October 1, 1998-Fires of Fiji
Behind the low green stand of Mangroves rise
the Fires of Fiji.
On blacken'd and dry volcanic plug hills
where sugar cane grows,
Daytime columns of rising grey
at night turn silent flickering orange glow.
Winter's drought starved Brahmin cows
to hindi worker's music echoing
sad hopes of rain
to put the fires out.
Until today, when the rain started, we sat at anchor in a bay called Masweni and watched the fires of Fiji. Behind low green islands of Mangrove close to our boat and out of which grow solitary palm trees standing lonely against the grey cloudy skies we could see silver columns of smoke rising slowly on the mountains behind. This side of Fiji, with its dry, blackened hills covered with eroded volcanic plugs, has been silently burning. At night the fires turned into flickering orange glows which snaked along the black contours of the land and occasionally turned into brief uprising sheets of flame, easily seen even at this distance. This scene gave us shivers as we sat here on WINGS and watched it in an erie fascination. We heard in the foreground faint sounds of dogs barking on shore, or the noises children make, and among the mangroves at dusk, we could see the splash of two fishermen's feet, as they walked the shoreline towards home. Above them, in the foothills, we saw but couldn't hear the slowly moving lights of cars on Queen's Highway as it winds around the rocky humps which make up much of the land here. Behind that, behind and still farther above, are the fires. It's like...here is this country and its people, living their daily existences, and while life goes on here, in the distance, a scary creature is living, and it is burning the country.
I think that the fires of Fiji are normal, not anything really significant, just a controlled burn without threat, a way of preparing the field or somehow saving nutrients for next year, and maybe even also a way to increase prices by removing crops from the market. But it adds to the foreign-ness of this country. We see the variety of costumes of the people on the streets, and we look into the small dark shops with four or five standing people, seemingly with nothing better to do than wait for hours for one customer to wander in off the street. We hear the exotic music echoing out of doorways, and smell the curries and the cooking lamb or fish, and we really feel like we have ventured off the normal cruiser's path into a different place. The fires in the surrounding hills add to the overall impression of strangeness.
But we also sometimes wonder if the fires we are watching are not something symbolic too.
For weeks we have been hearing about the drought from the people here, predominately from the hindi and english speaking Indians whose families own the farms and work the fields, but also from the muslims, europeans and the Fijians we meet. Everyone talks about the drought. They count the days since rain last...it had gotten up to 9 months the day before yesterday. Mixed up in the talk of the drought however is a underlying background of political dissatisfaction. On the subject of the drought the newspapers provide some coverage, minimal and skimpy in the way of factual information but they are filled with reports about pending governmental plans for relief and with opposition complaints about inadequate or untimely action. If you talk to a cab driver or a shop merchant, the conversation soon turns to the drought, and it's affects on families, farms,
workers, and in general, the economy. If the person is Indian, the conversation also turns into a criticism of the government. Since two coups occurred in 1987 the government, we've been told, has been dominated by Fijians, and is perceived as "anti-Indian". We are told that Indians are excluded from certain kinds of land ownership and certain governmental roles by the new constitution which was adopted after the coups, themselves a backlash against the Indian population's growing political influence and economic success. The concerns of the Indian farmers and farm workers now get a lot of attention in the speeches, but not so much in the way of real action, according to the Indian segment of the population. The Fijians, on the other hand, are again worried about the growing Indian population, its increasing domination of business and the economy, they have also been worried about loss of their country's cultural identity. So they favor the suppression of the Indians.
Some Fijians apparently do recognize that the governmental swing might have been too far to the right, and that the country, longer a true democracy, is going in the wrong direction. There is now, we hear, another "new" constitution in the works, where the races are given equality, where a person is not viewed as a Fijian or and Indian, but as a "Fiji Islander".
There is an expectation on the part of the Indian population that with this new constitution, things for them will improve, however some Fijians apparently are opposed to any change to the current status quo, and are trying to delay or water down the revisions to the constitution. When there is a struggle to obtain the symbols of success in a modern world, to get ahead, as well as to secure the basics such as housing, health, and education, it is easy to look towards other social groups as part of the problem. In Fiji, there is a lot of this going on between the Fijians and the Indians.
Finally the rains that everyone seems to been anxious for to put an end to the drought have come and today the fires in the hills are getting dampened and must be smoldering lower, but maybe in the long term the political and racial issues are the real fires of Fiji, ones that rain will not put out.
Fred Roswold, SV Wings, Fiji