In an increasingly urbanised world, life in Fiji continues to revolve around the village. Some 60% of Fijians continue to live in villages dotted across the islands, and even those who live in the major population centres such as Suva, Lautoka and Labasa are likely to call a village home.
Many villages remain quite traditional, and though the architecture of the homes may have changed, the traditions around sevusevu, kava, farming, fishing, lovo, handicrafts and meke remain. With a group of friends, I travelled to Vuci (pronounced voo-thee), just an hour out of Suva near Nausori, for a village homestay weekend.
Vuci is near the mangrove swamps, about an hour out of Suva.
It’s important to dress appropriately in the village. While Fijians are used to seeing bikini-clad tourists on the beaches, there’s a sanctity and ritual to village life that requires appropriate clothing – long skirts and covered shoulders for the girls, sulus and shirts for the boys. Sulus aren’t skirts, but by our Western standards, they’re pretty close. “How do you like your skirt?” I teased one of my friends as we prepared to leave. “It’s actually pretty comfy,” he replies. We all agree the boys actually look pretty good.
Our arrival in the village isn’t a quiet affair – we’re greeted by a dozen smiling, singing women and plenty of excited, happy children. They give us each a fresh coconut to drink and tie strings of fresh flowers around our necks, all the while singing a traditional song, then, still smiling warmly, they escort us to the village hall. The village is laid out in a neat grid pattern with worn concrete paths crisscrossing between good-sized homes, many elevated on stilts. The grass is lushly green and thick bushes of tropical flowers dot the gardens.
We’ve brought the required bundle of dried kava root for the sevusevu. One of the village elders takes it off us and, to our intense relief, performs the sevusevu on our behalf. Sevusevu is a traditional ceremony to ask for permission to enter a village. I can’t understand the words, but they have a ritualistic rhythm, almost singsong-like. The kava we brought is presented to the village chief, an old man who’s fleshy features and cross-legged posture puts me in mind of a Mahayana Buddha. By accepting our offering, he makes us honourary members of the village community for the duration of our stay. As a foreigner, you don’t have to take a sevusevu offering when you visit a village in Fiji, but it’s considered polite, and it very easy to do.
We’re each assigned to a host family for the weekend, and with the ceremony finished, we head to their homes for dinner. I have a host mother and several host sisters. The father and brothers are working in different parts of the country, but I’m encouraged to add them on Facebook even though I haven’t met them, since we’re all family now. When I enter the home, a big wooden house up on stilts, there’s a huge cheer – it’s not for me, Fiji has just scored a try against Scotland in the Rugby 7s on TV. The whole country is rugby-mad, and throughout dinner there are whoops and yells at every try.
Me being shown how to turn dried palm fronds into a lovely mat.
The next morning, the boys are put to work labouring in the field to plant the root crop dalo, while we women are shown how to weave bangles, fans and mats from palm fronds. It’s not easy, but I seemed to have a bit of a knack for it and managed to make a bangle and a kind of small, irregular shaped mat. Everything is made out of palm fronds that have been carefully dried and split. Some are dyed black by putting them in the gutter for a few weeks and drying them again. There’s a real art to the weaving and many of the creations are very beautiful. The afternoon is spent in an overcrowded little boat in the mangrove swamps, observing how to make a mud-lobster trap. The kids accompanying us leap from the trees, splashing into the surprisingly deep water.
Setting a mud lobster trap.
That night, after dinner, my host sisters dress me up in traditional Bula clothes. I’m lent a lovely yellow floral chaba and sulu (a knee length dress and long skirt worn underneath), my hair is braided tightly into an elaborate pattern, and I’m given flowers to accessorise my outfit. Suitably attired, I joined my friends at the village hall for a meke performance of traditional dance and song.
Our group in our lovely Bula attire. That’s me in the yellow.
There are no musical instruments, but they’re not needed. For each new song, two dozen voices rise in harmony, accompanied by clapping and thumping on the floor. It’s hard to believe the amazingly varied sounds that came from this fantastic chorus. First a group of older women perform a few dances, then a group of teenage boys. Under instruction, we present them with fabric during the dance as a sign of appreciation. One of our group takes the end of the bolt of brightly patterned material and leads the way in a line around the dancers, laying the material out for them as we went. It seemed strange to us, but was met by cheers and yells of approval from the group, and beaming smiles from the dancers.
Traditional meke dance by our host mothers. My host mother is second from the right.
The boys meke. What a show!
Sunday morning is spent at church. Most Fijians are quite religious, and church plays a big part in village life too. We also watch the preparation of the lovo – our lunchtime feast. Lovo is a traditional earth oven. A pit is dug and fire lit inside, then covered with large stones. A variety of meats and root vegetables are wrapped up in palm fronds or tin foil and placed on top. The food is covered with more stones, then the whole lot is buried and left for several hours to slowly cook and smoke. The result is succulently juicy meat with a smoky flavour, and Fijians just love it.
Digging up the lovo.
Lunch is served in the village hall, sitting on the floor at a woven mat, piled with plates of lovo food, salads, fruit, and dishes cooked in coconut cream – including the mud lobster we hunted for yesterday. With the constant refrain from our hosts “have some more!”, we eat until we’re stuffed.
So. Much. Food.
Village life is a side of Fiji that most visitors don’t really get a taste of from their resorts. It’s a curious mix of tradition and modernity, where Facebook and satellite TV live alongside sevusevu, meke and lovo. If you have the opportunity to visit a village, do it – it’s a fascinating insight into modern Fiji. Prepare for some culture shock, naturally, especially if you like to spend any time by yourself or if you have funny ideas about women and men being treated the same, but overall it’s a great experience.
Have you ever been to a Fijian village? What was your experience like?
Pics in this post are by my lovely friend Jen. 🙂