Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Kalokolevu Village, Fiji (3/7/05 - 3/14/05)

Fiji was amazing! I have a video clip of myself diving from a rope swing 40 feet above a waterfall basin pool at Colo-I-Suva Falls. But the true beauty of the experience was found in the people of Kalokolevu.

Rope Swing, Colo-I-Suva Falls, Fiji Posted by Picasa

As I am being offered the honorary "cup" of kava (served in a coconut shell) my first thoughts are, "Wow. It really DOES look like muddy water... Well, you are 'The Chief' so represent and drink up!"

Kava is the national drink of Fiji. It's made from the roots of a pepper tree and was being served to me and my group ( as part of a welcoming ceremony to Kalokolevu village (265 people strong). As the group leader, I was considered the chief of the group. So after a welcoming greeting in Fijian from the Chief's spokesman, and an acceptance of the welcome (through my interpreter) I was offered the first bowl of kava. I don't think it tastes much better than muddy water (even the Fijians grimaced as they drank it), but it felt good to be welcomed into the community.

Kava Ceremony, Kalokolevu, Fiji Posted by Picasa

There is a large wooden bowl in the middle of the assembly hall, which holds the kava for the ceremony. Everyone drinks from 2 or 3 coconut shells that return to the main bowl to be refilled before being presented to the next community member. There are ritual cupped-hand claps that accompany the receiving and drinking of the kava. As the coconut shell made its way around the room I was reminded of the kikombe cha umoja (the unity cup) that is passed around as part of Kwanzaa celebrations back home... So, as I gazed upon a roomful of people who looked like me the welcoming ceremony felt like a homecoming of sorts.

We were supposed to be helping the village plant mahogany trees and cassava plants as part of a sustainable economics project. But in truth the village helped us much more than we helped them.

Kalokolevu Youth Group, Fiji Posted by Picasa

We worked with about 25 members of the youth group who quickly gave us nicknames according to the famous US entertainers we reminded them of. To give you an example of just how vague these reminders were, I was either Will Smith or Michael Jordan depending on the villager addressing me. They knew our real names too, they just got a kick out of calling us our new nicknames.

"Spiderman" (because he "looks" like Toby McGuire) suffers from social anxiety to such an extent his application stated that he's traveling with a group because if he had to navigate an airport by himself he'd be more likely to crawl into a fetal position and cry rather than catch his flight. This is the same kid who would not jump from the rope swing because "Too many people are watching!" By the end of the week he was up dancing all night in front of the whole village. When I asked how he overcame his fears, he replied that these weren’t strangers, but family.

"Eminem" has learning disabilities and suffered some anxiety about not being as smart as other members of the group. This was before we reached the village. Once we arrived at the Kalokolevu he was the one that the villagers most embraced. They were constantly inviting him to have a seat and chat around the kava bowl, demonstrating that personality IQ's are just as important as intelligence IQ's, and helping him conquer his anxiety about being the low man on the totem poll.

Compared to my AmeriCorps-NCCC days we didn't work much (only 4 or 5 hours a day), but we worked hard. The heat and humidity gave us a good sweat as we wielded machetes, shovels and pickaxes to remove invasive species and plant some 1500 mahogany seedlings and scores of cassava plants. We worked with the youth group and divided ourselves into teams of 4: 3 villagers and one LEAPNow member per team. "J-Lo" described the situation best exclaiming, "I feel like it's a game show, and working with us is the challenge. It's like, (in your best game show host voice) '...And the white girl!!! How many trees can YOUR team plant on a slippery mountain slope carrying a white girl who doesn't know what she's doing???!!!" It was a fun time. Our counterparts were pretty impressive people. Here we were slipping all over the place in our high-tech hiking boots carrying Nalgene water bottles, etc. while they trudged sure-footed through the bush barefoot and worry free. When they got thirsty they simply scaled a tree and drank the water from the green-husked coconuts.

The Sistahs, Kalokolevu Village, Fiji Posted by Picasa

Historians don’t agree on the origin of the first people to populate these islands, but it’s obvious to me that there are plenty of African roots here. Observing their beautiful afros, dark skin and physical features they could easily be my family members. And even though I couldn't understand the Fijian they spoke amongst themselves, the joking and laughter definitely reminds me of Black folks interactions in the states. Even the food we ate while sitting on the floor reminded me of some good southern soul food. No, there
ware no sweet potato pies or collard greens. But there was something vaguely familiar about the way the tarot leaves (Fijian greens?) and stewed chicken over rice were prepared.

Fijian Cuisine, Kalokolevu Village, Fiji Posted by Picasa

The 3rd night we were there I got home late from taking care of some business at the internet spot in town. I was surprised to find the rest of my group and some 20 villagers gathered in the living room of my host family's house. It was a party! Everyone was scattered about the room sitting on the floor enjoying kava (which has a slightly narcotic effect when consumed in large amounts), music and games until about midnight. This too reminded me of holiday time at home. And the parties continued every night (sometimes in different houses) until we left.

Game Night, Kalokolevu Village, Fiji Posted by Picasa

Kava Bowl, Kalokolevu Village, Fiji Posted by Picasa

The day before we left turned out to be a pretty special day. The young men of Kalokolevu village are known for their accurate performances of traditional Fijian dances. They are often invited to perform at official government ceremonies. Such was the case this day. They asked us to get dressed up so we could attend a ceremony at which the Fijian president was naming a newly acquired government ship after one of his cabinet members. So we all donned our sulus (skirts for men and women) and attended the ceremony as guests of the village.

My Fijian Brothers, Kalokolevu, Fiji Posted by Picasa

That night we were officially thanked and bid farewell at a church service, but that was just the formal farewell. As soon as church was over the real festivities began. The entire village was invited to a feast in the community hall.

Farewell Feast, Kalokolevu, Fiji Posted by Picasa

The Reverend, Sevidi, and Me (w/honorary lei and powder) Posted by Picasa

Once the dishes were cleared from the floor the music started, and we danced until daylight. Actually, a full dance card and the kava had me knocked out by 3AM. I might be ashamed of the fact that I couldn't hang were it not for the fact that I got NO rest! I could not stay seated. The ladies (ages 12 to 65) commented that I was a "smart dancer," and I had a new partner every time a new song was played. Wait a minute, that's not true either. In the beginning they were waiting until the song was over, but by midnight formalities were out the window. I would have as many as 5 partners on one song, as they would cut in on one another throughout each song. It was a fun night, but having not sat down the whole time, I was basically exercising for 6 hours straight! My body finally said "ENOUGH!! I'm shutting down now. You’re going to sleep whether you want to or not!" A couple of students made it until 6AM and there were several community members who actually spent the night in the hall. There was still kava flowing when we came in for the farewell ceremony at 9AM.

A Few Dance Partners Posted by Picasa

I've stayed with well over 30 host families in the last several years, but this was THE most tearful farewell I have ever experienced. I was doing well when it was just a few women crying. But as the chief's spokesman drew his official speech to a close and the kava was being served, the men decided that they wanted to sing us a farewell song. One song turned into 2, then 3. We couldn't understand the Fijian words to the songs, but they sang so beautifully with such conviction and emotion... Then these big grown men had tears flowing from their eyes. And my eyes started welling up too... as did those of everyone in the place. I still can't truly explain why this homestay experience was so much more moving than any of my others (it had only been a week) but there wasn't a dry face in the hall. Perhaps it was because this time we belonged to an entire close-knit community instead of just one family...

As a token of our appreciation for their hospitality we presented the village with sports balls and a photo of us with the youth group. Before we kissed and hugged everyone on the way to the van, they honored us once more by hanging it in the community hall next to the only other piece of framed art on the walls, that of a portrait of Jesus. I guess the sentiment that we had become family was mutual.

Leaving Kalokolevu, Fiji Posted by Picasa


Post a Comment

<< Home