From Jale on Vorovoro

Living and working here over the last few months has given me access to behind the scenes at what is a fascinating culture. A lot of people come to Fiji and really miss out on what Fijian culture can actually offer and the very unique and subtle mindset about what underpins it.

One of the things I’ve consistently found absorbing in my time here is the Fijian approach to who’s in charge. You ask anyone to do anything and they will pretty much do it. No questions asked, no fuss, no protestations. Just a gentle nod of the head and a ‘rawa’ (it is possible)

Ok, so this seems that it would make life pretty straight forward here. You ask people to do something and it pretty much gets done. But then things occasionally can and will go downhill. The tree or gardens you asked to plant wont fruit or bloom, the structure you asked to be made gets damaged by the tree above it and so on. At this point you’ll ask the question the guys you asked to it and they’ll say ‘that’s what you wanted.’

‘But it doesn’t work?!’

‘No, we should have done it over there’

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘You’re the boss, you tell us.’

And so it can go round in circles. Why don’t we just get told how to d the right thing as opposed to be allowed to get it wrong? It can be one of the most infuriating things about working here. People here aren’t bad people (potentially some of the warmest and friendliest you’ll ever encounter); they don’t want you to fail, so why does this consistantly happen?

The answer, to my mind, has then to lie in the cultural differences between the two

If you examine the rural Fijian set up it is very deep rooted in structure of Chiefs being responsible for villages and areas. One guy at the top and then everyone pretty much at a level footing under him or her. He sets the tone, tells people what to do and they do it. No questions, maybe a raise of the eyebrows (incidentally one of the most expressive and insightful parts of the Fijian face and way of communicating) and then off to carry out the wishes.

They innately respect the guy at the top and believe that he knows what he is doing; in fact they expect him to know what he is doing. There seems this belief that he only asks things to be done that he knows can be done. Obviously if you are born and raised as a Fijian chief then you will have a very clear picture of what can or can’t be achieved, when you are an outsider you have pretty much no idea at all.

The phrase from the title Oi’oga (only you) I have recently discovered to be one of the key phrases here. So many times I’ve have tried to obtain information and advice from the guys abut how to do things and most conversations end with it. It basically means, ‘you’re the boss, you tell me.’ Fijians have a very deep rooted sense of respect to their superiors (which I definitely don’t feel I am) which results in it being a huge source of embarrassment to have to cross them or disagree with them. Instead a humble ‘only you’ and then getting on with the asked for job. You know when you hear that golden phrase that the responsibility for the correct decision is being left totally with you, no pressure then…………..

Communism obviously has its roots in the idea of total community living. This place is no different. The villages are set up in way that people support each other, share their possessions and work pretty much for the benefit of all. And there is one guy at the top who has the vision for how it done. It’s amazing to watch and live in and it is practically the opposite of where I come from. In the West we’re taught and expected to think for ourselves, if we don’t agree with something then we believe we should question it. But because we taught to think like that then we subconsciously expect it of other people. So bringing that idea to working here is only that start of the cultural misunderstanding game.

So to live and try and work with this mindset brings on so many more lines of thought. It provides an amazing looking glass into how we live our own lives back home. At home the individual is now becoming more important than the community, leaders are constantly criticized and harangued, there is visible progress into improvement of living conditions, and people are generally irritable and unfulfilled. Here the opposite and change is slow, progress even slower but people seem happy and relaxed. Yes life is tough but the sense of community supports that and people find their strength in it.

Our way ideally demands leaders to be of a high level and never allowed to slack, here leaders are who they are and are followed. We have in theory ‘progressed’ more but we are not nearly as relaxed and happy. Our way demands improvement, this way demand acceptance: both hugely positive and dangerous in their own ways. If only there was a way of balancing the two?

(obviously I am well aware that there has been various coups here recently which would negate all I am trying to say about acceptance and following the leaders, but these coups are the results of 2 cultures (Fijian and Indian) trying to get on in the same space. I am just commenting on indigenous Fijian culture.)