Freedom. The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. In 1970, the British Empire after 96 years of rule over the islands handed Fiji back it’s sovereignty. This would have been the first time in almost a 100 years, a Fijian would have had the right to act and speak as a free person. For an Indian in Fiji then, this meant he no longer was a slave to the White Man. While for the indigenous population, it meant the right to be King of their own land once again but alas with a stark forever debatable cost of submitting to another crown.
Post-colonisation 46 years on; 3 Constitutions, 11 general elections, 4 political coups later – with all the cuts and trimmings of a post-colony recipe, Fiji is strivingly bubbling along as a quasi-democratic country. What there is no record of though in this past 46 years, is the number of times our hearts quivered with fear of the unknown after independence.
Freedom came in whirlwinds.
We were a new country – people had known only to serve their masters for a very long time. The average Tomasi/Ramu struggled to make sense of this new found freedom. The 1970 constitution written from a racial perspective directly adopting the British administration’s colonial framework ensured that the white policy of ‘divide & rule’ and segregation based on race continued. Indigenous natives were classified Fijians, Indians as Indo-Fijians and the rest as Others. Which exploitative politicians found easy to rein in and build their own agendas on. What in the later years got classified as ‘racial tensions’, ‘ethnic conflicts’ was just really 2 groups of aggravated, confused and scared people trying to hold on to and protect the tiny little dignity they had left. Hence at the hands of a few in a whirling pace of change, our definitions of a ‘free’ us began to take shape.
A recent change in legislation has classified all citizens of the islands as Fijians. What’s perplexing is that this still hasn’t been as widely accepted in the country. The term Fijian still remains a matter of race for lot of people especially for the itaukei community. The Indo-descendants and Others have gratefully accepted this as a validation of their identities.
However today I’d like to talk about the liberty of being Fijian. We may be physically free from our slavery days but as a nation once so steeply segregated on race, have we completely freed our mindsets from the colonial benchmarks? It seems to me that for a lot of people the liberty to be a Fijian is slightly lower than the liberty of being British or in particular white. It’s dawned on me that a lot of Fijians feel beneath or inferior to a white person.
No. It doesn’t sit well in my stomach either to have written that above paragraph. But there is this unseen mental plaque affecting Fijians in 2016 and it’s time we spoke about this. It’s time we spoke about how our society has built within our cultural structure to make us actually feel as a matter of fact that we are inferior to the white race – who once ruled over us.
Our inferiority complex is so deeply ingrained in our norms and attitudes that most of us are not even aware of our submissive behaviour.
Our Version of Our History
I think it was in class 4 when I first learnt of the Indenture System. Questions like “when was Fiji ceded to Great Britain” made it to exam papers without fail every term either in the multiple choice, or matching or if you’re lucky in the short answer worth 3 marks section (but you had to write the answer out in full otherwise it’d be only 1/2 a mark for 1874)! Back then that piece of history was just that – social studies. There never seemed to be a connection between me and those labourers in the textbook photos.
I vividly remember the first time I used the word ‘slaves’ to refer to the Indian labourers on this blog and the backlash I got from some of my readers. That present-day Fijians of Indian descent came with a history of slavery was unfathomable. When most people in Fiji think slaves – the African American history comes to mind not ours. Even within the Indian community, we don’t really talk about our past.
Take the word ‘cede’ for example, it wasn’t till I started writing this post did I actually know the history behind that word. Up till now I’ve always been under the misconception that Fiji was conquered by the British like other colonies. But in fact – Fiji was voluntarily offered to GB by a high chief to pay his own debts. Apart from the clearance of his debts, part of his offer was in exchange for “civilisation and Christianity” for indigenous Fijians.
Ask around – how many people in Fiji actually know this fact about our past.
There’s a problem with the versions of our history. Is it ours? Or has it been told for us? Are we actually telling our own version of our stories or are we repeating what was written for us?
All early documentation of Fiji has been written by ‘civilised’ white men – is it a true account of our side of the story or a whitewashed version of a painful time in our history.
Perhaps there was a reason for sugar-coating post 1970 – there was a nation to build which couldn’t have been built on truth, maybe?
But somewhere along the line, the version of history we’ve been teaching all these years – is an account of a far superior race who once upon a time ‘saved’ us. For which till this very day – we feel we always have to look up and be grateful for.
Our Neglect of Our Own Languages
Along the hallways of my Indian primary school – there were signs that read ‘No Vernacular Language”. For anybody caught talking in Hindi or Fijian – there usually was a significant punishment including unexpected claps on the back of one’s head. English was the medium of instruction and our own languages became ‘subjects’. Which really was just ‘time-pass’ periods with no significant weightings in exams.
And any child who could not speak good English was automatically classified as a ‘poor’ student. I’m deeply ashamed to admit that I grew up genuinely thinking that people who couldn’t speak fluent English were ‘dumb’. It wasn’t till I became an English teacher that I realised just how pathetic we were to be made to believe that English is a supreme language that only smart people could speak in. It so happens that English is actually one of the easiest languages to learn in the world hence it’s preference over the globe.
In my short term as an English teacher, I’ve taught students whose first languages ranged from Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian, Kazak, Turkish, Armenian and even Kurdish. And unless someone is bilingual – the second language someone learns will always have a slight lag because the speaker will first have to process the 2nd language they’re learning in their first language before responding. People usually interpret this translation delay as ‘slow and dumb’. A common occurrence in Fiji.
A “good command of English” is a standard requirement for most jobs in Fiji – unfortunately though instead of looked at it as a skill set which can be improved, many Fijians are victimised out of opportunities because we’ve got this misconception in our heads that a person’s intellectuality in Fiji has to do with how well English they speak.
We all know a grammar nazi and that one person in Fiji who finds people with bad English grammar a turn-off on our social media networks. There’ll always be this one eejit who’ll try and reduce your entire credibility by correcting your ‘their’.
Apparently speaking in vernacular is also not cool. I started an organisation this year with an Indian name and the amount of flak I get for it is incredible. People’s perception usually towards a non-english name is that it’s….a ‘poor’, somehow beneath the similar white run platforms despite our quality being just as good.
Somewhere along the line, we’ve began to believe that our own languages are backward; inferior to that of the English. And we’ve allowed ourselves to the delusion that speaking good English and having good grammar makes us superior to those who don’t (and regardless of our IQ levels.)
Our Attitude Towards White People and Each Other
We all know this one. Go to any restaurant in Port Denarau. Go there every Friday. Spend 52 x times more than your average once a year tourist to that establishment. But you’ll still need to beg with an inch of your life for some service!
Yes. We are one of the world’s most friendliest people. We have beautiful and genuine smiles. We have an open heart that makes you feel like you are home.
But that’s all for you. You the targeted white tourist market. Not for each other.
What kind of humans does that make us, Fiji? Why is it that we reserve a one particular attitude for the white and another for each other. Do we not owe ourselves better? Do we not owe each other better? Are we not as equal as humans as other race? Then why is it that we reserve our utmost best for other races and not each other.
Somewhere along the way, perhaps we forgot to remind each other that we no longer are beneath any other race. That with independence 46 years ago – our attitude doesn’t have to depend on the race of the person we are serving but on the respect you get from the human standing in front of you.
Our Possession of Our Own Jobs
In the building industry over the last 10 years – the competition in the industry has expanded from amongst locals builders and occasional NZ/AUS old school establishments to expat owner builders, new companies who’ve come and gone burst in Fiji and recently the Chinese developers.
Building workers are a fickle nomadic bunch and most of us move in and out of companies several times a year. A older foreman in our organisation calls it the “Yes Sir” mentality when we loose a number of workers to a particularly white company. The renumeration sometimes probably is just 10 cents an hour more then what local companies offer however to our local boys there’s a certain liberty working for ‘gora’ company. I wouldn’t have a problem with ‘gora’ companies if they invested in our labour development. But after 7 months, when these workers get laid off from their high white companies – they come back to us having learnt nothing new and back to where they started.
On a contrast, capital city Suva is a white collar expat hood. With a number of foreign agencies and NGOs, there are many job positions which expats are recruited for. Now if there are no suitable candidates in a developing country like Fiji, the number of expats engaged would be understandable. However for every position an expat is employed, there are also staff locally engaged to support them to do the ground work. For way too many opportunities in Fiji, they are a number of qualified, just as good locals doing the work for some expat, to have at the end of the day – their names published on that report instead of our local PhD holders.
I don’t have a problem with expats. There are a number of Fijians currently working as expats in PNG who enjoy the peaks of being an expatriate. But when a country has adequate work force to do the job and they are doing it without the pay, benefit package and the acknowledgment that of their expat bosses then we have a problem.
Look at Ben Ryan (bear with me!), I mean he was great coach sure but we’re heavily discounting the fact that our boys play darn good rugby. Consider the race factor – would our boys give the same respect to a good local coach? Is it perhaps that a ‘white’ coach just automatically gained that respect? Do note – a coach is a coach. Their job is to make their teams win.
Somewhere along the line, it’s become acceptable by Fijians that we always will be a certain degree ‘dumber’ than anybody who flies in from overseas to work here. And as simplistic as it is to write this – a lot has to do with our population’s ability to express themselves in a language not ours hence we feel our ability to do the same job is not as credible. Most expats (perhaps subconsciously) harbour a superiority based on the colour of their skin and language which we Fijians along the way have always accepted. Thus allowing laxity for our jobs, our integrity and our sense of laziness stem from this inferiority – to always be handed over to some ‘smart white falla”.
Our Acceptance of Two Standards – ‘Theirs’ & Ours
Long gone are the days when only the rich could fly in Fiji. Most locals have visited their family and friends flying to nearby Australia & New Zealand while some have hauled it over to American & Canada heartily living their 6 months up visa!
When local Fijians talk about their time overseas, there’s usually a reference to how ‘uh log’ did things there and how things were ‘bahut different and strict there’. When our building workers come back from their ‘gora’ company stint they tell tales of how “proper” their toolkit had to be. I usually come across women who work as household help with 2 modes of cleaning ability – one for the gori’s house and the other for the Indian household they work for. Because it’s ingrained in them that the level of cleanliness has to be much higher in a white house.
Somewhere along the line we’ve accepted and genuinely believe that it’s okay to have to 2 standards. That it’s imperative we follow the rules when we are over the seas but ‘it’s alright’ in Viti. Somewhere along the line, we didn’t empower our people to understand that respect is gained on the standard you demand for yourself. You deserve nothing else but the highest standard. Not because of your race but because you’re an equal human being on the planet and so what that you live in a small developing country like Fiji.
Our Lack of Confidence & Direction
If there is a word to describe the last 46 years of Fiji’s history – it’ll have to be “confused”.
As a 4th grader, I was expected to know who Sir Arthur Gordon, Cakobau and the Queen were. I learnt of Abel Tasman, Vasco Da Gama and Alexander the Great. All the great inventors and music bands were of far away lands. I did not grow up idolising one single Fijian person because I simply didn’t know that great, amazing Fijians who did a lot to build our country actually existed. There were no freedom fighters or Fiji trail brazers whose photos or plaques were up on public spaces. We grew up idolising the very people who once oppressed us.
Hence with a language we still haven’t fully commanded, a vague understanding of our history and of who we are and a constant sense of insecurity due to national politics – we’re always lost.
Somewhere along the line we failed to give our people enough grounding to firmly build on who they are. We’ve lost so much of our arts, heritage and culture on the path of conversion to ‘civilisation’. We’re left with a confused population trying to find themselves in pop culture representations that have nothing to do with them. One only needs to see copy cat events like fashions show etc. where we try and express ourselves in a medium that is not part of who we are (well my body size certainly isn’t!). Our lack of confidence comes from trying to constantly match up to a white western ideology who we are nothing like. Somewhere along the line, we forgot to teach our children to be brave and powerful; to be original – no matter how different and to stand their ground.
I possibly couldn’t round up this post without mentioning the “Others” in the 1970 constitution. Between the Indian and itaukei shuffles, we usually overlook a certain part of our population who are caucasian or Asian but just as Fijian as you and me. And in contrast they’ve done everything by coming down to a level to be accepted as part of the itaukei tribe to keep failing miserably because they’re white! We all know that one kaivalagi or Chaina kid who wears a sulu, drinks grog and tries to keep the io accent going. We scoff at him but he’s just trying to fit in and be part of a country which he calls home. There really isn’t anywhere else in the world that he can. Despite him being white.
Such are the issues of the human heart.
Is This Post Racist?
When you grow up in a multiracial country like Fiji, you’re drummed about racism and values of tolerance and understanding. To this very day, my brain operates on a racist filter. When friends share things on social media about whitewashing and colonialism and graphic cartoons, my mind automatically goes on the defensive thinking how rude of them. So I’d understand if you’re reading this thinking that this post is flaming racism. But I feel that in Fiji, most of my generation have been blasted with this tolerance and multiracialism spray that we feel discussing anything relating to race and colour of the skin slightly wrong and in our fear of tipping the boat, we’ve developed a culture of being quiet. Which has contributed a lot to our submissiveness.
So no. This is not racist. And I’m not white-hater either. Biggest irony of this post is that I’m writing it in English! My godparents are white Australian, I lived with them for 4 years when I was a child and they’ve instilled some of their best values in me which Suruj and her husband haven’t. My god grandmother taught me how to roll my “R”s on my tongue sitting me on her lap with tried to teach me how to walk like a lady complete with a book on my head! I’ve traveled the world teaching English and I’ll be forever grateful for the writing opportunity English has brought me. So I don’t really have a problem with the white race.
But what I do have a problem with, is when people of my island nation think they are beneath other races and in particular inferior to the white race. It makes me furious when this affects the work I do. This past year – I’ve been finding, curating, telling and bringing forward our version of our stories yet when people I work with, speakers and listeners I bring to our platform seek validation from white expats and make the comparative with other white platforms – it makes me realise what deep ingrained complexes the Fijian man harbours in 2016. We have amazing, talented and world-class quality work producing individuals to share their stories and yet most of our young people’s comparative is simply based metaphorically on the colour of their skins and not on the value of their work. It startles me to know the number of people who are so ignorant about the stark realities of our past. Then there are young people in Fiji who’ve been taught to be grateful to the white race for bringing them civilisation and Christianity…
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” – Bob Marley
Bob Marley decades ago sang “…emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”
And till we can empower our Fijian people to think beyond race and that they are just as equal to any other human being on this planet, Fiji will never be truly free.
All views expressed are my own. No racial discrimination is intended. Do not copy or publish without prior consent. All care has been taken for historical accuracy but this blog does not take any responsibility of any incorrect references picked up during research.