Wellington, June 7, 2023
“We acknowledge the descendants of the Girmityas and their role in building up Fiji. When we hear of the concerns raised by our seasonal workers and those who came to work here in New Zealand, we can only ask Australia and New Zealand to look after them well. We don’t know our colonial partners of Fiji [who] looked after the initial Girmityas who came to Fiji. [But] I’m sure what our young people in Australia and New Zealand are facing now is much, much better than what the original Girmityas faced when they came to Fiji [as indentured labourers], many of them not knowing where Fiji was, not knowing what they were coming to Fiji for, but who came nonetheless.
“They have become successful contributors to the Fiji economy. We pay our respects and give you our thanks. We pray you continue to have a place for Fiji in your hearts,” Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka told a gathering of Fijian diaspora members in Wellington.
Prime Minister Rabuka was speaking at a reception accorded to him and his wife Suluweti Tuiloma at the Wellington Indian Association community hall or Bharat Bhavan in Kilbirnie on May 6.
The event was marked by a traditional Fijian welcome ceremony conducted by the Viti Wellington community. It involved the presentation of a whale’s tooth (tabua); Vakamamaca, a ceremony where the guest is presented with mats and clothing.
The Vakamamaca was followed by Sevuseva, where the prime minister was served the Kava, a drink made from a root extract. Na I Wase ni Yaqona Vakaturaga followed when the prime minister was presented with a whole pig and yam cooked in an earthen oven.
Responding to the traditional welcome, Prime Minister Rabuka then delivered the Na Vosa Vakaturaga or formal speech by the guest of honour.
Rabuka said his visit coincided with the date that the late Justice Jai Ram Reddy made his historic address before the Great Council of Chiefs in Fiji on 6 June 1997. Reddy had asked the chiefs “to look after all the races of Fiji, conveying to the chiefs the feelings of the descendants of Girmityas and all those who came here as free traders.”
“You are our chiefs,” Rabuka quoted the late Justice Reddy as having told the Great Council of Chiefs, signifying the aspiration for a unified Fiji.
Rabuka added: “So, it is very significant that we are meeting here [as] all races who have come from Fiji [and] all races who have called Fiji home [and who] are now making a living here in New Zealand.”
Rabuka referenced the Reconciliation Service held in Fiji on 14 May 2023 where “presentations of apology from groups were received by those that had been affected by the various political upheavals from 1987 to 2006.”
The Girmitya Holiday Celebration was held on May 15.
He recalled milestones in the relationship between Fiji and its neighbours in the Pacific and highlighted his “special efforts” to return Kiribati to the Pacific Island Forum after that island nation had left the group. “We managed to reunite the family of the Pacific.”
Rabuka also recalled Fiji aiding Australia following the outbreak of bushfires, as well as lending a helping hand after Cyclone Gabrielle hit New Zealand.
In a nod to New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people, Rabuka traced Fiji’s links to New Zealand which predated the advent of Christianity in the Pacific region.
“Our relationship with New Zealand goes back, even predates our civilised history. We acknowledge [the] similarities in our customs and our languages. We have been close even before Christianity and European civilisation came to this part of the world,” Rabuka noted.
Up next, Sashi Jokhan, speaking on behalf of the Fiji Indian community, said “The Fiji Indian diaspora and Indians in Fiji want to work together to make Fiji a better place to live for one and all.”
She said the Fiji Indian community commended the government for declaring a National Girmit Day in Fiji, which would “serve as a reminder of the resilience and strength of the indentured labourers and, at the same time, recognising the difficult circumstances and hard work of our ancestors, assisting in the development of Fiji.”
She said the Fiji Indian community would like to thank the Government of Fiji for allowing the return of Dr Padma Lal to Fiji, along with the ashes of her late husband and historian Prof Brij Lal.
Jokhan quoted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s phrase Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, signifying that “The World is One Family.”
Jokhan said the Fiji Indian community appreciated the gesture by the Fiji government of bestowing on Modi its highest honour, Companion of the Order of Fiji. “It is an honour for the people of India, the descendants of India and a recognition of the strong ties between India and the people of Fiji.”
Former Governor General of New Zealand Anand Satyanand opened his remarks with a reference to the venue, Bharat Bhavan, as being “a haven of India in the midst of a regular Wellington suburb.” He credited its ambience and character as a community centre to its New Zealand architect, Ian Athfield, who turned a factory into a sports and culture community hub operating for the past 30 years. “This evening is special because of its use as a venue to greet the current Prime Minister of Fiji,” Satyanand noted.
“It is with a mixture of duty, pride and friendship that I take my place among those who wish you well for your visit to Aotearoa New Zealand early in the term of your new government.
“I say duty because, alongside being a proud, lifelong New Zealander, my family background is that of being the grandson of four Girmitya, who made their way from India to Fiji, more than 100 years ago,” Satyanand noted.
He imagined his forebears would be pleased to see how Fiji had developed and succeeding generations had found lives in countries such as New Zealand.
He wished the Fijian Prime Minister and his colleagues well “after a democratic election” and for his efforts to garner support for the cause of climate change and health care.
Ties between Fiji and New Zealand were defined by tourism, trade, education and the flow of labour, Satyanand noted.
The evening closed with a vote of thanks by Eugene Gibson of the Rotuma Community Association, followed by dinner, entertainment and a prayer delivered by Captain Jo Serevi of the Wellington Fijian Pastors Forum, before the Fijian Prime Minister departed the venue.
Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington