Multi-meanings in a Multicultural Society

Fr Julian Fox SDB

In the Republic of the Fiji Islands, a Salesian summer camp, in the first week of December 2002, offered an insight into the often raw life of its youthful inhabitants. Fiji’s youth live in the most multi-cultural of all the Pacific Island communities and the camp’s experience led to a better understanding of the complex transition they must make to survive to adulthood.

Fifty boys and girls gathered at the Don Bosco Camp, at Deuba, some 50 kms from Suva and that city’s nearest public beach.

The social environment from which these young people come, filters through that week’s Murdoch-owned daily, the Fiji Times: Mum mourns for dead siblings; Assault on 10 Year Old; Unlucky Boys make the Most of Their Chances; Rape Girl in Fire Agony. There is nothing particularly novel in such headlines, except to note that these are the regular front page headlines for a nation of now just under one million inhabitants, one quarter of whom have surged into the urban areas. Nearly 60 per cent of these are under the age of 25 and are therefore dependent on the productive resources of others for their education, health and employment. Coming from this social grouping, the young people at Don Bosco Camp, whose average age is 13, have stories to tell.

Let us consider the case of Rajesh (not his real name), a 13-year-old Indo-Fijian boy. The Daughters of Charity, at nearby Nausori, sponsored Rajesh and four other youngsters’ attendance at the camp, by providing the $15 required. This is not the true cost of the camp, though it represents one entire junior secondary school term’s fees. Generous donors make up the shortfall, mostly from Australia, and Salesian Bulletin readers for the most part.

Rajesh’s personal story is too dramatic and disturbing to tell here, but its general features highlight characteristic elements of Fiji’s youth situation. There has been little attempt by academics to offer a Pacific analysis of youth or a reference point for them. Rajesh’s story must suffice for the moment.

Rajesh is growing towards adulthood in a typical context for Fiji’s youth, and probably for youth generally in the Islands, despite some local features. There is little of the deviance often associated by commentators with the onset of industrial society. Rajesh is a ‘good boy’ in that normal way that his peers are good. He is largely responsive to traditional ways yet open, very open, to education where he can find it. He is willing to work for any meagre funds but is certainly not a mindless consumer. Rajesh chose, as indeed all five individuals sponsored by the Sisters did, to forego an opportunity to spend $5 pocket money during the camp so he could use the money to purchase necessities at home.

Although to Salesian eyes, the situation in urban Suva bears similarities to that faced by Don Bosco in urban Turin, that is the rural and subsistence sector pouring its youngsters into the city in search of education and work, it is not. There is the same heartfelt response to gathering, to delight in religious activity laced with games and celebration, but the underlying circumstances are different. Fiji’s youth in the early 21st century are the product of colonial encounters with multi-cultures. The strident clash between modernity and tradition that colonialism brought is evident at every level – commerce, church, land ownership and education.

Rajesh is part of it all. He is a keen student due to move into Form 3 in 2003, after passing a do-or-die (read ‘dropout’) public examination at the end of Class 8. Neither he, nor the struggling family around him, can afford the year’s school fees of $135 now required at Middle Secondary level. Fiji’s children do face the problems that limited access to education brings, a high dropout rate and gender inequality. In his post-school phase, be that at age 15 or, if he is lucky, at 19, Rajesh faces either chronic unemployment or working in small-scale but skill-less jobs for an unpredictable reward.

From an outsider’s perspective, it might appear that there are but two races forever at loggerheads in Fiji. This is far from the truth, though the debate as to who is a ‘Fijian’ has not fully subsided after three coups, two military and one civilian. The declaration of a Republic of the Fiji Islands was intended to cover all its islands populated by other races and cultures. Outsiders are amazed to learn of the Rotumans, a Polynesian culture some 400 kms to the North who hold key political and economic positions in the Republic. The recently appointed Chief Justice is a Rotuman. Then there are the Banabans, a Micronesian outpost on the Island of Rabi as well as the Tuvaluans on Kioa and the numerous Sino-Fijians. Because Fiji lies at the interface of trade and popular movement around the South Pacific, almost every other Pacific race and culture is present. Overlay that with the unavoidable elements of global culture and we find the young negotiating a multitude of meanings, only some of which support traditional values and norms, forms of authority, leadership, education.

Don Bosco Camp, in its fourth year of existence, now boasts young male and female Fijian leaders at the upper end of the ‘youth’ category. Their stories too provide elements of the whole picture. Teresia and Philip for instance are both 19 years of age and both lucky enough to have found a place at the Catholic Teachers’ College. They appear to have cleared most of the hurdles to successful entry in Fijian society. For practical purposes, their present address is ‘Suva’ but, like many residents of that city, they do not answer to this address as their true ‘vanua’ or place of origin. They hail instead from the provinces of Tailevu or Cakaudrove, rural areas that did not provide either the level, or quality, of education they needed. Their families re-located to the city and Philip and Teresia, armed with Form 7 and many other qualities besides, won their place at College in an intake of 35 selected from 400 applicants. After graduation fewer than 35 teaching positions would be available however, and part of the irony is that these places if found will be back in the villages, almost certainly in the outpost islands or the far ‘interior’ of Viti or Vanua Levu. This will provide an interesting forum of competing ideas as young teachers, fresh from the city, re-engage with traditional norms and values of the village.

Needless to say all 50 campers and their dozen young leaders soaked up a week of one more culture to add to their collection – the genial culture of Don Bosco and his Salesian values. At the very least, with its welcoming acceptance and the overlooking of differences evident in Don Bosco’s axiom ‘that you are young is enough for me to love you very much’, the week spent together can be an antidote to despair or disenchantment. It is an urge to add Christ to the complex web of meanings that finally need to be grasped for a well-integrated adulthood in Fiji.