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Archived News: September 2019

From Alan & Jan (27 September)

Report on a Recent Visit to Rotuma

We finally made it back to Rotuma for the first time since 2012! Twice before when we tried to get there, all flights had been canceled for one reason or another (the grass runway was too wet from heavy rains, there was no jet fuel on the island for refueling, etc). Now, however, with the runway on the island paved and larger planes (like the ATR-600 we took) able to carry sufficient fuel and land in wet weather, flights appear to be more predictable.

Before we flew to Rotuma we spent a few days in Suva with Susana & John
Tevita and their extended family. We were also able to get together with old friends Makareta Mua and her father, Tukaha, Monifa Fiu, and Antoine Nyeurt, as well as visiting USP to meet with the Rotumans who are creating the new undergraduate minor in Rotuman culture and language, including Rosarina Rafai and Wilfred Fimone. While there we also spent time with Jason Titifanue, who has been doing research on Rotuman topics.

In Rotuma, we were hosted in Motusa by Dr. John Fatiaki and his wife Sineva, whom we had first met 32 years ago when they were newly wed and John had been posted to Rotuma as the island's resident doctor. They were the most gracious hosts ever and saw to our every need. We've never been so comfortable on Rotuma!

We spent time taking early morning walks to Itumuta and Hapmafau; visiting old friends like Sanimeli Solomone; her sister, Violet; and Gagaj Tamanav. We also had wonderful visits with our Rotuman kainaga, Torike Mareta and daughter Ruth in Oinafa, and Sakimi and Sarote Aprama in Losa.

A highlight of our visit was the day we spent at Rotuma High School as honored guests during Library Week. We gave a joint talk to the assembly about the importance of books, libraries, reading, and research, and also got to hand out the awards to students costumed as their favorite characters from novels they
were studying. And we were delighted to meet the new science teacher, Lisa Vaurasi (nee Viliame), who had been one of the RHS graduates whom we sponsored for our Elisapeti Inia scholarship in 2010. Principal Sereana Tuapati is obviously doing a great job of motivating the students and we understand that the success rate of students from Rotuma High School on national exams has never been higher.

There have been many changes on Rotuma since our last visit, some good, some rather troubling. On the plus side are the new airport facilities and regularity of weekly flights, and the fact that many of the houses have added tanks for collecting rain water to supplement pumped water from the reservoir. Most of the island seems to be served by village generators, although electricity is only available at certain times (morning and evening). Access to the Internet is still dicey and very slow at best, with service only available from Itumuta to Malhaha.

One troubling trend is the continuing decline in population. In Oinafa village, for example, many homes have few occupants and some are unoccupied. It's not the thriving village that we remember from the time we lived there in the 1980s and 90s. We share Dr John's hope that more Rotumans from abroad will be inclined to both visit and resettle in Rotuma now that transportation is more regularly available.

Most troublesome, however, is the breach between the Fiji Government and the Rotuman Council, which the Government has suspended and no longer supports. The reasons for this are complex, but as we understand it the Council members took some questional actions that provoked a punitive response from the Government. We were told that all but three of the PWD workers on the island have been withdrawn--which some see as another punitive step. Certainly Rotuma's roads are in the worst shape we've ever seen. A ride around the island is a bumpy journey indeed!

But even more unsettling is the suspicion expressed by a number of Rotumans that the Government aims to assimilate Rotuma into the Fijian cultural orbit, and to eradicate Rotuma's distinctive status within the Nation of Fiji. This, they point out, is apparent in several ways, including a greatly increased number of Fijians being appointed to positions in Rotuma that were formerly occupied by Rotumans. Thus they complain that mostly Fijian teachers are being assigned to the schools despite the fact that Rotumans apply for those positions. Ahau, they feel, is now a primarily Fijian village, and they bemoan the fact that the once elegant Government station is now an unsightly clutter of buildings and unkempt grounds.

If anything speaks to such intentions on the part of the Fiji Government it may well be Rotuma Bill No. 6 of 2015. I would urge all Rotumans who are concerned with the fate of their home island and its culture to read the 2018 article "The Rotuma Bill No. 6 of 2015: What Is at Stake for Rotuma?"  by Lee-Anne Sackett, Romitesh Kant and Jason Titifanue. It is available for download from the USP Website.

After two weeks, we returned to Fiji and spent a couple of days in Lautoka, mostly at Fiji National University, where we were hosted by Perry Gabriel, who had been RHS principal in 2012, and his wife Siteri. One evening we were invited to meet with FNU graduate students and faculty and the next evening with Rotumans from the community. We also got to visit a few other Rotumans, including Nina Gibson, Mausio Mua, and Randolph Bentley and his mother.

All in all it was a wonderful trip and we're already looking forward to next time!