Reflection upon bravery during the 2000 Fijian coup.
I am always haunted by that old television footage of the coup in 2000 when mobs of Fijians having heard that the businessman with the Kojak haircut had initiated a civilian coup, rampaged through the streets of Suva.
There is a terrifying moment in the footage when about forty Fijians with ages ranging from twenty to fifty run near the Holiday Inn hitting anything non-Fijian that moved. You can see their eyes flash with hatred and their teeth bared in anger. In that single defining moment you come face to face with the naked reality of racism. And then a miracle happens in that television footage.
As the patriotic crowd comes close to an Indian man with their fists raised, a simple Fijian waiter in his light blue sulu, white shirt and blue sash around his waist runs out and covers his body over the Indian so that in those terrible moments, the blows rain down on him. It is a poignant act of courage. You can hear the shouts commanding him to move away from the dosi, so he can get what he deserves. The waiter torn between the unbearable pain of the blows raining down on him and the persuasive words to move away and not take the blow meant for the Indian maintains his stance.
Some of the onlookers digest this scene. A middle aged Fijian woman screams indignantly, “Sa rauta. This is madness. You should be ashamed of yourselves.” Other Fijians pluck up courage and add their voices of protest.
As suddenly as it starts, the blows stop as the mob comes to its senses and the rabble disperse stunned that though they are God-fearing people, they have allowed themselves to be consumed by the hatred of nationalism in this one moment of madness.
I look closely at the waiter in great pain hold the hand of the Indian man and pull him up. I gasp as the waiter’s familiar face comes into close focus on the screen.
Epeli Vuetiviti had been an average student at the village school where I taught Social Science in Forms 1 and 2 about eight years ago. He did not do very well academically mainly because he was not fully proficient in English, our national language.
Many curricular reforms were being introduced. There was this growing emphasis on lessons being of relevance to students in their lives outside the classroom. This was a departure from the previous emphasis on students memorising and cramming lessons for external exam purposes. The only merit in this type of learning was that students were able to pass external exams. In terms of making learners better individuals, the rote learning was absolutely worthless.
It is often the case that when someone does something noteworthy in life that we turn to conjecture to determine why the protagonist acted the way she did. We analyse the person’s upbringing and education and we highlight the role we have played in shaping the person. Deep down in our hearts we are often insecure in the work that we do. A person’s noble deeds reaffirm us to our vocation. It also reassures us that our work has been honourable. At the same time, we also have the feeling, sometimes remorseful, that we did not do enough to emulate the protagonist.
A number of factors come into play in looking at Epeli’s life. His traditional upbringing imbued him with the wisdom of life. He also benefited from the school reforms taking place while he was a student. In this, the holistic type of learning he underwent was beneficial. This was shown later in his life where his actions reflected those universal values we like to espouse but are sometimes reluctant to practice in the difficult moments that life sometimes thrusts us into.
My contributions to Epeli’s life was in Social Science. Many of the topics encouraged students to adopt the universal values espoused by the United Nations. One of the units Epeli seemed to like was “Resolving Conflicts.” To supplement the official text book, I had used Frank Hoare’s booklet entitled “Intercultural Exercises for Schools in Fiji.” Hoare had exhorted teachers to challenge the prejudices of students. Students were to share their positive and stereotyped beliefs about other people. This would enable them to confront their prejudiced views and take action to change them. I used his book extensively and involved students in role-plays, case studies, songs and group discussions to help them resolve personal and community conflicts in multicultural societies like Fiji.
Epeli Vuetiviti was one of fifty students in my rural classroom. He participated in my classes when encouraged though I was never quite sure whether this was due mainly to his wanting to please me or whether it was out of a genuine desire to learn about harmonious interactions in the world outside of the classroom.
After two years in this school, I won a scholarship to study at the national university. To be honest, I was getting bored and frustrated with the job I was doing. Then, I was not sure whether the education being offered to these students was worthwhile. This was because the school invariably presented a global agenda and often ignored the dynamic culture of the students.
I never saw nor heard from Epeli in the ensuing years. He must have completed his studies at the village school and later passed the Fiji Junior External Exam. Like many other young rural Fijians drifting to the cities, he must have taken his chance and come to Suva.
Suddenly seeing Epeli in his waiters uniform single-handedly protecting the Indian man from the violent mob vindicated the education I and other teachers had provided him at the village school.
I close my eyes and once more digest the scene from the television footage.
The nagging doubts suddenly return. Epeli had taught me an important lesson. We allowed the coup to consume us with hatred because we were unwilling to stand up and make a difference. And here I have talked about educating Epeli but this sounds hollow because I have not been willing to lay down my life for a fellowman.
Epeli had shown the way in a simple and effective manner.
And what have I shown?