Sorry it's been so very long! My longest stretch yet! But I have this fun little story that I just wrote for our in country volunteer newsletter and will hopefully be following up with a post about our coral farming project with the kids.
We’ve all been there. Whether you’ve been serving in Fiji for two months or coming up on two years, I can just about guarantee that you’ve experienced a moment like this. It starts, for instance, when you’re sitting enjoying a nice cup of sugar with a friend when something happens or something is said that is either: a) surprising, b) confusing, c) urgent, or d) all of the above. Naturally, this also takes place in rapid Fijian probably at a high decibel with lots of gesticulation making you wonder if a tidal wave of molten lava is rapidly descending upon the village when your Fijian catches up to you and you realize they’re yelling about there being too many flies so we better hang a plastic bag full of water.
Wait… (you pause with a look of consternation on your face trying to figure it out but fail miserably)… what? Being that that made no sense whatsoever you perhaps are hopeful enough to ask for clarification. They repeat what they were shouting. You sigh and decide to just give up and accept that you will never know why hanging a plastic bag full of water will have any relation to the number of flies in the immediate vicinity or why it warranted apocalyptic shouting and gesturing. These instances happen with varying frequency for each of us but the real ‘wait what’ situations are the ones in which you are not simply a bystander to the baffling behavior but rather the focal point of it.
One fine Sunday I was peacefully zoning out in the back section of our church during the morning service. It was youth day apparently, which induced more people to appear in their Sunday best than I even knew we had living in the village. Naturally, service extended on for another good hour but I was aware when the preacher had finally reached the last stage and fresh air was just another minute or two away.
As the man was waxing on about some other thing the people were doing wrong, the girl (my age) sitting next to me abruptly leans in and begins to whisper to me in rapid fire Fijian in a very urgent manner. Snapping out of my reverie, I stared blankly at her not having taken in a word she said, arched and eyebrow and replied, “a cava??” All the while wondering what the hell could have happened during the two hours we sat next to each other in silence to make her absolutely need to speak to me two minutes before we would be outside and free to speak anyway.
She began whispering at me again with such vehemence that it sounded like there was a small tank of helium being slowly reprieved of its gas nearby. Meanwhile everyone in the three rows in front of us and the three rows behind had stopped what they were doing to listen in and to nod their heads in agreement (we were sitting in more or less an all women’s section). This time I picked up what she was saying:
“Tina, as soon as he finishes speaking you have to get up and run outside to Mita!”
“Wait…what? Why? Where’s Mita?”
“She’s standing outside waiting for you!”
“Why do I have to run to her?”
“Because they’re going to be running after you.”
She says this and gestures towards the section on the other side of the aisle where all the men are sitting. When I look over I notice with some concern that they’re all shuffling and twisting around and looking antsy. I can tell that some of them are overhearing our conversation and don’t look happy about it. What the hell is going on?!
I tried once more to say “Wait…what??” but just as I got the words out the man up front finished speaking.
“Go Tina! Quick! Quick!” They all start yelling, no longer trying to be discreet. They shove me into the aisle and as I start to speed walk along I turn around looking at them for confirmation that I’m doing what they want and catch a glimpse of the group of men charging at my heels. Holy hell! What is going on?!
I get out the door and pick up my pace when I see Mita standing some twenty feet away with a dish in her hand, perched on a hill like Vana White. I make a beeline towards her and manage to get to her first. She then hands me the dish, which is mounded up with all sorts of holiday type food, and as she does so I notice all the men that were seemingly seconds away from a tackle cut their momentum and slink away looking dejected. The women just making their way out the door all cheered. Then everyone went back to being normal and I was left standing there with a mountain of food completely lost and having a heart attack.
Assuming that the plate of food was mine for whatever reason (though I’ve learned not to assume much in Fiji), I began to make my way home. On the way, I was stopped by an old man who told me a bit sternly that that plate was mine and that I had to take it to America. At first I thought he meant with the food on it but either way I just nodded and agreed with him – of course that’s what I was planning to do all along.
I was called over to my friend’s house for lunch so I brought the giant dish of food to share hoping to ask my friend about it. When I broached the topic trying to convey my confusion, she explained it to me in a ‘duh why don’t you know this’ sort of manner:
“Tina, don’t you know Merelita?”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“It’s her newborn’s first church service.”
“Us Fijians are like that Tina.”
She was done talking having explained it fully.
But I didn’t get anything more coherent than that out of her. It took me a while to figure it out on my own but I think I got it. My assumption is that in Fiji, there’s a tradition that if it’s your newborn’s first mass, then you have to prepare a dish of nice food and give it to the first person to exit the church, probably for good luck. I’m also assuming that the women just wanted me to get out of the door and over to Mita first so that I would get the food even though everyone else was eligible had they arrived first. That’s my best guess anyway. It’s also the most baffled I’ve ever been in Fiji, though it wasn’t the first time and certainly won’t be the last. It’s those ‘wait…what?’ moments that really remind you sometimes that you are serving in a completely different culture than your own and though it can be frustrating it can be thoroughly entertaining as well!