Romanticizing Village Life

“There are commentators in Fiji’s media today that tend to romanticize village life. I beg to differ.”

I wrote the above under the ‘About’ Page, referring to a picture of three Dravuni young men standing in the crystal sea and with the caption: “Having pushed the visitors’ boat out to sea after their fun-filled visit, the business of daily village chores still have to be addressed.”

In support of my divergent stance above, I added: “It is hard graft in the village. The traditional chores have now been supplemented by the requirements of modernity – economic, social and political. All these are testing traditional leadership to the core. Traditional chiefs today really have to be leaders, managers, strategists and visionaries – all in one!”

The added clarification above is obviously directed at village life today that is inevitably being impacted in many ways by the diverse forces of globalization. It is like a ship amidst stormy seas trying to find a safe haven in the dark. In this context, romanticizing village life is not only missing the point, but unjustifiably feathering a sense of idealism when a reality check should be the order of the day.

Be that as it may, there are romantics galore. They come in different shades. The romantic variant as per above may also comprise those who are in the comfort of their suburban homes and are idealistically writing about village life as if very little has changed since their previous sojourn in those villages. Another variant are those who know the various drags of village life as they exist today and the immense challenges they pose, but they still romanticize the past – the village life of their youth!

Notwithstanding my divergent position above, I admit to being a romantic also; but of the latter variant. Let me hasten to explain.

The village of my youth is obviously observed from the perspectives of the lens of a boy growing up in the village amidst the bounty of its flora, fauna and maritime resources at the time. A young lad, for instance, who got his unbounded exhilaration from the freedom of bountiful harvests and consumption during periods of glut and from the freedom of exploration and experimentation of his natural habitat – it being his only playground and a source of his entertainment and learning experiences. Such was also the sources of inspiration for adult role playing.

These perspectives however were obviously not of my mother nor those of my father. Theirs had to deal with the daily chores of placing food on the dinner mat, attending to the ritual of cultural and traditional obligations of the community and tending to the sick, etc. Their perspectives did not have room for romanticization. Theirs had to do with pragmatism and the relentless demands of subsistence existence within the confines of cultural and traditional setting.

In retrospect, and with the benefit of historical knowledge and of hindsight, the experiences of the village of my youth will be difficult to replicate – perhaps never to be repeated, given the physical, cultural, lifestyle, environmental and climatic changes that have taken place. I recall vividly, for instance, the seasonal mango gluts that created its own sub-culture of having to rise up so early in the morning in order to be the first to the mango plantation to pick up the succulent fruits dropped to the ground by fluttering bats from the previous night. Whilst there was no badge of honour for being first to the plantation, there was always the prize of having to collect the most juiciest of all the fruits. I recall also having to seek out ripened bananas, still on the trees, by going downwind in order to pick up the scent and then following one’s nose until the yellow bunch of the luscious fruits came to view. Very often, the bunch of bananas would be covered in dry banana leaves in an attempt by its owner to hide the fruits from unwanted and uninvited prying eyes.

Other fruits of my youth and which were always in plentiful supply when in season were: dawa (local lychee), kavika (fruit of the Malay apple), ivi (native chestnut tree), not forgetting the tavola nuts (local almond) and the ubiquitous green coconut. When in season (about Christmas time), my family invariably supplied dawa to all households in the village. The dawa tree still stands proudly today close to Natavasara.

In terms of recreational activities, I recall, for instance, the afternoons after the village Christmas feasts when young males would descend to the other side of the island, where favourable winds were generally guaranteed, for their annual model canoe racing. The various model canoes were, invariably, excellent works of art, some of which would have taken their owners a good part of the year to craft and assemble.

Adult role playing was always a serious affair. Each boy would have his own garden of root crops, for instance, comprising cassava, kumala (sweet potato), and kawai (a smaller variety of wild yams). Whilst there was no formal competition as such, there was indeed much pride in producing the biggest crop of the year. The annual harvests would be timed to coincide with the ‘lotu ni isevu’, when first harvests are presented to the church, about March, the month known in Fijian as Vulaikelikeli.

Yams (dioscorea alata), however, were generally left to the adult males. But my boyhood recollection was seeing mounts of harvested yams stored either on the ground or on rough shelves in specifically-built huts in the garden itself. My grandfather however preferred to store his choicest yams spread out on the sand under his bed in his thatched house: Natavasara.

The bounty of the land, from various accounts, may be on the decline. There would be of course a number of factors responsible for this. One thing is clear, the productivity of the fruit trees that were there from my boyhood and still remaining standing today, would certainly be declining due to old age. Productivity of other crops is probably facing the same fate due to the natural decline of soil fertility from overuse, soil erosion etc.

When it comes to harvests of the sea, the decline is quite marked due to overfishing and to ocean acidification brought on by climate changes and environmental degradation. Gone are the days when one would simply take one’s throwing spear down to the beach and return home after a short time with sufficient catch for the family meal. There was a time when I would wade into the sea from the beach only for a very short distance to get onto Nasova reef (nearest the village) to spearfish (underwater). Today, that reef is further out to sea due to the realignment of the coastline: tidal waves and currents eroding the coastline further inland.

Overfishing and other factors affecting the health and productivity of the ocean have certainly impacted on the interface between fisheries/fishing and culture. The village of my youth used to annually anticipate the seasons for when shoals of daniva (small fish like the sardine) or sara (smaller and similar to the daniva) would invade our shores. These shoals of small fishes would attract bigger fishes like the saqa (trevally) that would chase their smaller prey towards the shores (katia) leading them to commit suicide by jumping onto the dry beach. Oftentimes, the chasing bigger fishes miscalculated their whereabouts and they ended up flapping on the dry beach themselves.

The villagers would come along with their various containers and collect their free harvests. Such an occasion would create a glut and the villagers would employ a range of fish preservation techniques to cope with the situation, including drying in the sun or over charcoals. These annual affairs were marked with celebrations and merry-making.

The village of my youth, depicted above, resembles closely what the economists used to refer to as ‘subsistence affluence’. E. K Fisk coined that phrase in 1970. In his book: “The Political Economy of Independent Fiji,” 1970, he said, inter alia, “….traditional subsistence farming provides an abundance of good traditional foods, adequate shelter, and the means for gracious traditional entertainment, at the cost of two to three days work a week.”  However, given the rural transformation that has taken place since then, the new crop of economists have been highlighting the transformation from subsistence to semi-subsistence and that the concept of affluence has lost its traditional aura due to increased monetization of the rural sector and even at the village levels, and its adverse impact on the cohesion of the traditional community. Some of them have declared the end of subsistence affluence.

This article has skirted and re-affirmed the same issue. It could thus declare here and now ‘The Death of Subsistence Affluence.’ It raises the question however of what is to replace it. Given the increased monetization, the rise of commercial activities in the village, the increased employment opportunities at the nearby Kokomo Hotel Resort, there is increasing evidence of a growing, of what I may term, as a Rural Village Economy. What it may evolve to clearly will be a reconfiguration of village lifestyle. It is critical however, to manage it as best as possible.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Peni T says:

    Excellent analysis. My opinion, controversial to older kin and to my fellow villagers you succinctly describe as “romantics” are exactly the same. The opinion is that the village structure (tutu vakavanua) was an organisational structure relevant and ideal for the survival of the former social anf economic environment our ancestors found themselves in. Batis (warriors) to defend the village/district, betes (priests) to communicate with three sacred gods (vus), heralds as conduits of communication and so on. We as the i-Taukei need to review this organization structure to make it relevant to the current challenges we face socially and economically. We no longer need batis as communal security is now a state responsibility, these fellows need to be assigned a new responsibility. JDs of betes have now been taken over by the Church reps, the more cheaper forms of communication now could reduce or eliminate the need for the heralds. What we should be thinking of is assigning a Financial Adviser, a Marine Resources Manager, an Agricultural Manager, an Education Committed, a Development Committe, all from within the village or district so that they have a vested intetest of seeing plans through. We need a new communication protocol, we need to review current traditional practices and procedures for relevancy. Gone are the days of traditional warfare and resettlement where the former social structure was required. We now live an age of economic warfare where money is the medium of exchange. The more of that medium a group has, the more powerful (economically) it will become as it will find it easier to implement their plans and realise dreams. However, for change to happen, acceptance of the realities need to occur. Unless we step out of our comfort zone, we cannot grow. I suspect though that the tide of romantics may just bury this challenge in the sand. As saying goes, “Life is like a wild tiger. You either lay down and let it walk all over you or you jump on it and ride it.” Unfortunately, we may yet see paw marks only on our kins should this ignorance continue.

  2. kaidravuni says:

    Bula Peni,
    Your opinion is equally excellent. The way forward for us is clear. We have to change mindsets – from being romantics to being realists/pragmatists. We have to re-adjust traditional roles to effectively meet modern demands, as you have proposed. We have to get used to modern organizational structures, e.g. having development committees to formally plan and manage developments in the village/community. Membership of committees to comprise interest groups (stakeholders) in the village, new skills and expertise (including IT); some of these you have proposed.
    Some of the skills to be incorporated in these committees could include new modern roles for the tutu vakavanua, e.g. getting the Bati to support and defend the development policies of the village, or getting the Gonedau to monitor and evaluate Marine Protected Areas, for example, and getting the Mataisau to teach young people the art of building etc.
    A number of traditional communities are beginning to go down this road to development. Some are successful, some are not. Today, we read about the successful development in Nayarabale Village in Cakaudrove. This is encouraging. It can be assumed that perhaps some communities have not opted for the whole gamut of changes that we are envisaging here. They may have opted for only some of the changes.
    My own village proceeded down this development road years ago, but have been challenged by a number of constraints that I have listed hereunder as possible lessons to note, viz:
    i. Strong, firm and enlightened traditional leadership is essential, especially at the apex of the development committee and at other strategic levels below;
    ii. Regular monitoring and evaluation to help an informed management team;
    iii. Non-resident villagers bring in new skills and competences and they need to be fully incorporated as active members of development committees instead of being regarded as interventionists;
    iv. Improved management of time to allow proper implementation of other communal responsibilities;
    v. Strategic use of villagers who are regular employees in nearby hotels, for instance, but are residents in the village;
    vi. Proper prioritization of duties and responsibilities;
    vii. Need for an effective communication strategy;
    viii. Reduce excessive yaqona drinking;
    ix. Provide more space for youth and women interventions; and
    x. If the whole-of-village approach does not work, it may be strategic to work with a smaller group, Mataqali, for instance, and work one’s way upward.

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