Today was Fiji Day, the day that Fijians celebrate their independence from Great Britain. As with most other public holidays, the occasion is celebrated with nonstop rugby and an abundance of food. Wait, that’s actually how Fijians celebrate most days… but today the Rugby was live. Our school district had a rugby tournament that each village team participated in, which went from about 10 am to 5 pm. Give or take several hours—I’m on Fiji time now, there’s no telling when the day truly started or ended!
The event commenced with a performance of Meke, the traditional Fijian dance, by the primary school girls. They were decorated head to toe in traditional iTaukei Meke outfits: skirts, headbands and bracelets made of various local tree leaves, tribal patterned skirts and black face paint. Music was played and drummed to by the boys. Yesterday I helped my little cousin gather the leaves for her Meke outfit. The use of the environment to create the Meke costumes was fun to see and be a part of! Being part of Meke preparations with the girls in my village felt really special. They were beyond excited that the PCVs had the day off to watch their performance and join in Fiji day festivities! Meke is an cool piece of pre-colonial Fijian tradition. Given that more of daily life is the result of colonialism and missionary activity than I’d expected, it was refreshing to witness some authentic iTaukei culture.
Following Meke was the rugby tournament- the highlight of the day. The Nabitu school yard was totally transformed into a Rugby stadium for the event, complete with bamboo goal posts and make shift viewing areas. Each koro sat together under tin roof huts, supported by bamboo beams, stocked with traditional Fijian mats for sitting. I would not be surprised if our shouting and cheering could be heard from the next province–I thought my village might rip off our tin roof when our team scored!
If Fijians love anything as much as food, it’s for sure rugby. But of course, no Fijian celebration is complete without copious amounts of food. Most families brought tons of food for community fund raising and sharing with their koro. The usual Fijian dishes were all present in abundance: fish in coconut milk, dalo, tea, rourou, cassava, tropical fruits, curry and roti, sikoni, custard pie… just to name a few! In my koros hut alone there was more food than the average American Christmas. I kid you not- Fijians take their food quite seriously. One family went so far as to run an extension chord to our hut to power a blender for fruit smoothies and an electric kettle for tea (yes, hot tea in a tropical climate- still figuring that one out). New dishes of hot food continued to appear throughout the tournament, and I doubt a tray went unfinished.
The strangest thing that I ate today looked like chunks of gray meat in a translucent brown sauce—highly unappetizing in appearance. I went for the taste test anyways. I generally keep from the meat, but I’ll given any Fijian dish a try. It’s also hard not to do so when every time you turn your head, food is being shoved into your lap with an emphatic “kana vakalevu!”. Anyway, I was quite surprised to find myself chewing on what was essentially a Fijian bread pudding. Turns out the dish was dalo, tavioka, and rourou mashed and baked into doughy balls, doused in a sweet syrup reminiscent of rum sauce. Bravery is sometimes rewarded with sweet victory.
In between eating there was plenty of Rugby cheering and dancing as always. Cheering for my koros rugby team with my Fijian family, friends, and fellow PCVs was the perfect way to celebrate my first Fiji Day–even in the oppressive heat, with countless sticky-handed children clinging to me, and Fijians yelling at me from all possible directions 🙂 Sitting cross-legged in my blue sulu jaba under that tin hut, I felt surprisingly at home. I recognize the people sitting to my left and right. I know the names of the children calling “lako mei”, pushing me forward to get a better view. It’s my aunts pumpkin pie that I’m proudly passing around to my friends, and my little cousin that I cheered on during the Meke. My daily life is finally starting to feel more natural. I’m feeling less like some kaivalagi outsider, and more like I truly belong to a community.
There are no doubt frustrations that are part of the home-stay experience, but they are far outweighed by the fact of having a home and family here in Fiji. When a Fijian asks me “o cei na noqu koro?”, I’m proud to say Vanuadina.
With that, a very happy Fiji Day from the True Land to your land! Celebrate Fiji day back at home and take a lesson from the Fijians–eat good food with the people you care about without letting the clock or a diet boss you around 😉
p.s. In case you’re wondering, Vanuadina tied for first in the tournament. Go true land!