Saturday, February 24, 2018

Bau of Bau

Published in the Fiji Times as Off the Wall with Padre James
Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Bau Earle, after being accorded a traditional ceremony of welcome at the
home of Bauan chief Ratu Epenisa Cakobau, regales those in attendance
with stories of her childhood on Bau Island.
“Bula vinaka! I’m Bau Earle. I was born and baptised on Bau island.” This was my introduction to the spritely octogenarian, whose life story is intertwined with the history of Bau, the Methodist Church, and Fiji herself.

I was connected to Bau via email six months ago to assist with her plans to visit the place of her birth and the first eight years of her life. She and a number of family members, seventeen in all, were coming to Fiji for Bau’s birthday and she was hoping to take them to Bau, a place all but one, her son Alan, had only heard about through stories and in pictures.

Bau was the second of 3 daughters born to Rev. Norman and Mabel Deller during the fifteen years of missionary work in Fiji from 1921 to 1936. Writing about Deller’s life and ministry, Rev. Aubrey Baker comments that despite the difficulties of mission in the 1920’s, the fifteen years of mission in Fiji were fruitful.

“A missionary’s life in those days was not easy. Communication with home was far from satisfactory, with irregular mails. In the early months there was the frustration of communicating with people of a different language.Norman setabout the immediate task of learning the Fijian language. Within six months he was able to preach in Fijian. This contributed to the whole-hearted and loving response of the Fijians to this servant of God who had come among them. He was interested in them and gave himself wholeheartedly to the ministry.”

His first year was spent in Naduri, on Vanua Levu, followed  by  a few years on Lakeba in Lau, before being appointed to Bau in 1926  for ten years. During that time he gained an understanding of the Fijian people and their history. He read everything available, sat with the chiefs and heard their stories; all the time visiting distant villages to share the good news of the gospel; always seeking to make it relevant to the Fijians way of life and always ready to learn more of these people he came to love. In all this Mabel shared fully. Norman would travel by boat to coastal villages then walk for miles to visit the inland villages. His early love of walking had been good preparation. Mabel, meanwhile would gather the women into fellowship groups and teach them much that prepared them for the ever-increasing influence of a different civilisation. During his final year in Fiji, he organised the celebration of the centenary of Methodism in Fiji.

Their reciprocal love for Fiji is found in the names of Bau and her sisters, which indicates the degree of acceptance and respect between the Dellers and the Fijian people. Bau’s elder sister Viti and younger sister Marylou (Vueti Kuwila) were also born in Fiji. Baker writes that when the girls were born they were greeted as princesses, which helped a little bit to over come the sense of isolation from family and friends.

According to Baker, one of Rev. Deller’s major contributions to the spiritual life on Bau and the history of Fiji and the church was to transform the old “killing stone” of Ratu Seru Cakobau into a baptismal font.

“After Ratu Seru’s conversion, itself one of their great stories of the earlier missionary effort, the stone remained in the village unused, but a constant reminder of the evil of the past and the change made possible by Christ. It was Norman Deller’s vision that lead to the transformation of the stone. It became the baptism font in the new church. Even a stone could be converted. A thing that had been the agent of death became the symbol of new life in Christ. The story reflects Norman Deller’s commitment to the heart of the gospel message.”

When she and her family visited Bau Island, a few weeks ago, Bau shared that the baptismal font had seemed so big to her when she was living on the island. On an earlier visit to the island she went into the church and found the stone much smaller than she had remembered.

Rev. Deller is also credited with the introduction of Scouting to Fiji. His earlier involvement with this movement made him realise it would mean much to i-Taukei boys as well as being a vehicle of bringing boys of other ethnicities together. This involvement found fulfilment when he lead a contingent of Fijian scouts to the great Jamboree in Frankston, Victoria in the December - January holidays 1934/35. It was a great experience for the Fijian scouts.

Baker writes, “They were a multi-racial group - Fijian, Indian and European. The contingent themselves made a great impression. The family prize a letter from the Chief Scout, Lord Baden-Powell. He thanks Deller for bringing so fine a contingent to the Jamboree and goes on: “they certainly won many admirers, both among their brother scouts and among the public, by their smartness, their readiness and their cheery friendliness”. He expresses the hope they will always keep up these qualities and so help to bring about goodwill, happiness and peace in the world. BadenPowell was keenly interested in the boys and was enthralled as Norman explained the significance of the tabua, the whale’s tooth, and its place in Fijian tradition.”

I accompanied Bau and her family on their trip to Bau island. Greeted by Rev. Saimoni Namosimalua, the Divisional Superintedent or Talatala Qase  of the Bau Division we walked to the home of Ratu Epenisa Seru Cakobau to present our sevusevu and for Bau to be received by “her people” and “her home”.

There was a special bond for Bau’s family to celebrate with Ratu Epenisa and his children. Rev. Deller had arranged for Ratu Epenisa’s father, Ratu George Cakobau to be educated at Newington College in Sydney. Ratu George remained a close friend of the Dellers. Whenever he came to Australia he was
glad to renew the association.

Baker writes that Rev. Deller had realised the importance of preparing Fijians for leadership in both church and national affairs.

“He trained his people to teach and preach, encouraging them in their efforts to control their own affairs. It was for this reason he urged some to come to Australia to further their education and prepare for national responsibility.”

“Many Fijians attended Gatton College and during the years back in Australia the Dellers always provided friendship and hospitality to these students. It was an expression of their love for the people.”

When group of Fijians were shipwrecked near the Sunshine Coast, Rev. Deller arranged for their accommodation and they spent a number of evenings in the parsonage.

“They were delighted to have someone converse in their own language and join in their beautiful singing.”

Singing is one of Bau’s strongest connections with Fiji besides her name. As we concluded our visit to the island of Bau with a short devotion in the church, which Rev. Namosimalua graciously allowed me to conduct, Bau crossed the aisle, and leaving her family went to sit with the choir and join in the singing, harmonising as if she had never left the island.

After an emotional day for Bau’s family, Ratu Epenisa and two of his children who accompanied her throughout the visit and the community of Bau, the entourage departed. On her way to the boat to take her to the mainland she briefly visited the Rokotui Bau, Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi who presented her with a gift. The family had earlier presented a book of photographs of Rev. Deller’s time on Bau, material for Sunday schools and a donation for the development of the Bau Divisional Office.

The connection between the descendants of Rev. Deller and Ratu Seru we not only rekindled but strengthened as Ratu Epinesa’s daughter was given a ride home by Bau’s grandchildren.

In an email sent on her return to Queensland, Australia, Bau wrote:

“It was a day that none of us will ever forget. It was very special for me having so many of my family with me seeing where I grew up and meeting the beautiful people I have talked about. The whole day was very special but the service you led in the Church was a perfect way to end the day. The singing and your message was very meaningful and I think my Mum and Dad were sharing it with us.”

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