Copyright (c) 2014 Amy E. West.
The expression “Fiji Time” is commonly used among locals and expatriates. From my island experiences, it feels as though I could insert the name of any small island before the word, “time.” But Fiji time seems to also refer to time spent on the obligatory rituals that allows one to enter a village, be accepted, and talk more intimately with the people who belong to it. Aside from navigating the proper customary channels for permission to visit a village plus transport time via ferry, bus, or 4×4 on a bumpy road, the speeches, kava offerings and its consumption are a large part of those time-taking rituals. Once all the right people are called forward, which is a group typically dominated by males, chat ensues around a large bowl full of kava. After several lip-numbing bilos, or cups, of the grog, stories start to tumble out. You hear tales of the past, Fijian adages, superstitious advice, a handful of place names that need to be spelled out, and then an open moment when you can plunge into questions such as, “How are poachers affecting your marine protected areas?”
Here in the small seaside village of Silana in the northeastern bump of Viti Levu island, this grog group tells me they used to have an area cordoned off to fishing. Yet, the plan didn’t stick. Decision-making traditionally comes from the chiefs and elders, but if overall consensus doesn’t exist in their respective communities, residents may disregard new policies. If the chiefs agree to close part of a fishing ground, then a well-governed village normally has all its residents on board. Social harmony is key for total buy in, and crucial for successful local fisheries management. In Silana’s case, and in some instances in Fiji, without every villager’s support the poaching continues, so the idea of a marine protected area was shelved. As to why a lack of support even exists is a story in itself involving livelihoods, relationships, resource equity, and education.
The more kava consumed the more stories divulged. As a stranger you feel almost bad, peppering them with questions, recording their stories, taking photos or notes when you have nothing tangible to leave behind at the end of the day. “I’m writing a story…” you say. It helps that Fijians are good-natured, open, and affable. They like that a foreigner cares about what they care about, and fisheries is a decidedly hot topic.
Upon leaving it’s not easy, nor clear that you captured the whole story accurately. Especially when many interviewees may have been “grogged.” Community members such as women or those without chiefly positions customarily stay quiet, so opinions can be missed. It takes longer to unpeel the social, political, and historical layers to each village; I found there’s nothing simple about their ostensibly simple way of life. You have to ask multiple people the same question, which invariably leads to multiple answers. Posing the same question differently can also get you a different answer. Even in an English-speaking country such as Fiji, “lost in translation” is standard.
If staying several days, you’ll then experience goodbye rituals, meals, songs, and more rounds of kava. If aiming to interview a village head for just 45 minutes, plan for a full day. It’s Fiji time after all. You’ll need to adjust your clock.
A visual run down of presenting kava root, and its consumption at various kava ceremonies. Photo copyright by Stacy Jupiter, Video by Amy West.
Amy West is Mongabay.org’s Special Reporting Assignment Fellow reporting on the state of Fiji’s coral reef fisheries.