Gir­mi­tiyas in the hand of God

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Jo­saia Rayawa,

Savusavu

May 14, 2016 was the 137th an­niver­sary of the ar­rival of the In­dian In­den­tured Labour­ers to Fiji. I was rather moved by an image from the Ar­chives of Fiji show­ing two old In­dian men with the cap­tion high­light­ing them as two in­domitable pi­o­neers, who en­dured much hard­ship, to build a pos­i­tive fu­ture for them­selves and their new home. The pic­ture was recorded from the late 1960s where a fes­ti­val on the cel­e­bra­tion of in­den­tured labour­ers was be­ing held. It mo­ti­vated me to share my thoughts on this amaz­ing his­tory that is very much part of our col­lec­tive his­tory.

This is a his­tory that no longer be­longs only to the de­scen­dants of the Gir­mi­tiyas, but is a his­tory that is col­lec­tively ours. The two men were part of the 60,000 or so Gir­mi­tiyas who in search of a new life and op­por­tu­ni­ties and prospects for em­ploy­ment, brought with them to Fiji their re­li­gion, their lan­guage and their cul­ture.

The first Gir­mi­tiyas ar­rived at a time in Fiji when even the in­dige­nous Fi­jians, were still de­lib­er­at­ing be­tween ac­cept­ing the Gospel of Je­sus Christ and serv­ing Him, or hold onto to their an­cient be­liefs.

Many were still stuck in the ser­vice of the an­cient gods, though not as pub­lic as they would have twenty years ear­lier. As for the Gir­mi­tiyas, that same per­sis­tence they car­ried from their moth­er­land to seek a bet­ter life, em­pow­ered them to stay strong in their re­li­gion, cul­ture and faith be­cause they had not seen any­thing yet in their early days in Fiji to con­fi­dently place their faith and trust in. Chris­tian­ity was still very much re­garded as a white man’s re­li­gion. It would be fair to say that both the in­dige­nous Fi­jians and the Gir­mi­tiyas were still both seek­ing a new life and a new faith at about al­most sim­i­lar lev­els of cu­rios­ity and pace. As many be­gan to ex­pe­ri­ence per­sonal tes­ti­monies of the mir­a­cle work­ing Gospel of Christ, in their lives it be­came self ev­i­dent, that the Gospel of Je­sus Christ was for all men.

Their his­tory is now our his­tory. Their choices (both for the Gir­mi­tiyas and the early in­dige­nous Fi­jians) have helped shaped our des­tiny as a na­tion, leav­ing this gen­er­a­tion a legacy to pur­sue and to work out to­gether.

Over the years, I have had the priv­i­lege of sit­ting down with dif­fer­ent Indo-Fi­jian fam­i­lies, many of them, just friends of mine and lis­tened to their in­di­vid­ual fam­ily sto­ries over a bowl of kava. His­tory fas­ci­nates me and if you in­vite me to your home, just put away images of any his­tor­i­cal na­ture, oth­er­wise you will never hear the end of it, with me bom­bard­ing you with ques­tions about who is this and who is that. I just love his­tory, pe­riod. As we re­flect on May 14, 2016, be­ing the 137th an­niver­sary of the ar­rival of the In­dian In­den­tured labour­ers to Fiji, I couldn’t help but won­der if the sto­ries of each of th­ese ‘souls’ were ever writ­ten or passed onto by word of mouth, to some­one, some­where. I am aware there are some great recol­lec­tions that have been penned over the years. There is Tears In Par­adise by Ra­jen­dra Prasad; Plan­ta­tion to Pol­i­tics by Ahmed Ali; Indo-Fi­jian Ex­pe­ri­ences by Subra­mani, to name a few. What­ever each of th­ese writ­ers were able to col­late, con­firms that many of th­ese ‘pre­cious souls’ who boarded the boats off the ports of Cal­cutta and Madras, seek­ing new lands and op­por­tu­ni­ties, surely car­ried a dream and a story in their hearts and some were able to re­late theirs to some­one. Be­tween the years 1879 and 1916, a to­tal of forty-two ships made eighty-seven voy­ages with the ma­jor­ity com­ing out of both Madras and Cal­cutta.

There were a to­tal 60,965 pas­sen­gers, with only 60,553 mak­ing it to the shores of Fiji. Of the forty-two ships, one that was to make its fi­nal voy­age ever was the Syria. The voy­age to Fiji was the last for Syria as she ran aground on the Nasi­lai Reef, only four miles from shore, at 8.30pm on 14 May 1884 with the loss of 59 lives. (Source: Wikipedia).

Wikipedia his­tory records that when the first rescue boats reached the Nasi­lai scene, the ma­jor­ity of the pas­sen­gers were in the wa­ter on the reef, mak­ing as far to­wards the land as they could, but a con­sid­er­able num­ber were still in the wrecked ves­sel, mainly women and chil­dren. The ship lay on her port side. The masts were all bro­ken into frag­ments, and sails, ropes, and de­bris of all kinds were mixed up and thrown about in the break­ers in wild con­fu­sion. The sur­vivors were car­ried by boats and Fi­jian ca­noes to Nasi­lai vil­lage where they were tended to by the vil­lagers. It was one of the first recorded in­ter­ac­tion of the Gir­mi­tiyas and the in­dige­nous Fi­jians. The last rescue boat reached the vil­lage at 8 pm. The next morn­ing they were taken to Nasi­lai Im­mi­gra­tion De­pot and then to Nuku­lau. Fifty-six pas­sen­gers and three crew mem­bers died in the wreck but a fur­ther eleven died in the next fort­night due to com­pli­ca­tions re­sult­ing from their ex­pe­ri­ence. (Source: In­dian In­den­tured Ships to Fiji, Wikipedia). This still re­mains the worst mar­itime dis­as­ter ever recorded in the his­tory of Fiji.

Mo­ti­vated by the per­sis­tence of the ex­am­ples of the Gir­mi­tiyas, many gen­er­a­tions have cre­ated their own sto­ries in their new-found land. Th­ese are all sto­ries of per­se­ver­ance in search for ed­u­ca­tion and pros­per­ity, not to men­tion, love and ro­mance.

One of this love and ro­man­tic sto­ries, I had shared two years ago on March 14, 2014 about a 62 year old Muslim taxi driver friend of mine called Mo­hammed.

I want to re­late this story again be­cause it is a con­tin­u­ing chap­ter in many ways of the story be­gan by the Gir­mi­tiyas. Sim­ply put, had the Gir­mi­tiyas not come to Fiji, this story I am about to tell you would not have taken place. On March 14, 2014 and around 1pm, Mo­hammed had picked me up from work to take me to a lunch event. On our way to Nadi town, he re­lated his story to me. The year was 1976. His wife, who was then, a young 18-year-old bride had come to ask him for a di­vorce. He was 24-years-old at that time. Taken aback by his wife’s re­quest, he asked why. She ex­plained and re­minded him that be­ing the el­dest in her fam­ily, she felt the weight of re­spon­si­bil­ity on hav­ing to look af­ter her par­ents back in Mau­ri­tius. She was from Mau­ri­tius (one of In­dian ex­trac­tion). He shared: “Boso, af­ter drink­ing six bot­tles of beer, I thought about it, and then I agreed to give her a di­vorce on one con­di­tion”. In­trigued, I asked what it was.

He said: “I told her she will have to take the two lit­tle kids back to Mau­ri­tius with her be­cause if I get mar­ried again, I don’t think the ‘step­mother’ might take care of them as well as she (mother) could”. He said: “Well, she agreed and we went our sep­a­rate ways. But I was very heart­bro­ken. You know I was still a young man, my­self.” Mo­hammed then said: “Boss you know why I am shar­ing this story to you now?”. I said: “I don’t know, but man, it’s sound­ing in­ter­est­ing by the minute. “Well,” he said, “Last week my exwife called from Mau­ri­tius to tell me that her par­ents had both passed on and she was now liv­ing alone. “She asked me if I have a wife and I replied that I have been sin­gle, since. Ahre she just ask me straight if I want to get mar­ried to her again.” He was dumb­founded and of course, blown away by the of­fer. Well so was I. I think by this time I was more ex­cited than he was. But, isn’t that just so beau­ti­ful? That is a brand of ro­mance, un­heard of, to­day. He asked me, “Bhaiya, its been 38 years now, what should I do?”

I told him, if he can’t think of any­thing that will af­fect his life neg­a­tively, as a re­sult of them get­ting to­gether again .... then don’t waste any mo­ment and call her right away. We stopped by the road­side and he called the good lady in Mau­ri­tius to tell her to pack her bags and come on over to Fiji. I was al­ready shout­ing, “Wooohooo”!

With a sigh of re­lief, he said to me, “All set, boso”, as if I had any­thing to do with it. He did share to me this won­der­ful state­ment of truth and wis­dom. “In mar­riage, we must make de­ci­sion for the big­ger pic­ture. My pic­ture is now com­plete” . All I could say was, “Sa yawa”. I asked him about his kids. His 24 year old son (back in 2014) worked as an air­craft en­gi­neer and is mar­ried with two chil­dren of his own and his 23 year old sin­gle daugh­ter is a banker in Mau­ri­tius. I jok­ingly said to him, to make sure her daugh­ter doesn’t hook up with a taxi driver here. He said, “Ahre, I will slap the falla with my hands and leg too”. KAILA!

There you go, that is just one of the thou­sands and thou­sands of sto­ries out there in Fiji. Only God could have writ­ten th­ese sto­ries to come to life in the way they did; and in the time they did. Just like the sto­ries of the young and old Gir­mi­tiyas who ar­rived on our shores.

In spite of all the chal­lenges, the de­scen­dants of the Gir­mi­tiyas have come through, I be­lieve the ma­jor­ity, like the rest of us be­lieve and know that God is still in con­trol of our des­tiny and the uni­verse we live in and our very lives and our fu­ture rests squarely in the palm of His Hands.

I like to think that the Gir­mi­tiyas who boarded th­ese boats, did so, in faith. They came to a strange land and trust­ing that they were mak­ing the right choice and that they were com­ing to the ‘right place’. There is a lot we can learn from the lives of the early Gir­mi­tiyas. One pow­er­ful les­son that one can learn from the Gir­mi­tiyas, it is that when­ever a new sea­son presents it­self, we must learn to step out in faith. All that we see in faith may not ma­te­ri­alise as yet, but as long as we are com­mit­ted in faith, it will come to pass. I am per­son­ally re­minded about St Paul’s let­ter to the He­brews 11:6 which reads, “And with­out faith it is im­pos­si­ble to please God, be­cause any­one who comes to him must be­lieve that he ex­ists and that he re­wards those who earnestly seek him”. The tow­er­ing image of the Nasi­lai Reef Light­house to­day, in its own way re­flect the mes­sage of the Gospel that awaited both the in­dige­nous Fi­jians and the Gir­mi­tiyas. For Je­sus is the “Light­house” that shines over us all to­day and forever­more. There is a rea­son that des­tiny has brought all our lives to­gether. Only in God and through God does all of life’s jour­ney make sense.

I ded­i­cate this piece to the two races of peo­ple who met each other for the first time on that day, in 1884, in Nasi­lai, Rewa. Though a fate­ful day for some, it was the be­gin­ning of a new re­la­tion­ship and an amaz­ing fu­ture in God for the rest of the gen­er­a­tions to come. To them that have passed on...May they rest in peace. As for the rest of us...May we move on with re­newed faith in each other to make a bet­ter Fiji.

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