‘TO LIVE IS THE RAREST THING IN THE WORLD. MOST PEOPLE EXIST, THAT IS ALL'

– Oscar Wilde –

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CIRISOBU | FIJI'S INDIGENOUS INTERIOR

(FIJI 2018)

Deep in Fiji's remote interior, cut off by landslides and flooding, I came across the small indigenous settlement of Cirisobu. A land of spectacular landscapes and unparalleled hospitality, this is the aboriginal heart of Viti Levu.

In April 2018 I travelled into the Fijian interior in the wake of tropical cyclone Josie, soon to find and live in the small hamlet of Cirisobu. Isolated by the rugged landscape, landslides and flooding, the community live spiritedly, cultivating and hunting as they have for thousands of years. This is a little of their story.

 

Somewhere beyond the room’s corrugated iron walls, the smacking of a bucket sounds, dull against the night air. Semi and his family raise their voices in song, an eerily comforting harmony of prayer. Fijian is a beautiful language when sung, and, as a rule, Fijians seem to have an intuitive sense of pitch and rhythm, effortlessly weaving their voices with one another. They sing often: in prayer, for work, or simply because they can.

 

Right now, we sing for Devotion – a session of communion and prayer at seven o’clock each evening - give-or-take a little ‘Fiji-time’. Sitting on the floor, cross-legged around a blue-and-white chequered table cloth, the remains of dinner lie between us. Tonight was a stew of eel: seared in flames, scraped, then boiled with bele – a spinach like plant. As usual, it is served with a huge portion of cassava root. This traditional meal, the product of river and forest, is a stark contrast to the devout following of Christianity: a remnant of British colonialism; still fervently maintained in juxtaposition to an otherwise remarkably unchanged way of life.

 

In April 2018 I travelled into the Fijian interior in the wake of tropical cyclone Josie, soon to find and live in the small hamlet of Cirisobu. Isolated by the rugged landscape, landslides and flooding, the community live spiritedly, cultivating and hunting as they have for thousands of years. This is a little of their story.

14th April 2018

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After struggling for hours through mountain grasslands stretching high above my head, I emerged into a stony canyon nestled amongst thick jungle. A bubbling, beautifully clear brook of spring water leapt spiritedly down its centre, winding its way in a rocky trough from the grassy hills above. I set up my hammock above a rocky plinth high on the bank. On either side is jungle as high as I can see, butterflies glinting as they dance in the morning sun. The small valley is more open here, allowing sun to fall hot on the network of open boulders and dancing streams. Above a clear blue pool stands a huge rock platform ringed by strangler figs - perfect for climbing around and inside. Naked, after swimming, I explored the area. My bare feet danced across smooth stone and warm bark, climbing the vines and running across the rocks. My senses are on overload: sun’s heat and water’s cool like shots of pleasure on my skin. I feel wild, and freer than ever - the place is so beautiful, so untouched. I wonder if anyone has ever been here before?

 

When night came it grew dark fast, not just dark, but black: the jungle on my left fading into nothingness. Below me, on the other side, the river continued to rush by loud and energetic, unaffected by the darkened silence around. It took a while to get comfortable, but I soon realised how tired I was and sank into a deep sleep. Thankfully there was no rain.

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The following day I came upon Cirisobu (pronounced thi-ri-som-bu – took me days to get right...), deep in the Nalotowa highlands of north-eastern Viti Levu. As it turned out I was actually the first white visitor ever to stop, let alone stay. The occasional westerner that does come – around every couple of years from what I could gather – drives further inland to the larger village of Nanuku.

 

Nestled on a hillside amongst the mountains and forests of Fiji’s rugged interior, this forgotten settlement is home to a little over thirty people, who, other than the odd spouse, are all descended from the same grandfather.

 

15th April 2018

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It is a spectacular setting. I honestly cannot explain the incredible beauty of the view into the river valley from the turaga-ni-koro’s [headman’s] garden. The trees and tropical plants in the foreground frame the classic Fijian mountains way off in the distance, and a clinging mist shrouds the thick jungle far below. Somewhere hidden amongst the mists a major river runs, clearly audible even from up here. But it is more than a view: rather a feeling. A feeling of openness and limitlessness, of freshness and freedom that I’m not sure how to explain. I can only imagine what it must be like to wake up in a village of this setting every day: to look on as the sun creeps its way across the jungle valley each morning, or the stars wheel above at night.

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Fijian culture is famed for its hospitality, and nowhere is this truer than with the indigenous. Even so, ritualistic tradition is strict. Visitors are required to follow the many tribal customs, and must present Sevusevu on arrival: a gift of kava. Kava, the Fijian yaqona root is the centrepiece of Fijian culture. Pounded and soaked, it is poured into ornately carved wooden bowls and drunk as grog – a bitter, muddy-looking water of mild sedative quality. Grog is central in all traditional ceremonies, from Sevusevu to official village affairs, and often drunk socially late into the night. The rhythmic drum of pounding roots is a common sound reverberating through the village in the darkness.

 

With the exception of market-bought rice and flour, the people of Cirisobu are still for the most part hunter-horticulturalists: untouched by the Indian economy and enterprise elsewhere in Fiji. Cassava – the starchy tapioca root – is a primary staple, grown wherever it is dry enough (i.e. most places) and consumed in huge quantities with nearly every meal. On the slope below Semi and his wife’s tarpaulin-clad kitchen is a plethora of food plants: spinach-like bele, the heart-shaped dalo leaf, pawpaw, coconut palms and many others I’d never seen nor heard of. Semi’s wife had even brought the seeds of her home island east of Viti Levu, and planted them to grow tall alongside the native flora. 

 

Freshwater clams and shrimp are gathered by hand, and eel caught at night in the forest creeks. The men do most of the hunting, diving for fish in the deeper parts of the river with makeshift spear-guns: a sharpened metal rod and elastic loop. Snares are set for wild pig in the forest, and they are hunted with dogs and spears.

 

18th April 2018

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The plan had been to spearfish, however the flooding from the cyclone had washed down all the fish from the river. For all our searching we found only a single freshwater shrimp. Yet the setting was idyllic. Fast flowing flumes were interspersed by crystal blue pools, set amidst a network of smooth stone islands. The entire waterway was set in a cradle of Fijian jungle, while the mountains above looked on protectively like giant guardians. We spent the afternoon, Semi, young Iki, his older sister Leydex and I, swimming in the sun and launching ourselves from rocks into the cool water below. Semi found a pawpaw growing on the banks. He cut it open and we ate by the riverside, the discarded seeds bobbing lazily downstream. It tasted good.

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This timeless traditionalism of their subsistence is reflected in the people and community. Adults laugh freely as they go about their day, and children charge through the village with an energy and resilience twice that of their western counterparts. They are free spirits, children of the land: I never once saw one cry. When finally they wind down, they sleep wherever and however, lying nearby as their elders talk and drink kava long into the night. Their sleep is deep and full, in accord with the day’s intensity.

 

Attitude to life in indigenous Fiji is one of absolute laid-backness. Work is done deliberately – as needed and no more – and the days go by in Fiji-time, unchecked and free. What struck me most was the strength of community. Each member of the small group will go out of their way for another without question. Families will often stop by for supper, usually crashing in the house of the host, despite their own being only a few hundred meters away. During my stay a house was built communally for a family who lost their kitchen in a landslide, and I accompanied Semi’s wife and her friend to spend a day cooking up giant vats of dahl and cassava for the hundred hungry children of the district school. Everything is done in relation to everyone else, and, in many ways, there is no separation of individual and community.

 

It seemed to me, that despite their ‘undeveloped poverty’, even by the standard of neighbouring villages, their society is one of genuine happiness and contentment – a product of a simpler, more community-based and less materialistic society?

 

16th April 2018

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For the first time, one of the youngest children, too young to be left at school, took me by the hand and led me through the dark to the waiting carrier. It felt like a gesture of acceptance, all the more for the innocence and culturally-uninitiated hand it came from. The stars shone bright above, Orion clearly visible amidst a vast field of unfamiliar others. A clear smear of brightness marked the Milky Way, from lowest to highest point in the sky. From the dorm rooms on the hill behind us rose the sound of a hundred children’s voices, harmonising in crystal unison as they sang their prayers to the night in preparation for sleep. Community heart and spirit is stronger here than any I’ve ever heard of, let alone seen for myself.

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Sport and physicality has always been held in high regard, from the wrestling and warrior disciplines of pre-colonial Fiji to the rugby of today. This is a rugby nation – everywhere you look is the national Sevens team: on television; in magazines; on posters 30 feet high. Even in tribal villages there is a fierce pride for their nation’s prowess. But here, deep in the highlands away from media and news, is where the real heart is. The kids are fast, and the sheer physicality of these people is impressive. Lithe, powerful bodies of adolescents exude a lean strength and agility reminiscent of professional athletes. Older men are fuelled by massive muscular builds, good nature, and ‘suki-power’: their dubious homegrown tobacco.

 

In Cirisobu and the neighbouring village of Nanuku, rugby or volleyball are played daily, touch swiftly turning to contact, bodies piling on top of each other. Men, women and children play together without division – an expression of pure human physicality and joy. Sweat drips from foreheads in the oppressive humidity and barefeet dance across the rocky, sun-baked earth. Those that don’t play sit and watch, as engaged as the players themselves. 

 

Again, I was struck by the tolerance and inclusiveness of these people, as if interpersonal judgement didn’t exist. Fun and friendly despite competitive, the daily games assure a community bond and coming-together: an outward representation of their community spirit. Play only ended when darkness forced it: spectacular sunsets bathing the valley below in pink and orange light.

 

Yet for all their traditional virtue, the people of Cirisobu have not escaped the threats and impacts of modern life entirely. Obesity, diabetes and all their relatives are the most obvious concern. A mismatch of traditional portion size with a recent diet of nutrient-dense rice and processed flour is likely a major culprit. This is coupled with a sweet-tooth and abundance of sugar from the cane fields of colonialism – Fiji’s largest commercial export. More recently, as in many indigenous communities that live on the edge of ‘developed’ society, rubbish is becoming an issue. In Cirisobu it litters the ground behind houses, and constant plumes of toxic smoke rise from plastic fires that are ever present around the village. 

 

It is ironic that in gaining what little they can of outside development, the people of Cirisobu have perhaps received some of the worst consequences it has to offer. Whilst it is no other individual’s place to prevent socioeconomic ‘development’ of traditional societies, it is clear that in many cases these populations are in no position to make the best of what it can offer. They probably would’ve been better with none of it at all.

 

 

As I sat with them for one final kava ceremony, I couldn’t help but wonder on their future. After the kava had been drunk, and many rounds of cards played to raucous laughter and good-mannered teasing, we talked a little of England and I tried to explain our societal system a little more. It wasn’t much good. As interested as they were they didn’t understand. It’s another world with ideas and principles too foreign. To the hand and mind that live by what it grows and hunts, the concepts of our country and society make little sense: virtual constructs at odds to the natural rhythms of the land and ancestral human way of life. 

 

Lying in bed at 1am, I consider how much our modern society might learn from these contented, kindly people. Theirs is a simpler, more direct and, from outward appearance at least, happier means of living. As I fall asleep, drowsy from the quantity of kava drunk, I hear the squeak of the door and crunch of footsteps in the dirt outside as Semi heads out to hunt for eels in the jungle. He carries his single rod of sharpened iron, and an old plastic flashlight. Last night he brought home three, spearing them in a creek down by the cassava patch. In true Fijian style he’d just gone and done it with no comment to anybody: to him it was nothing out of the ordinary.