This week marks a number of important days in both the local and international calendar.
In Fiji, we marked the 134 anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured labourers from India brought by the British to work in the sugar plantations that would make Fiji a commercially viable colony. Of the 60,965 bonded servants sent from India between 1879 and 1916, 60,553 survived the ocean journey of sailing and
adoption; legitimate or illegitimate; favoured or prodigal, we are sons and steamships arriving at Nukulau, off the coast of Suva, where they were quarantined before being shipped off to various plantations around Fiji.
Far from the image of migrants seeking to settle in a new land, the girmitiyas were little more than "sugar-producing machines".
A modern version of slavery, the indenture period or "girmit" was referred to as "narak", which in Hindi means hell. Girmityas were often grossly over tasked with corporal punishment and threat of prosecution used to get the work done. Girmitiya women suffered the most, subjected to emotional, physical and sexual abuse on a regular basis.
Yet despite this and the social and cultural alienation they experienced, many chose not to return to India and seek better life in Fiji.
For their children, their children's children and their children's grand-children and those who come after, Fiji is the only homeland they know. Regardless of language, religious and cultural connections to India, it is Fiji which is now their motherland.
Wednesday (May 15th) also marked International Day of Families. This year's theme is "Advancing social integration and intergenerational solidarity". Given the significance of the previous day, this year's International Day of Families has a deeper meaning for us in Fiji. I invite you to join me for a moment to reflect on what kind of family we have in Fiji.
In December, 2007 in a Christmas reflection in the Fiji Times (10/12/2007) , Anglican Bishop Apimeleki Qiliho wrote,
"To paraphrase the words of Vaclav Havel (former president of the Czech Republic) to the US Congress some years back "The salvation of the human family lies nowhere else than in the human heart, the only backbone to our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility." The family is where the human heart is nurtured and shaped according to Christian values."
He went on to say, that "as Christian families, particularly as parents, we need to be faithful to our family prayers, rituals and sharing of our faith stories. It is within the family that most of us experience the love and compassion of God, made real in the lives of our parents, siblings, elders and other family members. It is where we learn what it means to love, value justice, to be compassionate and to be aware that these values are essential to striving for a compassionate and just society.
It is for this reason that the Christian family, should and ought to be a cradle of love, hope, forgiveness and compassion to its members and to those who live among them".
Bishop Qilhio added that, "our education must also include values of loyalty and commitment between husbands and wives, the responsibilities of parents to their children and children to their parents and more visible expressions of love, justice and compassion".
One of the things I have always been appreciative of in Fiji is our concept of family, in particular our notion of extended families as the norm rather than the exception to the rule. This is expressed in the way we call people "uncle" or "aunty", or ta-levu, or barka abba, or refer to our cousins as "cousin-brother" and "cousin-sister". Often we have to clarify when we are talking about our "real brother" or "real sister". As friends and co-workers we refer to each other as "brother" or "sister".
In Fiji we celebrate kinship. We know our kai and tau and naita and refer to them as such, even if our naitas sometimes do respond with "o cei nomu nait?"
Is there any way in which we can take our understanding of the extended family and expand it to include the whole of our society?
I would like to think we can.
In our extended families, we have those who are our kin by blood or adoption, yet hold equal place at the table. We have those who are our relations by marriage. We have family who are legitimate and illegitimate. We have favourite sons and daughters and prodigal sons and daughters. We have the odd parent, brother, sister, cousin or aunt or uncle we wish were not our relative.
Yet because they are family, we accept them. We accept them because they are a part of us, no matter how different they may behave, or look.
Today our Fiji family is not only the i-Taukei or kai Rotuma. It is more than just the descendants of the girmit. Our extended Fijian family includes the descendants of blackbirded Solomon Islanders and ni-Vanuatu, Banabans relocated to Rabi, descendants of Tuvaluans on Kioa, descendants of Chinese settlers and those of free-Indian migrants.
Our extended Fijian family includes the many "half-caste" communities that do not quite fit into the term Kai-loma reserved for reference to descendants (legitimate and illegitimate) of European settlers and visitors. It grows every day when we adopt the many people who chose to make Fiji their home.
Last week, both Children's Day and Parents' Day were celebrated in South Korea . Preaching on Parents' Day at Gaepo Church, I concluded with that Sunday school chorus so popular among our children in Fiji — "We are one big happy family, God's family. He is my brother, she is my sister. Our Father in heaven, he loves you and me".
But our extended family is not just diverse in ethnicity. It is diverse in many ways. It includes abled bodied and the disabled, those who are healthy and those who are not - living with the many non-communicable diseases prevalent in Fiji, as well as those living under the shadow of HIV and AIDS. It also includes those whose views and lifestyles we may not necessarily approve of. We may not agree with their view, their actions or their sexual orientation. But still, they are family.
Today is another special day in the international calendar, International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Yesterday, the Suva Peace Vigil at the Holy Trinity Cathedral shared the space for reflection of those who are persecuted because they are different in sexual orientation.
The vigil was "an opportunity to reaffirm the need for safe democratic spaces for all", said FemLINKPacific Executive Director, Sharon Bhagwan Rolls, "and that as we come together regardless of our faith backgrounds we are also reminded that daily members of our society do not enjoy the respect, dignity and pride because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Building a culture of peace and non violence requires everyone to enjoy personal and political security."
In our extended family we are challenged to love the son or daughter, the brother or sister, or cousin who is different because they are part of us.
There are times when our big family of Fiji is not happy. Perhaps for the most, we are a dysfunctional family. But we are still a family. By blood or by adoption; legitimate or illegitimate; favoured or prodigal - we are sons and daughters of Fiji. We are brothers and sisters.We are family. Let's behave like one.
* Reverend JS Bhagwan is a Masters in Theology student at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.