On Monday I spent 22 hours on the island of Ovalau. It was my first visit to the island and the “Old Capital” of Levuka in 13 years. The last visit had been with the 2002 Commonwealth Games Baton as part of the build up to those games. The baton did the rounds of Fiji’s first capital including Delana, where a number of signatures (or marks) were made by chiefs on the Deed of Cession on the 10th of October, 1874.
My visit this week, however was not really in connection with the past, but more connected to the future. I was there for the first day of the Lomaiviti Division’s Methodist Youth Fellowship annual camp which coincides with Methodist Youth Week. The camp was held in Vatukalo village, which is just before St. John’s College in Cawaci. As secretary for communication and overseas mission for the Methodist Church in Fiji, I took a number of sessions on social media and the cultural shifts and challenges that young people need to be aware of in a media saturated environment that is one of the hallmarks of the 21st century.
The young people who are attending the camp come from the six circuits that make up the Lomaiviti Division with a number of young people either unemployed or working shift work at the Pacific Fishing Company Limited, PAFCO. Being a Christian programme we discussed the challenge for young people living and expressing their faith in an increasingly secular environment. In the evening at the welcome service I had the opportunity to not only preach but listening to the beautiful voices of the children of Vatukalo singing choruses. Other presenters at the camp this week include Fiji Media Watch’s media education team and a representative from the Police Cyber-crime Unit, as well as the Secretary for the Young People’s Department of the Methodist Church, Rev. Jone Davule.
During a break from the programme, the Divisional Superintendent of the Lomaiviti Division, Rev. Simione Ravaga, took me for a tour of Levuka to see what if anything had changed since my last visit over a decade ago. We visited Delana Methodist High School and the house in which the Deed of Cession was signed, the Fiji Corrections Facility in Delainasova where new CCTV cameras have recently been installed to bring the centre up to par with other Correctional facilities in Fiji and popped in to Gulab Daas and Sons, one of the oldest shops in Fiji.
Rev. Ravaga and I spoke about the challenges facing Levuka which has limited space for development both physically, as it is bordered by the ocean in front and the high volcanic mountains behind, and because Levuka was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2013. I recalled over two decades ago producing radio promotional advertisements for “Back To Levuka Week.” The week of the 10th of October is always of significance for Levuka, not so much for 1970’s Independence but for 1874’s Cession, with annual re-enactments of the signing of the Deed of Cession. This year’s Back to Levuka Carnival was used as a platform to raise awareness for the current generation on environment protection. Late last century, Levuka was a finalist in the “Tidy Towns” competition. This year’s carnival focused on the “3Rs” of "reduce, reuse and recycle," only fitting as Levuka was the venue for the recent National Climate Change Summit.
There are, however signs that the “Old Capital” is not being forgotten and has a future as well as a past.
I shared a ride from the airfield, Bureta Airport, into town with an engineer from PACFO who told me about the recent project for a new $13 million 4,000 metric-tonne freezer, which will allow storage of tuna to enable a regular supply for production of tinned tuna for US-based Bumble Bee Foods. Work is already underway on the site. Regular supply of tuna will translate into regular employment for the many for whom PACFO provides a livelihood.
There are fledgling industries in Levuka too. South Pacific Elixirs Company hopes to take the United States by storm with the bottled kava drink, “Taki Mai,” promoted as a “sports drinks to calm, sooth and relax the body” in Hawaii and mainland US in a number of department and health food stores.
There’s been a lot of activity in Ovalau recently. Earlier this year the Fiji Roads Authority rebuilt the road in the main street of Levuka to provide better drainage and repaired the street lights. The RFMF ‘sappers’ are working on repairing the bridge at Levuka Vakaviti Village. Climate Change adaptation measures are also evident with construction of sea-walls along the coastal road to protect villages. A full-time social welfare officer has also been appointed to Levuka recently.
We drove up to a clearing at Vuma Village where young people were working on the construction of a house. According to Rev. Ravaga, this house is the result of a project for 15 of the village youth which began in 2011 with their planting of yaqona. This year’s harvest has enabled the youth to contribute a third of the cost of the housing with the state providing the other two-thirds.
Back in Levuka, there are plans to make use of the UNSECO World Heritage listing to breathe new life into the ‘old capital.”
In May this year, a team from the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) of Australia has handed over a scope of works for immediate, medium and long guidelines for the preservation and restoration of historic sites in Levuka – focussing for the present on the Holy Redeemer Anglican Church and Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church. Plans are also underway, for more opportunities for discussion and collaboration by all stakeholders for the protection and management of “Levuka Historical Port Town” to improve its overall state of conservation, and ensure it complies with the recommendations of the World Heritage Committee.
Perhaps even the Fiji Museum, which lacks adequate space to display all its collections of artefacts in Suva may extend is little Levuka branch. The restoration of Levuka will inspire ordinary Fijians, as well as tourists to revisit our ‘living history’ and an ponder the future.