Days 1,090-1,091: The Fijian Chief


Boxing Day was a long, lazy day, but one in which I learnt an important life lesson: if you’re in a small swimming pool and you get everybody in it to run in a circle, you can create a whirlpool. True story.

My ticket out of here, the Southern Lily 2, doesn’t leave until after New Year, so I’ve got a week or so to spend mooching about, causing trouble and generally being a crimson-headed nuisance.

The day after Boxing Day, a new chief would be installed as head of Sandy’s mum’s clan. I was invited along to the ceremony which would be held in the small village of Buca Levu, a couple of hours drive out of Suva on the eastern side of the main Fijian island of Viti Levu. I’d be a fool to turn an opportunity like this down, and as I keep telling the taxi drivers of the world, my mama ain’t never raised no fool.

So on Boxing Day night I stayed over at Sandy’s mum’s house in Delainavsei on the outskirts of Suva, ready to head out to the village at early o’clock in the morning. As there was so much stuff to take to the village (gift giving is incredibly important in Fijian culture) we wound up missing the bus, but Sandy’s brother, Kee, gave us a lift in his car.

The village was lovely – just off the main road and all built with local materials. Before I entered the house where I would be staying, I had been fully briefed by Sandy with regards protocol when in a Fijian village. First up, if everybody else is sitting, you must not stand. You must not walk in front of anybody, only behind them. When you walk behind somebody you must say “chillo” which is the Fijian for “excuse me”. The patriarch of the household is called “Tata Levu”, meaning “Big Father”. The matriarch is called “Nana Levu”.

When you enter a Fijian home it is traditional to give a small gift to Tata Levu, usually powered Kava. I had bought a couple of packs the day before at Sandy’s behest. As a guest, you must enter the house through the back door, never the front door. You must take your shoes off before entering and it’s respectful (but not essential) to wear a ‘sulu’ – the cotton sarong that you often see Fijian men wearing. Sandy had lent me a sulu of her brother’s.

When sitting on the floor to eat, your place at the table is important, so don’t just sit anywhere – wait until somebody shows you where to sit. And finally, most importantly, don’t touch anybody on the head: it is the height of bad manners. Missionaries were eaten for touching the chief’s head. Oh, and I wasn’t allowed to wear my hat.

After presenting my gift of kava to Tata Levu, we sat down to eat breakfast together. After that, Kee set off back to Suva and Sandy’s mum and I squelched our way across the muddy village (it’s the rainy season alright!) to an open sided structure with wooden pillars and a tin roof in the middle of the village green. The ceremony of chiefly matters was soon to begin.

As the final preparations were made I sat and chatted with Aisea Naigulevu, the softly spoken white-haired man who was about to become this clan’s first chief. Each village is made up of several clans – extended families – and to have a voice in the village council (and to stand a chance of becoming village chief yourself one day) your clan needs a chief. To be made chief is a great honour and a position that Aisea (pronounced Isaiah) will keep until the day he dies: there might not be an investiture of a new chief for another 20 years.

While Aisea went off to get ready for the ceremony, Sandy’s mum gave me a tour of the food preparations for the feast that would follow. Like at Christmas, cooking was done in a lovo – in this case, many lovos. Many really BIG lovos. At least two cows, five pigs and god knows how many chickens were being cooked. The taro was being delivered in wheelbarrows. Fish, lamb, vegetables of all shapes and sizes: everything was being put together by a team of villagers that put the caterers that did the royal wedding to shame.

Then it was back to the shelter on the green for the ceremony. Aisea sat at the front facing us all and some 200 villagers filed in: some of whom had come from Nadi on the other side of the island, some had even flown back from New Zealand and Australia. We all sat on the floor and when everyone was settled, the proceedings began.

First of all we had a church service, Fijians incorporate their new religion with the old pre-Christian rites. The minister spoke in Fijian so I kinda got a flavour of what it must have been like being a Catholic in the days before they started doing the mass in English.

After some very nicely sung hymns, the minister stood next to Aisea and spoke (I assume) about the new chiefs rights and responsibilities. He then anointed Aisea’s head with a drop of oil from a glass vial and Aisea stood up, now chief of the clan. Everybody queued up to shake his hand and get a photo standing next to Aisea.

And then the feasting began! There was so, so much food it was insane. The beautiful blue skies we had enjoyed in the morning had (predictably for Fiji at this time of year) given way to dark storm clouds in the afternoon. I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful to have a tin roof over my head. I sat with my very full plate of food chatting with members of Sandy’s mum’s clan and revelling in the honour I had been shown to be invited to a private event such as this.

Once the food had all been demolished, people started heading back to their homes for an afternoon siesta. When in Rome…

That evening I sat playing cards with the kids by the light of a kerosene lamp. I introduced them to the wonderful world of the card game ‘speed’ (which is the fastest way to wreck your nice clean Bicycle deck) as well as showing them a card trick or two. They in turn went through every animal in the zoo and tried to teach me what the Fijian word for it was. Around 9pm I was invited to come and drink kava in another house, which of course I accepted.

The kava session was great. It’s funny that in almost all human cultures, conversation is always best over a drink: whether it’s a coffee, a bottle of San Miguel or a bowl of brown root water. We were drinking out of a traditional wooden kava bowl, which I have to recommend over the usual plastic washing-up bowl. It’s like the difference between drinking Coca-Cola out of a glass bottle and drinking it out of a plastic bottle. After spinning some tales from the road and putting the world to rights it was almost morning. I returned to Tata Levu’s house, took my space on the floor and fell fast asleep. What a great day.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dino Deasha

    Any culture that doesn’t let you wear that hat gets my vote. The Fijians are clearly a very enlightened people.

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