Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Identity and Belonging-ness - Digging Below the Surface of being "Fijian"

Published in the Fiji Times on Wednesday 19th September, 2012 as "What is their place"

The issue of common national identity may different meanings and concerns for Fiji citizens – indigenous, native (Fiji-born) and naturalised – based on their own personal history and experiences and that of their communities.

It ultimately boils down to a sense of belonging to this country, not just in a legal or cultural sense, but also in emotional, psychological and even spiritual senses. From that point view, perhaps we can understand why, while the terms “Fiji Citizen” and “Fiji Islander” may be acceptable with regards to nationality in a legal sense, it may not resonate deeply or adequately express the sense of identity or rootedness that is felt by people who call Fiji “home”.

 Constitutional submissions on common name/national identity from groups who wish to preserve the unique identity of our indigenous brothers and sisters have made a number of proposals for different terms such as “Kai-Viti” for indigenous Fijians instead of “i-Taukei”, and Kai-Idia, Kai-Valagi, Kai-Jaina – to tie Fijians to their heritage. While I can understand, and perhaps even appreciate the concern and perspectives from which this proposals come, I feel that some Fijian communities may slip through the cracks in this type of identification.
Take for example the terms “half-caste” and “Kai-Loma”. Originally and from a colonial point of view, a “half-caste” was a mix of “European” and i-Taukei. This was translated into “Kai-loma.” Obviously this understanding of the term had no space for those of mixed i-Taukei and Indo-Fijian heritage, or even the different ethnic groups within the Indo-Fijian community. Now expand that to include every permutation of i-Taukei, Rotuman, Indo-Fijian, Chinese, European, Japanese, Cambodian, Samoan, Tongan, Rabi, i-Kiribati, Tuvaluan and other combination of mixed heritage in Fiji. What do we call them? “Fruit-salad”- while jokingly accepted and less derogatory than “mongrel” - offers very little in terms of identity. These Fijians who embody the very multicultural, multi-ethnic identity we seem to envisage as our future do not have an identity that embraces their diversity. Instead they are forced to choose one aspect of their very being above all others in order to fit in.

To embrace their i-Taukei heritage may mean ignoring their Indo-Fijian ancestors, or vice versa. In this new Fiji that we are trying to build, what is their place?

While we focus on the common term of Fijian, it is important for us to look beyond the surface of identity and belonging – beyond the national level to the provincial level, the community level. We need to acknowledge and name the sense of belonging that many non-i Taukei have to the land of their birth or that they now call home. How do we identify and acknowledge the connection – emotional, or even perhaps spiritual that many of us non- i Taukei have with the Vanua? How do we bridge the gap between the national and the communal?

There is a desire to belong – to not just our country but our city, town, district or village. There is a desire to belong to our province that continues to lie buried, unspoken, unnamed. There is a desire to be a part of a community to which we can contribute, share our skills and resources; a community whose traditional values and culture many wish to embrace; whose traditional leadership we wish to acknowledge, respect and seek.

Many non-i Taukei acknowledge their kaivata, their naita, their tauvu. They consider themselves Kai Suva, Kai Navua, Kai Lautoka, Kai Labasa, Kai Cuvu, Kai Dreketi. They want to be known as Kai Rewa, Kai Nadro, Kai Ba, Kai Bua, Kai Macuata, Kai Tailevu, etc. But how can they seek acknowledgement of that identity that goes with their sense of belonging?

As a Christian I see myself first and foremost as a human being, a creation and child of God. That is my basic starting point for my relationship with all people. As a citizen of Fiji, I consider this to be my homeland. However, I am continually struggling to find a way of expressing my identity as a son of Fiji at home that is acceptable to how others see me.

Like my father before me (born and raised in Vuci), consider myself Kai Rewa. He was very proud to be a Rewan and ex-Lelean. My wife who comes from the Pickering family, also considers herself vasu with Rewa. She is looking forward to the Pickering reunion in Lomanikoro in December this year.

 I have travelled the globe, yet I know no other home but Fiji. I have lived, studied and worked with people from all over the world yet the people I have the strongest relationship with are the people of Fiji – i Taukei, the descendents of the Girmitiya, Kai Loma and every other group that considers Fiji home.

I know that often my thinking and actions are the exception rather than the rule, that sometimes I am not one of the 99 but the 1 missing lamb from the flock. As a member of the Indian Division of the Methodist Church, I am used to being a minority in the Methodist Church, a minority among Indo-Christians, and a minority among Indo-Fijians. There are others also, I’m sure, are used to being a round peg that cannot fit in the square hole.

When I look at my children - who are 6th generation Fiji-born and yet of such diverse ethnic backgrounds that make them possibly the smallest of the minorities - I wonder on what identity will they be able to base their relationships and belonging.

My wife and I will raise them as our children, God’s children. We will teach them about their diverse ethnic and cultural heritage. At the same time we want them to also be Fiji’s children, Rewa’s children. We want them to know and understand who and what their vanua is, who their high chief, and understand what that means for them.

In the final analysis the journey we as a nation are undertaking is not merely a journey for our generations. It is a quest we are undertaking for the future generations who will call these islands home. It is an exodus that leads us from bondage to the politics of separation and culture of suspicion and silence to the freedom to bind ourselves voluntarily to each other in a covenant of trust, community and mutual respect. It is a journey in which we seek merely to find our way home; where we all truly belong, together.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity.”


Rev. James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea. Visit the blog: or

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Struggle for Self-determination

Published in the Fiji Times' "Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan," Wednesday 12th September, 2012

As we continue our national journey through the broken reef and towards the calm lagoon in our search to find an island of hope where we as a people can live together in freedom and with respect for all with a sustainable form of democracy that empowers and makes secure every Fijian, it is worthwhile to look around at some of the other islands in Oceania who continue to struggle just for the opportunity to decide how they should be governed.

As we look to a new constitution that will be a living, sacred covenant among all Fijians and towards elections in 2014, perhaps we should remember that while we are wrestling with the difficulties of being an independent nation, there are other islands in Oceania that are still colonies, struggling for self determination.

The term self-determination means: Determination of one's own fate or course of action without compulsion; free will; or freedom of the people of a given area to determine their own political status; in other words, independence.

Last week the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC), meeting in Kolympari, Crete, Greece, from 28 August to 5 September 2012, issued a public statement calling for re-inscription of the French Polynesia (Maohi Nui) on the list of countries to be decolonized.

In 1947 the French government had Maohi Nui removed from such a list drawn up by the newly formed United Nations. A public statement adopted by the Central Committee calls on French authorities “to fulfil their obligations and provide all necessary means for the economic, social and cultural development of the Maohi people” and “urges France to compensate all those affected by nuclear testing and radioactivity” in the vicinity.

The public statement also invites Christians everywhere to pray “for the people and the churches of Maohi Nui as they embark on their peaceful and just struggle for self-determination.”

According to the statement, the present day French Polynesia (Maohi Nui) became a French protectorate in 1842 and a French colony in 1880, although it was not until 1946 that the indigenous Maohi people acquired French citizenship. By the end of the 19th century, France had annexed all the islands that now constitute French Polynesia. The islands were governed by France under a decree of 1885.

In 1945, when the UN was founded, one of the first initiatives was to engage in a proper decolonization process, hence establishing a list of territories yet to be decolonized. Article 73 of UN Charter (non-self-governing territories) as well as UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 (on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples) describe the UN’s mission to decolonize the remaining non self-governing territories. The French colonies of New Caledonia and French Polynesia were on the list of countries to be decolonized. However, in 1947 France succeeded in having French Polynesia withdrawn from the list, with no prior consultation with the people of Maohi Nui.

In 1958, France held a referendum among its colonies in the Pacific islands, but the opposition to French colonization was suppressed. Subsequently, Maohi Nui remained as a French colony. Moves towards increased local autonomy began in 1977, and new statutes creating a fully elected local executive were approved in Paris in 1977. In 2003, French Polynesia's status was changed to that of an ‘overseas collectivity’ and in 2004 it was declared an ‘overseas country’.

Today, French Polynesia is a semi-autonomous territory of France with its own parliament, assembly, president and executive government. Nonetheless, France continues to exert influence on domestic affairs. Leaders have limited power over many essential domestic and international matters. For example, France administers the justice and education system, defence, currency, health, emigration, land rights, environment and international maritime borders without the consent or participation of the Polynesian people.

The political and church leaders in French Polynesia believe that their struggle for freedom, autonomy and right to self-determination should be addressed by the UN. In August 2011 the French Polynesian Assembly voted for the re-inscription of French Polynesia on the United Nations decolonization list. France does not recognize this resolution which was adopted by the majority in the Territorial Assembly.

In their statement, the World Council of Churches believes that effective advocacy efforts for the re-inscription of French Polynesia on the UN list of territories to be decolonized is an essential first step towards self-determination. The primary work should be done through the UN Committee of 24 (Special Committee on Decolonization). In order to achieve this goal, the support of the international community is vital.

In September 2011, the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC) organized a consultation with political, church and regional actors in the Pacific to discuss strategies on advocating for re-inscription of French Polynesia on the UN list of countries to be decolonized. The WCC member constituencies in the Pacific asked for WCC’s support for their advocacy initiatives during the visit of the WCC general secretary to the Pacific in September 2011.

The Council of the Maohi Protestant Church in its 2012 synod, decided to call on “the support of the Pacific Conference of Churches and the World Council of Churches to support its efforts for re-inscription of French Polynesia (Maohi Nui) on the UN list of territories to be decolonized”. The Maohi Protestant Church Synod also stated that: “the Council considers the re-inscription of French Polynesia on this list as means to protect the people from decisions and initiatives taken by the French state contrary to its interests; the re-inscription constitutes the recognition of the human rights of the people of French Polynesia; the Council reiterates that it is their faith that will save the Maohi people whose conscience has been manipulated and that it is the people who will take the decision regarding the sovereignty of their nation”.

The World Council of Churches statement:
A.        Recognizes the universal human rights of all people and in particular the right to self-determination of all oppressed, colonised, indigenous people in the world, in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;

B.        Calls on France, the United Nations, and the international community to support the re-inscription of French Polynesia on the UN list of countries to be decolonized, in accordance with the example of New Caledonia;

C.        Encourages the French authorities to fulfil their obligations and provide all necessary means for the economic, social and cultural development of the Maohi people;

D.        Urges France to compensate all those affected by nuclear testing and radioactivity;
E.         Invites its member churches and international faith-based organisations to support through advocacy efforts for the re-inscription of French Polynesia to the UN list of countries to be decolonised and its eventual full decolonisation;

F.          Calls on the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs to facilitate the global advocacy initiative for the re-inscription of French Polynesia on the UN list, especially the primary work through the UN Committee of 24;

G.       Prays for the people and the churches of Maohi Nui as they embark on their peaceful and just struggle for self-determination.

Reading the statement, I recalled meeting Oscar Temaru, former President of French Polynesia and current President of the French Polynesia Assembly when he visited Fiji in 2010 on board the sister vaka of the Uto Ni Yalo, O Tahiti Nui Freedom. I shared in my experience of meeting him in this column. Read article here...

Let us not forget to appreciate the fact that even though our national journey is difficult, whether we like those that journey with us or not, or the conditions under which we undertake this journey, at least we have the freedom to make this journey.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”
Rev. James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea. Visit the blog: or

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Common Language for a Common Understanding

Fiji Times' - Off the Wall 08th August, 2012    By JsBhagwan

When I was in school, I once was walking past a classroom when I saw a poster pasted on one of its walls. The poster read, “He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Kunst and Alterthum”.
I was learning French at that time so in my teenage smugness I thought I was quite safe in this area, until I saw another quote on the wall which read, “Any man who does not make himself proficient in at least two languages other than his own is a fool: Martin H. Fischer”. My smugness disappeared very quickly.

When my parents had childen, they reasoned that, as English was the global language and the language of academia, it was important that their children be fluent in the English language. As a result all three of their children were raised with English as our first language. This was a great advantage during our education and on our entering the workforce.

However, I had to teach myself Hindi by watching Indian films and while I understood Hindustani, my speaking it was a rather unpleasant experience –embarrassing for me and confusing for the listener. However, when I became a minister of religion, serving in the Indian Division of the Methodist Church meant that I had to not only converse but preach in Hindi – both in Hindustani and Fiji-Hindi (when the need arose).

Both my primary and secondary schooling in Fiji were devoid of learning “vernacular” languages so I had to rely on learning Fijian / i-Taukei language through conversations with my friends, and from trying to break down the last or surnames of i-Taukei to understand their meanings.

I used to admire my father who spoke all three languages well and was often quite jealous of my cousins who lived in communities in which both Indo-Fijians and i-Taukei spoke each other’s languages fluently.  

I have been following this early round of constitutional consultations and am mulling over what little contribution I may offer to this process. In doing so, the issue of language, among other things, is something that I have been reflecting on. The question I have been asking myself is, “would having the Fijian / i-Taukei language as the National or Common language of Fiji help in development of a national identity and a breakthrough in the search for true unity in diversity in Fiji?”

I would like to think so.

I have deliberately suggested that it become our national or common language rather than official language because in terms of documentation I believe we still need all three major languages in Fiji to remain as the official languages. This is a reflection of the reality of our diverse communities. English of course is still the dominant language (the second most spoken language in the world after Chinese) and the language of education and international communication.

At the same time I believe that the i-Taukei/Fijian language is something that is unique and that we as a nation should not only strive to protect but share make use of. Hindi-Urdu is the third most spoken language in the world, with some 333 million speakers (, while the indigenous language of Fiji has not even one percent of that. 

I have for almost a year lived in South Korea and part of my academic programme includes 6 hours a week of written and oral Hangumal or Korean language. While most South Koreans I know, study the English language as an academic subject from elementary to high school, they a very reluctant to speak it, except when trying to explain something to foreigners or to improve their language skills.

The issue of Korean national language is something very close to the heart of Koreans because they know what is like to have lost their language – or to have their language taken away from them, to be more precise.

In the first half of the 20th century, under Japanese domination, Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names, and were forbidden to use Korean language in schools and business. Korean language newspapers were shut down. Had Japanese rule not ended in 1945, the fate of indigenous Korean language, culture, and religious practices would have been extremely uncertain.

From this perspective it is possible for non- i Taukei Fijians to understand how many of our indigenous brothers and sisters must feel.  In this process of nation building we are asking the indigenous people of these islands to share their name, their home and their resources with people who are descendents of settlers (some voluntary, some compelled) who also consider Fiji their home. 

While each cultural group has the right and should be encouraged to preserve their own traditions, the first step to living as one people is to speak one language. That language should not be limited to the foreign language of English (regarded by some as a language of imperialism and foreign domination) but should be the language that marks us all as people of Fiji. 

I believe that the time has come for every Fijian to speak the native language of Fiji.  This means there must be a concerted effort for conversational Fijian/i-Taukei language to be taught to all students at school, regardless of ethnicity. It also means that remedial language instruction is necessary for those who were not taught the language at primary school level. Community groups and civil society organisations have an important part to play in this process. However it does not have to be just the work of the education ministry or civil society – including religious groups. This is something that individuals can do on a one-to-one basis or among a group of friends.

Maybe then we will be able to really understand one another. Maybe then we will come a step closer to being one people. Maybe then we will be truly worthy of the name Fijian.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity.”

Learning from Azonto

published in the Fiji Times on Wednesday 22nd August, 2012

I returned to Fiji last month, for a short break, to find my children in heated debate. The subject was not about ownership (who owned the pencil they both wanted to use), or equal participation in decision-making (choosing clothes for church). It was not even to do with human rights abuse (the torture of having to do exercises to improve their handwriting).  The argument was a potential diplomatic row in the making: whether the Ghanaian dance craze “Azonto” should be accepted in the household.

Coming from a semi-hermitic life of theological study and work in Korea, I was out of touch with “all this Azonto stuff” and so my wife proceeded to explain to me about how this new dance and music culture had arrived in Fiji and was very popular among young people.  Later I was to witness the students of Dudley Intermediate School incorporate Azonto, both music and dance, in their Tadra Kahani item, as they presented it as their sevu to the school board before performing it on the stage.

The argument was not just over the fact that my daughter was fed up of listening to the song: “Azonto azonto… enough already!” There was also confusion over what “Azonto” actually meant. After receiving a forwarded email that proposed that the word meant: “the worst form of prostitution,” I decided to find out more about this dance and also the culture associated with it.

The major criticism that I found about Azonto came from Ghanaian musician and instrumentalist Azonko Simpi, who laments the loss of traditional song and dance in favour of modern music which lacks originality. A number of people seem to hold this view and some more conservative Ghanaians have called for “Christazonto” (Christ’s Azonto) to be banned from performance in churches.

However according to Ghanaian magazine Dust, “The simple fact is that azonto is not one dance, but a beautiful amalgamation of so many styles. Incredibly adaptive, watching it danced well is like watching the history of Ghanaian modern dance.”

The Accra-published magazine, in an article titled “Azonto: the Dance, the Music and the Mindset,” also gives another definition of the word Azonto as, “a vaguely derogatory term that means ‘ugly’ or ‘uncultured.’”

According to the article in Dust and also in Wikipedia, there are links betwee azonto and other indigenous dance forms, like Bukom’s ‘Apaa’ (in which activities like washing, driving, and boxing are represented in dance form) and ‘Kpe’, a dance (popular in secondary schools) in which the dancer freezes and uses his or her hands to mimic a gunshot at the end of every move.

The article describes the development of not only azonto but other forms of western-influenced Ghanaian music and dance:

Footballer Asamoah Gyan had started using (a slightly different, push-pull version of) azonto as his goal celebration. Around the same time, a video of a girl dressed in blue, dancing at a Tema omo tuo spot to Sarkodie’s ‘You Go Kill Me O’ (featuring heavyweight azonto exponent, E.L) went viral on Youtube (one of several azonto videos to do so). At first, people watched it to laugh but they were completely drawn in by the complex simplicity of her moves. Wherever those moves came from, all of a sudden they were everywhere, as was Gyan’s celebration.

More than being cool, azonto is fun. It is highly adaptable, and capable of absorbing other dances; it is competitive and it is cheeky, all of which have given fuel to its spread both in the region and in Ghana’s disapora. It has the potential to define Ghana for non-Ghanaians who until now have thought of Ghana only as a politically progressive West African country where people say ‘chale’ a lot. In azonto, young Ghanaians have done a lot more than recreate tradition: they have created new Ghanaian culture.

It also ponders what anzonto means for the Ghanaian people:

What then is the future for Azonto? Culture that grows from the ground up does not tend to fade into non-existence. Like energy, it is difficult to destroy but rather converts into other forms, much as it itself emerged in the first place.
There was a time when Hollywood films were more popular in Ghana than African films. That has changed. There was a time when wearing African print was considered backward. That has changed. There was a time when mimicking the American ‘Dougie’ or the Carribean ‘Dutty Wine’ was the done thing in clubs and in music videos. That too has changed. Even GH rappers with Locally Acquired Foreign Accents are being forced to absorb pidgin into their rhymes to stay relevant.

You can read the article in full online at
I was struck by the concluding words of the article:
“The future of azonto is the future of us as Ghanaians. Azonto represents much more than song and dance. It represents a mindset in which Ghanaians specifically (and Africans in general) start taking pride in our own creativity and potential, something we all too often do not do, especially in culture where we too often relegate what is local to ‘primitive’ or ‘lower class’. Imagine if that pride spread into other areas of our lives and culture. Pride and faith in our ability is one of the biggest things holding Ghana back. Break that mindset, and the future, as well as the world, is ours for the taking.”

In Fiji we adapted reggae to create Vude. The voce or chants in music by groups such as Rosiloa showcase our modern Fijian culture to the world. Groups such as Kaba ni Vanua present the traditional beauty of i-Taukei meke and sere, while the Shobna Chanel dance troupe present the fusion of our cultures in their dances and Vou takes it to another level. The poetic hiphop of Redchild, Sammy G and Mr. Grin express the word on the street (or around the tanoa). 

It would seem that in our culture, our music, our dance – the non-formal language of our people we have moved in leaps and bounds in developing a new and inclusive identity for Fiji.

Perhaps we need to reflect on the same possibilities that azonto offers Ghanaians and look to how in this time of nation building – music, dance and art – our culture can show us the way forward. After all constitutional commission not only accepts emailed submissions, they accept it in song and dance too.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”


Methodist Musings

Begining this morning the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma will hold its first annual conference since 2008. Over the next three days new leadership will be chosen, about 26 probationary ministers (myself included) will seek the churches approval for ordination, and a number of candidates will seek entrance into the ministry. Important issues relating to the life and work of the Methodist Church will be discussed and decided upon.

While somewhat nervous about appearing in front of the leaders of the church for the final step in the six-year journey towards ordination, I am grateful for the journey itself. I am also encouraged about the future of the church in which standing with me will be a group fellow servants, who are not only diverse in background but also include six women (one of our sisters having passed away some years back).

It is the 48th year since the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma became an independent conference from the Methodist Church in Australasia. It is also the 268th year since the first Methodist Conference was held in London August 25th to 30th, 1744) comprising John and Charles Wesley, four other ordained ministers and four lay assistants.

According to the Wesley Centre Online, the key items on the agenda were:
1. What to teach.
2. How to teach.
3. How to regulate doctrine, discipline, and practice.
For two days they conversed on such vital doctrines as the Fall, the Work of Christ, Justification, Regeneration, Sanctification. The answer to the question "How to teach " was fourfold: 1. To invite. 2. To convince. 3. To offer Christ. 4. To build up. And to do this in some measure in every sermon.

In the light of later history the questions relating to the Church of England are of great interest. It was agreed to obey the bishops "in all things indifferent," and to observe the canons "so far as we can with a safe conscience." The charge of schism was anticipated thus:
"Q. 12. Do not you entail a schism on the Church that is, Is it not probable that your hearers after your death will be scattered into sects and parties Or, that they will form themselves into a distinct sect
"A. 1. We are persuaded the body of our hearers will even after our death remain in the Church, unless they be thrust out. 2. We believe, notwithstanding, either that they will be thrust out or that they will leaven the whole Church. 3. We do, and will do, all we can to prevent those consequences which are supposed likely to happen after our death. 4. But we cannot with good conscience neglect the present opportunity of saving souls, while we live, for fear of consequences which may possibly or probably happen after we are dead."

It was decided that lay assistants should be employed "only in cases of necessity." The rules of an assistant are terse: "Be diligent. Never be triflingly employed. Be serious....Speak evil of no one; else your word, especially, would eat as doth a canker."

It was decided that the best way to spread the Gospel was "to go a little and little farther from London, Bristol, St. Ives, Newcastle, or any other society. So a little leaven would spread with more effect and less noise, and help would always be at hand." It is evident that the towns here named were regarded as the centers of Methodism in that year. The belief was expressed that the design of God in raising up the preachers called Methodists was "to reform the nation, particularly the Church,': and "to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land." (Source:

Two Sundays ago, I had the privilege of reading the Gospel lesson at the Centenary Church for the long-overdue induction of the current President, General-Secretary and Deputy General-Secretary along with some department heads who had been appointed in the last 3 years. The guest peacher at the service was the Bishop of the Nevada-California Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in the United States of America.

As Methodist ministers, deaconesses and lay leaders gather for the next three days to reflect on the past three year and envision the future of the Methodist Church, the words of Bishop Brown are food for thought.

Reminding his brother and sister Methodist of the call by Jesus to be salt of the earth and light to the world, the Rev. Dr. Brown made two important challenges to the congregation and to the church. The first was to align our will with God’s will and the second was to act out of love and bear witness of God’s unconditional love in all our actions.

These challenges are part of the Methodist tradition as John Wesley himself practiced what he preached in his constant work with the poor and the despised of the earth, and his involvement in the societal problems and controversies of his day.

Wesley did not entertain the illusion that we could bring the good news of God's limitless love to those deep in suffering without addressing that suffering.  How can we expect anyone to understand (much less believe) the news that they are prized and welcomed by God when they are despised, disdained, abused and rendered nearly invisible by the human world on which they depend for identity and for survival -  and when the bearer of God's invitation is content to leave them there? 

For Wesley, the Christian declaration of the sacredness of human personality (the real reflection of 18th century individualism in his thought) could not be separated from addressing the realities, economic, political, social, and technical, which battered and suppressed that humanity and which wreaked such physical, moral and spiritual destruction among the poor. 

Simply put, for Wesley, true Christianity meant doing good deeds for the benefit of their neighbours as a demonstration of God’s love and as a way of actualizing God’s kingdom.

For those of us who call ourselves Methodists, this is the tradition in which we are called to live and serve. It is this tradition in which the church’s leaders and members gathered at this year’s conference will be tasked with making their decisions.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

Citizen Seng

As published in the Fiji Times on Wednesday 5th September, 2012

I looked up from my barbecue to watch the waves crashing on the reef. A mini-bus drew up and slowed down. The driver tooted his horn and the passengers waved and shouted a greeting. It was not for me however. “Cola Chanta!!” they shouted. The object of their attention smiled and waved back from her barbecue stall, next to the roundabout at Korotogo on the Coral Coast. “See you later friend!” she responded.

Chanta Seng owns and operates her barbecue stall, working with other women from Korotogo. The stall is very popular, both with locals in Korotogo and Sigatoka as well as those who are regular on the Suva/Lautoka route and find her roadside cafe, across the road from the beach a wonderful spot to enjoy a lunch time barbecue or hotdog or an evening plate of palau. For Chanta, Korotogo is home. It is a far cry from how her life began.

Chanta was born in a refugee camp in Thailand to Cambodian parents who had fled the violent and oppressive regime of Pol Pot, made famous in the film, “The Killing Fields”. The family had lost everything – their land, home, possessions under the regime.

Her family returned to Cambodia in 1992 when the United Nations United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was established to ensure implementation of the Agreements on the Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict, signed in Paris on 23 October 1991. The mandate included aspects relating to human rights, the organization and conduct of elections, military arrangements, civil administration, maintenance of law and order, repatriation and resettlement of refugees and displaced persons and rehabilitation of Cambodian infrastructure.
Interestingly, a number of Fijians served in UNTAC. For Chanta and many Cambodians, their nation was born in 1992.

As a result of living the first 11 years of her life as a refugee, Chanta was illiterate, even in her own language of Khmer.  The family, having lost everything under the regime settled in Pursat, a rural area where most people survive on subsistence crops and live in poverty. She did not even have access to education as culture dictated that the males of the family receive priority in education, even if they are younger than their sisters. Little Chanta began her new life in Cambodia selling fruit on the street or in the market, to earn money for her family. 

It is not only a difficult life for women and girls in Cambodia, it is also very dangerous. Trafficking or slavery of women and girls is rife in Cambodia. Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking. The traffickers are reportedly organized crime syndicates, parents, relatives, friends, intimate partners, and neighbours. Cambodia has a problem of sex tourism involving children. Some children are sold by their own parents. Others are lured by what they think are legitimate job offers like waitressing, but then are forced into prostitution. Children are often held captive, beaten, and starved to force them into prostitution. (Read more at

You can imagine how difficult it must have been for this young woman who knew nothing of the world, let alone Fiji, to travel thousands of kilometres to this island nation. In Fiji she is one of only 4 Cambodians living in the country.

Sitting at Chanta and her husband’s house in Korotogo, I hear laughter coming out of the kitchen where my wife and Chanta are catching up. I remember that when my wife and I met Chanta in 2003 she was incredibly shy. When we would visit her and her husband she would hide in the room because she was embarrassed at not being able to speak English. Now she expresses herself freely and passionately.

Chanta is now a Fijian. She is proud of not only her blue passport but of her voter registration card. For her Korotogo is home. She goes to all the events in the koro, drinks yaqona with the women and on weekends her barbecue stall is local hangout. Earlier this year, when she left to visit her sick sister in Cambodia, the women of the village sat her down and told her that Korotogo was her home and that she was one of them.

 Back at the barbecue stall, one of Chanta’s friends, Bulou, says something to her in Nadroga dialect and then tells me, “she’s going to speak Nadro soon; and Hindi too.” Chanta and another friend Sila both laugh loudly. The night Drue Slatter won the Hibiscus crown, the women gathered at the home of one adopted daughter of Korotogo to celebrate the victory of another.

Chanta’s story echoes that of many who have struggled and overcome obstacles. Her story resonates with that of the Girmitiyas and others who found in Fiji not only a new life but a new culture of deep understanding, acceptance and love for the other.

In a globalised world, many of our Fijian brothers and sisters struggle to find acceptance and a sense of belonging in the countries in which they settle. Here in Fiji, despite all our differences and difficulties – there is still openness, and an acceptance of the other. Yet it goes beyond mere acceptance.

Perhaps it is because deep down we realise that we are all just people trying to live life – to love, to work, to find happiness and make a home for ourselves and our children and be part of a community.  That is at the heart of all our actions. That perhaps is the core of our common humanity.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”

Rev. James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea. Visit the blog: or