Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Strands of the Mat

Off the Wall 31/12/14

Earlier this month I travelled to the island of Rabi. I was accompanying the President-elect of the Methodist Church in Fiji, Rev. Tevita Banivanua, his wife Bale, and had in tow a young production assistant from our church department of communication and overseas mission. Rev. Banivanua was stepping in for Interim Church President, Rev. Laisiasa Ratabacaca to induct (install) the new Divisional Superintendent of the Methodist Church’s Rabi Division.

The journey by boat to Rabi took twenty-four hours. As we arrived at Rabi’s main jetty, we were greeted by a brass band. The band was made up of young people from the village of Buakonikai, formerly known as Vunisinu in the pre-settlement era. The Buakonikai Brass Band is in fact the only brass band in the whole of the Northern Division of Fiji, and as such has travelled the division for special events, including the Friendly North Festival in Labasa. Despite being short on all the instruments and with the instruments being used possibly older than me, the music was a rousing welcome to our group, as well as those who also travelled on the ferry from Suva to celebrate Rabi Day.

We were hosted at the residence of the Divisional Superintendent of Rabi, Rev, Abute Abutarea in the village and circuit of Tabwewa, one of four villages (the others being Uma, Tabiang and Buakonikai) on the island, which are named after the four villages on the island of Banaba (known also as Ocean Island) the ancestral home of the Banaban people in what is now known as Kiribati. The fifth circuit (or parish) of the Methodist Rabi division is Ketetemane in Toorak, Suva, while other Banaban Methodist communities exist in Lautoka and Labasa.

After a traditional welcome and refreshments in the Emanuera Maneaba (Tabwewa’s traditional meeting house) we sat and had a talanoa with Rev. Abutarea and some of the Tabwewa community. This was a special time for the Banaban community, not only because of Rev. Abutarea’s induction on Sunday, but because the following day, Monday 15th December was Rabi Day, commemorating the arrival of the first of the Banaban people on Rabi sixty-nine years ago.

The story of the Banaban people’s arrival is similar to the arrival of the Indentured Labourers or Girmitiyas from India in that there is not only a displacement of people for financial gain (although each situation is different) but also in that their stories are often glossed over as “settlement”stories. I grew up at a time when we were taught that the “”Indians came to work as sugar cane farmers for the British settled in Fiji for a better life” and that the “Banabans settled in Rabi because of over-mining for phosphate on Ocean Island”. This simplistic story belies the structural evil that took place in both situations. Despite growing up in Fiji and having Banaban friends and colleagues and a wife with i-Kiribati connections, I was ashamed that coming from a minority which had experienced a not dissimilar colonial oppression, I had a lot to learn about the Banaban story.

The discovery of A-grade phosphate on Banaba in 1900 led to the British annexation of thee island and commencement of mining. By the time mining operations ceased in 1979, twenty-one million tons of phosphate had been removed – thirteen million tons of it scattered across the farms of Australia. The Banabans received a 15 per cent share of the profit. In order to gain more access to the land the British proposed the resettlement of the Banaban people.

Following World War Two and the Japanese occupation of the island the islanders were finally removed. The Japanese had already moved the majority of the Banaban population to Tarawa, Kosrae and Nauru.

According to the story I was told, the Banaban elders were shown photographs of a town with two-storey houses and told that this was Rabi, their new home. The photographs were fake. In fact they were photographs of Levuka. Duped by the British authories, they agreed to relocate. The majority of the population arrived in Rabi on 15th December 1945, finding no double storey houses but only tents beside the beach and two to three months of rations. It was also the middle of the cyclone season.

In an article titled, “Peripheral visions? Rabi Island in Fiji's general election” from the book, Fiji Before the Storm: Elections and the Politics of Development, Dr. Teresia Teaiwa described the Banaban people as a “peripheral minority” in two ways, “the way Rabi exists for the most part in the peripheral vision of the nation, and the way the nation occupies the periphery of Rabi Islanders' imagination.” She adds:

“Many Fiji Islanders are uncertain about whether Rabi island is part of Fiji or not, and whether Rabi Islanders are Fiji citizens. Many people have asked me whether Rabi is in Kiribati, and whether Rabi Islanders have dual citizenship. Rabi Islanders are Fiji citizens who are entitled to a 'permanent
residency' status if they entered Kiribati on a Fiji passport, because Banaba falls within the national boundaries of Kiribati. It bears repeating, though, that Rabi Islanders are Fiji citizens.”

As we prepare to enter a new year, standing on the threshold of 2015, the question that comes to mind is how do we weave a nation that is aware of each strand on the mat on which we all sit? Each of the strands is important as the next. Each has its own story, its own value which adds to the value of the mat. The finer the mat, the more strands and the richer the value.

I sat on a mat in the maneaba in Tabwewa. It was lunch time on Sunday, following the induction service. All the food was laid out for the guests. We sat and waited. Then the food for everyone else was laid out. Then everyone sat together and ate together. When we were finished, we waited for those who had been singing to eat while those who had been eating sang. When we were all finished and every group had shared their expression of gratitude, only then did we disperse.

I sat on a stage in the main park. It was the celebration of the 15th of December arrival. As I watched the young people share their painful history in song and dance, I thought of the lunch the day before. It was for me a reminder of the communal, open table fellowship practiced by a man from Palestine whose birth we celebrated just last week.

In 2015 let us make an effort to value each strand in the mat of our nation. After all, each of us seeks to sit on it.

May you have a peaceful and enlightening 2015.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

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