Jet-lag has had me sleeping continuously for the past 3 days since my arrival back into the U.K and it’s definitely not done with me just yet. I’m not complaining though, anyone who knows me knows that if presented with a choice of two activities, one being sleep, I’d always choose sleep. However, falling asleep at the weirdest times in the most uncomfortable places isn’t anything I signed up for. Fiji, was, as you’ll soon find out definitely worth it.
Departing from London’s busy Heathrow airport, was nothing compared to my arrival into Fiji’s Nandi International airport. Of all the landings I’ve ever experienced, Fiji definitely wins by a landslide for the most beautiful views from above. It starts, all water and then gradually as you approach one of the main islands, Viti Levu, land appears from the water in the most magnificent of ways, and suddenly you see signs of human life; the green of the hills, the grey of the mabati sheets (corrugated iron) that they use to build their bures (houses) and cars on the road. Even then, you are definitely not prepared for what awaits you when you actually step foot on the island. Travelling for 28+ hours is no easy feat, but, and feel free to quote me on this, the destination is definitely worth the length of that journey.
If you travel often, you know the worst part about arriving your destination is meeting the immigration officers. It’s quite intimidating because one wrong word and they’re onto your case. Well Fijians do things very differently, as you walk into the immigration section, you are welcomed with live acoustic music and wide smiles. This one simple act definitely lessens your nerves which you later discover weren’t necessary since the immigration officers themselves are quite friendly. Added bonus to this trip was the fact that Kenya (and a number of other countries) is visa-exempt. For the first time I didn’t have to go through the stress of obtaining a visa to enter a country. All you need is your passport and flight ticket.
If I show you a world map, would you be able to locate Fiji?
I wouldn’t be surprised that a majority of people have no idea where Fiji is. In fact I can bet 90% of people only know of Fiji because of their Rugby 7s team.
Located at the South Pacific, Fiji appears literally as a dot (or in our case, the star) on the world map. It however, is made up of 322 islands, the biggest being Viti Levu, which is where the capital, Suva, is located and Vanua Levu. Being in Fiji made me realise that the Fijians are in their own bubble whether or not they realise it themselves. They are awake when everyone else is asleep and asleep when the rest of the world is awake. To make it a bit more clearer, Fiji is a good 9 hours ahead of Kenya. In all honesty, time difference is one of the many advantages Fiji has; that and the distance between them and the rest of the world. (Chinese have however found heir way there as they have everywhere else 🙂 )
I had the opportunity of visiting Fiji during their ‘winter’ period. I say this lightly because I was sweating profusely by the time I disembarked from that plane and made my way into immigration. It was only 8 a.m and the temperatures were already as high as 24 degrees celsius . However, the heat was just a slight inconvenience which I got used to over time.
‘Aki nibebee Unga ya chapati na ugali. Na usisahau majani chai na..’ ( Please bring for me Chapati*and ugali* flour. and don’t forget..). This is the most common request you’ll hear anyone living abroad give to another travelling to them from the motherland. It’s not even surprising that we may be violating customs by bringing in foodstuffs from outside the destination country, but they don’t say anything so we don’t bother to be cautious..right?
Well, being an island far away from everyone else, Fiji strives to protect her biosphere. This is evident because before you can proceed to the arrivals terminal of the airport, you have to go through screening. The biosphere officers take great caution on what can enter the country. In fact you have to declare if:
- You have visited a farm in the days prior to arrival in Fiji.
- You have in your possession any tinned food/ fruits.
- You have anything else that is restricted in Fiji.
Refusing to declare and being found with anything illegal results in a thorough search of you and your bags and, if anything is found imposition of a heavy fine which must be paid in cash at the moment.
Once you leave the airport, it’s a breath of fresh air. The cool breeze coming in through the windows to cool you down, the warm smiles and waves of pedestrians who shout “Bula!” when they see you and all that topped up by the smooth roads you travel on. I did not encounter one single pothole during my stay in Fiji. To say I was impressed would be a lie, I was more than that and slightly embarrassed when I compared what I was seeing to the current state of Kenya’s infrastructure.
The long drive towards Suva (capital city) and as well towards Namosi Highlands (where I stayed for 3 weeks), left me absolutely speechless. The Pacific Ocean, a deep blue farther out, blended seamlessly with the lighter blue closer to the shore and looked magnificent on the right side of the road. While on the left, hills, filled with grass, and trees, showing the different shades of green depending on where the sun’s rays touched. Seeing cows, and horses grazing peacefully and having the scent of food, especially the rice and meat cooking in the structures on the side of the road really made me realise how far away from home I actually was. It was at that moment that I kind of missed home, but I managed to push that feeling out of my mind and continued to take in the beauty of where I was.
EXPERIENCING THE FIJIAN WAY OF LIFE
Culture in its most basic form is defined as the way of life of a group of people.
By the time you’re visiting a new country, more often than not you’re either going to face a completely new culture, or one that is similar to yours in some ways. Whatever the case, do not go trying to make changes to suit your lifestyle. That is an insult to the community you are visiting. Instead, go with an open mind, ready to learn new things, try correct in a subtle manner but remember, if it’s not your culture you may have to take the long route to make any changes.
Fiji is one of the few countries I can say have really tried to preserve their culture while still adapting to changing times. Going to live in an actual Fijian village enabled me to experience this culture first hand and in turn learnt to appreciate where I am from even more.
Below is a summary of their culture, I found it not so different from the culture back in Kenya which helped me adjust quite fast.
Family – Basic unit of the clan. The father is the head of the family. He is so revered that he has his own door in the house located at the front of the house. Everyone else uses the family door or the kitchen door.
In addition to that, the village have a community hall where village meals are hosted, events are held and Kava (their traditional drink) is drunk for a large number of people
The villages are led by a chief, who sits at the front during ceremonies, and he is assisted by his Turanikoro (the speaker).
I must add that family is so important to them. When we were in the village we were assimilated into the families and I’m sure if any of us were to return, we’d be welcomed with open arms.
Roles – As it was with most African communities back in the day, roles in the Fijian culture are divided along gender lines. For example, men are responsible for building houses/ providing security while the women stay home and cook/clean/take care of the children. However, the girls still go to school and luckily are allowed to participate in sports. In fact when we were there we were honoured to meet one of the 2 girls in the province who plays rugby competitively with the boys.
Customs/ Rituals – Fijians always welcome you into their home when they are having a meal. Kerekere (sharing) means that the villagers are not supposed to let anyone pass their home without offering them some food or a place to stay if they are travelling. This works for them because they don’t really have the issue of insecurity.
In addition to that, as the pictures above show, everything is done on the floor. Meals are eaten while sitting on the floor and sleeping is also don’t on the floor. My volunteer sister and I however, were lucky to get a house with a bed in our own separate room, which our family insisted we use. If you walk into a room where people are sitting down, it is custom that you sit as well even though you’re there for a few minutes just because being at a level higher than the rest is a sign of power/esteem.
I know this is something that’s common everywhere, but it’s quite prominent in Fiji. Remove shoes before entering any building. That includes, houses, community hall, offices and even classrooms.
Dressing– While in the village setting and when working in schools, girls were not allowed to wear any revealing clothes, we were wearing maxi dresses and tops with sleeves or the sulu with a top. It was a bit more lenient for the guys as they could wear short, but had to wear shirts with sleeves as well. However, during solemn ceremonies they also had to wear their sulu or traditional sarong. In all honesty I didn’t find it hard adapting to this mode of dressing. I had carried my deras and they helped me survive !
We were allowed to wear knee-length shorts or 3/4 leggings when we went out for excursions but we had to cover up before getting into the village.
Sports- I think I don’t have to say it. The fact that Fijians take sports very seriously. I mean if you look at their physiques you can tell that being active is just a part of their lives. However, it isn’t just in Rugby which is their national sport. They also play netball and volleyball very well. While in Fiji we had the chance of celebrating a national holiday with them. Would you believe me if I told you that it was their National sports day though? We spent that day competing with one of the villages and I’m sure it comes as no surprise when I tell you we lost pretty much all our games 🙂 but it was all fun.
It’s so unfortunate that I had to leave that little paradise and come back to my reality.
To Fiji, especially Vunidavo village all I can say is a massive Vinaka Vaka Levu (thank you very much) for the three weeks I spent with you and the lessons I learnt 🙂
- *Chapati and ugali are local dishes eaten in Kenya