Since upon arrival to Fiji, we knew we would be expected to partake in the local custom of sevusevu, whereby visitors present landlords with a gift in request of permission for the use of his/her grounds. And our experience so far has been that it is easier said than done.
Land ownership is a fundamental aspect of life in Fiji. According to this article in Wikipedia “[…] land is the physical […] entity of the people, upon which their survival […] depends. Land is thus an extension of the self.”. Moreover, the notion of ownership extends beyond dry land, as we are used to, on toward the sea as well. Therefore, by dropping anchor at most places here, one is likely landing on someone else’s front yard. And in such a case, an act of sevusevu will be expected.
We have found that practice, however, is slightly more complex than theory on that matter, and our experiences so far have consisted of:
– two unintentional no-shows
– two blunders
– one flawless execution with a dubious outcome
– one end-to-end, successful experience in a controlled environment
The biggest conceptual difficulty we have found so far is on how to know whether an anchorage is actually within the jurisdiction of someone or not. My original assumption was that sevusevu was only due when anchoring directly in front of a village. But one day, anchored in front of a resort in the island of Waya, and joining a group of locals who were demonstrating the ritual of the sevusevu to the hotel’s guests, we were let know – upon disclosing we’d come from a yacht – that we were supposed to have presented a gift. Our first blunder. But the awkwardness of the moment was quickly and gallantly interrupted by the same local who, with the broadest, genuine smile on his face, said “no worries, this is Fiji, and you are always welcome here!“.
Speed of action and Resolve are also seemingly important ingredients of a successful sevusevu. Recently we arrived to an anchorage on a very rainy Saturday afternoon. The deluge continued uninterrupted until noon the next day. Being now a Sunday, I was unsure of the appropriateness of visiting, and thought of going to the village on Monday. But soon enough the landlord showed up on a powerboat, introducing himself and asking whether we had “brought something for him“. Our second blunder. Presented with the bundle of Kava roots, which is the de-rigueur sevusevu gift, he opened a broad friendly smile and welcomed us to his land.
The matter is further clouded by inaccurate information. In an anchorage north of Waya, one cruiser told us that the adjoining Village was temporarily destitute of a chief, and thus the sevusevu wouldn’t apply. We were later told that it has a chief, and sevusevu is expected. Opportunity missed. And in Navadra, an uninhabited land, we were told by visiting locals that the island’s owner comes by once in a fortnight to collect the sevusevu gifts that he expects cruisers to leave for him – we found this story a bit too sketchy to leave behind one of our Kava bundles there.
Slightly unnerved with the recent mishaps, we were intent to make it right, sevusevu-wise, upon our stop at the Sawa-i-Lau anchorage, a place were sevusevu is certain to happen. Not too long after dropping anchor, and not having done anything else since, we went ashore with our mighty bundle of Kava on hand. At the beach we approached the only individual in sight, asking for the village’s chief. “You are talking to the right person” was his reply, to which we automatically responded by presenting the bundle of Kava. The old man took it and, without signs of intenton of a ceremony, simply welcomed us to the land. It was quick, practical and satisfactory for us. But the next day another local, living on an adjacent island, told us that guy is not the village’s chief and thus not entitled to receive the sevusevu … go figure !
Ironically the only time we have been able to watch and participate in a full, end-to-end ceremony of sevusevu – which includes, but is not limited to, drinking generous portions of Grog (a mix of cold water and powdered Kava) – was in a resort at the Blue Lagoon. Pesto wasn’t even anchored in front of it, and we weren’t required to bring a gift of Kava either, our credit cards being preferred instead. A far more capitalist way of doing it, but at least in a form that we could fully comply with and appreciate.
We are now down to one last bundle of Kava, and I hope it will be put to good use on a perfectly-executed act of sevusevu sometime, somewhere, soon.