In December 1987, my 20-year-old son Johnny and I were in a boat approaching a smallish tropical island off Fiji with long, sandy beaches and a peaceful blue lagoon surrounded by white coral reefs against which the Pacific surf was breaking. You might imagine a luxurious hotel nestled amongst the palms, with discreetly placed cabins, a large pool, and a smiling, attentive Fijian staff. You would be wrong. As our boat rounded a promontory, our host proudly pointed out where we would live–a tin-roofed shack, with corrugated iron sheeting tacked onto the sides, reminiscent of the Rio or Johannesburg slums portrayed on television.
Our guidebook had remarked: “If you are lucky enough to be invited to a Fijian village . . .” And we had been, by a Fijian man called Benny, whom we met on the ferry. We had also done other things that the guidebook told us to do: We were wearing the sarongs, or sulus, worn by Fijian men and women, and we were carrying our sevusevu, or gift, to the village headman.
We made our way to Benny’s hut, a smallish room with an earth floor covered by dirty rush mats. A small raised box on one side served as a single bed; in one corner were a couple of pots and a spoon or two. Chickens ran in and out, and flies and tiny mosquitoes were everywhere. Benny said the village headman was expecting us up on the hill, where we would have yanggona, the Fijian drink, also called kava.
We were presented to the headman, Seta, and two or three chief men of the village, dressed in sulus and sitting on rush mats on the floor. Benny offered our sevusevu, which appeared to be graciously received, and we were told to sit. Then the yanggona ceremony began.
After pounding the kava roots in a wooden bowl and adding a bucket of water, the kava server dipped half a coconut in the bowl and presented it to each person in turn. Each drinker clapped once, then drained the bowl at a gulp; afterwards everyone clapped three times and shouted Matha! The liquid looked and tasted like dirty sock water, but we had read that in fact it was some kind of drug–a tranquilizer.
But the talk got livelier. Seta spoke a little English, as did his men; they of course asked us questions. Although I am British, we said we were “from Finland,” which was where we lived. No one has anything against Finns.. Meanwhile, the man next to me explained cheerfully that Fijians, including his grandfather, used to be cannibals.
Three boys in their teens came in to entertain us, singing melodious songs whose main lyrics were “Bula . . . bula . . . bula.” Five hours had gone by, hours of the coconut cup. Seta and others were getting very drunk. At this point, Benny suggested that we might eat. Hope rose in us, but was quickly destroyed. “It is I who decide here!” shouted Seta. Then he pointed at me. “She stays in my hut tonight!”
This was one of my worst moments. I had no idea about Seta’s motives–for all I knew this might be a great compliment, but it was certainly one I had no wish to accept. Yet Seta was the all-powerful head of a village from which there was no immediate escape. Finland came to our rescue. We explained that in “our country,” customs and religion made it impossible for a widowed mother to sleep without her son in the room as her protector. It worked. I was angrily dismissed to eat with the women a meal consisting of chicken bones floating in water; the men were to get the meat. Later, about 12 women and girls escorted me to bed, then stood around waiting to see what I would do. There was nowhere to wash and no water. I decided that Finnish women slept in their day clothes at night and laid down on the only bed. One by one the women filed out–“Goodnight, Diana”– except for one little girl, who stayed to keep me company. I remained sleepless, listening to the faint sounds of “Bula . . . bula.” When Johnny finally was allowed to return, we both fell asleep, Johnny on the floor along with Benny, his ma, his daughter, and several chickens.
See related article: In Search of the Big Bamboo. How Caribbean beach boys sell fun in the sun
From Hudson Review (Summer 1999).