Veivakasama ni Macawa ni Vosa VakavitiNovember 3rd, 2014
The events hosted by the Library during the inaugural Fijian Language Week in 2013 gave me a gift. This gift took a year to mature and it is something that is at the heart of all cultural institutions – the opportunity to make connections with my heritage and my family’s culture.
What’s in a name?
I am an unusual composition of English, Fijian, Futunan (Wallis and Futuna), Tongan, Scottish, German and American.
All of this, apart from the English, comes from my father. He was born in Fiji into a part-Fijian, part-European family. He settled in the UK in his late teens and my siblings and I were born and raised there.
My parents gave me the first name Talei. This means ‘treasure’ or ‘precious’, as seen in the 2014 Fijian Language Week theme, “Na noqu vosa, noqu iyau talei – My language, my treasure”.
The diphthongs (adjacent vowels) present in many Pacific languages and familiar to us here in New Zealand are not as common in England. Most people struggled to pronounce my name. So I confess that I did not appreciate it as much as my parents did. As I matured though, I realised what a gift it was for keeping me innately connected to my roots.
Reconnecting: geographically and culturally
Moving to New Zealand gave me the opportunity to connect with those roots more easily. Pacific Island culture and the countries themselves are more accessible to me here and I have had opportunities that I could not have had in the UK. I still recall how lucky I felt to be able to wander over to the National Library in my lunch break last October to see the meke, Fijian traditional dance.
The second event held at the National Library last year was called Fijian women finding a voice. This introduced me to members of the Fijian community in Wellington. There, Nina Nawalowalo, also of dual heritage, talked about her experiences of visiting her father’s village in Fiji and not understanding much Fijian.
Although my grand-parents spoke Fijian, my father and aunties moved away as young adults and did not have much need for fluency in it. So we did not grow up speaking Fijian. Nina’s talk inspired me to try and learn some Fijian for a big family trip to our village, planned for August 2014.
Connecting with support
I was disappointed to learn that there were no adult Fijian language courses in Wellington. However, Kaliti Kolinisau of the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs kindly introduced me to Sai Lealea. Sai is one of the Fijian Language Week organisers, and Chair of the Pasifika Education Centre in Auckland. Most importantly, Sai is passionate about sharing Fijian language and culture. He generously agreed to help me out.
Sai Lealea speaking at the National Library’s 2014 Fijian Language Week event. Photo by Mark Beatty.
I have visited family in Fiji several times, including our village, so I knew something of Fijian culture already. However, over a few coffees and his generous sharing of printed resources and his own cultural knowledge, Sai introduced me to vosa vakaviti – the Fijian language. He also revealed more detail about customs.
Beginning my learning journey
To begin with, I learned how to compose my veikidavaki – an introduction or greeting similar to a mihimihi in tikanga Māori. To do this I needed to familiarise myself with some of the family papers I have, such as a copy of our clan’s page in the Vola ni Kawa Bula, the Register of Native Land Owners. This contains the life dates and familial ties for members of each land-owning clan, beginning with those who were alive when it began to be compiled in the early 20th century.
With the resources that Sai provided I managed to translate the terms in the VKB and develop my veikidavaki. For example, koro – village, mataqali – clan, tikina – district.
I also learned basic greetings and how to talk about my family, my home and my work. I even learned a little about counting in Fijian. I improved my pronunciation and enunciation overall, even in relation to my own name, which is not terribly intuitive to enunciate. In Fijian you place the emphasis on the penultimate syllable of each word. So in “veikidavaki” the emphasis is on the last “va”.
Putting it into practice
Learning how to articulate all this was important to me for the visit in August. Although this was my third visit to the village, I wanted to use Fijian to show I understood my connection to the clan.
The purpose of our visit was for a kau mate ni gone presentation. This literally means ‘show the babies faces’ and introduces a new generation of descendants to the clan head, so that they can return to their village whenever they wish.
Two types of masi that the babies were dressed in, before it had been pleated. The light brown dye is reserved for those from chiefly families. Photos by the author.
The children being presented were dressed in masi (tapa) – the Fijian bark cloth textile. This was prepared by my auntie, who carefully pleated it and left it under weights overnight.
Masi that the older children were dressed in, before it had been pleated. Photo by the author.
The end result was like the garment worn by the girl on the far left in this picture from the 2014 Fijian Language Week event at the Library.
L-R: Ruci Seru, Vavatago Mocevakaca, and Mafoa Vakaloloma wearing masi at the 2014 Fijian Language Week event. Photo by Mark Beatty.
How the learning has helped
This new-found knowledge of the language and customs brought both short and long term benefits.
I was able to have some basic conversations with the older aunties of my mataqali (clan), when I visited the village in August this year. I saw that it meant something to them that I had some words.
Conversely, my uncles were very keen to point out the odd correction! For example, people from the district of Ra, where the village is, say “yadra” as a greeting at any time of the day or night. Elsewhere in Fiji yadra is only used in the morning, bula is used at other times.
By learning new things about Fijian traditions I found new questions that I needed to ask during my visit. For example, each clan in a Fijian village has a traditional role, such as warriors, fishermen, chiefly family, and so on. I learned that our clan role is the sau turaga – protocol advisor to the chief.
I work at Archives New Zealand and a small part of my work is to serve as Secretary General of a professional body called PARBICA. As I learned, I incorporated the greetings into e-mail correspondence that I have with Fijian archivist colleagues. When I visited the archives for some personal research in August they asked if I had been learning Fijian, because they noticed my sign-offs were getting a bit clever.
Me with my Fijian colleagues at the National Archives of Fiji in August 2014. Photo by the author.
A year on and still learning
I continued learning through this year’s Fijian Language event at the National Library. It was all about masi – how it is made and the traditions for its use.
During our visit to the village, we were presented with mats and large pieces of masi that had been prepared by the ladies in the clan. The talk gave me an insight into the skill that they would have put into making this masi. It gave me a new appreciation of these treasured heirlooms that we will keep for our children and their children. They are a unique physical link to our time in the village.
Masi given to us as a gift during our visit to the village. Photo by the author.
After the talk, I also noticed something familiar in an image in this blog by Arawhetu Berdinner. It features a photograph of women carrying lengths of masi in a presentation. I realised that the photograph below of me and my aunties is the modern day equivalent, carrying bolts of cotton cloth for presentation as a gift to the clan. The lengths are tied together end to end and carried by the women.
Me and my aunties carrying bolts of cloth to the village. Photo by the author.
I certainly have a new found respect for the Fijian language. It is incredibly verbose, so you will hear people speak it very quickly! It has a wonderful energy to it and I find it fascinating to listen to, even though I don’t understand all the words yet.
The gift that the Fijian Language Week programmes gave me was to set me on a learning journey. That journey has brought me a better connection with the culture, language and identity of my roots. It is not complete and I hope I will be on it for some years to come.