Saturday, 27 October 2012

Fiji - Gods of War

In his book, On Fiji Islands, Ronald Wright describes a trip he took to Bau, a small island off the coast of Viti Levu.  It seems to hard to believe it now, but Bau (pronounced Mbau) was once the centre of political power in Fiji and home to the 19th-century Fijian warlord, Cakobau, who proclaimed himself King of Fiji, before gifting the islands to Britain.  Cakobau was responsible for the conversion of Bau to Christianity and the end of warfare and cannibalism, which the islanders had a reputation for. 

Cagawalu - supreme deity of Bau

Cakobau's conversion to Christianity was partly a result of feeling 'let down' by the island's supreme deity, Cagawalu, the god of war.  Wright associates the rise in Cagawalu's popularity, with the rise in the power of the Bau kingdom - therefore, it makes sense that the loss of political influence in Bau, would also mean the triumph of the Christian god of peace over the Fijian god of war!

The not-so-Pacific islands

Despite the name, many of the Pacific islands were quite warlike, especially in Polynesian islands like New Zealand, where the Maoris had a fierce reputation as warriors and war-makers.  The people of Hawaii worshipped a war god called Kū, who ressembles the Maori war god Tū, also known as Tū-mata-uenga (Tu of the angry face), Tū-kai-taua (Tu the destroyer of armies) or Tū-ka-riri (Tu the angry).  Interestingly,  was known as the 'old god of war' in Tahiti - perhaps because he was imported at an earlier date and later replaced by the Tahitian god of war, 'Oro.

Featured gods of Hawaii and the Aztecs

Huitzilopochtli, Aztec god of war
I also find it really interesting that the Hawaiian god of war,  is depicted as being covered in feathers.  There has been even more evidence in recent months (since I wrote my blog post on Dinosaurs) that dinosaurs may have been feathered and may have evolved into modern-day birds.  I realise that dinosaurs and humans missed each other by millions of years, but I can't help but wonder at terrifying war gods, like Hawaii's , but also Huitzilopochtli of the Aztecs - who has a very bird-like appearance.  Perhaps, there was some ancestral memory or inherited knowledge of larger, bird-like creatures that were predators of pre-historic man?

Human sacrifice and the forces of darkness

Huitzilopochtli is most associated with the human sacrifics that were made in his honour.  Actually, Huitzilopochtli was a solar god, who fought the forces of darkness and demanded human sacrifice to appease the violent nature of the struggle between the dark and the light.  I guess, war is ultimately about sacrifice - we might turn up our noses nowadays at savage practices such as human sacrifice, but if you think of how many young men were 'sacrificed' to appease the gods of World War 1, or the 'war on/of terror' in Afghanistan.  Is it really that different? 

Kali trampling Shiva by Raja Ravi Varma
Even today, war is perceived as a struggle between 'good and evil' or 'dark and light'.  Kali, the Hindu goddess of darkness was seen as the great destroyer, an antithesis of Shiva, the creator - but also his consort.  It seems that the human need to destroy and create goes hand-in-hand.  I'm pretty sre that lucrative contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq were being drawn up, even as Western armies were preparing for invasion.

The 'intelligent' war gods of Europe

Many war gods are also gods of fertility, during times of peace.  A good example is Anann, the Irish goddess of war, who was also a fertility goddess and managed Ancient Ireland's livestock!  Ancient Europeans also made human sacrifices to appease the gods of war - sacrifices were made to the Celtic war god, Lugus and the Nordic Odin.  By all accounts, Odin was the 'thinking man's god of war'.  As well as being God of war, he was famous for his creativity and was considered to be an intelligent god, developing war strategies - he was also revered for his magical powers. 

War Gods of Ancient Greece and Rome

The Ancient Greeks captured the essence of the war god by having two war gods - the male, Ares symbolised the violence of war and the unfettered masculine thirst for blood.  The female goddess, Athena had a more strategic approach to war and transcended the more primal instincts of blood-letting and needless sacrifice.  Ares always went into battle with his two closest companions, Phobos (fear) and Deimos (terror). 

Mars and the Vestal Virgin by Jacques Blanchard
The Roman god of war, Mars, was symbolised by the wolf and the woodpecker.  The wolf because of its brutality and power and the woodpecker because of its persistance in bringing down the Oak tree, which is much bigger than itself.  The 'red planet' is named after Mars which, I guess, is symbolic of his blood-thirsty role. 

War and Peace

Cakobau converted to Christianity because he believed that the old gods had deserted Fiji and that his people should submit to the new god of Christianity.  It got me thinking about the influence of monotheism and religions like Christianity and Islam.  Islam is the religion of 'submission' and peace - although there were war gods in Ancient Babylon, Sumeria and other parts of the (what we call) the Middle East, the adoption of Islam, saw the end of pagan beliefs and a new belief-system that promoted peace, tolerance and trade.  Likewise, the central messages of Christianity, particularly in the New Testament are all about 'Love Thy Neighbour' and 'Turn the other Cheek'

If the spread of Christianity and Islam helped pacify previously warring tribes and nations (as it did in Fiji), then why is the world still at war?  Which 'god' is still demanding the sacrifice of human lives?  Perhaps the new gods of war are oil, money and greed!

Image credits:

All images are taken from Wikimedia commons and are considered to be in the public domain and, therefore, copyright free. 

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Fiji - Celebrating Ramlila on Vanua Levu

This week saw the celebration of Ramlila, a very famous Hindu festival involving the dramatisation of the life of Lord Ram, as described in the Hindu epic, Ramayana.  I've been quite interested in learning about the Ramayana, ever since I wrote a previous blog post about this when I was learning about Rajasthan. 

The Ramlila in Fiji is traditionally performed at Mariamman Temple in Fiji's second-biggest island, Vanua Levu.  Mariamman is a Hindu goddess of rain and it's interesting to see Hinduism popping up again in the Pacific ocean, many miles away from its origins in India.

India in the Pacific?

Sunset at Denarau Beach by Mark Heard
Before I started researching about Fiji, I had been vaguely aware of the fact that Fiji had a sizeable population of Indian descent, most commonly called 'Indo-Fijians' (although the terminologies used to describe this group of people are controversial).  In my mind, Fiji had a majority Indian population and formed the country's ruling elite, with native Fijians being disenfranchised and sidelined.

Now that I've done some research, I realise that it's almost the opposite situation - although the population levels almost reached parity in the 20th century, Indo-Fijians are a population in decline.  Recent political coups in Fiji have seen native islanders wrest back the reigns of power, changing the constitution to disenfranchise the 37.6% of the population that is of Indo-Fijian descent.  Not only do Indo-Fijians have no political voice in modern-day Fiji, but they also have no right to own property, despite being in Fiji for more than 100 years.

How the Indians were brought to Fiji

Indentured workers from India were first brought to Fiji by the British, from the 1870's until the practice was abolished in 1919.  They were employed in the sugar cane plantations and many were tricked into believing that Fiji was very close to India and that they would be able to return easily.  Conditions for the first Indians who arrived in Fiji were described as naraka, the Hindi word for hell.  Nevertheless, many indentured Indian workers stayed in Fiji and, not having the right to own property, they invested in businesses and made a name for themselves as a thriving economic community.

Indo-Fijians in Nadi by bluetravie
Despite the tension between native Fijians and Fijians of Indian descent, it's obvious that Indo-Fijians have become an important part of Fijian history.  Although inter-marriage between the two communities is rare, 'normal' Fijians (native and Indian) have managed to get along somehow and been influenced by each other's cultures.

A global concept of land ownership?

The current situation for Indo-Fijians is worse than ever, with many talented Indo-Fijians leaving to seek a more fulfilling life in Australia or New Zealand.  Fiji was thrown out of the Commonwealth for its racial policies and it would be a shame to see Fiji's experiment in multiculturalism fail.

In his book On Fiji Islands, the Canadian writer Ronald Wright explores the complexity of the situation in Fiji.  He compares the fate of Fijians to that of other indigenous cultures around the world, eg. in Peru and the United States.  Compared to other native peoples, Fijians compare favourably, as they have managed to retain their culture and land ownership of their own country.

Some of the people he meets in his book disagree with the native Fijian monopoly of land ownership and believe that land should be redistributed to the entire population, including those of Indian descent.  Wright's position is that 'western' solutions to Fijian land ownership are always going to be somewhat patronising.  He compares the situation with the Aborigines in Australia and Native Americans who've managed to regain some of their land, therefore redressing some of the historical wrongs of colonisation. 

Indentured labourers around the world

Fiji wasn't the only country where Indians were brought over as indentured labourers.  Many Caribbean nations have large Indian populations - I'm thinking primarily of Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana.  Indians now form the majority of the population of Mauritius, a former British colony in the Indian ocean and there are sizeable Indian communities in East and South Africa.  7% of Malaysia's population is of Indian descent.

It wasn't just the British who did this either - French and Dutch colonists also used Indian labour to work their colonies in South America and the Indian ocean. 

Indo-Fijian culture

Indian temple in Nadi by Mark Heard
Indo-Fijians have made an important contribution to Fijian culture - whether it's poets like Satendra Nandan and Sudesh Mitra, or well-known sport stars like the golfer, Vijay Singh.  The British singer-songwriter Tanita Tikaram's father was Indo-Fijian.  Clement Paligaru is a well-known, Australian-based broadcaster, who spent his childhood in Fiji.  He's written a really interesting summary of the Indo-Fijian experience, for Lonely Planet.  You can follow him on Twitter (as I do!).

By all accounts, Indian culture in Fiji is less conservative than in India.  Some of the strictures associated with caste/social class have been abandoned and Indo-Fijians, in general, are more relaxed in their attitude towards traditional values.  Perhaps this explains the popularity of the Indo-Fijian singer, Aiysha - she sings in English and Hindi and seems to be quite popular in India, despite the fact that her videos are quite risqué!

I'm pasting in one of her videos below, so you can see what I mean - you can also enjoy the beautiful scenery in the background, a lot of which was filmed in Fiji.

Image credits:

The images of the Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Hindu temple in Nadi and sunset at Denarau beach were taken by flickr user Mark Heard, who is a writer from Alberta in Canada and travelled to Fiji in 2010.  Mark has a whole series of photos on Fiji, which you see on his flickr photostream.  

The image of the older Indo-Fijian man and the young boy was taken in Nadi by flickr member bluetravie - you can see more of bluetravie's images on his photostream

Thanks to Mark and bluetravie for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license. 


Saturday, 13 October 2012

Fiji - Bula Poly-Mela-Micronesia!

Currently being based in London, I can only really dream about travelling to Fiji.  It's more than 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometres) from London to Suva, Fiji's capital - that's literally the other side of the Earth!  Still, one can but dream and, during the next few weeks, I want to virtually travel to Fiji using the media of books, movies, music and food.  I invite you to join me on this virtual journey!

Poly- Mela- or Micronesia?

This is my second time to blog about an Oceanic nation - way back when I started this blog, in 2009, I blogged about the Micronesian nation, Kiribati.  Fiji is officially part of Melanesia, so I'm starting with the question - what's the difference between Poly- Mela- and Micronesia?

This terminology is European, not surprisingly and the words come from the Greek words for 'many' (πολοί Poly-), 'black' (μέλας Mela-) and 'small' (μικρό Micro-) - so Polynesia means many islands, Melanesia means black islands and Micronesia means small islands.  

So is there a difference between the three?
Tanoa, King of Ambau
The easiest answer is yes. Although all of Oceania shares inter-related languages and cultures, there is a notable difference between the countries of Melanesia and those of Polynesia.  Melanesian culture is closer to that of Papua New Guinea and it's possible to trace a continuum of ethnic identity from Papua, all along the various island groups (Solomon Islands, Vanuatu) to Fiji.  These islands were called Melanesia because of the darker skin colour of their inhabitants - a bit un-PC by 21st century standards, but Melanesia literally means 'islands where the blacks live'.  


Fiji is right on the edge of this cultural divide and, although they are considered to be Melanesians, many Polynesians consider Fijians to be 'not so distant relatives'.  There is also one Polynesian island in Fiji, Rotuma, which is quite far from the main island groups and has a very different language and culture than the rest of Fiji.  I think the Polynesian islands are the ones we think of most, when we think of the South Pacific - Polynesia is all about Tahiti and French Polynesia,Tonga, Samoa, Easter Island etc.  Polynesia also includes Europeanised places like Hawaii and New Zealand.  The origins of the Polynesian people are quite obscure - some people believe they also came from Papua, some say China and Taiwan. 


Pacific cultural area by Kahuroa
I can't see anything that distinguishes the Micronesian islands from the rest of Oceania, apart from their remoteness on the northern edge of the South Pacific and the fact that they are all really tiny with no larger islands like Viti Levu and Vanua Levu in Fiji, or Tongatapu in Tonga.  The Micronesian countries are some of the most obscure and smallest in the world, including Kiribati, Palau, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia!  

I'm pasting in a map of the Pacific Cultural area, which I think is a really good visual aid to understanding the region.  This has been released into the public domain by wiki-user Kahuroa.  

For research purposes, I bought a second-hand copy of Lonely Planet's Fiji (7th Edition 2006).  The pen-marks and notes inside indicate that it's been well-used on someone's diving trip to Fiji and I could swear that the pages still hold a faint scent of the faraway south seas! I'm looking forward to learning about Fiji, I hope that you are too!

Image credits:

All images used in this post are in the public domain, including the drawing of Tanoa, King of (Am)Bau, which is from the David Rumsey map collection.  

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Eritrea - The Final Word

I'm really reluctant to say goodbye to Eritrea, as I've enjoyed learning about this small country and I'm curious to know even more!

A summary of the themes

I've managed to stick to just over a month, this time round and, during that time, I have learned about the different ethnic groups that live in Eritrea.   I've learned about Eritrea's 30-year struggle for independence but I've also learned about Eritrea's great potential as a tourist destination and the state of tourism in Africa and around the world.   I taught myself how to make a traditional Eritrean dish, Tsebhi Derho with Injera and I read some Eritrean plays, notably The Other War by Alemseged Tasfai. 

Tools for research

Books I read as part of my research on Eritrea
I read several books whilst researching Eritrea:

Ethiopia, Eritrea & Djibouti (Lonely Planet, 2000 edition) for background research.

Eritrea: Even the Stones are Burning by Roy Pateman, for a more serious look at the history of the conflict in Eritrea.  Pateman is a good advocate for Eritrea and his book contains a lot of interesting information.

Ciao Asmara by Justin Hill - a more light-hearted account of the time that Justin spent working in Eritrea as an English teacher.

My Father's Daughter by Hannah Pool - a really moving account of Hannah's search for her family in Eritrea - she deals with the themes of adoption and cultural identity - highly recommended!

The Other War by Alamseged Tesfai from Contemporary African plays (Banham & Plastow ed,)

Three Eritrean Plays (from Hdri publishers in Asmara) with plays by Solomon Dirar, Esaias Tseggai and Mesgun Zerai

I also watched one movie set in Eritrea, Heart of Fire (dir. Luigi Falorni in 2009).  I really enjoyed the movie and I thought the child actors were fantastic - it was also great to hear Tigrinya being spoken on film, as I'd never really heard spoken Tigrinya before (only in song!).  I'm embedding the trailer, from Youtube, so you can hear for yourself!

Other themes

If I had time to continue blogging about Eritrea, I would be interested in researching the following topics:

Italian colonisation in Africa
Press freedom (Eritrea is currently bottom of the list on the Press Freedom Index - even worse than North Korea!!)
Diving for pearls in the Dahlak Islands
The Great Rift Valley and the world's highest cities
Orthodox Christianity
The bee-keepers of Saho
Consensus democracy
Women in the military
The world's hottest inhabited places (which includes Dankalia)
Trade in Salt
The Land of Punt
The Tacaruni people, originally from Nigeria, who got stranded in Eritrea and settled there

Dinner party trivia

And here is some trivia about Eritrea that you can use to impress people at dinner parties!

Pages from an Eritrean newspaper
- Eritreans use the word Gedli when talking about their 30-year struggle for independence.
- The Horn of Africa was known in ancient times as  Bilad al-Barbar or 'land of the Berbers'
- The Italian census of 1939 showed that half of Asmara's population was Italian - no wonder that Asmara was known as piccola Roma.
- Eritrea has one of the largest armies in Africa, despite its relatively small population (5 million)
- The US government considers Eritrea to be a CPC or Country of Particular Concern because of restraints on the freedom to practice religions other than the main religion of the state.
- Seyoum Tsehaye is a jailed Eritrean journalist, who was awarded 'Reporter of the Year' in 2007, by Reporters without Borders.
- Eritrea's highest point is called Emba Soira and is more than 3,000 metres (almost 10,000 feet) above sea level. 
- The Hedareb tribe use ritual scarification - the Italians called them the 111 tribe, due to the three linear scars that men carve on their faces.
- The Kunama tribe are mostly animists and believe in a supreme deity called Anna.
- One of the Dahlak Islands, off Eritrea's coast, in the Red Sea, is called Nora!
- The only newspaper in Eritrea is the state-run Haddas Eritrea.
- Traditional Eritrean houses, known as Hidmo, require the felling of 100 trees to build, with a lot of wasted wood.  Eritrea, like many countries, has suffered from massive deforestation - whereas 30% of Eritrea was covered in forests, a century ago, nowadays, only 1% of the country is forested. 

The Final Word

One of the things that surprised me most about Eritrea is that fact that cycling is considered to be a national sport.  I guess it's another legacy of Italian colonisation but, if the country's national cycling tour, the Giro d'Eritrea is anything to go by, Eritreans take their cycling seriously.  The first races were held in 1946 and 1947, but didn't happen again until 2001 and have been held every year since.  I can imagine it's quite a tough ride, 700 miles in ten stages, including some very mountainous terrain.  It's quite reassuring, in a way, after reading about so much war and suffering, to also read about something as mundane as a cycling tournament.  I'd recommend this Guardian article from 2006, which cleverly captures the mood in Eritrea when the Giro is in progress!

An Eritrean Swansong

And, last but not least!  I've had a great time listening to the music of the Asmara All Stars and the beautiful voice of Eritrean songstress, Faytinga.  Eritrean music sounds different than music in other parts of Africa - the high-pitched female voice reminds me of Bollywood, or traditional Chinese songs - the rhythm is more Arabian than African.  It certainly makes for an interesting combination of sounds.  I'm going to leave you with a Youtube video featuring Faytinga that I found really touching - it's called (simply) Eritrea -  I hope you've enjoyed my 'journey' to Eritrea as much as I have - next up is F . . .

Image credits:

Both photos on this blog post were taken by me - please feel free to reuse them with the Creative Commons License:

- Attribution (especially to this blog post)
- Share Alike
- Non-commercial