There's a playbook that I seem to have not received on how I must submit to contorting myself, my thoughts, my words, in order to allow for the comfort of those, who are uncomfortable in the presence of my truths. Because the idea that an Indigenous Fijian woman should dare to question, to challenge, to correct even and undo the expected norms that our former masters laid for us, in the very intimate frameworks that we have built our house upon, scares you. Frameworks that we had no say in creating but were called upon to sit in on, as they discussed us to us, and took on our silence as one of acquiescence to their founding ideologies. Learned behaviours that subdued the vocal, thrashed out the strong-will and inadvertently ingrained into us, that a smile and a hop, skip and jump to their chosen tune brings about results that were always going to be to their benefit but left only crumbs for us to contend with.
Around the merry-go-round we spin yet again, lips stretched to its limits as we nod at the passing faces until they blur into nothing. We stagger off to the melee of shrieks and fairground noise, drowning out reason and critical thought. "Stand straight, smile, look at the camera please", instructions barked out at us as the flash goes off. The photographer hands us a ticket stub and tells us, "We don't print photos here, just a ticket to remind you that free-thinkers are not tolerated, respectability politics is our law that stamps that kind of nonsense out".
But we haven't yet lost our voice, and we look around to find a few others who haven't fallen under the spell of dancing to the tune of inaccuracies, milling about on the fringes. Like the tune that had blackface minstrels ridiculing our ancestors to their pale faced audiences. Whose mouths fell wide open with laughter even though we struggled to see the humour in the dehumanising act. Applause lifts the roof to the skies as they shout "BRAVO!" And yell for more as it conveniently allows for the unnatural shift of their perception of us from the "dusky toned savage", to the "comical n*gger", and finally to "the smiling, harmless child". Ever wonder why we have never been able to marry the idea of the friendly South Sea Islander that was touted back to motherland to the way we organised tribally, the way we conquered people and territory, or how we farmed & fished sustainably so that our children & their children's children should never want? I wonder if we will ever stop to consider that this was a narrative that the settler colonialist normalised in its first wave of arrival into our territories. Their laughter and foreign language being misunderstood as this is how we can get along, so smile "Native"! SMILE! But deep down we know that respectability politics won't allow for this reflection because to smile is to be Indigenous Fijian and bring everyone in.
There's an empty bench by the wayside where we sit to gather our thoughts. A young woman sits by us and we look up to find the same resigned look mirrored back at us. She's just returned from her trip to Salem, Massachusetts, a trip that she had no say to but was decided for her by the person from whom the genesis of the name Merewalesi comes from. A trip where she was christened Phebe to make her name easier on the tongue that refused to learn a second language beyond that of their coloniser one. A trip where she is displayed to prying eyes, her humanity and dignity stripped of her persons but yet she smiled and endured it through gritted teeth because the pale-faced Merewalesi demanded it so. A trip from which she returned and was paraded like a prized calf to the "uncouth" and "undesirable Native women", as the level of civility, one must aspire to. It worked on the elites but was lost on the not so elites and as a result their place in society remains underfoot till present day.
We stretch out our hand across the bench seeking comfort where there is none, knowing full well that we also have none to offer. Fingers touch and stories weave through our interlocking digits. Colonialism really did a number on us all, as we re-live the pale faced one’s wives bearing down on our mothers, our grandmothers and our sisters to tell them that their pale-faced God demands that they be good wives and child-bearers, the triple burden of being a woman forced onto them. That to be an efficient member of the new society being created around us in our own land, we must first reproduce and reproduce aplenty. Followed by single-handedly overseeing the productivity of our household, as the head of our household is shipped away to the pale-faced one’s plantation to tend to their crops. Plantations where he is subjected to inhumane acts of lashings to teach him to submit to his white master, for kindness has no place in this master and property relationship. Violence has been decided will be the tool that will teach their "Native" property how to love their master. Violence that is internalised and flows through the veins of inter-generational trauma that is passed through the forced reproductive expectations forced on our women. Finally, with nothing more to give, we must sacrifice ourselves on the hill of community productivity. All this done in silence and in forced submission. There's no room for self-determination or autonomy over our own bodies because respectability politics and a healthy dose of toxic masculinity has seeped into our civilisation that we knew it as, pre-settler times, and therefore we must accept the lot that we have been dealt with.
The burden is too heavy and we push our way to the exit to free ourselves from the tentacles that have latched themselves onto the small of our back. Respectability politics becoming the ventriloquist that tells us what to say, how to say it and when to say it. Modern day freedoms of expressions surely must allow for us to be able to correct presumptions that have been made about us, to teach the "Other" that to come into our spaces now, they must come correct. To inform those who speak over us that they have no place in this conversation even as a lurking uninvited visitor attempting to pre-empt our decisions and thoughts. Deeming necessary conversations as too sensitive to have because unpacking those normalised untruths created about us, means confronting the fact that those who had no say in the division and allocation of their lands, were at the forefront of holding the coloniser accountable to provide permanent homes for the displaced visitors. That the dog whistles that politicians weaponize in order to rally the ill-informed does not speak for everyone. However, to wield this over the heads of every Indigenous Fijian person who dares to confront injustices that they experience, is just as toxic as said politicians. That the conflating of our histories where we are using terms such as “genocide” & “blood quantum” to silence the Indigenous Fijians is disingenuous and erases the violence of these acts that was done upon us. Like the measles epidemic of 1875 that the white man brought to our shores which wiped out one third of our population and consequently the further epidemics from then till 1891, which played a role into the further decline of the Indigenous population. Would that have been our history of a genocide by way of biological warfare? A reach maybe, but one that hopefully will make you pause and reflect. And if we are to speak about blood quantum, pray don’t be mistaken that this is how we determine who is our kin and who isn’t. For this violence was rather what was done upon us as a way of deciding how close of a proximity one was to the pale faced coloniser, in order to access the basic right to education. A tool that restricted the movement into places that had the white man frowning even upon the most educated “Native” who dared to assert his authority within these spaces that they did not want us in. That even daring to bathe in the public pools without that nod of approval to the right amount of white blood quantum in our DNA meant that we had sullied their bathing water and now they were unclean like us. All these dehumanising acts that stripped us of our humanity and dignity, and constantly forced us to choose silence and submissiveness in order to be able to exist upon our lands has meant that even after we gained our independence, we have become so conditioned to the paternalistic relationship with our former masters that we accepted it as the norm. That silence now although comes with so many different layers, is also a way for us to actively choose our sanity over constantly being made to feel that we have to justify our very existence today.
So, before you ask us yet again, to choose kindness, think about what that kindness means to you and what your perception of kindness looks like in action. And maybe reflect on the fact that our self-determination and reclaiming the autonomy of who we are is our way of redefining kindness for ourselves and for our children. That we no longer are going to pander to your expectation of us being the palatable "Native" that you have become accustomed to expecting us to be. The boundaries are clear because we decide that there will no longer be any shifting of goalposts to accommodate for your fragility.
Disturbing History: Aspects of Resistance in Early Colonial Fiji 1874 – 1914 - Robert E Nicole
‘Emancipated Women’: The Adis of Fiji and their ‘Native Sisters’ - Margaret Mishra
Fiji: The three legged Stool – Selected Writings of Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna - Deryck Scarr
Na Marama iTaukei Kei Na Vanua: Culturally Embedded Agency of Indigenous Fijian Women - Opportunities and Constraints - Dr Litia Meo-Sewabu
Ratu Sukuna: Soldier, Stateman, Man of Two Worlds - Deryck Scarr
Silence/Absence as Passive Resistance in Fiji: A Case Study of Indigenous Ecotourism Development in Taveuni - Trisia Farrelly
This is not a Grass Skirt - Karen Jacobs
White Women in Fiji 1835 – 1930. The Ruin of the Empire? - Claudia Knapman