CULTURE IS THE KEY TO THE WELL-BEING OF A SOCIETY: FIJI’S ROBERT MATAU

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By Richard Walker Junior Communications Officer The Sasakawa Peace Foundation

Are island cultures on the wane? This might be the case for Fiji, where such factors as a decrease in the study of the native culture is thought to be one contributing factor in what appears to be a slow death of the culture.

These are the thoughts of Robert Matau, Assistant News Editor for the Fiji Daily Post. Matau was among the participants in a Coconuts College symposium held last year in the Yaeyama Islands in southern Japan, supported by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

Matau spoke of the importance of the coconut tree to the way of life in the South Pacific.

"The coconut tree is a very significant plant in the South Pacific islands, especially in my land in Fiji," he said.

The tree has a variety of purposes including housing and furniture. In fact, there is a multi-million dollar industry in Fiji selling coconut timber.

The coconut itself also has importance as a source of fuel, and the flesh provides food. "We grate it and squeeze it and eat fish with the milk. I can say that it's probably one of the tastiest dishes in the South Pacific," said Matau.

As a critical form of sustenance in the South Pacific, the coconut tree is an important part of life for the people. Matau drew parallels between the coconut tree and human beings and their need to respect their culture.

"You can compare a coconut tree to a human being. The most important part of that coconut tree really is the root. And for a human being, if he does not know his roots, you'll kill off the branches -- the other vital parts of that tree," he said.

For Matau, the Coconuts College also played a role in the perpetuation of culture. "I felt that the Coconuts College symposium was important because cultural identity is a must. You have to know what your identity is otherwise you really have no value to life," he said.

But how is cultural identity being affected in Fiji, where modern life is beginning to encroach on a traditional culture?

Matau brought up examples of traditional culture, which are threatened by outside influences. One of these is the whale's tooth.

"The whale's tooth is very important and expensive in the traditional sense. It is a token that we use to communicate with other tribes," said Matau.

Another example is the kava root, which is used to make a drink used in traditional ceremonies. But it too is being threatened by skyrocketing prices brought on by outside demand.

"The kava plant is in high demand right now in Europe. It is now becoming a debatable issue whether we need to continue traditional ceremonies on a large scale where we use a lot of kava and whales’ teeth, because the prices are too high. The monetary side has taken away the true value," said Matau.

But where are the young people who are needed to perpetuate the traditional Fijian culture? Matau feels that the schools and government aren't doing their part to teach the young people about their culture.

"It's sad, really. I don't think government and schools are doing enough about it. There are some schools in Suva that don't teach cultural issues and subjects.

"The effect of that is that you get a stereotype Fijian who is more of a copycat American. They value the Western culture more than the Fijian culture," he said.

Also included in this loss of culture is the ability for young people to speak the native language.

"There are a lot of instances in Suva where Fijian students cannot speak Fijian simply because their schools do not encourage it. All schools, especially Fijian-dominated schools, emphasize that we must speak in English during class," said Matau.

Matau did note, however, that there are Fijian boarding schools that do have cultural periods, and whenever a dignitary or guest comes to the school, students perform traditional welcome ceremonies.

But that doesn't seem to be enough to stop the decay of Fiji's traditional way of life.

"We're already feeling the side effects of the dying culture. Those students who went through those schools without any values probably didn't get any jobs and now they are contributing to the crime rate in the country," said Matau.

"You've killed off his branches -- killed off his morality -- his social values. He goes out into the streets and does anything he wants. He has no respect for the Fijian values.

"In the Fijian values you respect your elders. You respect the other person. You must be kind generous and forgiving. There's a lot of humility and acceptance involved in Fijian culture, which is slowly fading away," said Matau.

But the youth of Fiji will need to see the importance of their traditional culture and have a desire to learn about it, said Matau.

"I believe learning about a culture is a matter of wanting to learn it. If you don't want to learn it, you'll never grasp what it's all about. You'll always be left behind and left out of society," he said.

Wave of Pacifika Sasakawa Pacific Island Nations Fund The Saskakawa Hall 3-12-12 Mita Minato-ku Tokyo, Japan 108-0073 TEL: 81-3-3769-6359 FAX: 81-3-3769-2090 Email: spinf@spf.or.jp  Web: http://www/spf/prg/ 

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