Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Fijian culture and tradition


  1.  The aim of this brief is to outline some important cultural aspects that may be vital to know in dealing with Fijian soldiers now serving in the British Army. All Regimental Unit Welfare Officers are to take note of Kinship ties, Birth and Death.

Fiji in the South Pacific

  2.  Fiji is an archipelago of over 300 tropical islands in the South Pacific lying across the 180 degrees Meridian 12 hours ahead of 0 degrees meridian at Greenwich. Each new day starts in Fiji. It has two main islands Vitilevu and Vanualevu with a total of 200,000 square kilometres. Sava is the capital with nine towns as administrative and commercial centres. English is the official language with of course Fijian and Hindustani. There are more than 30 different dialects with one common Fijian language. Fiji has a tropical climate with only two seasons, summer and winter not experiencing extreme temperature.

Fijian personality and values

  3.  Fijians use a number of concepts to describe personality. The most important and commonly used term for ideal behaviour is of chiefly quality and standard norm, vakaturaga. Turaga means chief, vakaturaga means chiefly. It denotes firstly that one's actions and characteristics befit the presence of a chief. It includes respect, deference, attentive, complying and humble. They must display the qualities that befit the presence of the chief (authority) in their actions in relation to other people, Instructors, NCOs and Officers. It is an accepted norm of society that a person must behave to all others as one's chief.

  4.  An individual who is labelled vakaturaga in his behaviour knows his place in the society and complies unquestioningly to his various traditionally defined obligations and responsibilities. His actions are usually focussed on service to the chiefs. He achieves respect, acceptance and recognition within his unit for being attentive, complying, and respectful to his NCOs and Officers. He should also act vakaturaga in his interaction with Her Majesty the Queen and her subjects as she is regarded as the paramount chief of the three main chiefdoms of Fiji. He should also hold high regard on the British Government and its Armed Forces in view of the Deed of Cessions in 1874.

  5.  A person is also said to be vakaturaga if he displays certain chiefly qualities. For example, he should show love or kindness to his comrades, irrespective of ranks, social status and affiliation. He is ready to help and serve authority. He is dignified and composed; avoids being drawn into unnecessary confrontation with others and is ruffled by bickering and gossip. He maintains his self respect and authority during crisis. He remains cool and steadfast when his feelings are challenged and authority questioned. He is not affected by minor incidents of unhealthy social relationships unless his authority is required to resolve an ugly confrontational act in his own way at his own time. If he is being punched at by one of his own rank, he won't retaliate immediately because it's not chiefly when people are watching. He will wait when no one is watching or when he is drunk. He is generally quiet, and speaks only when he is spoken to as people in authority (chiefs/elders) are the ones to do the talking. The rest are supposed to carry out tasks without a single question asked and are required to the job to the best of their abilities. It is a disgrace to his clan if the job is not done properly according to expectation and there is a social punishment in place by society for such, called ore (ohreh).

  6.  An important aspect of vakaturaga is the practice of respect. This is often manifested in how an individual responds/reacts in the presence of others. The way one speaks and his stance among others conveys whether a person is either respectful or disrespectful. When spoken to by a man of status (higher rank) one normally ends his responses with saka (sir) of other dialectual equivalents. One must also carry himself low, either squatting or sitting down or looking down in a bowing position when talked to by the chief/parents NCOs or Officers. Looking straight into the eyes is not vakaturaga it is sign of disrespect and an unacceptable norm to Fijian society. If one looks straight to the eyes, it means he is gearing up for a physical confrontation and it is not considered a vakaturaga.

  7.  In meeting a chief or senior person of status one must give way by removing himself to the side of the road, passage or track by bowing or nodding as a greeting with a smile addressing the chief ni bula saka, meaning hello sir. A recognised chief is usually accorded the tama (chiefly shout of greetings), Duooh or Ohooh like shouting "stand-fast" that usually accorded to the commissioned officers as sign of respect. A person must maintain a distance but close enough to lean forward in a bowing position if he is required to shake hands with a more senior chief. After the handshake, he lowers himself on his knees or half-squatting position and claps with cupped hands several times—a mark of respect and humility, the royal family is fully aware of this custom.

  8.  It is not also vakaturaga if a person is going around in the village with a hair-dress on (hat). Only Her Majesty the Queen and her family or chiefs are the ones to go around with their hats on considered as their chiefly rights. Sometimes during WW1, His Majesty King George VI approved a request from the Governor of Fiji to allow members of the then Royal Fiji Military Forces (RFMF) to salute without hair dress (beret) and since that time, RFMF has minus the beret from its number one dress during ceremonial parade. The Fiji Army currently maintains that tradition.


  9.  There exists among some Fijian communities a form of tabu relationship regarding the eating of certain foods. People who have certain defined tabu (taboos) relationships with one another respect each by complying with the rules. This relationship is called naita where one group is a warrior to another. One cannot eat fish or pork in the presence of the other. Bodily contact and direct conversation with one another must be avoided if the act of respect is to be sustained. Traditionally there is one who can mediate between the two and that is the appropriate way of overcoming such a restriction.

Importance of age and seniority

  8.  Relative age is important in determining social behaviour and economic activities. It permeates almost every activity from eating to sleeping arrangements. Family members are ranked in order of seniority of birth. The younger should obey and respect the older. They should not disregard instructions or demands from seniors nor question their authority. Older brothers or sisters are expected to behave in mature and responsible way to organise social and economic activities and to lead the group in various functions. At meal times the senior men of the family are normally served first, they sleep and sit in the upper end of the house. Women and children eat after all men have had theirs.

  9.  During formal ceremonies, the elders of the group generally perform the rituals young men and women are generally involved in providing labour necessary for the tasks. They are to be present at such ceremonies but are not expected to say anything or question an elder; they are there to do whatever is required of them in accordance to their traditional roles.

Male emphasis

  10.  A Fijian child is normally registered at birth as a member of his father's mataqali (sub-clan) and this entitles him to all rights and privileges including land rights. This feeling of belonging to the father's group emphasises the importance of the male. It is through the man that the local group continues to exist, the protector for the mataqali. Girls will marry out of their mataqali and serve those of their husbands. A woman who produces several male children for the husband's group is usually full of self-confidence and security. On the other hand a woman who produces no male child and worse still if she does not produce at all is usually quietly ashamed of herself and suffers a feeling of insecurity that she has not fulfilled her responsibility.

  11.  Traditional principle of marriage is that the wife serves her husband's group. For this reason the woman after marriage shifts to her husband's village. Apart from looking after the husband personally, the welfare of his group becomes one of her main concerns. There are two places considered traditionally to be women's place that is to produce children and cook food for the family.


  12.  The first sign of pregnancy in a newly wedded woman is eagerly awaited, by both her own relatives and those of her husband. During early stage of pregnancy, women are usually confined to the house from one to three months during which period the expectant mother is fed daily with specially prepared food under the caring hands of the mother or the mother in law. There are many rituals to be performed from pregnancy to delivery date by both sides of the families. A feast to mark the fourth and tenth night of birth is usually prepared by the father's relatives and invitation is extended to the girl's relatives to partake in the celebration.

  During labour and birth, the expectant mother is expected to bear the pain calmly; for a display of suffering and pain during parturition is usually considered the sign of a weak woman who is also menemene (babyish). Women in labour were once attended and assisted by local, traditional midwives who flourished in every community, but this practice is now forbidden by the government.

  In some communities, usually four nights after birth, another magiti is prepared to which father's and mother's groups both contributed. This feast is presented formally to the new child's maternal grandparents before being consumed by the two groups of relatives together. This feast marks the time when the child's umbilical cord is expected to fall off; it is known by various names in different areas. In some parts of Cakaudrove Province, for example, it is called vakuru vucovuco (to cause the umbilical cord to fall), whereas in some parts of Viti Levu it is known as vakabogiva (in the nature of four nights). In other instances, a feast is mounted on the tenth night and known as vakabogitini (in the nature of 10 nights). It is probable that the circumstance which determines when a feast is to be held is the state of the child's umbilical cord prior to its actual falling off.

  Once the umbilical cord has fallen, it is carefully kept for appropriate disposal which should be in such a way as to not adversely affect the future personality of the child, but instead should enable him to acquire specific skills and other advantages. It is believed, for example, that a child whose umbilical cord is not properly disposed of, or is lost, will display a restless and searching personality. He will hardly remain still, ransacking everything in an effort to find his lost umbilical cord. In some situations, a girl's umbilical cord is thrown into the water that she may be skilled in fishing. Once, in a part of Vanua Levu, the umbilical cord of the boy was placed in the barrel of a gun and shot away so that he might kill in war (Hocart 213:1952). It is common practice today to bury the cord and plant a coconut or other useful tree over it. This, it is thought, will ensure that the child will become economically productive. The crop from such a tree may be know as the buto ni gone (child's umbilical cord) or similar phrase in local dialect.


  13.  The child is normally named after one of the member of its father's kin group, largely because this is an important way of tracing one's paternal kinship relationships and defining kin group membership based on one's male descendants. A male child is normally named after his grandfather or a female child after her grandmother.


  14.  Traditionally, marriage was arranged. The patterns normally came from two different clan and often from two different villages. In a normal marriage arrangement, the boy's parents make the choice. They may have quietly observed and admired a young girl of another group as their prospective daughter in law. Today marriage has become more of a choice between individuals; with parental approval sometimes sought later or sometimes ignored. Marriage is becoming less localised with men and women travelling everywhere from home marrying persons they meet in their work or other social situations.

  Fijian matrimony was once a social contract only. The bride and bridegroom's groups would come together at an agreed time and place (normally at the bridegroom's place) to execute and celebrate the nuptials of the two who were going to be husband and wife. The two groups would in turn present each other with yau (marriage gifts or wealth) thus legitimising the union and sealing the contractual bond not only between the new couple but also between the two groups of kinsmen. Every presentation of gifts from both sides was accompanied with the good wishes or prayers of the donor for the long life and happiness of the couple and prosperity and unity of the two groups involved. No priest was directly involved in the ceremony as such.

  Today, Christian wedding rites are generally observed even after a social or civil contract has been instituted upon the newly wedded people. Such Christian rites usually precede any customary presentation of yau between the bride and the groom's groups. Normally, the bride and the groom are attired in traditional marriage costume by their own respective groups who should also provide the couple's butubutu (altar mats). This butubutu consists of mats and bark cloth (masi) spread out in layers in front of the church altar where the newly wedded couple will stand during their matrimonial consecration.

  After the marriage has been solemnised by the Church, the wedding procession then proceeds to the residence of the husband's father or any other kinsman's home. At the loqi part of the man's house, two lots of davodavo ni vakamau (nuptial beddings) for the veiwatini vou (new couple) have been laid out and neatly arrayed by the respective kinswomen of the vakawati vou (newly-wed). These nuptial beddings normally consist of finely woven and beautifully decorated ibe (mats) laid one on top of another and often covered with traditionally made bark cloth, masi, or with factory manufactured items such as bed sheets, quilts, blankets, pillows and mosquito nets. Each group of kinswomen usually try to quietly outdo each other by providing the best and the most davodavo for the veiwatini vou.

  The aspect of the wedding ceremony which follows the divesting of traditional wedding costumes is the provision of a sumptuous nuptial feast which the new couple well publicly eat together. In this meal, generally known a kana vata, they are joined by their followers and well-wishers. In accordance with newly acquired values and practices, well-wishers sometimes present the veiwatini vou personal wedding gifts on this occasion. These include kitchenware, crockery, household furniture and other goods.


  15.  Death among Fijians has important social and religious significance to the living. It enhances solidarity by bringing together those kinsmen and friends of the deceased who are separated by geography, time and other exigencies of life. It strengthens and reaffirms existing social and political links and generated new vigour in forgotten and dying relationships. It transcends social barriers and indifference and acts as a focus for reconciliation for the kinsmen of the dead who are disaffected from each other. The occasion also provides an opportunity for grinding an axe on those who have constantly failed to participate in kin group activities and neglect their kinship responsibilities and obligations.

  16.  It is also an opportunity for defaulters to explain and justify their failures to comply with kinship demands and expectations and to re-establish their identity with the group and make good socially eroded images pertaining to kin-group undertakings. Non-attendance can be more expensive than attending. It is customary for non-attendants to present valuable items like kerosene, bale of cloth, biscuits sugar, tabu (whales tooth) and lots of kava asking forgiveness from his fellow kinsmen for his failure in not attending burial of his kinsmen. This ritual is called boka, equally it has deep social meaning to bid last farewell to a member to the tribe who will never come back again. Fijians believe series of bad luck (curse) will be upon those who do not attend all these rituals and those who chose to ignore their traditional roles and responsibilities.

  17.  Death to the Fijians usually creates a situation which is quite emotional and affecting. Knowing the hour of dissolution is approaching, the departing person sometimes calls spouse, children or any close kin to his deathbed and announces that his end is drawing near. He bids them farewell and sometimes advises them on what they should do after his death. He is bathed and dressed with most of his favourite clothes and he is then laid on mats specially put out for him to lie on for his final departure. Messages are sent to all close relatives locally and abroad informing them that the person's health is deteriorating and he is about to say his words of farewell and blessing. The closest persons to his bedside are supposed to be his sons, spouse and daughters. After his death, the eldest son will lead the deceased's household (family), the clan and the estate.

  18.  Other post-burial rituals and feasts generally offered on the fourth night, tenth night, hundredth nights and one last one to mark a year of his/her departure. Whether the children (sons/daughters of the deceased) are in UK or somewhere in Fiji, they must attend the last ritual. That last remembrance or mourning feast in which mostly close relatives and friends of the dead partake, officially allows then to resume normal life.

  19.  Death of high chief is observed with much form and ceremony, his death is announced by a particular pattern of beating the lali (wooden gong) or by the dolorous blasts of the conch-shell. Wailing of women is not allowed. Owing to its complexities, rituals associated with it will not be discussed in detail in this paper.

Social structure

  20.  Fijians are associated to their ecological environment. Their social structure has links to the land, sea, rivers and trees, which distinguish physical boundaries from one tribe to another. They hold these resources so dearly; it means life (source of food) to them. Cultural aspects are related to the belief and value system of the people and the various types of relationship that exists between man and the physical environment. These determine how people invent custom and tradition that have links to land ownership and how they use land and sea for social and economic purposes. They depend so much on one another for various needs and survival, always farm the land, go fishing and do things in groups, hardly of any practice is based on individualism. The idea of caring and sharing with others (food, clothes, cigarettes, money, accommodation/house) is an important aspect of the value systems of the Fijian people.

  21.  Land is owned by the whole unit and not by individuals headed by a chiefly family whose inheritance is by birth along male lines. Below the chief is his nobleman (kingmaker) then the herald (spokesman). There will be a great distance between the chief and the commoners and they regard SNCOs and officers as chiefs. The commoners have family unit of warriors, fishermen and carpenters. Every Fijian man is born into one of these groupings unfortunately they cannot change it. It is through male lineage. They have traditional skills and knowledge to perform their task and responsibilities as expected of them.

  22.  With the exception of those who have taboo relationships Fijians have common social status that often places them close together whichever regiment they are in. They often feel uncomfortable being too close to people whom they do not know, particularly women. There will be a lot of giggling amongst them if a female instructor is giving lectures but they will not harm her, just for fun. They are funny people and always fond of cracking jokes with a big Fijian smile (Fijian smile/laugh is the smile from the heart).

  23.  Fijian men and women generally sit apart in informal and formal gatherings alike even husband and wife do not normally sit together in village gatherings. However, in restaurants and urban centres husband and wife sit close together. A general attitude of life among Fijians is that life is to be lived and enjoyed now. If you die tomorrow, everything is gone so enjoy it to the fullest. When it is time to eat they eat as much as they could, when time to play they can stay in the playing field one whole day, when they drink they want to finish all the beer in the supermarket after which they must fight till the opponent runs away. It must be emphasised that this no care attitude must be controlled since they are in a disciplined organisation, drinking must be to a certain limit only.

  24.  A man is entitled to use his brother's property, eat without giving any money. Based on the culture a single soldier can enter a married quarters go straight into the kitchen and help himself out without any complaint from that household. If one is admitted in hospital, it is a norm for all Fijians nearby to make hospital visits in great numbers to show they too are so concerned of the patient's health.

  25.  Fijian men usually beat their wives and children if he thinks fit to do so not because of hatred but as a means of disciplinary measures. However today the Law has forbid that but some Magistrates still recognise it in the Court of Law as a Fijian Custom. This is to be discouraged because it is a domestic violence and child abuse; both are serious offences in Fiji's Penal Code. All Fijian soldiers are fully aware of the consequences.

  26.  Fijians in general are gentle and humble. This personal quality is enhanced through early socialisation in which the authorities of those in power are complied with and respected. It continues to be supported by their value system that emphasises the concept of vakaturaga and respect as discussed earlier at para 3. People know that anger or hatred is ruinous to the individual and subversive to the group solidarity but now and then, there are incidents in which anger is expressed in a dramatic and destructive way. Fijians are slow to anger but not for long, it will soon explode then it will be difficult to control. This is a way to openly express reasons for one's unhappiness and to publicly shame one's opponent. The person may end up in bloody fistfights and Fijians love to boast their fighting skills, using bear hands without arms. Sparring at each other with a punch or two is a normal way of greetings to young men.


  27.  Fijians are traditionally a fighting people. Warfare is closely associated with the training and initiation of youths for manhood. Boys are introduced early to war psychologically through club and spear dancing in schools, contact games like wrestling, boxing and rugby which helped to condition good fighting soldiers. Their childhood was nothing but to grow up to obey command and respect superiors in authority. Shy quiet and innocent looking but can become aggressive and violent at any spur of the moment; essential personalities required to fight and kill the enemy in war.

  28.  Fijian culture, like any other culture is varied and changes continuously. There are things that all Fijians do, there are things, which are confined to some areas, there are things, which only some levels of categories of society are allowed to do and there are things which are done idiosyncratically by individuals as part of their personality and are not representative of the group behaviour. Because of these variations, it is not possible to explain every cultural proactive that one might experience in Fiji. This paper aimed to help MoD HQ, Regiments Officers and SNCOs of the British Army understand some of the main principles on which the Fijian society is organised and how those affect the attitudes and behaviour of the Fijians now serving in the British Army.

  29.  Finally stated hereunder some important words and phrases commonly used by Fijians for Regiments' info:

    (a)  Bula—Bulla also bulla vinaka (veenaca)—expression of greeting, hello,

(b)  Moce mada—Mothe mada—goodbye,

(c)  Lako mai—Laco mai—come here, come closer,

(d)  Totolo mai—come here on the double, run, hurry up

(e)  Tagane—male, boy,

(f)  Yalewa—female, girl,

(g)  Vinaka, veenaca—thank you, very good, perfect,

(h)  Ca, the—bad, very bad, not good,

(i)  Sotia—soldier, soldiers (individuals)

(j)  Mataivalu—Army, regiments (group of soldiers)

(k)  Veilwai—Orderly room, court proceedings, court martial,

(l)  Kovula—Corporal,

(m)  Satini—Sergeants and staff sergeants,

(n)  Santini Metia—Warrant Officers,

(o)  Vuli Turaganivalu—Officer Cadets,

(p)  Turaga ni Valu—Commissioned officers from 2Lt up

  British Army Welfare Officer, Fiji

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