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FIJI TIMES ONLINE Salseini Vosamana     Sunday, October 02, 2011

On Wednesday, September 7, I left home in Labasa at 4am for Karoko Village in the district of Tunuloa, Cakaudrove, where a fiberglass boat from Rabi was supposed to transport me to the island before 10am. This was my first trip to Rabi and Kioa and I was very excited. Along the way, on the early morning bumpy car ride, I noticed the upgrading roadworks carried out by the China Railway Three Company tabled out for the Nagigi and Bagasau Village highway. My colleagues and I also saw a group of primary students headed for school in the cold. I felt sorry for them. By the look on their faces, I could tell this was one of those days when kids just want to stay in bed under their warm blankets. And to think they go through this five days a week!

It was 9am when we reached Karoko Village. Much to our disappointment, there was no boat waiting at the seashore. We asked around. A little boy suggested we buy pre-mix fuel from the nearby canteen so a boat owner could take us across to Rabi.

When we got to the canteen, another disaster. The canteen owner was stuck. His fuel supply had run out and he was waiting for the fuel delivery truck from Savusavu.

We decided to go back to Labasa, disappointed that our Rabi trip was now out of the question ... or so we thought.

On our way back, we met the fuel delivery truck. We stopped it and I asked the driver where he was headed. The driver said he was going to Karoko Village to supply fuel to the village and to the buyers from Rabi Island.

Looked like our trip was on afterall, I thought happily.

I asked the driver for a hitch. He said he would gladly take me back and help arrange for my trip across to the buyers from Rabi.

My two companions and I parted ways from there. I enjoyed the ride back to Karoko on a truck full of fuel drums, and when we got there, there was a boat was waiting. I paid $60 for my fare across to Rabi.

The island was beautiful, even from a distance. The green mountains and the big spotty buildings complemented the scenic view of Rabi island.

When I reached the jetty, I was directed to the hall where the visiting government delegation and Prime Minister Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama were already seated.

The friendly Banaban people greeted me with big smiles and ushered me in. I felt at home already. I was in time to hear the discussions on Rabi's development plans tabled before the Prime Minister.

As I took notes and interviews, I was amazed to learn about the rich history and culture of the Banaban people.

I came to know that Rabi was a political anomaly. Though it was part of the Cakaudrove province, the island had a degree of autonomy with its own council controlling local affairs. The council is however, merged with its counterpart from Kioa Island. This was according to the decision of the cabinet in January 15, 2006.

Although being counted as Fiji citizens, some of the islanders still hold Kiribati passports.

The island has four main villages ù Nuku,Tabwewa, Uma and Buakonikai. There's also a secondary school and two primary schools.

During the island tour, I found out about the island's many untapped resources.

The main source of income on the island is fisheries.

The Banaban Women's Organisation were also embarking on the project of producing virgin coconut oil.

Organisation president, Terikano Takesau, (also the hospitable lady who accomodated me during the island stay), said the project was another source of income for people on the island.

"Most of the people depend on this project because they are able to put food on the table and also send their children to school," Ms Takesau said.

The following day, we travelled to neighbouring Kioa island. The visiting delegation was accorded a beautiful Polynesian welcome. I was really surprised to see this diverse culture which the islanders had preserved. Along the seashore, children and villagers had assembled to greet the visitors.

They had also prepared refreshments .

During discussions, the Kioa islanders made a request to Government for a junior secondary school. They felt their culture would be better preserved if their children were taught on the island.

Island Reverend Sanaila Bici said developments on the island were slowly taking shape but they desperately needed a school to help their children to preserve their cultural identity.

He said it would keep their culture rich and intact if their children maintained the trend.

"With modernisation and civilisation, we strongly believe our culture should be preserved and children must be instilled with cultural values because they are ones leading our future," Mr Bici said.

Government assured the islanders it would look into the requests. Although Kioa and Rabi are islands off the coast of Vanua Levu, they are so very different. The people of Kioa migrated from Tuvalu many years ago and settled in Kioa opposite Buca Bay between 1947 and 1983.

Kioa is one of the two islands in Fiji populated by South Sea Islanders, the other being on Vanua Levu Group, home to a displaced Banaban community. The Fiji Government had granted the Kioan community citizenship in 2005 as a culmination of a decade-long quest for naturalisation.

Although it is part of Cakaudrove, the island also has a degree of autonomy with its own administrative body, known as the Kioan Council.

We left the island on September 9, better learned on the people, the land and their pressing needs.

The beauty of the place, and genuine hospitality of its people towards visitors will forever linger in the memories of those who are lucky enough to have experienced them.

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