His sun-darkened, leathery skin and thick, curly hair were my own. His sinewy shoulders were well equipped for manual labor; I imagined my enslaved ancestors. Like my grandfather, four generations removed, who earned his freedom and a parcel of land to call his own by serving in the Confederate army during the American Civil war, Juitah worked a plantation daily to subsist. When the sun crested the Pacific horizon and his free-roaming cocks crowed, my Fijian host rose from his concrete-floor slumber and left for the fields. I was unable to accompany him during my brief stay in his village, but I imagine his efforts. Sweating from the humidity and scorched by the midsummer sun Juitah planted and harvested the tapioca root that his grandchildren and grandparents cherished alike. Juitah’s own ancestors introduced tapioca, taro and yams to the whole of the Pacific over 1000 years ago and lineal descendants of ancient Polynesians still survived on the staple foods.
What he reaped was for his own family: two wives, three sons (the eldest of whom was accompanied by his own wife and son), two daughters and a nephew. Juitah was a provider for his kin, but everyone played an integral role in the function of the family unit. What he brought from the fields was cleaned, prepared and transformed into delicious meals rich with nutrition and steeped in tradition by the familial women. The villager’s did not just use nature, they lived in and cooperated with the jungle, the plantation fields they farmed, the streams that they fished and the ocean where they harvested food and planted coral. Dependence equated to reverence. All that they were surrounded by was more than just a breath-taking ambiance to bask in; their environment was a bargaining partner.
The kitchen was separate from the main house because the preparation and consumption of food hold different prestige. To eat was to do so cognizant of the efforts input, grace inherent and with appreciation of the yield. Being able to share in such meals, seated on a stone floor surrounding a tablecloth with no table allowed me to do my first anthropological fieldwork. I was a participant observer.
And participate I did. Aside from sharing all of my meals with such a new conceptualization of the family, I was also privileged to drink Kava with the men of Navola village. Kava is a root that is dried, pounded into a fine powder, placed in a “silk” and steeped in water. The result is a tan, spicy mixture that numbs the tongue. The beauty of Kava was not the sense of euphoria that rushed over my body and enshrouded my mind; it was sharing such feelings of pure hope and joy with others. The men of Navola village explained the tradition of Kava as a way to relax and put away the stress of a long, hard day in the fields. Their fellowship reinforced their ways of life, gave a forum for humor, and most importantly sustained the life force of a village that functioned on solidarity. I felt like a Fijian. I extended many “vinaka” (thank you) and every Bulah! that I shouted was a blessing to the men around me and a display of the gratitude for that with which I had been blessed by all of them. The dreams after Kava were always vivid, and I awoke each morning invigorated by the brotherhood of the night before. I do not know if I have ever felt such a sense of acceptance and belonging.
But Navola village was not devoid of western influence. I first came to know Juitah as “The Waterfall Man”. Navola village was located just down the beach from a youth hostel called The Beach House, and Juitah worked three days a week giving bush tours to eager tourists, which culminated at a magnificent Fijian freshwater waterfall. For five Fijian dollars I followed along through the jungle as Juitah gave folk recollections of Fiji’s history. From the days when his people were warlike cannibals to the arrival of the first Christian missionaries, Juitah was sure to stress the importance of his natural surroundings into his recounting of the history as it had occurred. In a good week, Juitah would make around 100 Fijian dollars. But it was not just for his keep. He and other villagers that had wage-paying jobs gave one third of their earnings to the village chief for general upkeep of the village. The chief would also use his discretion and provide some of the collected money to those who were in need of it at any given time. Wealth was redistributed to insure the well being of everyone, and Juitah did it without greed or malice. I could not believe that egalitarianism actually existed when my own culture was dominated by stratification and competition.
The houses in Navola village embodied the communal spirit of the people that inhabited them. They were identical in construction: concrete walls with either a tin/aluminum or thatched roof. The homogeneity of the homes was not for the sake of quelling uniqueness, but instead spoke of the unity of the people. The family’s interactions were centered on the fellowship that occurred in the communal room. Their mentality was to be proud of their village and to take care of one another. Individualism was not rooted in lavish displays of wealth or the acquisition of material possessions, but rather in a person’s unique character, how he/she assisted with the family and/or village, or labor specialization, and the name that people were given. Juitah was the “Water Fall Man”. But he was also a member of Navola who tithed one third of his moneyed income, as did his neighbor. He worked abreast with his fellow villagers in the fields of the tapioca plantation for his family, secure that if his harvest were poor the village would provide. When he reached his brown-skinned hand into the soil to gather one of the tapioca roots it was hard to tell the when the tropical soil ended and he and began.
The spirit of Juitah’s village was one of pride, resilience and self-sustenance. My first impression of Juitah was that he looked like me, and so I identified myself with him. After spending time in his village, I realized that the identification extended beyond physicality. I felt the love that kept the village alive, saw the mechanics of reciprocity-based interactions, and saw functioning utopia. Before I left the village Juitah’s eldest son, Lasaro, gave me a Sulu (traditional Fijian skirt-like covering) and a handmade Fijian floral shirt. His gift was a reciprocation of the cargo shorts I had gifted him, but it was not an empty repayment for that which I shared. He was ensuring a social relationship. He was adhering to a web of obligation that I was honored to be apart of, if only for 6 days. When I dressed in the outfit, Lazarus simply said, “Now you are a real Fiji-boy”. Flattered and grateful as I was, he spoke too soon. I am still an American whose daily interactions are based upon greed and overconsumption. When I have helped re-dream America and made the dream a reality, I will be a real Fijian. I will give as much to nature as it gives to me, and I will share all that I can with my neighbor as he does the same with me. I can only hope that Juitah, Lasaro and all of their family learned from me as I did from them.
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