Pristine beaches and swaying palms are the expectation, but there is much more to Fiji. Multiculturalism, religion and diabetes are some surprises.
Suva is the hub of the Pacific, the capital of Fiji and the region’s capital. It’s also tiny, with just 170,000 inhabitants. It’s roughly the same size as my nearest home city, Plymouth in Devon, which isn’t even the capital for the county let alone the country. I volunteered here for an NGO, for four months last year.
Fiji is an archipelago consisting of more than 300 islands. It evokes images of white sand beaches, coconuts and scenes from The Blue Lagoon, the 1980’s film starring Brooke Shields. However the reality of life for many Fijians is far removed from that. It is a poor country, mostly reliant on tourism and sugar exports, with a large NGO presence operating out of the capital city. In rural Fiji life is basic, revolving around subsistence fishing and farming and the traditional structure of village communities.
Fiji’s population in made of an interesting mix of predominantly native Fijians, more than 30% Indo-Fijians, some Europeans and a growing number of Chinese. Indian people travelled to Fiji as indentured workers in the 19th Century to farm on sugarcane plantations during British colonization. A large percentage of todays’ Indo-Fijian population are descendants of these workers. An Indian presence is felt strongly across Fiji, in particular in Suva. Turn a corner and you feel that you are in India itself, shops teem with Saris and Shalwar Kameez, Hindi can be heard ubiquitously and temples and mosques intersperse churches. Indian food has been readily adopted, my colleagues’ favourite lunch was curry so spicy it made your eyes water.
However beneath the initial air of multicultural peace there are some conflicts simmering. These are felt more strongly at times of political dispute such as the 2006 coup and with disputes over land rights. This has contributed to growing informal settlements skirting the cities with large numbers of people migrating to the city in the search for work. Coming from a lifetime of farming the city offers few options, many people now work in the capital as taxi drivers, adding to the vast number already present. Taxis are so common and cheap in Suva that they pass in steady streams, beeping their horns hopefully for custom as you cross the road.
Contrary to the external image of healthy island life, Fiji faces growing health concerns, 80% of deaths are from Non-Communicable Diseases or NCD’s. Indeed it has one of the highest diabetes rates in the world. In 2013 a diabetes related amputation was performed every 13 hours. Various initiatives exist to try and persuade people away from their beloved sugar and processed foods and to a healthier, more active lifestyle. Around Suva seafront illustrated signs compare calories burnt through exercise against popular foods. Supermarket aisles are crammed with sugar packed ‘juices’, loafs of white bread and instant noodles. The daily custom of ‘drinking tea’ consists of breaking crackers, layered with salty butter into mugs of sugary, milky tea. Fijians love their food, with every occasion of any importance being marked by a huge morning tea spread. They are very family orientated and food plays a huge part in both dominant cultures.
Religion is customary in Fiji, with Christianity and Hinduism being the most predominant. My first day in Fiji was an incredibly quiet Sunday as everything was shut for church services and family events afterwards. Cheerful song drifted from churches and crowds in their best Bula (colourful, Fijian dress) congregated outside. Religion dominates both rural and city life. I attended a church service in Hindi where the congregation wept and wailed as they sang and repented.
Fijians are some of the warmest and most welcoming people, I was serenaded when I left the office, invited to join cava ceremonies and received a friendly hello from most people I passed. Their enthusiasm and island spirit is infectious and the nightlife energetic and pumping. People of all ages love to dance and the younger generations party zealously all night long in Suva’s clubs, each with the pre-requisite poles to perform on.
The islands are beautiful and rural communities still exist in Fiji, but more and more people, like elsewhere across the world are moving to urban centres. Suva is a melting pot of cultures and nationalities, with a large population of mostly Australian expats working for NGO’s. Socializing in the colonial Grand Pacific hotel with sea views and happy hour cocktails although lovely, felt somewhat sterilized from the real Fiji. With contemporary issues surrounding politics, ethnic and migrant communities and a deep religious connection, there is a lot more to Fiji than is widely shown. Holiday brochures reproduce the stereotypical beach images, but these islands and their people have a lot more to them. Fiji is much more than just golden sands.
You can see more of Lucy Flatman’s work on her website.