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.