Today we went on an excursion to the village of Tavua, on a neighboring island, where most of the staff of the resort live. It was a very interesting trip—we really learned a lot. The culture and economy of Fiji are so different from western norms, we think it’s fascinating.
Tavua has about 200 residents, all living in about 60 small houses (called bures) clustered together in a valley where there’s a natural spring—a rarity on these little islands. Their leader is a chief, elected for life, who has absolute say-so over important matters. A little over half the houses were made of concrete block, while the rest were wood and corrugated metal. All had metal roofs. The island has a generator, but it’s been out of commission since the recent typhoon. The storm, which was by far the worst to hit the island in living memory, did considerable damage. It tore the roofs off several bures, demolished a couple of the less substantial structures, destroyed all the crops, and generally made a mess. The spring was inundated with storm runoff.
Here were these people who’d had no electricity for two weeks, major repairs and a big clean-up to deal with, and crops to replant, but they showed up to work every morning to cheerfully take care of we tourists.
Even without the storm damage, to western eyes the village looks “poor,” but I don’t think it’s all that meaningful to apply an American standard. The economy of Tavua is based on capital, not cash. Their wealth is in abundant, renewable resources—the rich, volcanic soil in which they grow their food, plentiful fishing, coconut trees that provide the materials for tools, shelter, cooking fuel, etc., just about everything needed for a simple existence. The climate is generally very mild, and at this most basic level, a storm may cause hardship, but everything can be replaced.
The bigger problems are from the modern “improvements,” purchased with cash earned from the sale of coconuts, shells and handicrafts, and jobs at nearby resorts. Our guide mentioned something very interesting, just in passing. There was a beautiful rectangle of grass at the center of the village, where the children used to play soccer. Until recently, that is. After one too many broken windows (imported at great expense), the soccer games were tabooed. Eventually they’ll create a new playing field away from the houses, but this is a perfect illustration of how many solutions introduce new and unexpected problems, and subtly or drastically affect their way of life.
Tavua reminds me of that parable of the rich man who takes his son to some desperately poor, third world village to impress on him how terrible it is to be poor and what a great, privileged life he leads, but instead, the son is impressed with the love and care the people have for each other, the time they lavish on their children, and the joy they have in their simple lives. Nevertheless, after the storm, the villagers of Tavua were clearly in need, so Karel and I were happy to have chosen this as our one excursion (proceeds go to the village) and also to buy our souvenirs from the “market” they set up under a magnificent breadfruit tree, just for us.
Every Monday morning, the children of the village go off to school, on another island, about a half-hour boat ride away. They remain there all week, under the care of the village where the school is located. Families take turns doing the children’s laundry, preparing meals, etc. The kids come home on Fridays.
Back at the resort, our waiter filled out more of the picture for us. The children who live on the outer islands will get a modest education and then find jobs at resorts or fishing and farming. They may spend their entire lives within the small cluster of nearby islands and villages. The island we were on, and some of the surrounding islands, were held by families with ties to Tavua that had owned them for centuries before white men arrived. I don’t know all the details, but the resort operates as part of an agreement with the traditional owners. The agreement includes making the surrounding waters an official marine preserve, so that the natural environment is strictly protected. The people of Tavua are the majority of the employees, so they get some of the economic benefit.
On the two large islands—which Fijians refer to as “the mainland,” child-rearing, education, and economics are more similar to the western model, with a nuclear family and advanced education in business or technical skills, property that is bought and sold, etc.This entry was posted in Honeymoon 2013