by Dan Dworkin
What would you do if you were asked to voluntarily give up your cell phone, computer, TV, and sex for a month? When I revisited my Peace Corps assignment after forty-two years away, the people of my village in Fiji, indeed the residents of the whole province, were doing just that, in a manner of speaking. They were giving up tobacco, yaqona (kava), their ceremonial drink, and sex for a month. Why would they do such a thing?
One hundred and forty years ago, the people of a nearby village, Nabutautau, killed and ate the Methodist Reverend Thomas Baker. When I visited in July, 2011 they were conducting a ceremony of reconciliation, begging the Methodist Church to forgive them for their ancestors' actions.
The story about Reverend Baker actually began in England. When Thomas was seven, his father decided to move the family to Australia, where he felt they would have better prospects. Thomas subsequently became a reverend in the Methodist Church and was sent to Fiji as a missionary. He lived near the coast for six years with tribes who had had considerable contact with Europeans and who had, to a great degree, embraced Christianity and given up cannibalism. This was not the case with some of the tribes of the interior.
In 1867, Reverend Baker and eight of his Christian Fijian followers set off into the interior to convert the "heathen". The most powerful chief on the coast was Ratu Cakobau; he had embraced Christianity. The interior tribes resisted his power. They saw the incursions of the missionaries as an aspect of Cakobau's attempts to control them. They had had minimal contact with Europeans and still lived in the old ways with their ancient customs and methods of warfare largely intact.
Stories differ as to what happened to Rev. Baker and his minions. One story is that he touched a comb in the chief's hair, a taboo that brought instant death. Another story holds that the Fijians who were guiding them upcountry attacked them with the complicity of surrounding villagers. In any case, only two of the Fijian Christians escaped and made it back to the coast. The others were cooked and eaten.
The good Reverend did not have the advantage of Peace Corps training, during which cross cultural understanding and awareness of taboos, of which there are many, is emphasized. One of the most important taboos in Fiji even now is not to stand erect in a gathering. Treachery was common during the times when the various tribes in Fiji made war on each other. The warriors commonly used clubs to smash heads. To stand higher than someone made it easy to crush the latter's skull. Probably related to this taboo is that one must never touch the head or hair of another.
I lived in Laselevu village in 1968-69 not far, as the crow flies, from where Reverend Baker was killed. I heard the story of Reverend Baker there. In 2003, the village where he was killed and the province as a whole invited the descendants of Reverend Baker to come to Fiji for a ceremony of reconciliation. Many tabua, or whale's teeth, ornamental mats and a cow were presented to them. They were asked to forgive the people of Naubutautau for their indiscretion. His relatives did so.
When I went back to my village in 2011, after a forty-two year absence, the whole province was once again making atonement for the killing of Rev. Baker–– this time to the Wesleyan (Methodist) church of which Rev. Baker was a member. During my stay in July, the people of Naitasiri province, to show the depth of their contrition for the actions of their ancestors, gave up smoking, sex and drinking yaqona (kava), their ceremonial drink, for a month. That would be comparable to our renouncing all driving, computer, TV, cell phones, and sex for a month. Since I'm seventy-two years old, these are in the order of their importance to me. The Fijians don't do things by halves.
While there, I got to participate in the atonement ceremonies during which eminent Fijians voiced their sadness concerning their ancestors' behavior one hundred and forty years before. The Fijians of Naitasiri are now mostly Wesleyans; they take seriously their obligations to the church.
In spite of Peace Corps training, I too ran afoul of the cultural norms of the society. While I was absent on a teacher vacation, the chief's younger son used my home to romance his girlfriend. I foolishly chided him for using "my" house, a house the Fijians had built for me, for his assignation. The news of my antipathy for the young man traveled across the island to his relatives at Vatukuola, the gold mine on the western side of the island, which was run at the time by racist Australians. They treated their workers poorly, and there was much ill feeling for white folks at the mine. When I arrived at their tiny village near the mine, my foolishness rained down on me in the form of big, angry Fijians voicing their displeasure at my actions. After a while, things settled down and we shared some yaqona. Later, on the way back to Suva, the capital city, by bus, I got dysentery-like symptoms. Long story short, I lost twenty of my one hundred and forty pounds. I think the water source must have been contaminated.
It's very important to try to familiarize oneself with the cultural norms of the natives of an area and to be extremely sensitive to those norms. I was lucky that I didn't fare worse than I did.
Dan Dworkin lives in Western North Carolina and has been married for 35 years. After leaving Fiji in 1970, he earned a Master of Arts in Education and taught learning disabled children for 23 years. He loved the work, but to avoid burn-out, he took a series of sabbaticals to carpenter, work on tugboats, and ultimately to drive a tractor-trailer long distance. He retired from teaching in 2000 but continued truck driving until 2008. He now works as a relief driver for a county recycling program, volunteers, tutors, is a bicycle commuter and enjoys hiking and playing bridge.