Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Identity and Belonging-ness - Digging Below the Surface of being "Fijian"

Published in the Fiji Times on Wednesday 19th September, 2012 as "What is their place"

The issue of common national identity may different meanings and concerns for Fiji citizens – indigenous, native (Fiji-born) and naturalised – based on their own personal history and experiences and that of their communities.

It ultimately boils down to a sense of belonging to this country, not just in a legal or cultural sense, but also in emotional, psychological and even spiritual senses. From that point view, perhaps we can understand why, while the terms “Fiji Citizen” and “Fiji Islander” may be acceptable with regards to nationality in a legal sense, it may not resonate deeply or adequately express the sense of identity or rootedness that is felt by people who call Fiji “home”.

 Constitutional submissions on common name/national identity from groups who wish to preserve the unique identity of our indigenous brothers and sisters have made a number of proposals for different terms such as “Kai-Viti” for indigenous Fijians instead of “i-Taukei”, and Kai-Idia, Kai-Valagi, Kai-Jaina – to tie Fijians to their heritage. While I can understand, and perhaps even appreciate the concern and perspectives from which this proposals come, I feel that some Fijian communities may slip through the cracks in this type of identification.
Take for example the terms “half-caste” and “Kai-Loma”. Originally and from a colonial point of view, a “half-caste” was a mix of “European” and i-Taukei. This was translated into “Kai-loma.” Obviously this understanding of the term had no space for those of mixed i-Taukei and Indo-Fijian heritage, or even the different ethnic groups within the Indo-Fijian community. Now expand that to include every permutation of i-Taukei, Rotuman, Indo-Fijian, Chinese, European, Japanese, Cambodian, Samoan, Tongan, Rabi, i-Kiribati, Tuvaluan and other combination of mixed heritage in Fiji. What do we call them? “Fruit-salad”- while jokingly accepted and less derogatory than “mongrel” - offers very little in terms of identity. These Fijians who embody the very multicultural, multi-ethnic identity we seem to envisage as our future do not have an identity that embraces their diversity. Instead they are forced to choose one aspect of their very being above all others in order to fit in.

To embrace their i-Taukei heritage may mean ignoring their Indo-Fijian ancestors, or vice versa. In this new Fiji that we are trying to build, what is their place?

While we focus on the common term of Fijian, it is important for us to look beyond the surface of identity and belonging – beyond the national level to the provincial level, the community level. We need to acknowledge and name the sense of belonging that many non-i Taukei have to the land of their birth or that they now call home. How do we identify and acknowledge the connection – emotional, or even perhaps spiritual that many of us non- i Taukei have with the Vanua? How do we bridge the gap between the national and the communal?

There is a desire to belong – to not just our country but our city, town, district or village. There is a desire to belong to our province that continues to lie buried, unspoken, unnamed. There is a desire to be a part of a community to which we can contribute, share our skills and resources; a community whose traditional values and culture many wish to embrace; whose traditional leadership we wish to acknowledge, respect and seek.

Many non-i Taukei acknowledge their kaivata, their naita, their tauvu. They consider themselves Kai Suva, Kai Navua, Kai Lautoka, Kai Labasa, Kai Cuvu, Kai Dreketi. They want to be known as Kai Rewa, Kai Nadro, Kai Ba, Kai Bua, Kai Macuata, Kai Tailevu, etc. But how can they seek acknowledgement of that identity that goes with their sense of belonging?

As a Christian I see myself first and foremost as a human being, a creation and child of God. That is my basic starting point for my relationship with all people. As a citizen of Fiji, I consider this to be my homeland. However, I am continually struggling to find a way of expressing my identity as a son of Fiji at home that is acceptable to how others see me.

Like my father before me (born and raised in Vuci), consider myself Kai Rewa. He was very proud to be a Rewan and ex-Lelean. My wife who comes from the Pickering family, also considers herself vasu with Rewa. She is looking forward to the Pickering reunion in Lomanikoro in December this year.

 I have travelled the globe, yet I know no other home but Fiji. I have lived, studied and worked with people from all over the world yet the people I have the strongest relationship with are the people of Fiji – i Taukei, the descendents of the Girmitiya, Kai Loma and every other group that considers Fiji home.

I know that often my thinking and actions are the exception rather than the rule, that sometimes I am not one of the 99 but the 1 missing lamb from the flock. As a member of the Indian Division of the Methodist Church, I am used to being a minority in the Methodist Church, a minority among Indo-Christians, and a minority among Indo-Fijians. There are others also, I’m sure, are used to being a round peg that cannot fit in the square hole.

When I look at my children - who are 6th generation Fiji-born and yet of such diverse ethnic backgrounds that make them possibly the smallest of the minorities - I wonder on what identity will they be able to base their relationships and belonging.

My wife and I will raise them as our children, God’s children. We will teach them about their diverse ethnic and cultural heritage. At the same time we want them to also be Fiji’s children, Rewa’s children. We want them to know and understand who and what their vanua is, who their high chief, and understand what that means for them.

In the final analysis the journey we as a nation are undertaking is not merely a journey for our generations. It is a quest we are undertaking for the future generations who will call these islands home. It is an exodus that leads us from bondage to the politics of separation and culture of suspicion and silence to the freedom to bind ourselves voluntarily to each other in a covenant of trust, community and mutual respect. It is a journey in which we seek merely to find our way home; where we all truly belong, together.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity.”


Rev. James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea. Visit the blog: or

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