brain drain after the coup in the 80's , thousands emigrated to the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, of this 89 % were Indo-Fijians, and with each subsequent coup more people ran.The Indian population had decreased from 52 % of the population in 1986 to 44 % in 2007, now it's under 40% . In recent years the number of indigenous Fijians leaving has also gone up. Most of those who left fall under the professional and highly skilled category, and the loss of so much of the educated elite is affecting many services, more especially the health and education sectors. The Village Chief told me his daughter left for New Zealand 5 years ago, now she's working as a maid there and her husband a lock-smith . Both of them had been teachers in Fiji .The Ministry of Education abolished 3 exams - class 6 exam last year, class 4 Fiji Junior Certificate Exam and class eight exam this year, in a bid to reduce the number of school drop outs . On the medical front, there're more bad news as reported in the Fiji Times : the Ministry of Health is battling 1600 hospitalisation and deaths from Dengue fever; the number of births hit an all-time high this year as family planning service fizzled out , and 94% of Fijian children have dental decay . To block the brain drain Fijian style, Director Immigration Major Nemani Vuniwaqa told FBC News the department could only issue 5 passports a day because there's a shortage of passports, of the 4,365 applications for new passports this year they could only cater for 500. Then there's a rumour ciculating that a doctor was physically pulled off a plane to stop him from leaving !
Some of the problems in Fiji could be attributed to the legacy of the colonial British administration. Indigenous Fijians are descended from the Lapitas ( named after their distinctive pottery style), they were a seafaring people probably from eastern Indonesia or the Philippines and were the first people to inhabit Fiji , round about 3000BC. They interbred with the Melanesians from the west in about 500BC and later with Polynesian Tongans from the east . During the nineteenth century there was an influx of European beachcombers, traders, planters, and missionaries, and in 1874 Fiji became a British crown colony . Between 1879 and 1916 Britain shipped sixty thousand indentured Indian laborers to work the growing sugar industry, and sowed the seed for the trouble today as most of them stayed on. In 1970 Fiji became a fully independent nation but went through 4 coups in 20 years due to continual power struggle between the indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians, for this it was dubbed 'land of the coups'. Fiji Military Forces are almost exclusively indigenous Fijian and is therefore a logical power base. To complicate matters, the Indo-Fijians receive active support from Australia, as the ruling Australian Labour Party (ALP) uses the Fiji Labour Party (FLP) of Indo-Fijians to oversee affairs in Fiji . The Indo-Fijians are now looking to India, just as India is rising in the international arena, to play a more pro-active and assertive role on their behalf, so we might be seeing more stake-holders in the game by and by . So how bad is the interim Fijian Government ? Opinions differ depending on who you talk to, Johnny the waiter at the resort and his family, all indigenous Fijians, thought it's doing a great job and the ousted Indo-Fijian Prime Minister was pro-Indian and unfair to Fijians ; the Indian shop-keeper didn't want to say much but made grunting noises , while Boris and the Chinese couldn't care less who's in office as long as taxes don't go up . At this point the taxes that concern visitors are VAT charge at 12.5%, generally included in the purchase price and Hotel TurnoverTax at 5%.
The Fiji Flag has a light blue background which symbolizes the Pacific Ocean, in the upper quadrant of the hoist-side is the Union Jack and Fiji's coat of arms is in the center of the other half of the flag. The Fijian Shield on the flag bears the images of a golden lion holding a coconut. The motto "Fear God and Honor the Monarch."is in Fijian. Three of the quadrants of the shield on the coat of arms depict sugarcane, the coconut palm, and bananas, and the fourth quadrant shows a dove of peace. Government offices, police and military uniforms still display the British crown, while the currency (the Fijian dollar) continues to bear a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.
Christianity was brought to the islands in the 1830s by Methodist missionaries and some of the more exotic customs such as cannibalism was quickly put to a stop. In the old days the bodies of enemies slain in battle or sacrifice would be cooked for celebration feasts in honour of the crowning of chiefs or the launching of a great canoe . Human sacrifice was definitely a part of the old Fijian ritual , e.g. in building a temple or chief's house, men were buried alive in the holes where the posts were to go - "to hold them up". Today Fiji's old religion is no longer practiced, old deities are still acknowledged and respected, but not worshipped , though witchcraft still exists in private. A more benign custom still on-going is the yaqona (Kava) ceremony, used in welcomes, weddings, funerals, installation of a chief etc , though Kava is also drunk socially. Kava is a cousin of the pepper plant, the root and stem are washed and dried thoroughly, then pounded into a powder to be mixed with water and filtered through a silk cloth . There is a strict protocol to the drinking of kava : one should clap once (a deep clap with hands clasped together), take the cup (bilo), and drink the kava in a single draft , then you return the cup to the bearer, clap 3 times and say 'maca'.
Johnny was put in charge of the resort Kava welcoming ceremony, and all the guests had to turn up . There were the few obligatory Australians surfing fanatics, then there were the Clintons from America, no relation as they hastily clarified . " What're you doing in Fiji ?" I asked " We live here, " Mr Clinton said "after we retired we moved here, our house is not far from the resort, we come over for dinner if there's something we like on the menu ." " What made you decide on Fiji ?" " Look around you, where can you find sky and sea and quiet like this ? The expenditure is low and the people friendly " " What do you do if you get sick ?" " Well, we've worldwide medical insurance coverage , and Australia's just an hour away " The next day I happened to pass by the area where the Clintons were staying and found an up-market neighbourhood housing a whole community of American retirees . The whole world seems to congregate in Fiji, in a short week I met Mr Michael French, a divorced Catholic ( Yes, Divorced Catholic ! ) from Malta who's walked away from 2 sons but was now married to a Hindu lady and drived a taxi to support his 2 young new sons ; then there's Kazuko from Meiji University, Japan, who's come to Fiji to learn English . " Why learn English here ?" " Because it's cheap " she said . Oh well, English is the official language of Fiji . Lin's a teacher from Taiwan visiting her boyfriend who's working in Fiji ; and Gordan's a gay Australian surgeon taking time out from a busy practice to be with his Asian partner .
Fiji has a relatively narrow export - sugar, gold, timber, fish, garments, molasses coconut oil, and mineral water (Jigi water), but it also has offshore oil, hydropower, copper and gold mining, and if it would develop culturally and environmentally sustainable tourism Fiji could have a lot going still . 2010 happened to be " plant a tree a day year ", and I visited the Suva Fisheries and forestry Ministry "Environment Week" display booth, for educating the locals about the diminishing forests. Human resources is a prerequisite for development, and Fiji obviously has talent - afterall, the Fiji Sevens team is one of the most successful rugby sevens team in the world .Maybe Fiji should also think outside the box, there's no reason why it can't develop into an English Learning center for Japanese, Koreans or even mainland Chinese ( at present most of them go to NZ) ; or the Government could offer attractive packages to lure in affluent Wester retirees. I met 3 of Johnny's 6 siblings, all bright, educated, articulate , and all in gainful employment ; in these young people I'd pin the new hopes for Fiji . Bula ( life ) Fiji !