The Fiji Times
Madua culture and mental health
BULA Fiji! Thank you for taking time out to read Bula Vakasaama, a column dedicated to enlightening readers about practical strategies for optimal mental health and mind wellness.
Today’s topic is about understanding how the Fiji’s traditional concept of madua is adversely affecting the way mental health is perceived and discussed (or completely avoided) within homes, village meetings, and workplaces.
Over the past two weeks I have been facilitating free Bula Vakasaama mental health awareness workshops in Suva, Nausori and the western side of Viti Levu.
Along this journey I have had the absolute pleasure and honour of meeting amazingly courageous people who have shared their vulnerabilities through their personal stories of pain, trauma, recovery, and healing from mental health issues.
During these workshops we had an honest discussion around obstacles and barriers that people face when it comes to openly expressing mental health challenges.
If one has a deep cut on one’s finger and a band-aid wrapped around the cut, people are automatically more empathetic that the person cannot fully function with that particular hand because of pain. They know not to pull the band-aid off the finger to prevent the wound from bleeding and getting infected.
And yet, when someone has had a traumatic experience which is physically invisible, but affects the functionality of their mind, no one is able to pick up on it unless they are trained to identify the telling signs and observe the behavioural display of the person’s mental health decline.
Some common examples of these physically invisible yet heightened mentally anguish experienced in people’s lives include grief caused by death of a loved one, loss of income, betrayal of trust, disrespect through bullying or mocking, dissolution of a relationship, migration to a new place (country, city, or school), and having a brand new experience of suddenly having to take on longterm care of someone sick or disabled or having to adjust to a newborn.
Obstacles and barriers The workshops identified several obstacles and barriers such as cultural, religious, gender, financial, workplace hierarchy, fear of judgment and labelling, stigma of a having a mental health diagnosis and around visits to St Giles for prescriptions and treatments, and taboo associated around discussing personal trauma, especially those that involve childhood sexual abuse where the perpetrator is usually someone known to the family or a close member of the family.
Three people’s stories have enlightened me, professionally and personally, to better understand and therefore better serve the people of Fiji in the space of mental health.
The most common roadblock that these individuals helped me understand was the traditionally practiced madua culture where one is to remain silent unless one is spoken to.
Kasilia Vukea-Colavoli, trauma-informed counsellor, has been advocating for the authentic voice to be heard.
Her experiences through championing for her son’s education through a system that forgets about a child who learns by being curious, asking many questions, and at his own pace,
Kasilia found her calling as a counsellor for those who are struggling to be heard, especially the youth.
“We have come from a culture of silence (madua) to a culture of lying. The suppression of our authenticity is conditioned in us since childhood. We are not being heard, only seen — our footsteps, for instance, can’t be too loud when there are visitors at home, or you get told off. No one asks what is really happening with you,” says Kasilia.
“The child is constantly being told how to be, what to say, until the child learns to remain quiet until spoken to. The child suppresses truth and normalises in his or her mind that lying about one’s true feelings is okay.”
Joseph Snodgrass, counsellor, youngest in his family, has lived experiences of situations where he felt the need to contribute his opinions on matters but was expected to remain silent.
Joseph had a conditioned paradigm about himself where he thought that his opinions were not important and soon he adopted people-pleasing behaviours. This paradigm only shifted once he began his counselling diploma studies at USP where through reflective practices he was able to eradicate self-imposed limitations and once again emerge as someone who now values his opinion and respects other’s opinions by allowing others a safe and trusted space to express themselves.
Joseph says: “The madua culture leads to distorted truths. It is the “I’m fine” façade, where the fear of rejection and fear of being judged leads one to sweep important issues under the rug.
People wait for someone else to speak first because they hide their own vulnerabilities. So many mental health issues stem from our madua culture. I hope we can move past these barriers so that honesty and openness flourish and authenticity thrives, and we can nurture genuine connections for our emotional wellbeing.”
Mereseini Vetawa, Bula Vakasaama volunteer, enlightened me about the hierarchical rules in the village meetings where there are only specific individuals, according to their designated rank, allowed to speak at all. Those at the back of the room may live out their entire lives never being given an opportunity to express their opinions on a matter.
“In today’s age with so much mental health issues of depression and suicide and addiction, the village meetings should be a place to openly discuss concerns and strategies,” she says.
Mereseini feels that the village meetings could dedicate a time slot in each meeting where all hierarchy is dropped, and all became equal in a space of safety and no judgment and be given an opportunity to freely speak.
“Good leadership as parents or village elders can only come when the youth is not feeling madua to contribute their truth.”
Breaking the barriers
1. Seek professional help through a counselling session where you get to experience safety in speaking your mind without fear of shame, blame, guilt, regret, or judgment.
2. Approach a village elder and ask permission to have a private audience with one of the leaders to explain the need for safe spaces to openly speak.
3. Approach your church leader to discuss the importance of having a safe space in the village to encourage the youth to openly express their feelings and be appropriately guided.
PRINCESS R LAKSHMAN is a counsellor, clinical nutritionist, writer, narrative therapist, and certified lifecoach. She is passionate about mind wellness and an advocate for kindness and self-care. She lives in Sydney and will soon open mind wellness hubs in Fiji to provide free mental health counselling and workshops exclusively to Fiji residents. The views expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org