Thursday, February 28, 2013

Voices of the People: “What people think about decision-making in Fiji”

Last week I shared with you about the launch of the book, “Voices of the People,” which contained the results of a research project by the Pacific Theological College’s Institute for Research and Social Analysis on “Perceptions and Preconditions for Democratic Development in Fiji.”

According to the authors, the motivation for the research was the desire to avoid further upheaval, and to assist the Fijian people in their search for an appropriate and suitable form of governance. This research, aimed to carry out an extensive and impartial inquiry into governance issues.

Convinced of the importance of recognizing the views and wisdom of the people of Fiji in creating a form of governance that is appropriate and suited to Fiji’s historical cultural context, specific local political conditions, and aspirations of her people, the report is based on a systematic exploration and analysis of views of Fijians from all sectors of society.

Key to understanding the research is the concept of “Hybrid Political Orders”.

In post-colonial states, including Fiji, state institutions are not the only institutions which fulfil functions that, in the model Western state, are clearly state obligations. There are also locally-rooted social entities, such as extended families, clans, tribes, village communities, and traditional authorities (e.g. village elders, chiefs, healers, ‘big men’ and religious leaders), which determine the everyday social reality of large parts of the population.

As seen in Fiji, state institutions are to a certain extent ‘infiltrated’ and overwhelmed by local, customary non-state ‘informal’ institutions and social forces, which operate according to their own logic and rules. This has led to the departure of state institutions from the Western ideal type.

On the other hand, the imposition of state agencies has impacted on non-state local orders as well: local customary institutions are subject to deconstruction and re-formation as they engage with, and are incorporated into state structures and processes. As a result, they adopt an ambiguous position with regard to the state, appropriating state functions and ‘state talk’, whilst simultaneously continuing to pursue their own agenda.

As a result, governance is hybridized by the interactions between introduced liberal democratic state institutions and local customary non-state institutions. In hybrid political orders, diverse and competing authority structures, sets of rules, logics of order and claims to power co-exist, overlap, and interact; they combine elements both from introduced Western models of governance, and local indigenous traditions of governance and politics. Further influences are found in the forces of globalization and associated societal fragmentation.

In hybrid political orders, different types of legitimate authority - beyond the rational-legal authority legitimized by liberal democratic procedures - can be found, such as traditional and charismatic types of legitimacy. These co-exist, compete and interact with rational-legal legitimacy, leading to a hybridisation or fusion of legitimate authority.

This week we discuss the topic of Decision-making as shared in the 41 focus group discussions involving 330 participants and 82 in-depth interviews.

Decision-making in Fiji today is multi-faceted: the hybridity or fusion of the socio-political order in Fiji plays out in the duality of Fijian decision-making processes. Traditional structures and processes of decision-making co-exist with modern structures and processes. Moreover, these different types of decision-making do not only co-exist, but also interact and overlap.

This situation causes some confusion and stress, thus posing major challenges for all Fijians, ‘ordinary’ people and the elite alike.    

It comes as no surprise then, that some interviewees pointed to the disadvantages of a ‘dual system of decision-making’, and are concerned about a ‘conflict of governance models’.

In order to encourage the prospects for future democratic development in Fiji, clear political strategies for rendering decision-making structures and processes conducive to democratic development must be identified.

The starting point should be the acknowledgement of the hybridity (as highlighted above) of the current means of decision-making. Next, the challenge of reconciling these different systems of decision-making must be addressed, so that a system and culture of decision-making that is perceived by the vast majority of Fijian citizens as being just, appropriate and sustainable can be established.

This should not mean abolishing one type of decision-making process only to impose a new and allegedly better (that is, more democratic) one from the outside and from the top.   On the contrary, what is already there should be engaged with, through trying to nurture, strengthen and improve it, with a clear vision of the direction this should take.

Democratic decision-making should then be understood as inclusive, participatory, consultative, accountable, deliberative, transparent and egalitarian. In particular, the representation of women and youth needs to be strengthened.

Taking this approach seriously means acknowledging how decision-making structures at local level function, while simultaneously initiating a debate about how to strengthen the representation of women and youth in decision-making processes. Such a debate will inevitably lead to reforms of the current decision-making structures and procedures. What is more, the mere fact of having this debate will itself transform the ways decisions are made.

Starting with reforms in the local context, this approach can be expanded so as to address all the different levels of decision-making, from the local to the national. Improving the transparency of decision-making processes at higher levels, and improving communication channels between all the different levels are of major importance, so that people do not feel alienated or excluded from decision-making beyond their locale, but can gain better insights into those decision-making processes that are removed from their everyday lives.

This process will not lead to the substitution of one system of decision-making for another, but instead to the facilitation and management of hybridity in ways that foster more democratic decision-making.

The focus groups and interviews gave plenty of evidence of where starting points can be found in day-to-day life for the gradual reform of decision-making. Participants and interviewees alike perceive decision-making to be a social process of arguing and bargaining, and are also familiar with the idea of voting and decisions taken on the basis of a majority vote; voting as a means of decision-making is generally accepted.

Even the more conservative sections of the populace are aware of the norms of democratic decision-making, and the need to engage with those norms; outright rejection of democratic decision-making is clearly a minority position today.

In other words, the notion of democratic decision-making has become authoritarian in today’s discourse, and its proponents are on the offensive.

The debate no longer revolves around the validity of democratic decision-making as a principle, but rather about how to implement this principle. In pursuit of this debate, it would be imprudent to sideline and marginalize those who are still sceptical or who oppose it, as this would lead to destructive conflict. Rather, they should be offered ways to join the process of reform.

At the same time, all those who see democratic decision-making as desirable, but are fatalistic about its achievability, should be shown realistic ways in which change can be brought about.

Next week we learn what the researchers learned on the issue of “leadership” in Fiji.

A full copy of the report, “Voices of the People: Perceptions and Preconditions for Democratic Development in Fiji” is available from the Pacific Theological College’s Institute for Research and Social Analysis.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”


Voices of the People

Published in the Fiji Times's "OFF THE WALL WITH PADRE JAMES"  on Wednesday 20th February, 2013

What do we really think about how decisions are made in the family, the community and national level?

Does consensus-seeking in village or town meetings provide another real model of democracy?

What kinds of rules/laws guide your conduct?

What types of leadership actually exist on the ground in Fiji, what do both ‘ordinary’ people and elites think about these types, and what they think are desirable, legitimate forms of leadership?

What is the current understanding of citizenship among Fijians today?

This afternoon (Wednesday) the results of a research project to identify ways in which the people of Fiji would like to be governed will be released in a book titled, “Voices of the People: Perceptions and Preconditions for Democratic Development in Fiji”.

The research was undertaken in 2011 and 2012 by the Pacific Theological College’s Institute for Research and Social Analysis, conducted through 41 focus group discussions involving 330 participants, and conducting 82 in-depth interviews, on the issues decision-making, leadership, citizenship, the rule of law, and democracy in order to understand what the people of Fiji think of, and what their vision is, for good governance - in the form of democracy, or otherwise.

IRSA is the research arm of PTC, specializing in applied social research, and capacity-building activities for churches and NGOs in the region.

Local and international researchers interviewed representatives of the Government, politicians, traditional leaders, religious leaders, diplomats, academics, those in business and those working in NGOs, amongst others.

At the same time focus group discussions were conducted throughout Viti Levu and Vanua Levu by representatives of four local NGOs. These focus groups included participants from rural, semi-urban and urban areas; as well as men, women and youth – a consultation with people from all walks of life in Fiji.

Dr. Manfred Ernst, Director of the Institute of Research and Social Analysis and Co-author and Co-editor of the book said, “In writing this report, we have tried our utmost to reproduce faithfully the voices of Fijian people as we heard them during the focus group discussions and interviews. This report reflects both those things which people find positive in the current situation, as well as those things that they struggle with, and worry about. We hope that these findings will provoke thoughtful and reasoned debate on the issues outlined therein, and will enrich the dialogue begun under the current government through the process of making submissions towards the new constitution, as well as provide food for thought for politicians and voters alike in the run-up to the next elections.”

In determining the sample for both focus groups and interviews, great care was taken to accurately reflect the composition of Fijian society in terms of gender, religion, ethnicity, age, education, status, living conditions and geographical distribution.

The aim of the report is to present the perceptions and visions of the people of Fiji for future democratic development, as well as their opinions as to the preconditions required for this development. To achieve this aim, researchers assessed the following five key areas: (1) Democracy; (2) Rule of Law; (3) Leadership; (4) Decision-Making; and (5) Citizenship.

Given that in the next few weeks the Constituent Assembly is to be named and convened, “Voices of the People” may be a valuable tool for Assembly members who wish to consider how locals understand the issues that may be elements of  a new constitution and what a Fijian model of democracy may be like.

The book is more than just results of the research. It also includes a scholarly and theoretic discussion and key recommendations.

According to the book’s authors, “where proposals for democratic reform are made in this report, it is important to view these as urging the provision of opportunities for the people to articulate and develop a form of democratic governance that is appropriate to and suitable for Fiji’s cultural, religious and political conditions, while being mindful of the fundamental ideals and values of democracy.”

Although the publication is primarily academic, this publication will be a useful contribution to the process of establishing a home-grown and appropriate form of sustainable democracy in Fiji.

Given that for the first time, voters may include young people still in school or tertiary study (18 years and over) this book will be of significant interest to senior students.

The launch for the book will be held at the Suva Civic Auditorium on at 5pm this afternoon (Wednesday) and is open to all.

For those who are not able to attend the launch or get a copy of the book, over the next 6 weeks, I will summarise the study’s findings in the five key areas and present the key recommendations that resulted from the study.

The study may shed new light on issues we have been grappling with for the last 3 decades, if not longer. At the very least, it gives us the opportunity to hear the voices of others who may or may not be singing in the same key as us.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”


Taking a Stand Against Gender-based Violence

Published in the Fiji Times's "OFF THE WALL WITH PADRE JAMES"  on Wednesday 13th February, 2013

It seems that there is not a day that goes past that I don’t have this knotted feeling in my stomach. I get it every time I read, watch or hear about another violent assault on a women or girl.

On one hand I am encouraged that the Fiji Media is reporting and that organisations are raising this issue; and that more and more women and girls are being encouraged and supported in reporting these terrible crimes to the police.

On the other hand I am profoundly saddened that we continue to face such a widespread disrespect of the dignity of human life, and respect for the vulnerability of women and girls in Fiji, despite all the words spoken about traditional and religious values.

As a Christian I am ashamed that babies, little girls and boys, mothers, daughters, sisters and wives endure such pain and suffering in a country where close to sixty percent of the population claim to believe in and follow the teachings of Jesus the Christ, who uplifted and empowered the status of women.

Last week I was encouraged to hear the head of the Methodist Church in Fiji, Rev. Tuikilakila Waqairatu speak out against gender-based violence, acknowledging that was, “legitimised by many cultures, institutions and some Christian groups in society and its effects are extensive in nature.”
He was quoted as saying that the church “must create a climate of openness and develop policies and procedures which keep children and the vulnerable safe from harm.”

He joins other religious leaders who are not only willing to speak out against gender-based violence but are calling and leading their religious organisations to respond to violence in the home and the community.

Late last month, the Archbishop-elect of the Roman Catholic Church in Fiji, Father Peter Loy Chong, called for churches to take “an aggressive approach on the elimination of this social evil from our midst.” In an interview with the Fiji Times, Father Chong had said they “needed to be inclusive in their awareness programs at the grassroots level because not everyone belonged to the church.”

During the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Violence (25th November – 10th December) in 2011, the Archbishop of the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia, the Most Rev. Dr. Winston Halapua launched an initiative to combat violence against women and children in the Diocese. This included the training of clergy and pastoral care givers, implementation in the Anglican primary school curriculum, implementing a code of conduct for clergy, the provision of pastoral care to victims and witnesses of gender-based violence, and the establishment of the Simeon Ministry – male advocates in the campaign to eliminate violence against women and children.

As you may have read in the Fiji Times last week, a regional workshop was held by the Pacific Conference of Churches, God’s Pacific People and WEAVERS in Suva on the elimination of gender-based violence.

With the theme, “Act Justly: Stop Gender-based Violence,” the workshop was aimed at bringing representatives of churches in the Pacific together to network and strategise how to more deeply engage in the ongoing work to eliminate gender-based violence and also to make recommendations that can be taken to the Pacific Conference of Churches General Assembly in the Solomon Islands early next month.
Among the discussions was a call for a collective effort by the churches of the Pacific to work for the elimination of gender-based violence.

Akanisi Tarabe, PCC’s Ecumenical Animator for Women Development, who coordinated the workshop, said that the workshop was a opportunity for those involved in the church’s engagement with the elimination of gender-based violence to network with other Civil Society and Non-Governmental Organisations involved in the same work and establish and strengthen partnerships.

While there was a significant absence of male participants, Mrs. Tarabe was appreciative of the contribution of the men who did participate and contribute in the discussions during the workshop and said that one of the issues highlighted was the need to include men as part of the solution to the issue of gender-based violence, saying there was a need for the church to take the leading role in sensitising men, clergy, traditional and community leaders in issues that are normally seen as “women’s issues,” when they are everyone’s responsibility.

In sharing her thoughts on how to encourage Pacific churches engagement in the work to end violence against women, the Coordinator of the God’s Pacific People programme, Rev. Rosalyn Nokise said that an Ecumenical (inter-church) Network to Eliminate Violence Against Women could lead, “Pacific churches to work together to support and encourage responses to end violence against women at the local level within our communities.”

The proposals and recommendations from this workshop will be presented at a Pre-Assembly Women’s Meeting prior to the Pacific Conference of Churches General Assembly.

As a Christian, I have accepted the responsibility that comes with my faith to work towards the elimination of gender-based violence. As a human being I have accepted the responsibility to treat and ensure the treatment of other human beings with dignity and respect. As a man I have also accepted my responsibility to protect and advocate for the protection and respect of women and children.

The role of men as partners in speaking and acting against gender-based violence is an important in this struggle – whether in terms of sharing information on laws, “picking up the biblical witness of equality of male and female,” or advocating for non-violence and supporting victims and witnesses of gender-based violence.

Also important is the role of women in not contributing to the continuation of the cycle of violence by remaining silent out of fear, gossip, blaming other women, condoning abuse or through denial.

Tomorrow, when many people celebrate St. Valentine’s Day, the One Billion Rising campaign to end violence against girls and women will be held globally, including in Fiji.

According to the organisers of the campaign, one in three girls/women on the planet is raped or beaten in her lifetime. That is more than ONE BILLION WOMEN violated. One billion daughters, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, lovers and friends. On 14th February 2013, we are inviting ONE BILLION women and those who love them to WALK OUT, DANCE, RISE UP, and DEMAND an end to this violence.

Women, girls and men and boys who want to end this violence are called to join in this act of solidarity and demand an end to violence against girls and women. The campaign begins with a march, starting at 11.30am from Gordon Street, to Ratu Sukuna Park, where an hour-long event will be held that includes flash mobs and a theatrical production

Perhaps this may be the beginning of your contribution to end violence against women and children.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

Being "Wellthy" in Health

Published in the Fiji Times's "OFF THE WALL WITH PADRE JAMES" on Wednesday 6th February, 2013

As I enter middle-age (not to be confused with the “Middle-Earth” of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings), I am constantly reminded of the fact that unlike my teenage, twenties and even early to mid-thirties, I can no longer eat what I like and burn it off in the flurry of everyday activity with a bit of  exercise. The reminders have mostly come from my family, some concerned friends (and church members), and of course my clothes.

Most recently, though, my own body has begun to send me signals; or started ringing its alarm bells.

We joke about our “Pacific dimensions” but the reality is that NCDs (non-communicable diseases) are taking its toll on the Fijian population. NCDs make no differentiation between gender, race, social status or political preference. In fact NCDs are the result of our own indulgence and negligence.

A few years ago, I was reduced to tears when still in my mid-thirties my doctor told me that I was suffering from high-blood pressure. I knew it was my own fault. Long hours of work in the ministry; late nights in discussions around the tanoa - important discussions but late nights around the tanoa mean high kava consumption and late night dinners, and lack of rest; and missing my daily sessions at the National Aquatic Centre (I went from swimming 3kms a day to 3kms a week if I was lucky); had taken its toll. Fortunately with medication, a change in diet, resumption of regular exercise and moderation of kava intake my blood pressure normalised and I was able to stop medication. This also meant that I could resume being a blood donor.

I have always been careful of my sugar intake as my family has a history of diabetes. My late father suffered from diabetes and I have always felt that this NCD stole him from us – he never had the chance to get to know my children. According to recent statistics, Fiji has the second highest mortality rate from diabetes. It has the highest mortality rate for circulatory diseases.

However my preoccupation with steering clear of diabetes (and perhaps high blood pressure) lead me to ignore other NCDs. It wasn’t until trying on an old suit that I realised that I was not only overweight but probably would be considered obese. However given the option between controlling what and when we eat and how we live and getting bigger clothes, sometimes we just opt for the extra-large clothes.

The festive season – also known as the “glad to be back home in the land of kakana dina” season has taken its toll on my body. Last weekend, I noticed the big toe on my foot was giving me some pain. Given that we live in a small and some-what crowded house, I immediately thought that I had bumped it against something, or the like. However by Sunday the pain had become intolerable and I took myself to the Colonial War Memorial Hospital, convinced I had fractured my toe.

Although the medical staff were very busy, I was attended to in a efficient and professional manner. As busy as he was dealing with “real” emergencies, one of the two doctors at the Accident and Emergency centre examined my foot, checked my x-rays and informed me that I had a slight case of gouty-arthritis. (If this was a slight case, I have a renewed empathy for those with severe gout.)

 I had a rude awakening from my imagined state of health and the reality check I just received. Granted my sugar and blood pressure levels were excellent, I had never in a million years imagined that I would have gout.

Living in South Korea for the past year and a half, I have been fortunate to have a very healthy diet. Seoul is also full of parks, nature trails, bike trails, walking trails and most of them and most neighbourhoods have outdoor exercise machines, sit-up benches etc. During my time at university, I made good use of the trails leading up the mountain behind our campus.
However, coming home during this semester break, I broke all my good habits and indulged too readily in the rich food we have during the festive season. Lesson learned the hard way. 

Fortunately, this was my first incidence of gout, I’ve promised myself that it will be my last.

I remember a television advertisement in which the late former President and Tui Nayau, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara ended a promotional spot on healthy living by taking a swing with golf club and saying, “Health is Wealth”. I suppose our current President, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau continues to exemplify this by his early morning walks.

Good health and wellness are supposed to be our natural state. As a Christian, I recall the words of Jesus who said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).  

Perhaps we need to change our perception of abundance from the abundance of food on the table, the abundance of fast-food, junk food, tinned (rather than fresh) food and genetically modified food to the abundance of healthy food, exercise and healthy living – being in a state wellness – that we should enjoy.

Food for thought.

“Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity”

For Our Children

Published in the Fiji Times's "OFF THE WALL WITH PADRE JAMES"  on Thursday 17th January, 2013

Earlier this week I had to talk to my children about preparing to return to school, after unsuccessful attempts by their mother to try to get them out of their holiday sleeping pattern. They made a strong argument about going to bed when the sun was still up, based on daylight saving. I pointed to their school-day timetable pasted on the wall and reminded them that as of next week, they would need to follow their daily schedule again regardless of when the sun rose and set.
All parents and children are preparing for the new school year. For some it is just a matter of buying books, bags and uniforms, and getting the children back into the rhythm of going to school after the long break.

For others of course, the challenges are much greater. Finding the money to pay for school levies (not fees) and the necessities our children is a challenge. I must admit that I found doing the back to school shopping for our children to be an ordeal, even if my job was to carry the shopping while my thrifty wife sought out the back-to-school bargains.

Some decisions require a little critical thinking – ensuring that the uniforms are big enough for the kids to grow into but not too big as to make them look like hobbits wearing human-sized clothes; or finding the school bag that is affordable but will not fall apart after the first month of use by an active primary school student.

Some of our children may, as the media have highlighted, begin the new school year in sheds or tents, in the aftermath of Cyclone Evan. Some may have to begin the year with only some of what they need for school, until parents can afford to buy the rest of the school requirements, or even extra pairs of uniform. 

As parents, guardians, family or community members, eventually our children return to, or begin school. We find a way to get them into school. Having a little involvement with charity work, I have witnessed not only the plight of parents who struggle to ensure that their children are able to attend school, but the resourcefulness of parents who have accepted their responsibility to ensure that their children are educated. I have also witnessed the generosity, of families, friends and sometimes complete strangers who support children that not only they do not know, but may also never meet.  Some provide support from a purely altruistic or charitable perspective. Some however do so because they themselves were the beneficiaries of someone’s generosity. 

Supporting our children’s education, however, is more than just making sure that they go to school. It is important we as parents and family take an active interest in their schoolwork – not only Parents-and-teachers day or when the end of term report is collected, but every day. It means not only checking that the homework is done but how it is done and helping our children with their homework when they are stuck. As busy as we may be earning what we can to feed, clothe and educate our children, we still need to make time to help them in their education. And we need to always remember that although teachers can provide academic learning and in some instances even religious education; our role as parents and family members is to ensure that good values, responsibility, love and understanding are taught and practiced at home. Teachers are given the responsibility to education our children, not raise them.

Living in Korea and interacting with teachers, parents and children in my community, I have seen what can happen to children whose parents are so busy working day and night that they have little time with their children. I have seen children who are in such a competitive learning environment – in school and extra classes from morning to night – that they are falling asleep in classes because of the long hours.

It is one thing to be busy working to make ends meet. It is another to be out at gatherings, talanoa/tanoa sessions and extracurricular activities and leave the children on their own.

Sometimes the challenges our children face are non-academic. Children continue to face bullying, peer-pressure, difficult social-relationships, teasing and sexual harassment in school. Even with Child Protection Policies in place in school, if parents and guardians do not pay attention to these challenges, along with changes during puberty that our children face, how can we expect them to speak out about it? A child who pretends to be sick in order to stay home may not just be trying to “step school” but may be avoiding a bully, be teased, suffering harassment or worse.

My plea to parents, guardians and family members is that we all take interest in our children’s wellbeing and do our best that they receive a holistic, grounded education that not only leads them to become successful in their eventual career path or vocation, but leads them to be responsible, caring and understanding human beings who can contribute to Fiji being a just and peaceful nation.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

Measuring Up As Men

Last Thursday night, I accompanied my wife and children to a Candlelight Vigil held at the Women’s Crisis Centre in Suva.

The vigil was an act of solidarity “to remember the life of a young woman from India and the many, many women and girls who continue to experience sexual violence all over the world including Fiji.”

More importantly it was a rallying call against rape, sexual abuse and other forms of violence in our communities.

During the vigil, Shamima Ali of the Women’s Crisis Centre issued a call for men and boys in Fiji, “to change their own behaviour and discourage disrespect for females in other men and boys.”

Her call and the messages and poems shared duringthe vigil, echoed the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in November last year, called “on men and boys everywhere to take a stand against the mistreatment of girls and women.”

Tutu, reflecting on the deeply saddening, though perhaps not shocking, statistic that around 70 percent of all women experience physical or sexual abuse during their lifetime, said that, “despite the progress we have made, this world remains a cruel and arbitrary one for too many women and girls.”

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights activist wrote, “Do not be fooled, however: this is not some so-called “women’s issue”. After all, we know that more often than not, the violence suffered by women is inflicted by the men they share their lives with – their fathers, husbands, intimate partners.”

He asks the question: “If the majority of women in this world have suffered at the hands of their men, how many millions of men must have hurt and abused women? How many millions of men have stood by and let it happen?”

“If men overwhelmingly brutalise women, then men are overwhelmingly brutal.”

One the way home after the vigil my wife and one of our friends who joined us at the vigil with her children explained to the three girls and two boys in the truck, the importance of the vigil.

Later that night my son and I took our first steps towards responding to the call by Ms. Ali and Archbishop Tutu. We discussed the issue of rape and sexual abuse and our roles as men (big and little).

The point of our discussion was that neither of us would ever want something so horrible to happen to our mother/grandmother, wife/mother, sister/aunt, daughter/sister, niece/cousin or any of our female friends. No one would.

We need to expand this type of thinking to those women outside our family circle.

Every woman is someone’s daughter. They could be someone’s sister; someone’s mother. Every woman, deserves to be treated with love and respect.

On Sunday I read an interview that the boyfriend of the gang-rape victim gave to AFP and Hindi-language Zee News channel. The man who also suffered serious injuries during the horrific attack, said passers-by ignored the naked and bloodied couple for 30 minutes after they were thrown out of the bus and police then wasted more time arguing over who had jurisdiction. "A passer-by found us (after the attack), but he did not even give my friend his jacket."

The couple were to have been married next month.

When I read this article I immediately recalled the Christian parable of the “Good Samaritan” and the priest and Levite who crossed to the other side so that they would not be made unclean by encountering the injured victim of a violent robbery.

How many of us who profess to belong to faiths that teach love, peace, justice and righteousness turn a blind eye, or deaf ear when faced with injustice?

How many ignore situations of violence against women in our community, or neighbourhood because it’s “not our business;” or because we don’t want to get involved in someone else’s mess?

What if the shoe was on the other foot? What if it was us calling, screaming, begging for help?

I note that many religious leaders have spoken out against the terrible incident and against rape and sexual assault of women and girls.

All of the religions in Fiji value the golden rule of “do unto others as you have them done unto you”.

It is time that all religious communities take a stand against all forms of violence against women – not just through public statements but by making a commitment to talk about this uncomfortable issue in worship services, prayer meetings, and teaching programmes in places of worship as well in religious education classes in school.

Many churches and other religious organisations have Men’s Fellowship groups and youth groups. These are also important forums and spaces in which to seriously discuss the role of men in perpetrating and, more importantly their role in preventing all forms of violence against women.

In the words of Archbishop Tutu, “It is by standing up for the rights of girls and women that we truly measure up as men.”

“Simplicity, Serenity and Spontaneity”

Voyages of Discovery

Happy New Year!

One could say that most of our ancestors were seafarers of a fashion, some sailing in canoes, vaka, drua; some sailing on naval vessel, merchant marine ships, and some sailing on coolie transport ships of the British indenture system.

Since I was a child, perhaps because of our being a south sea Island nation, I have always been fascinated with explorers and adventurers such as Columbus, Cook, Tasman, Bligh (explorer by accident), da Gama, Shackleton, and for some reason Thor Heyerdahl.

The late Thor Heyerdahl (1914 – 2002) was a Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer. He achieved world-wide fame when in 1947 he and his small crew sailed 8000 kilometres from Peru to Raroia atoll, Tuamotu Archipelago (in Maohi Nui / French Polynesia and the largest chain of coral atolls in the world), in an indigenous Peruvian balsa-wood raft. This 101-day voyage proved his theory that it was possible for ancient native South Americans to have travelled to Polynesia using the favourable currents.

In 1952 he led an expedition to the Galapagos  Islands (where the crew of the Uto Ni Yalo also visited early last year), rediscovering the guara, a traditional navigational tool used by ancient seafarers of Ecuador and Peru South American and proving that these voyagers of long ago had the means to navigate as well as travel great distances in the Pacific. The guara would be used by his grandson in 2006 when aboard a similar raft, the Tangaroa (Polynesian god of the sea) he and his crew sailed to Raiatea in Maohi Nui.

After leading an expedition to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in 1955-5, in 1969 and 1970, sailing under the United Nations flag with a crew of seven men from seven different countries, Heyerdahl made two attempts on boats made out of papyrus (Ra I, made from material from Lake Tana in Ethiopia and constructed by boat builders from Lake Chad) and totora or nga'atu (Ra II made from reeds from Peru and constructed by boat builders from Lake Titicaca) to sail across the Atlantic Ocean from Morocco to Barbados.

While the voyage of Ra I failed some distance from its objective, the voyage of Ra II was successful, crossing the widest part of the Atlantic 6100 km proving that modern science under-estimated long-forgotten aboriginal technologies. The theory that Mediterranean vessels built prior to Columbus could not have crossed the Atlantic was thrown on its head.

In 1978 Heyerdahl embarked on the Tigris, expedition which was intended to demonstrate that trade and migration could have linked Mesopotamia with the Indus Valley Civilization in what is now modern-day Pakistan. Constructed out of reed again, the Tigris was built in Iraq and sailed with its international crew through the Persian Gulf to Pakistan and made its way into the Red Sea.

After about 5 months at sea and still remaining seaworthy, the Tigris was deliberately burnt in Djibouti, on April 3, 1978, as a protest against the wars raging on every side in the Red Sea and Horn of Africa. In his Open Letter to the UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, he explained his reasons:

“Today we burn our proud ship... to protest against inhuman elements in the world of 1978... Now we are forced to stop at the entrance to the Red Sea. Surrounded by military airplanes and warships from the world's most civilized and developed nations, we have been denied permission by friendly governments, for reasons of security, to land anywhere, but in the tiny, and still neutral, Republic of Djibouti. Elsewhere around us, brothers and neighbours are engaged in homicide with means made available to them by those who lead humanity on our joint road into the third millennium. To the innocent masses in all industrialized countries, we direct our appeal. We must wake up to the insane reality of our time.... We are all irresponsible, unless we demand from the responsible decision makers that modern armaments must no longer be made available to people whose former battle axes and swords our ancestors condemned. Our planet is bigger than the reed bundles that have carried us across the seas, and yet small enough to run the same risks unless those of us still alive open our eyes and minds to the desperate need of intelligent collaboration to save ourselves and our common civilization from what we are about to convert into a sinking ship.”

Despite the criticisms Heyerdahl faced for his theories - that migration to Polynesia had followed the natural North Pacific conveyor, from east to west, rather than conventional theories of a west to east migration and settlement of the Pacific – he has always been my favourite adventurer/explorer.

His comment about the Pacific, made in 1947 as he explained his theory before the Kon-Tiki expedition, that “the ocean is not what separates these people but joins them,” is a deep statement  not just about migration patterns but about our unity as a people of the ocean.

I am sure that any of the sailors who have voyaged on the Uto Ni Yalo can vouch for this from their own experience.

In 1934, on the 35th anniversary of the Kon-Tiki expedition, Heyerdahl said:
“Some people believe in fate, others don't. I do and I don't. It may seem at times as if invisible fingers move us about -like puppets on strings. But for sure, we are not born to be dragged along. We can grab the strings ourselves and adjust our course at every crossroad, or take off at any little trail into the unknown."

Sometimes we are so connected to the fixed, rootedness of land and material possessions, that we often cannot let go in order to grab the opportunities that lie ahead of us like the our ocean. We refuse to let go of what we consider to be “mine” and miss the chance to hold hand with others so that “yours” and “mine” can become “ours”.

As we stand at the threshold of 2013, we must ask ourselves if we are willing to let go of what has become comfortable and safe, in order to venture into the unknown.

An amazing journey lies ahead for our nation over the next two years. It may end in disaster, but it could just be a successful endeavour.

Whichever direction this journey takes us, are we willing to travel together as we search for that island of hope on which we all wish to life?

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”


Giving the Greatest Gift

Merry Christmas!

In the spirit of the season, I invite non-Christian and non-religious readers to bear with me and read on…

Even though it is Boxing Day, we are still in the season of Christmas that runs until the 6th of January, the twelfth day of Christmas (today being the first day - after Christmas). January 6th is known as Epiphany which means divine “manifestation” and refers to the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles (non-Jews) in the form of the magi (traditionally known as “the wise men”).

Eastern, Orthodox Christians will celebrate Christmas On January 7th, as this date is based upon the Gregorian Calendar (used before the current Julian calendar we use today) dating for 25th December.

Today I am  preaching at Dudley Church, having arrived home on the morning of Christmas Eve. I will share with them a message about the significance of the first people to see the Christ child. Given that many Fijians will have a quiet Christmas in the wake of last week’s cyclone it is fitting that our focus during Christmas shift from the “three kings” from the east who brought precious, expensive gifts to the “newborn King”, to the humble shepherds who were the first to hear the good news and to bear witness to this event.

Often we go straight from the story of Jesus being born in a stable, to the announcement of his birth by angels to shepherds in the fields, to the arrival of the magi/wise-men. In doing so, we often miss an important point. The part of the nativity story that includes the shepherds usually has them as merely bystanders. They just happen to be in the field where the angels make their heavenly announcement. They are the “also starring” actors in the scene in the stable, along with the animals, and the magi to see the baby Jesus.

However, that the hosts of angels would appear to these shepherds and that they would be the first evangelists (sharers of news of Jesus’ birth) takes on special significance when we realise the social standing of these shepherds.

The shepherds were simple men who lived simple lives. By simple, I mean they were ordinary men.
There was nothing fancy about them. Except maybe the sheep. It is believed by some that the sheep that grazed there were not ordinary sheep.

Because of their proximity to the Temple at Jerusalem, the fields of Bethlehem were primarily the domain of temple sheep. These were often the sheep used in the animal sacrifices offered in the temple. In the first century, more than 250,000 sheep were offered annually as sacrifices at the festival of the Passover alone. These shepherds of Bethlehem were responsible for delivering healthy, unblemished sheep to be offered on the altar for the atonement of sin.

The life of a shepherd was a life of loneliness and labour, danger and poverty. Yet these hardships may not have been the greatest of their difficulties.

Because of their profession, shepherds were considered ceremonially unclean. Their work required their hands-on participation in the birthing of lambs, which brought them into contact with blood.
They also at times had to dispose of dead lambs which brought them into contact with dead bodies.
Both of these activities made them ceremonially unclean. This resulted in them being spiritual outcasts.
It's ironic that the very individuals who may have been responsible for raising sacrificial lambs for the Temple in Jerusalem were themselves excluded from the temple because they were considered ceremonially unclean.

Banned from the religious system because they were shepherds, they had to look somewhere else for hope. That night, they found it in the angel's message. It was to the shepherds, the first notice of Christ's birth was given. It was not given to the political and community leaders and the chief priests in Jerusalem.

It was given to the common shepherds.

These shepherds were isolated from their people and their Temple. Then they discover from the mouths of angels that they were not cast out or forgotten by God. They were the first to hear: "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."
This message of hope to the shepherds was a message of hope to all the world.

For us in Fiji the greatest gift we can possibly give each other is the same gift that God gave these shepherds on the day Jesus was born. The incarnation of the Christ in the world signified the reconciliation between God and humankind. It was expressed in the radical social inclusion that Jesus practiced by sharing food, touching, embracing and living with those considered unclean, unworthy and often, unnecessary.

Our island nation has just experienced a cyclone that had no distinction of race, economic or social status or political or religious views, but struck with fury all who were in its path.

The gift that we receive this Christmas that we can all give, and give to all, is the gift of an open heart, an open mind, and open arms to accept and embrace each other, regardless of any perceived differences. It is to lift up the vulnerable and marginalised members of our community and show them, by action not just words, that they are important to us and society. It is to make the stranger our neighbour, and make our neighbour our friend and brother and sister.

It may be the greatest gift you can give. The only cost may be our pride.

“Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity”


Sharing the Spirit of Christmas

Last Friday the Fiji community in Korea were hosted to a Christmas fellowship by the Fiji Embassy in Seoul. Despite the ice, rain and freezing temperatures, a number of us managed to congregate at the chancery, located in the “foreigners” area of Seoul, Itaewon.

We were also joined by visitors from the Ministry of Health in Suva and a number of Korean businesspeople in the process of or interested in investing in Fiji.

Of course, the trademark of the Fiji Resident Mission in Seoul, since it opened only 5 months ago has been to do things “Fiji-style,” as Ambassador Filimone Kau likes to put it. In July, it was a combined display of diplomacy and culture as the opening of the Fiji Embassy included Fijian warrior escorts, a sigi drigi group to welcome guests and breathtaking performances from Kaba ni Vanua. In October, Fiji-Day celebrations were combined with an investment seminar which included senior government representatives.

So last Friday it was time to give those who not only see Fiji as a place of business, but also as a paradise, a taste of the Fijian way of celebration. Embassy staff cooked up a storm with everything from chicken and crab curries to baigani vakalolo, roast pork and chicken, kumala, chilli chicken, and even lovo dalo and palusami fresh off the plane from Fiji.

I entered the chancery to the sound of Fijian serenades being sung. Of course it was a CD being played but the music certainly warmed up a chilly day. The second thing I noticed was that there were no chairs. Early guests were invited to join the Ambassador on the mats and to talanoa as the final preparations were being made to the food and we awaited the rest of the guests to arrive.

In true Fijian hospitality words of welcome were said by Ambassador Kau and after a short lotu (devotion) by yours truly (as resident talatala), a small sevusevu was presented to the Korean friends of Fiji.

Here I learned a very important lesson about knowing one’s culture as a Fijian. As most of our Fijian community were still on their way to the embassy (a minimum 1-hour train and bus ride from our various universities and residences) I was called to be part of the traditional ceremony of welcome. Having observed, filmed and participated in many sevusevu, I made sure that I (in rugby language) didn’t drop the ball. I was fortunate to not only have experience in drinking kava but to also have prepared it on occasion, although I had to be constantly reminded to consider that it was, for most of our guests, the first time to try our traditional drink and to keep every bilo at low tide.

While for some, that first bowl was also their last, a number of our guests continued to call for another bowl with the traditional cobo hand-clap. I was grateful when, our community members arrived and having eaten, relieved me of my duties at the tanoa and allowed me to escape to the food.

The experience of this “Fiji-style” Christmas gathering was not lost on our Korean friends. It was a momentary escape from the very formal culture to which they belong. It also allowed us as Fijians to showcase our sense of community and hospitality that is an integral part of our way of life, regardless of who were are and how little we may have. For a few hours, that gathering could have been inside a house, or office in Suva or Bua.  The evening offered them a taste of Fiji, not just food and drink, but of who were are as a people.

As I sat on the mat in Korea, my family were preparing for a gathering of their own. Last weekend, the descendants of Charles Pickering (including my wife and children) gathered in the village of Lomanikoro, Rewa to renew their ties as vasu (maternal links) to Rewa and to count the branches (and leaves and fruit) of the Pickering family tree.

It was a time of celebration, but also of meeting and reconnecting with close and distant family members. A time to acknowledge the past and the present and a time remind themselves of the importance of family and their connection with the vanua.

As we pick up the pieces in the aftermath of Severe Tropical Cyclone Evan, there will be many people who will not have much to celebrate with. For some, the only thing that they can celebrate is the fact that they are alive.

This is a good time for us to remember that Christmas is not about feasting, and buying and giving presents. Sure, it is a time of celebration, and we in Fiji and Oceania know how to celebrate. However we remember is about peace on earth and goodwill to all. This is the joy that Christians feel at this time when they remember the birth of Jesus, is supposed to be shared in the form of peace and generosity of heart.

Jesus was not born in a hospital, or a nice home, but in a stable - the equivalent of a corner of an evacuation centre. He did not enjoy disposable diapers and soft nappies, but strips of cloth. Jesus was not born into a rich and privileged family but one that had to work with their hands in order to survive and came from a province that was often looked down by the upper-class of Jerusalem. Jesus was not born into a community of equality, justice and peace. He was born into a society that was socially, politically and economically oppressed.

Yet this little baby rose above all of this to offer the world an alternative vision. A vision of a community where the last would be first and the servants were the greatest. A community where there were no social, religious or ethnic barriers.

As we approach the last 6 days before Christmas let us approach it with the anticipation of a time when we as a people will be able to manifest the vision of such a community in our own nation.

If you are in Suva and looking for somewhere to celebrate this vision, you are welcome to join me at Dudley Church on Christmas Day, beginning at 9am.

May you have a happy and meaningful Christmas!

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity.

The Prize Of Peace

This week the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union "for over six decades contributed to 
the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe".

According to the BBC, critics say the award is inappropriate; pointing out that the euro-zone crisis has exposed deep divisions in the 27-nation bloc. The BBC's Europe correspondent Chris Morris says there has been a barrage of criticism - from Eurosceptics, peace activists and former winners of the prize.

Many of them question whether the EU should be given such an honour at a time when record unemployment and tough austerity policies, supported by European institutions, are causing serious social tensions in several member states.

In 1901 the first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Henry Dunant for his role in the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross and to Frédéric Passy for being one of the main founders of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and also the main organizer of the first Universal Peace Congress.

Over the last 111 years, 93 Nobel Peace Prizes have been awarded (there were 19 years where no award was given) to persons who, in the words of Alfred Nobel, "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses". 

According to the official website of the Nobel Prize, 63 Peace Prizes have been given to one Laureate only. 28 Peace Prizes have been shared by two Laureates. 2 Peace Prizes has been shared between three persons. The 1994 Nobel Peace Prize to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman.

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to 124 Laureates - to 100 individuals and 24 organizations. Since Comité International de la Croix Rouge (International Committee of the Red Cross) was awarded three times and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was awarded twice there are 100 individuals and 21 organizations that have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Last year, the Nobel Peace Prize was was awarded jointly to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman (at 32years, the prize’s youngest recipient) "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work".

Three Nobel Peace Prize Laureates have been under arrest at the time of the award - German pacifist and journalist Carl von Ossietzky (1935), Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi,(1991) and Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (2010).

It is interesting to note that Mahatma Gandhi, one of the strongest symbols of non-violence in the 20th century, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and, finally, shortly before he was assassinated in January 1948. Although Gandhi was not awarded the Prize (a posthumous award is not allowed by the statutes), the Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to make no award that year on the grounds that "there was no suitable living candidate".

While the Nobel Peace Prize is the most famous of Nobel Prizes, there are also awards for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine and literature.

The men and women who have been nominated and awarded Nobel Prizes for the last 111 years have worked tirelessly for something that they believe in, something that they are passionate about. Their contributions have shaped the world as we know it.

Mind you there are ways of being outstanding in your own sphere of life and work; of being outstanding in your field.

A man was driving down a country road, when he spotted a farmer standing in the middle of a huge field of grass. He pulled the car over to the side of the road and notices that the farmer was just standing there, doing nothing, looking at nothing.

The man got out of the car, walked all the way out to the farmer and asked him, "Ah excuse me mister, but what are you doing?"

The farmer replied, "I'm trying to win a Nobel Prize."

"How?" asked the man, puzzled.

"Well I heard they give the Nobel Prize to people who are out, standing in their field."

For every person awarded a Nobel Prize, there are thousands nominated and millions whose work goes, for the most, unrecognised. They are the ordinary men and women who make their own little contribution to peace, justice, science and art and their community. They are the ones who live out the legacy that the greats leave behind.

As I reflected on the legacies of the men, women and organisations who have worked for justice and peace (I don’t think you can have peace without justice), I wondered whether it is possible for a country to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. From a Fijian perspective perhaps we would be happy to reclaim the slogan “the way the world should be,” although we are still a long way (and a lot of hard social, political, economic and emotional work) from achieving that.

But each of these Peace Laureates began with a thirst for justice, equity and peace in their communities. And they continued to work, not for recognition, but quench that thirst.

In this Christmas season of goodwill and peace to all, perhaps we need to ask ourselves, how thirsty are we for our communities to be just and peaceful? How thirsty are we for our nation to be just and peaceful?

And then perhaps we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to help others who are thirsty also drink?

May this 12th day of the 12th month of 2012 be filled with love, light and peace for you and yours.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity.”