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“Fijian girls are lucky when they marry Banaban men because they don’t have to do any work outside in the hot sun. They only do housework. But when a Banaban girl marries a Fijian man she has to fish, plant crops and gather firewood as well as attending to the housework.” Lucien, a Banaban woman went on to explain, to the surprise of the visiting Fijian teenagers, that in the Banaban culture a man, once married, leaves his family to live in the woman’s place. “He is expected to be a good provider, not just for his wife and children, but also for his wife’s parents" she said.
This sharing on culture took place on Rabi Island while a team from Labasa parish held an evangelization camp with Catholic Banaban youths. Six young Fijians, two Peruvian lay missionaries and I traveled 7 hours by bus from Labasa to Napuka and then 45 minutes by boat to Rabi. The 5,000 inhabitants of Rabi Island are Banabans who were moved there from the phosphate rich Ocean Island by British colonials at the end of 1945.
My experience of a Banaban welcome came as a shock. A married woman washed my feet in a basin of water and a young unmarried woman wiped my feet dry with her long black hair. One of the ladies then garlanded me with a lay of flowers and placed a wreath of flowers on my head.
Our Banaban hosts looked after us well. A catechist and his wife cooked for us during our 5 day stay. Fish and root crops were plentiful. Our hosts killed a pig for us on the last day. The lay missionaries and I were lucky to have a bed or mattress at night. Our Fijian youths had no difficulty, however, in curling up on a mat and sleeping soundly.
The lay missionaries had prepared the resource materials. Our group of four young women and two young men were familiar with the sessions they were going to facilitate. They divided into two teams. Each morning our senior team explained the Lumko 7 step method of bible sharing to the out-of-school Banaban youths. They also facilitated sessions to explore personal identity. Our junior team explored creatively the work of God, Jesus and the Spirit, with secondary school students who had recently received the sacrament of confirmation. Bible study and group sharing were interspersed with songs and ice-breakers which had shouts of laughter resounding around the compound.
We gathered for hymn practice in the mid-afternoon. Then we were free to swim in the sea or explore the island. Each evening I said mass and facilitated a discussion on culture.
We had one anxious situation to deal with. One of the girls on the team developed severe chest pains one night. There was no transport to take her to the clinic. I phoned the doctor who sent pain-killing tablets after hearing of her symptoms. A local woman massaged her and we contacted her mother in Labasa. After a couple of hours the pain subsided. It turned out to be a bad case of indigestion rather than a heart condition.
The timing of our camp for the beginning of the summer holidays was not the best. Some Banaban students had gone to Suva to perform their traditional dancing. Many youths were training for the annual sports day. Others were relaxing at the end of the school year.
However, the participants’ enthusiasm compensated for the disappointing numbers and they received their certificates proudly at the final mass. One youth from Rabi asked how he could join the evangelization team. Others made plans to give echo seminars to the islanders when they would gather again. The young people, hosts and visitors, enjoyed getting to know each other and dancing and yaqona drinking went on throughout the final night of our stay.
Our team was quiet on the return journey. They slept fitfully as the bus rattled over the potholes in the unpaved road. Some parents and key parishioners welcomed us back to Labasa with yaqona, tea and cake at the presbytery. They listened proudly as their children described the highlights of the camp.
We journeyed to Rabi Island to share the good news of God’s love for us. In return we learned a little about the Banaban people, their history and culture. Interest replaced ignorance. When we meet Bababan people in future in Labasa or Suva we will meet and greet them differently.
Fr Frank Hoare was ordained in 1973 and has been a missionary in Fiji, Australia and the United States.