The ‘Saqa’ That Defies Death

One of the drawings made for “Dravuni: Sivia yani na Vunilagi – Beyond the Horizon” exhibition, May – October 2016 at New Zealand Maritime Museum

Imagine the quaintest idyllic scene: two village lads in their worn out khaki shorts, bare-chested and in their pre-teen years, trudging along a coconut-lined coastal track and carrying on their shoulders a rough wooden balewa (yoke) between them and from which hang a basket weaved from coconut leaf and containing freshly-uprooted cassava, and a freshly-caught saqa (trevally), whose tail is dangling along and making wiggly groove along the sandy track. The scene and the story behind it has been re-told many times over the years – each time it grew in elaboration and stature, creating its own sub-plot: but an enduring essence of the story has always been the ease of securing a full and square meal in those early days of natural abundance.

The story takes us back to the mid-1950s. Older brother, Simione and I, were tasked one fine morning to do some weeding in our root-crop garden and then harvest some cassava on the way back. The garden was atop of Qarasagavolo, a concave rocky coastal cliff facing west: qara is Fijian for cave. Having completed the weeding task, we were well on the way to uprooting cassava to take home when we were both surprised by a loud noise from the direction of the sea as if something or someone was slapping, somewhat haphazardly but persistently, the surface of the water with a flattened surface like that of an oar of a canoe.

“Ssssssh,” Simione signaled to me to listen. We both listened. I had no idea of what I was listening to.

“That is a fish, caught in the rock,” Simione blurted out. “Let’s go. Bring your knife.” I ran hurriedly following Simione down the rocky path.

One of the drawings made for “Dravuni: Sivia yani na Vunilagi – Beyond the Horizon” exhibition, May – October 2016 at New Zealand Maritime Museum

Simione got onto the beach and expertly negotiated the jutting rocks to get onto the rocky ledge in front of the cave. He waded into water at the end of the rocky ledge to get to the fish whose head was trapped between two rocks slightly under water and its tail was protruding skyward above the water flapping desperately from side to side.

“It’s a saqa,” Simione shouted back to me. “And it is huge!”

With a deft swing of his knife he made a cut on the saqa’s head. I followed and did the same. The flapping noise stopped and all that was heard was the soothing sound of the ocean and the ripples of the waves on the rocky shore.

We extricated the head of the saqa from the rocks and carried our unexpected catch to the shore. We struggled with its heaviness and wet slippery skin. Looking back, we figured out what had happened. There was obviously a katia – shoals of smaller fishes being chased by bigger fishes (see Romanticizing Village Life) and the saqa leaping to make its catch of the smaller fishes got its head trapped between two rocks, a catch-22, instead.

We collected our harvested cassava from where we had left it when we ran onto the beach. Simione cut a stick from the nearby bush to make a balewa. He then tied the saqa to the balewa, using a cord stripped from the inner surface of a green branch of coconut leaf. We threaded the basket of cassava to the middle of the balewa and headed for home – me being shorter, in front and Simione brought up the rear.

We met a few people along the way and all were full of praise for the dual harvests that Simione and I were able to garner from the land and the sea in one outing. Little did we know that we were a fodder for the tale tellers and our story of the saqa was in popular demand for years after the event. Every time it was told, additional details would be added to spice things up a bit. Depending on the tale teller, and depending on who was the flavor of the day, the additional details were either the number of cuts that were made or who it was that made the coup de grace to the poor fish. Furthermore, notwithstanding the number of years that have lapsed, and the fact that Simione and I had obviously put on height since the event, the size of the saqa would forever be measured according to our height at the time of the story-telling and the saqa’s tail would still be dragging and touching the sand, making wiggly groove along the track. In other words, the saqa still had a growth spurt long after it had been dead and eaten!

I am reminded by how legends are formed in a community like that on Dravuni over time and over generations. A simple actual event, for instance, got more quirkier and quirkier with the passage of time until it got subsumed into the supernatural. In this particular case, I suppose the saqa that defies logic will, in the fullest of time, be as big as the island itself: and a legend is born!

Moreover, I am also reminded of the other aspect of the story relating to the bounty of resources at the time. I had explored this issue under Romanticizing Village Life. There is evidence, it can be said, that the bounteous nature of the resources in and around Dravuni is on the decline. The ‘good island life’ that was once characterized by tranquility and carefree has got to be imbued with a reasonable dose of realism and pragmatism if it is to be sustainable.

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