If you wish to visit a Fijian village, carry with you a sevusevu (presentation offering) of a bundle of yagona,(Yah-GOH-Nah) the root of the pepper plant, Piper Methysticum. This is the root that is crushed and brewed to create the mildly narcotic drink ‘kava’ (or ‘grog’ as it is known colloquially). Upon entering the village, present the sevusevu to the ‘turaga-ni-koro’ (TOO-rung-her-nee- KOR-raw)or village head and ask for permission to come into the village. Following this you will be welcome to talk with people and take pictures. You may even have the opportunity to meet the chief and participate in a kava ceremony. Be sure to dress modestly but feel free to wear bright colours and wild patterns. Women must cover their shoulders and knees. A ‘sulu’ or wrap around is part of the usual attire.
Most Fijians still live in village communities in extended family groups known as *‘mataqali’ (Martar-garli). Each mataqali owns land in common and belongs to a broader group or clan of people all subject to a paramount chief. Clans gather from across great distances for various social events such as births, marriages, and funerals. Gifts are exchanged, a large feast, or ‘lovo’ is prepared in underground ovens. Men and women sing and dance colourful traditional ‘mekes’ inspired and choreographed by ancient gods and tell ancient stories of migration, war and morality. But sharing music and telling stories is part of everyday life in Fiji. Everything that matters, they say, is discussed or decided around a ‘tanoa’ or kava bowl amid regular interruptions by the strumming of a guitar and the crooning of an island ballad. The preparation of kava and the ritual involved in serving and drinking it is central to its power. Although the first muddy-looking coconut-shell ‘bilo’ of ‘grog’ may shock your taste-buds and force a grimace across your smiling face, the atmosphere surrounding the ritual is captivating. Expect to enjoy many bilos of kava before your journey is done.
Living at the intersection of Melanesia and Polynesia, Fijian are descendants of seafarers who settled these islands more than 3500 years ago. Their fierce and fearless Polynesian cousins of Tonga and Samoa went on to settle in Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island plus all the islands in between.
Fiji’s formidable reef system, as well as the people’s reputation as warrior cannibals, kept European sailors at bay until the turn of the 19th century when the Sandalwood was discovered. After a rush of development, enormous influence by missionaries and invasion in many areas by Tongans, a turbulent political period of local strife came to a close when Fijian chiefs ceded the islands to Britain in 1874. Fiji regained its independence as a sovereign state in 1970.
Today, Fijians are a gentle and religious Christian people. But Fiji also has rich and vibrant Hindu, Muslim and Sikh cultures. Half of the 750,000 people in Fiji are descendants of the indentured Indian labourers brought in by the British in the late 1800s to work in cane fields. Tiny temples and mosques scattered around the countryside reflect the diversity and harmony of the Indo-Fijians. Although less orthodox in terms of caste and more tolerant of alternative religions. Fijian Indians have retained their ancient traditions of dress, language and family and a variety of religious holidays and festivals are celebrated in Fiji. In the largest towns, don’t be surprised to see many flowing saris as you do coloured sulus!