mailife - - Advertisement - By SA­MAN­THA RINA Pho­tos by IVAMERE ROKOVESA & SA­MAN­THA RINA

In Search of My Iden­tity

Above the lively chat­ter of girl­friends catch­ing up one Fri­day, a friend sin­gled me out to tell me: “We’re go­ing to Ro­tuma next week!” The ex­cite­ment in her voice made me en­vi­ous enough to ask unashamedly if I could go too. Hav­ing lived in Suva all my life, I al­ways had a deep-seated un­easi­ness with talk­ing about where I’m from. Although I would proudly an­swer “Ro­tuma” to any­one who asked, I would silently hope they wouldn’t probe any fur­ther be­cause the next and last thing I knew about my is­land home was the name Itu­muta, one of seven is­land dis­tricts and where my mother comes from. To any fur­ther queries I would have to con­fess I had never been to the is­land, a con­fes­sion that would be fol­lowed by an awk­ward si­lence in­di­cat­ing the dis­cus­sion was def­i­nitely over. But more of­ten than not, th­ese con­ver­sa­tions would give way to some friendly chid­ing and other peo­ple’s rec­ol­lec­tions of great mem­o­ries of Ro­tuma vis­its - un­know­ingly rub­bing salt into an in­vis­i­ble wound. Within a few days my trip had been con­firmed and three days of leave ap­proved, with the added bless­ing of a hol­i­day that fell in the same week. Late next Mon­day night we climbed on the bus bound for Elling­ton Wharf in Raki­raki with a troop of sol­diers from Nabuni. But it wasn’t un­til we’d boarded the Spirit of Love and sailed well past the Ya­sawa group that re­al­ity kicked in – I was go­ing home for the first time. By way of back­ground, my mother – Sapeta Sarote - was born in Ro­tuma to Jioje and Varea Jo­saia. A few years af­ter her birth, her par­ents moved to Suva in search of a bet­ter life. Once in Suva, my mother was given to her dad’s sis­ter who had no chil­dren of her own. Af­ter her aunt passed away, my mother was given to an­other of her dad’s sis­ters, the late Pasi­mata Ki­jiana (Nanna) as I fondly knew her. My step-fa­ther – Joni Ili­masi - was from Naiko­rokoro Vil­lage in Ka­davu. As chil­dren, my broth­ers and sis­ters and I spent count­less holidays in the vil­lage. Go­ing there gave me a sense of be­long­ing but as the years grew on me, so too did the re­al­i­sa­tion that I did not re­ally be­long. How­ever I pay trib­ute to the man we called Dad, who passed away in May this year. My bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther, a Fi­jian of In­dian de­scent, re­mains rel­a­tively un­known to me de­spite my ef­forts to con­tact him. I once sought the help of half-sis­ters liv­ing abroad to ask for a pic­ture of the man just so I could see what he looked like, but was met with rather blunt re­jec­tion. The only sis­ter who re­sponded was hon­est enough to tell me “they don’t want any­thing to do with you”. I re­spected that and the ex­pe­ri­ence was enough to tell me I didn’t need to pur­sue my search any fur­ther. I am grate­ful how­ever, that the one sis­ter has cho­sen

to stay in con­tact. It’s more than I could ask for even if it doesn’t bring me any closer to find­ing out more about the man who makes up the other half of my ge­netic iden­tity. I now set my sights on the jour­ney to my Ro­tu­man roots and sought to gather as much in­for­ma­tion as I could. An at­tempted Q&A with my mother, who was raised in Lo­maivuna came to an end when she said, “Ask me about Naitasiri and I can tell you which vil­lages are in the prov­ince but I don’t know much about Ro­tuma.” Even­tu­ally, with the help of an aun­tie in Bris­bane, I found out my grand­fa­ther was from Pala in Itu­muta and I al­ready knew my grand­mother was from Losa. On board the Spirit of Love there was much jok­ing about how rough the sail­ing was be­cause some­one was vis­it­ing their is­land for the first time. The joke could’ve been true for at least three of us. In the course of in­tro­duc­tions, I found a rel­a­tive in un­cle Pene who was part of the troop. Af­ter more than 30 hours spent mostly on the deck of the ves­sel, Ro­tuma loomed into view. I hadn’t con­tacted any­one on the is­land be­cause I didn’t know any­one there and nei­ther did my mother. Where ex­actly was I even go­ing? How would I even get there when I didn’t know the place? Who was I go­ing to see and what would I tell them? How do I even be­gin to in­tro­duce my­self? What if I didn’t make it to Pala and Losa? Per­haps mak­ing it to the is­land should count for some­thing. Oi­nafa’s daz­zling white sand and azure wa­ters are an ex­cep­tional sight even in rainy weather. We went first to the govern­ment sta­tion in Ahau where the tra­di­tional for­mal­i­ties of an i se­vu­sevu was pre­sented to the District Of­fi­cer later that af­ter­noon. Next day be­ing a pub­lic hol­i­day, fam­i­lies flocked to the beaches for pic­nics or took part in a sports tour­na­ment. We tripped around the is­land, with our first stop at Paptea where we were treated to a fine feast of fried fish in co­conut milk with cas­sava by un­cle Pene’s sis­ter, Julie. We stopped at Sumi Catholic Mis­sion where my grand­par­ents were wed, then on to un­cle Pene’s home in Maftoa, Itu­muta be­fore trav­el­ling to Losa. Peo­ple weren’t ex­ag­ger­at­ing when they told me it was a ghost town. The place was vir­tu­ally un­in­hab­ited save for an el­derly wo­man cook­ing over an open fire by the beach and a few young men chilling on ham­mocks. Des­per­ate to es­tab­lish con­tact, I ner­vously ap­proached the wo­man to ask in my bro­ken Ro­tu­man lingo if she knew my grand­mother, Varea. She knew her, she said, but they were dis­tant rel­a­tives. I asked if there were any close rel­a­tives and she said they’d all moved to Suva. Next stop was the fa­mous Itu­muta hall, Viti kei Ro­tuma. By now I’d be­gun to give up hope of get­ting to Pala. But we stopped again and un­cle Pene mo­tioned for me to get off as he ex­changed greetings with a man sit­ting out­side a house. “I’m bring­ing a rel­a­tive of yours to meet you,” he said. I in­tro­duced my­self and he wrapped me in a hug, ex­claim­ing that we were closely re­lated: he was Freddy, a sec­ond cousin to my mother (if I’ve got it right). He then in­tro­duced me to Jioje Sapeta, who said my mother was named af­ter her. The mo­ment was over­whelm­ing, fu­elled by un­cle Freddy’s sto­ries of how my grand­par­ents lived in the very house in which we stood and which was where my mother spent her early child­hood years. Lis­ten­ing to this I be­came sad­dened as I thought of how my mother was no longer recog­nised as a daugh­ter of her par­ents in ge­neal­ogy records. We said our good­byes and as we trav­elled back to Ahau, tears silently found their re­lease. I had more ques­tions now than when I ar­rived on the is­land. Had this jour­ney brought me closer to the iden­tity I’ve been search­ing for? Do I feel like I fi­nally be­long? What now? I can’t say I’ve found all the an­swers from a one-day stay on the is­land but one thing’s for sure: this was my first jour­ney home but it’s cer­tainly not my last. It’s a sure step to­wards re­viv­ing a lost iden­tity – one I in­tend to pass on with pride to my chil­dren and the gen­er­a­tions to come.

Ahoy there!! Sa­man­tha Rina looks out to Itu­muta from Ahau.

Sa­man­tha (mid­dle) with Nina and her hus­band who ap­proached her at the mar­ket in Ahau and in­tro­duced them­selves as rel­a­tives from Losa.

Price­less mo­ment..Sa­man­tha meets her mother’s name­sake or ‘sigoa’ Jioje Varea for the first time.

Sa­man­tha Rina with her long lost rel­a­tives in Ro­tuma.

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