Meeting Meli

30th July 2013
When we first visited Fiji in 2010 getting permission to cruise in the Laus was something of a challenge, you had to be invited to visit an island, the permit was ridiculously expensive (seems one of the officials was using it as a private fund raising exercise!) and so we didn’t get here. At the end of last year things changed and now you simply put the Laus on the application for your free cruising permit and off you go.
And off we sailed to this island group in the east of Fiji, many closer to Tonga than Fiji, where the two island nations have met, fought and intermarried for generations. In one of the southernmost islands – Fulaga (pronounced Fulanga) we met Meli and his wife Jiko.
Our first encounter with Meli was when we went ashore to do sevusevu, the formal ceremony where you, as a visitor ask the chief of a village for permission to anchor, swim, fish etc. in their lagoon.

In Fiji the lagoon, reefs and shore are an extension of their village, so anchoring is a bit like someone camping in your front garden and it’s only courteous to ask permission. The ceremony involves a spokesman on your behalf presenting a gift of kava to the village chief and elders. Meli was there as chief Bese’s right hand man, sitting dignified, upright and every inch a chief himself as we presented our gift.
After church on Sunday Jiko waylaid us and another cruising couple Linda and Carl with the insistent invitation to come to lunch and so begun our friendship with Meli and his wife Jiko.

As Jiko served lunch for all of us and one of the school teachers Tupou and her husband James, Meli sat quietly unwrapping the parcels of grated cassava cooked with coconut milk cooked in the lovo (earth oven). The conversation ranged widely and of course the topic of cannibalism came up, hard to avoid in this part of the world. We were reassured to hear that no one had been eaten since the arrival of missionaries in the late 1880s. It came out that Meli is descended from the chief of a warrior clan in Fulaga who were greatly feared and yes, had eaten many enemies.

The island they were based on and where their old fortifications were was a little way across the bay and Meli was happy to take us there and guide us to the top to a look out his ancestors had used. Jiko, Meli and James met the four of us next morning and while Meli, James and Carl set off on Meli’s waqa (small wooden boat with a sail and outrigger) Jiko and Linda came in our dinghy. You should have seen Meli fly across the lagoon, he handled the boat as if it were an extension of himself with ease and almost no effort (well that’s what it looked like). Machete or sele in hand Meli led the way past his gardens up the hill to where old walls of the limestone rock were clearly visible. This was where the tribe had retreated if under threat.

Then there was the bone pit, a shallow cave in the hill side with the bones of past enemies or dinner. The skulls with holes, clearly bashed in from the side or back. Didn’t feel very comfortable I can tell you and for once we were very glad to hear of the arrival of missionaries. And so onward and upwards scrambling over jagged limestone until we got to the top and the most fabulous view over the lagoon and islands of Fulaga. Easy to see why this was the look out, there were even a couple of old triton shells there that would have been used to sound the alarm. Amidst jokes about spotting the arrival of dinner, Meli demonstrated their use. Here atop his island he looked the warrior of the tribe he was descended from and his quiet manner and presence left us in no doubt he was the chief’s great grandson. But the best thing was the way his face lights up at a joke and his laugh, which like his voice (spoken and singing) that starts somewhere deep in his belly.

One the way back there were coconuts to drink and they insisted on giving us cassava and breadfruit from their garden, all in a basket woven out of a coconut palm branch on the spot by Jiko or Meli, so much nicer than plastic bags. Seemed only right to offer them a bite of lunch on Sea Rover and it was after lunch that Meli spotted our book Vaka Moana that we had bought years ago in Auckland, tracing the great Polynesian migration across the Pacific Ocean. What caught Meli’s eye was the front cover with the double hulled waka on it. It’s hard to describe his sheer joy, excitement and intense interest in the boats and once I leant him my glasses it was as if a light suddenly went on and he couldn’t get over the boats, examining the minutest detail from 19th century etchings and describing to James in real detail everything to do with the boats spoken as only a boat builder and sailor could; detail we hadn’t appreciated in the many times we had dipped into the book.

As he studied the book intently he announced his intention to build one of the large boats called a drua.The only thing we could do was lend it to him for the night as it would have been plain mean to take it away from him then. Oh yes and a couple of passing comments in relation to photographs of carved pre Christian gods ‘I could carve that’ and we well believed him, we already had a small wooden tanoa (kava bowl) he had presented us with after the lunch on Sunday.

We saw Meli and Jiko several more times after that when they were out sailing to the fishing grounds around the lagoon and ashore in the their village of Muanaicake, we bought crab and lobster of them, shared food with them and always felt we received more from them than we ever gave. Meli was and is a man of dignity and presence, mana is the only way to describe it and, although he may not have had fluent spoken English he clearly understands everything that is going on.
So there you have Meli: chiefly descendant of cannibal warriors, right hand man to the island chief, fisherman, carver, boat builder and friend. One of the many interesting people who have welcomed us into their lives over our seven weeks in the Laus. We’re only sad we won’t be around to see the drua.

We'll be posting more photos from the Lau islands in the coming weeks

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Photo comment By Jale: Its so nice to see uncle Meli and Unty Jiko enjoying life in the village. The last time i remember sitting on uncle Meli's waqa vaka viti was back in 2004 and was surprised to see them again just a while ago in town (31/07/2013) going to meet their friend Mr & Mrs Robinson. i would like to extend my sincere thank you to Mr & Mrs Robinson for taking up your time to explore the Island (Fulaga) which is where i hail from and takin these beautiful pictures. Really beautiful breathtaking....Thanks guys.
Photo comment By P_Billitaki: we visit this website and we see a lovely hiden paradise of mine.......
Photo comment By Manasa: "Nice! So proud of the very beautiful pictures Mr.Robinson. I am also one of the chiefly descendant of cannibal warriors, right hand man to the island chief. Really love the pictures. My island my paradise.
Photo comment By mei: 'Malo' Mr Robinson for sharing such a beautiful the breathtaking pictures...!!! I'm so proud to have been born and bred there (Fulaga)...'My Island Home'

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