By Dr. Stacy Jupiter
Meke for Makareta and Roko Sau
This is the second of several blogs documenting an 8-day, marine expedition to Fiji.
I stood on the deck of the research vessel with Makareta Cinavilakeba, the stunning young wife of the high chief of the Yasayasamoala Group. She could hardly contain her excitement. Even though she grew up on the main island of Viti Levu, Fijians have real pride in their ancestry and she will always be from Tovu, the chiefly village of Totoya.
As we steamed ahead past Yawalevu Bay, surrounded by the green forested hills carpeting Totoya Island, Makareta began telling me about the traditions of her people.
“There will first be a ceremony on the vessel to honor our arrival,” she said. “The men will present my husband, Roko Sau, with a coconut. If the coconut is green, that means that the land is fertile. If the coconut is brown, then the soils have not been producing.”
As we approached Nukulevu Bay, just before Tovu, Makareta pointed to a lone palm tree on the ridge line.
“My father said that the people of Tovu use that tree as their weather station,” she explained. “From how it bends and shakes, they can see the strength and direction of the wind. It has stood on that hill for many, many years.”
Palm Tree Weather Station
I interrupted Makareta’s reminiscing to suggest that we go change into our sulu jaba, customary matching shirts and long skirts that Fijian women wear in a multitude of colors and floral patterns for special occasions. Shortly thereafter, the men arrived from the villages of Totoya for the first ceremony.
Roko Sau, Dr. Greg Mitchell (founder of Pacific Blue Foundation and professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography) and I sat on a woven mat that was laid on the vessels’s deck for the presentation. The men from the community sat directly opposite us, holding a brown coconut. Traditional words of welcome were exchanged with the nut.
My mind wandered as I wondered about the symbolism of the brown variety. Clearly all is not well on Totoya. Are they still recovering from the damage wrought by Cyclone Tomas in March 2010, which destroyed numerous houses in Udu village, knocked down trees and caused massive shoreline erosion? Or did they present it in expectation that the community development and resource management work we are doing will return their soils to fertility and their reefs to productivity? The questions are not yet answered, but our joint team from the Pacific Blue Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, Wetlands International-Oceania, Fiji Department of Fisheries and National Disaster Management Office will meet with each village of Totoya throughout the week to find out what the community members perceive as the major threats to their natural resources and well-being. Based on the responses, we can better work with the communities to design locally-appropriate management plans.
But for the moment, it was time to engage in the customary protocol of presenting our sevusevu, an official greeting with the chief of Tovu and head of the district. Afterwards, we were invited into the community hall for a formal welcome by the Totoyan people to their high chief. The gravity of the event was evident when the village chiefs presented not one, but two, tabua to Roko Sau. Presentation of a tabua, a polished sperm whale tooth, is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon someone in Fiji. There are only a limited number in circulation in Fiji that are culturally exchanged, as importation and export is severely restricted under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Next, men adorned as warriors in “grass” skirts presented the wooden kava bowl and prepared the first mix. Kava is made by straining water over the powdered root of a plant from the pepper family (Piper methysticum) wrapped in a muslin cloth. The men were striking both from their stature and because the long strands hanging from their woven belts were not in fact grass, but were black polyethelene garbage bags.
Could overexploitation of the traditional plants used to weave the skirts have caused their depletion? Or were they lost due to declining soil fertility?
Akuila on my staff offered his opinion: “No, plastic bags are just much easier.”
I spent a moment trying to reconcile traditional Fijian culture and modern conveniences, but quickly got lost in the excitement of watching the ladies of Totoya present their dances, known as meke. And then it was my turn to grab the corner of a bale of cloth and lead our team in hip shaking as we surrounded the ladies and danced the night away, for tomorrow the research will begin.