The Good People of Rabi Island

Tue 7 Aug 2018 04:03

The Good People of Rabi Island

As Alison and I bounced along in the front cab of a 13 seater minivan, sitting next to a very serious young man whose eyes were only for the earth road ahead and not for any of the numerous villagers who looked at him expectantly for a wave, I pondered the short history of these inhabitants on this island.

Originally known as Banabans from Banaba Island in the Kiribati Group just west of the Micronesian Gilbert Islands, their recent ancestors were brought here by the British after their home, also known by its European name of Ocean Island, was rendered uninhabitable by the extensive phosphate mines. To compensate them the British bought this island and they have been here since and retained their identity and traditional ways by having little to do with the rest of Fiji and preferring to speak to eachother in their Gilbertese tongue.

Awarded Fiji citizenship by the British in 1945, (Fiji itself became independent from Britain in 1970) these friendly people teach English in their schools and are welcoming and generous towards visitors.

After 50 bouncy minutes up and over two steep hills and with numerous stops to scoop up passengers we arrived at the capital of the island, Tabwewa where up until recently, when Fiji asserted government dominance over the island, the inhabitants enjoyed relative autonomy and independence with their own council building and court house. I wondered what the general feeling is about that.

We moseyed around for a while, noted the PO, chatted with a couple of ladies, one of them breast feeding in the shade of the stoop outside the Fisheries Office. Alison discovered a decorative purple flowered plant she had researched back in Florida and wondered how it got here. Then we headed for what is often the hive of activity in these places, aside from the daily market, the pre-school. Then the fun began.

The Head Teacher told me the pre-school was on the last day, Friday, of its celebration of pre-school education week and celebrations were about to start.

The furniture of the single classroom had been put away so we had a good look at the colourful wall displays of how things were run and what the children were taught. All in English and very similar to the curriculum back home. I mentioned that I had taught for a few years and was given the visitors book to fill in. I felt privileged as the book was started back in 1986 and was usually completed by educational officials and distinguished guests. We gave this lovely lady our bag of school items and proceeded to play with some of the children using one of the little plastic cars we brought. Outside ladies were sitting on mats under a canopy making paper and grass skirts and garlands ready for the dancing later.

The AV side of things was looked after by a serious gentleman who introduced himself and welcomed us warmly. Throughout the event he filmed every detail on a tiny camera and had videos running on a TV in the corner for anyone with the time to watch. We watched sitting on the floor leaning against a wall. Music was playing the same songs repeatedly to add to the growing buzz of anticipation.

The lady we met at first, afraid I did not get her name, told me how they were waiting for a brass band to arrive from the other side of the island. The cost of their transport was costing the school $140fj plus there was their snack and lunch to prepare, so there had been much fund raising in the weeks leading up to this day. Between us we put together a few notes “to help with the school funds” I said as I gave them to the School Manager, a tall lady with presence.

At last the band arrived, fell out of the back of a covered truck carrying their prized and well used instruments. They disappeared into the ‘staffroom’ at the back to change and then started up the road towards the Primary School in readiness to bring up the rear of the planned procession, led by the children back down to their own school.

It was a grand affair once the children were in their allotted positions and Randall and Rob were the jam in the sandwich with the band belting out the music at the rear. Alison and I dashed around taking photos and then joined in the relaxed marching for the few delightful minutes it took to return to the classroom.

Parents peered in through the glass-louvered windows while we had been given front row floor area inside. The band, sitting cross legged to one side of the room played a few pieces and then plates of snack food were brought through for everyone. A young lady in a tunic and long skirt that matched those of the other staff ladies brought in a big white plastic pale full with a bright pink drink and gave each of us a plastic beaker full. The words ‘bubble gum drink’ were to be heard in passing but I don’t know if they were serious. Anyway it tasted as you might think a bubble gum drink would taste! But we were thirsty and uncritical and it was all part of this great experience. Also it helped wash down the quarter fish paste sandwich, biscuits (including an OREO!) and curious cube of cake with custard icing.

Next on the list of cultural ingredients was the School Manager placing garlands around the heads of special visitors, Alison and myself included and then a long speech in Gilbertese by a lady we presumed was a school patron as we later saw her walking into the primary school up the road. Her language seemed to fly in the face of the all English school policy.

Then one by one, with the Head Teacher sitting next to each child holding the mic and prompting them to say their name and what they were going to become when they grew up, which was also written on a banner around their neck and ranged from doctor, to engineer through teacher and included, of course, Spiderman. I asked her later and she confirmed the careers were the choice of the children but I wondered how they had learned about some of the careers through their education at such a young age.

The band then exercised their hands and lungs once more before falling apart into tired heaps needing rest and sustenance. We were dumbfounded when the latter arrived in the form of a big oval plate loaded high with food for each and every one of us. When out of earshot of the kind ladies Randall commented “Holy cow this has got to weigh 3 pounds at least.”

There was roasted chicken drumsticks, a big sausage, lamb and potato curry, a slab of boiled rice and lengths of cooked cassava. Just by picking over what I could eat I soon filled up and we asked if it would be ok to take the rest with us. I think they were relieved they wouldn’t have to deal with leftovers. The band tucked in heartily and then collapsed for various attempts at siestas before the grand dance finale.

Which reminded us of the French Polynesian dancing in more ways than one. Understandably because their cultural traditions are from their old home which has closer connections to French Poly than these islands.

The costumes that teachers and mum’s dressed the children in were beautiful and obviously treasured. Some of the headdresses were like crowns but instead of precious stones they had precise shapes cut from Masi matting, white identical shells were threaded around their arms and legs and necklaces of woven and intricately folded pandanus leaves showed a skill and precision to be admired. Just as in French Poly their skin shone with coconut oil and some of the girls wore eyeshadow and lipstick. Stunningly beautiful, mischievous little gems.

They loved to sing and dance, well most of them did, and they were very good at remembering the routines without any guidance, just following the recorded music. They were telling stories with their dancing, just the same as in Nuku Hiva at the July dance festival and in fact in Vavau, Tonga.

Not to be outdone ladies from the other end of the age spectrum stood up and danced and the formal atmosphere of the occasion was gone forever as they danced the seemingly undanceable for their age, to the delight of the audience. In a brief lull Alison stood and started to gig to the rhythm of the music, then the compere came over and joined her and they were partnered in a wonderful improvised dance style which included an impressively low twist. They mirrored eachother for a few riotous moments with the seated ladies opposite literally crying streaming rivulets of tears while laughing their lungs out. Well done Alison.

After farewells to those we had met we climbed into the back of Patrick’s ancient covered red truck and got a lift part the way back. Then we had to get out and wait so he could do the school run. Sitting in the shade of an accommodating tree we chatted with Rosy, a beautiful young lady holding her one year old son Peter. She told us about her life and education, at the local school at first and then to High School on Taveuni before returning home to live here. So a brief encounter with Fijian life did not tempt her to leave her home.

Patrick returned to pick us up, then the diesel fuel delivery completed we soon found ourselves, bum weary, tired and very happy back near the boats. Some local children came with us for a curious peak at the Methodist church, which was more like a mosque inside, not furniture just a shiny tiled floor and decorated beams and pillars. With different races around the islands it is likely religious buildings can be, or have been used by different faiths in the past, their holy days don’t coincide after all, Muslim, Christian and Hindu are all present although perhaps not on this island.

The lively group of youngsters were enjoying their evening together and readily posed for us before insisting they help us launch the dinghy, all we had to do was watch!