A Touch of Kindness Instead of Being Punitive

A week or so after I returned from the village, I received two baskets of ready-to-ripen bananas sent to me personally from Nacanieli Taqaiwai (Taqa for short). The gift was totally unexpected and I was grateful of course. If I were expecting something, it would have been a note to my dad about my indiscretion. However, I concluded that the kind gesture was obviously not an additional form of punishment directed at me for stealing his banana from his plantation back on Dravuni during the school break. I continued to receive these special gifts whenever a boat arrived from Dravuni for sometime. Was it just a touch of extraordinary kindness on his part? Or did it have a special significance. Or both? Years later, I did realize that it was certainly both and the basis of this kind gesture was intimately intertwined in traditional and extended-family relationships and reciprocity that have prevailed over generations.

I had returned to the village during the 1959/1960 annual school break from Suva where I was attending Nabua Central Fijian School at class 7 and had just turned 13 years old. I had been away from the village for about 4 years. I naturally teamed up with my best boyhood pal, Atunaisa, on my return and we revived some of our boyhood escapades as if we had not separated at all.

After a hot morning of spear fishing one day walking along the beach, Atunaisa suggested that we went and got some ripened bananas to eat. He knew exactly where to find some. We could smell the ripe bananas as we approached the plantation since we were downwind. The ripened bunch was covered with old banana leaves but we could see some yellow banana fingers sticking out of the brown leaves. We didn’t wait for a second invitation. We tucked into the feast.

I was into my third banana when we heard Taqa from behind us, “So this is what you do! Don’t you know that these bananas and these gardens have owners?”

It was a rhetorical question of course and that was all that was said. Atunaisa and I turned around and saw Taqa’s hairy chest so close up. He had a loose khaki short on.  He carried a cane knife in one hand and held his garden fork on his left shoulder with the other hand. His characteristically slitty eyes were hardly open in the bright sunlight.

We did not wait around for any further barbed homily. But Taqa was a man of very few words. He didn’t need to say anymore. He had made his point. We were stealing his bananas and he said that much in his own indirect way. He caught us red-handed. He had chastised us for our crime with his briefest pointed reminder that all gardens and crops within are owned; and in this particular case, the owner clearly had not been asked and had not given his acquiescence. Back in the village, nothing was mentioned. Our parents knew nothing about the incident. I had put the whole incident behind me until it resurfaced a week or so later back in Suva when I received the two baskets of bananas.

On first reflection, I did learn that this kind gesture was very much connected to Taqa’s obligation for reciprocity, not to me per se but to the family of Natavasara as a whole. I learned later that Taqa and a few others in the village were the favourite ‘adopted sons’ of Natavasara. Taqa and Joiji Kovelali (senior) (well before Taqa) for example, essentially considered Natavasara as their second home. The connection through ‘extended family’ relationships is also subsumed in all this. Joji Kovelali even died in Natavasara in 1946 when he was 68 years old. It was only after he died when his immediate family came to request his body for burial. Taqa, on the other hand, regarded my grandfather Livai and dad (even though younger by 3 years) as mentors in matters relating to culture, tradition and leadership. Taqa was single all his life and assumed the role of Chief, Ramalo na Tunidaunibokola, in 1978. But his reign was relatively short.

Reciprocity, in Fijian tradition, is founded on the concept of exchanges which has given rise to the Fijian kerekere system. Dr. Nayacakalou, in his book: “Tradition and Change in the Fijian Village,” 1978, South Pacific Social Sciences Association, discussed exchanges that are either formalized or non-formalized – economic and non-economic, and the respective gains, including mutual benefits, expected from each of them. But he also said: “Formalized exchanges take place not because of any need to obtain the products of others in return for one’s own, but because there is a social meaning in them,” (p. 112).

Taqa, through his kind gestures to send me baskets of bananas over a period of time, was likely to have been motivated by his obligation to reciprocate to the family that had extended family comforts and kindness to him during his younger life. The incident about the bananas, in its perverse and roundabout way, obviously had touched a raw nerve in his psyche. Through such reciprocation, he would also be strengthening the special relationship that had withstood the test of time. This was obviously what had driven him to do what he had done. Any thought of being punitive for my crime was furthest from his mind.

However, I did believe at that time and I still do that his personalization of his gifts to me in particular, and not to the family as a whole, was his unscripted prompting to me, given his characteristic frugality with words, that I did not need to steal his bananas; all I needed to do was to ask and all would be given!

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