by Jim McNish
Monday was the big day – we were off to meet Ratu Apenisa, the gentleman most likely to succeed as the next High Chief of all the islands. Everyone met for breakfast dressed in their finery. The shirts and dresses looked like an explosion in a flower shop. Craig and I practiced getting down, sitting cross legged and standing up in our formal sulus, which are akin to lightweight kilts and could lead to all sorts of embarrassment if not done correctly. Then we were into the boats once more, driven by Gordi and Davs with a representative from Moturiki island who had agreed to come with us to conduct the ritual of sevu sevu – the kava ceremony – we would be undertaking to give homage to the Chief.
On arrival in Bau Island we processed in single file from the dock, across the ‘village green’ towards a large ceremonial hall. On entry we crouched low, assumed our cross legged position and shuffled into line, creating a circle around the kava bowl, all of us facing Ratu Apenisa who sat below a photograph of his great-great-grandfather, who was the chief who accepted Christianity in the islands and ceded Fiji to Great Britain in the 1870s. The ritual and ceremony was conducted in Fijian, so of course none of us fully understood what was happening, but after Ratu Apenisa had drunk a coconut shell full of kava he casually tossed it back to the master of ceremonies. This was repeated by his right hand men and then each of us in turn was passed a shell full of the spicy liquid. We had, fortunately, been briefed on what do, so we followed the protocol by clapping once, saying “Bula” then drinking it down in one. After handing back the coconut shell we clapped three times before it was the next person’s turn. Kava is a very mild narcotic made from the roots of a particular pepper plant. It has been compared to drinking a muddy puddle, but I found the distinctive spiciness strangely pleasant, leaving the inside of mouth tingling gently. Finally, each of us went in turn and, shuffling on hands and knees we touched the kava bowl then went over to Ratu and shook his hand. He very graciously told each of us to stand up, rather than crawl, as he knew it was an unfamiliar action for us. Eventually the ceremony was drawn to a close by the kava master who drew a circle in the air three times around the bowl. Then Ratu spoke. “Right”, he said, “while these fellas mix us up some more grog does anybody have any questions?” and with that everyone visibly relaxed.
Ratu then told us a little of the history of Fiji and Bau island in particular. Bau was traditionally the home of the most fearsome cannibalistic warriors in Fiji and he recounted gruesome tales of beheadings and honour killings. The large tree in the middle of the village green, he said, was used as a larder – captured enemies would be killed and then hung by their feet from the branches until they were ready to eat. Of course, this was all long ago and as we followed Ratu around the island he showed us the killing stone where the ‘prizes’ had their heads smashed in and it now rests in the island’s Methodist church and is used as the baptismal font. We continued the tour (with everyone always walking behind Ratu and never entering or leaving a building before him) taking in the school, where the children were let out of class early to stare and giggle at the funny foreigners while we took their photos and laughed along with them. Finally we were taken back to Ratu’s house and introduced to his mother. “Come on in”, he said “Oh, and by the way, the Oscars are on telly if anyone wants to watch it”. That is possibly the most surreal thing that has ever happened to me – standing chatting to the future High Chief of all of Fiji while we watch Jessica Biel sashay down the red carpet in LA on his large flat- screen TV.
Everyone was in high spirits as we boarded the boats home with Davs in particular laughing loudly as he revved the boat engine to send us crashing through the swell and soaking everyone on board. “Is that the best you can do?” shouted Ny-Ann “Come on, give it more power!” and we laughed like happy idiots as another wave came over the transom.