Becoming a Christian in Fiji: an ethnographic study of ontogeny
By means of an ethnographic and developmental analysis, this article shows how everyday ritual practice is fundamental to people's constitution over time of ideas that, in this case, inform a specifically Fijian Christianity. Focusing on the developmental process that is the fixation of belief, and on the significance of ritual for this process, it explores transformations in ideas about God, Sunday school, and death ceremonies held by Sawaieke girls and boys between 7 years, 10 months and 13 years old. The broader objective is to demonstrate, first, how data obtained systematically from children can illuminate our understanding of ritual and its significance, and, secondly, how an analysis of the developmental process necessarily entails a concomitant analysis of the social relations that inform it.
Ritualized activities pervade daily life in the villages of central Fiji, including the eight villages that make up the country (vanua) of Sawaieke on the island of Gau where I did fieldwork.1 Specifically Christian rituals include prayer before every meal (including morning or afternoon tea – taken on special occasions) and numerous church services throughout the week; the Wesleyan Church in Sawaieke held early morning prayer every day, at least three evening services during the week, two full Sunday services (morning and evening), and Sunday school. Moreover, all the many traditional ceremonies, such as sevusevu (the offering of yaqona root that constitutes a request for permission to be present in a place and accompanies all yaqona-drinking) and the elaborate ceremonies of welcome to any official visitor, include Christian formulae at the end of speeches of presentation and often a long prayer of Christian blessing. It is, however, in the ceremonies occasioned by death that Sawaieke people reveal most clearly how their commitment to Christianity and to what is traditional (vakavanua, literally, according to the land) are mutually constituted in such a way as to define what it is to be Fijian.
This article points to the importance of these ritualized activities and ceremonies for Sawaieke children's constitution of the ideas that inform a specifically Fijian Christianity. It also demonstrates, incidentally, that orthodox Christian practice is by no means bound to produce orthodox Christians. As will become apparent, there is no need here to posit any explicit or implicit attempt at either syncretism or resistance. This article is not about syncretism, however, nor about Christianity as such, nor even the Fijian-ness of Fijian Christianity.2 My concern instead is twofold: I wish to examine the developmental process that is the fixation of belief, and also the significance of ritual for this process. I seek to achieve this through an analysis of transformations in certain ideas held by Sawaieke girls and boys aged between 7 years and 10 months (7/10) and 13 years (13/0).3 My broader objective is to demonstrate (a) how data obtained systematically from children can illuminate our understanding of ritual and its significance, and (b) how an analysis of the developmental process necessarily entails a concomitant analysis of the social relations that inform it.
My analysis accords with an argument I have made elsewhere: that mind is a function of the whole person that is constituted over time in intersubjective relations with others in the environing world. In this unified model of human being, consciousness is that aspect of human self-creation (autopoiesis) that, with time, posits the existence of the thinker and the self-evidentiality of the world as lived by the thinker. Given that human autopoiesis is grounded in sociality – that is, we humans require other humans in order to become and be human – it makes sense to think of our own personal development, and of child development in general, as a micro-historical process in and through which mind is constituted over time as an always-emergent function of the whole person (no need here to posit a dialectical relation between mind and body). Moreover, this whole person's moment-to-moment encounters with the material world of objects and other people are always and inevitably mediated by relations with others – that is, by intersubjectivity (no need here to posit a dialectical relation between reified abstractions such as individual and society or biology and culture). The model takes for granted that intersubjectivity is inevitably emotional, that perceiving and feeling are aspects of one another, that intentionality is through and through a matter of a felt, emotional engagement in the peopled world. All our relations with others and our sense of self cannot be other than lived and felt.4
The model rests on two demonstrable propositions: first, that there are no received meanings and, secondly, that the process of making meaning is such that the continuity and transformation of ideas are aspects of one another. Put simply, this is because we make meaning out of meanings that others have made and are making: that is, any neonate, infant, child, young adult, adult, middle-aged, or old person is enmeshed in manifold relations with others who cannot help conveying their own understandings of social relations and the way the world is. Any given person cannot help but assimilate these understandings to his or her own and, in so doing, accommodate – more or less – both to the other's ideas of the world and to the other's idea of their relationship to one another as persons. The relation between any infant and its caretakers is such that the growing child has willy-nilly to come to grips with a world that has already been, and continues to be, rendered meaningful by those caring others. The others structure the conditions of existence that are lived by the child but, even so, they cannot determine what the child makes of them. Moreover, however dutiful a child may be to its elders, human autopoiesis entails that the process of making meaning is one in which knowledge is transformed even while it is maintained and in which meaning is always emergent, never fixed. This process renders each person's ideas unique.5 It follows that mind may be understood as the fundamental historical phenomenon, by virtue of the micro-historical processes of genetic epistemology.6
The children's data analysed here were obtained in 1990. The majority of my adult informants are Sawaieke villagers, including some who were brought up in the village, educated in secondary schools on the mainland, and now live in the capital, Suva, where they are employed as teachers, nurses, security guards, government officials, and so on; several have travelled overseas. Every one of my informants has his or her own ideas about religious practice and doctrine, about the ancestors and what is vakavanua (according to the land), but I would argue that where I make generalized observations, they would be likely to agree with them. My use of the ‘ethnographic present’ is intended to suggest the continuity that resides in transformation such that the ideas and practices I discuss here are likely still to prevail in Sawaieke, and indeed among Fijian Methodists at large, as a function of the processes through which meaning is constituted over time.
How lived experience becomes meaningful
The systematic data analysed here are derived from what Sawaieke children said and wrote about God, Sunday school, and death ceremonies. Death ceremonies are highly salient in Fijian village life; they occur relatively often7 and induce a pervasively heavy and portentous atmosphere that lasts from the moment the death is announced until the fourth night of ceremonial observance, when the initial mourning period is lifted, light-heartedness explicitly encouraged, and the next day the normal daily round is resumed. Death ceremonies in Sawaieke combine Christian observance with Fijian traditional practices (as do all life-cycle rituals and the day-to-day ritualized behaviours proper to the conduct of well-regulated family life), and while children are forbidden to attend them, they cannot avoid knowing how they are conducted. Where the children produced written accounts I had asked them to ‘write a story’ about God, about Sunday school, about death ceremonies. I gave them no other guidance as to content, and they wrote their accounts in their school class groups, sufficiently separated from their neighbours to prevent copying.8
Analysis of the content of the children's essays showed that, with the exception of differences informed by gender and/or by age, what they had written about God and Sunday school was remarkably uniform and orthodox. To begin with na kalou (God). Twenty-six girls aged between 7/10 and 11/9 and twenty-two boys aged between 8/2 and 13/0 produced stories about God. Girls mentioned twenty-six different aspects of God in all; one-third or more said that:
God loves us (18: 69 per cent);
God made everything (14: 54 per cent);
God has many admirable qualities (14: 54 per cent);
God saves us (13: 50 per cent);
God protects us (12: 46 per cent);
God approves and/or disapproves certain acts (10: 38 per cent);
God gives us good qualities (10: 38 per cent);
God helps us (10: 38 per cent);
God gives us food, drink, and other material things (9: 35 per cent).
Boys mentioned a total of twenty-one different aspects of God and one-third or more said that:
God loves us (14: 64 per cent);
God made everything (14: 64 per cent);
God has many admirable qualities (11: 50 per cent);
God's child is Jesus or God was born into the world as Jesus (9: 41 per cent);
God saves us (8: 36 per cent);
God helps us (7: 32 per cent);
God gives us food, drink, and other material things (7: 32 per cent); and
God does miracles (7: 32 per cent).
While the children's acounts of God were remarkably similar, gender informed their ideas in that boys were only minimally concerned with the good qualities God gives to humans and in writing of God's own qualities boys remarked on God's not being always angry and not fighting, while girls mentioned qualities such as God's good temper and forgiveness. Girls in and above the middle age range were also more likely to remark on the behaviours of which God approves or disapproves (that is, 10, or 48 per cent, of girls over 9 years). Older children tended to include an element of more complex theological detail in their accounts. Thus seven girls and nine boys aged 9 and over (that is, 33 per cent of girls and 53 per cent of boys over 9) referred to the relation between God and Jesus, or between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or between God and other gods.
Also concealed in the idea that God's primary attribute is that of loving or having compassion for humans is a shift whereby, from age 9/10 onwards for both girls and boys, God's love is commented on as either unconditional and enduring in the face of humans’ bad behaviour or conditional on a person's pitiable state, on good behaviour, or on Christian observance. Both ideas (antithetical as they appear) inform the hierarchical aspect of compassion as definitive of kin relations within household and clan.9
Adults’ views – as derived from participant observation – make ritual Christian observance the crucial sign of belief in God; God's love for humans depends on their attendance on him, and this in turn governs whether or not a person will be saved. One must be seen to say grace before meals, to bow one's head and close one's eyes while praying, to attend church services twice on Sundays and at least once during the week, to give money to the Church and to support its organizations and projects. This matter of the visibility and frequency of Christian observance connects with the still-prevailing Fijian idea that it is attendance on a god or chief that actually empowers him. So, while all the old Fijian gods and ancestors continue to exist, their mana (effectiveness) is greatly diminished because those people who do attend on them can do so only in secret:10 since conversion to Christianity, attendance on the old gods and ancestors constitutes witchcraft.
Children are well aware of the importance of Christian ritual observance in that their attendance at church is mandatory: they are expected to be present for at least two out of the three Sunday services and to attend Sunday school and any service held for them during the week. In Fijian, Sunday is na siga tabu, literally ‘the forbidden day’; women and girls prepare meals, but apart from this one should not do any work and should confine one's activities to church-going, reading religious texts, and rest. So, on Sundays, children are forbidden to play any sport, go swimming, run about on the village green, or play in any obvious way. Each school day begins with prayer and each school week with a special religious assembly taken by a church elder.
The importance of ritual observance is apparent in what children wrote about Sunday school, wilivola (literally, ‘reading’). Again, their accounts were remarkably uniform, with twenty-three out of twenty-five girls and all twenty-two boys providing a more or less elaborate account of the procedural aspects of Sunday school from the sounding of the drum after lunch until the children were dismissed to go home; younger children's essays were less detailed than those of older children but, nevertheless, the vast majority followed the same pattern. Boys and girls tended, however, to emphasize somewhat different aspects. One-third or more of the girls
gave a more or less detailed procedural account (23: 92 per cent);
described what they learned at wilivola (15: 60 per cent);
noted that reading occurs every Sunday (12: 48 per cent);
explained why we attend church or wilivola (12: 48 per cent);
referred specifically to the numbers of children and/or named their teachers (11: 44 per cent);
remarked on what is forbidden on Sunday (8: 32 per cent), and
said that Sunday reading is good and enjoyable (8: 32 per cent).
One-third or more of boys
gave a more or less detailed procedural account (22: 100 per cent);
described what they learned at wilivola (9: 41 per cent), and
remarked on what is forbidden on Sunday (8: 36 per cent).
Of the nine boys who described what they learned, two of the youngest referred to virtues such as obedience and piety, one to being taught not to swear, and the remaining six to learning songs and stories. The sixteen girls who described what they learned also emphasized stories, but tended to be more explicit about their content; twelve girls further remarked that the purpose of reading is to reveal what is written in the Bible, while the five oldest of these (aged 10/4 to 11/6) said also that its purpose is to come to know God or Jesus. Only one boy (aged 11/6) made this same remark.
Children's accounts of somate (death ceremonies – twenty-five essays by girls, twenty-two by boys), like those for Sunday school, exhibit a distinct bias towards the procedural, with increasingly rich detail with age about what happens from the time the death is notified to the ceremonies for the fourth, tenth, and one-hundredth nights. One-third or more of twenty-five girls
gave a more or less detailed procedural account (24: 96 per cent);
remarked on women's weeping (23: 92 per cent),
communal meals (18: 72 per cent),
the burial of the body (18: 72 per cent),
the church service or blessings, hymns, and so on at the grave (17: 68 per cent),
the grave itself (13: 52 per cent),
the coffin (12: 48 per cent),
people coming from other villages for the ceremonies (11: 44 per cent),
the bringing of mats, bark-cloth, and other valuables for presentation (10: 40 per cent),
the bringing of feast food for presentation (9: 36 per cent), and
women's preparation and cooking of food (9: 36 per cent).
Just over a third or more of twenty-two boys
gave a more or less detailed procedural account (21: 95 per cent);
remarked on the burial of the body (17: 77 per cent),
on the church service or blessings, hymns, and so on at the grave (15: 68 per cent),
the grave itself (14: 64 per cent),
communal meals (12: 55 per cent),
women's weeping (13: 59 per cent),
the coffin (9: 41 per cent),
the particular kin who weep, dress the corpse, and so on (9: 41 per cent),
the fourth, tenth, and/or one-hundredth night ceremonies (8: 36 per cent), and
men's killing of a cow and pig (8: 36 per cent).
This procedural bias is accompanied by a definite shift with age whereby children older than 9/0 included personal references in their accounts, or described ceremonies for specific named kin or ceremonies in which they had been personally involved; this shift is found in the essays of thirteen out of twenty girls (65 per cent) and seven out of seventeen boys (41 per cent) aged 9 and above. These personal references are further distinguished, in the case of girls, by a shift from goal-orientated to actor-orientated verbal constructions along with the use of first-person pronouns (I, we), which itself suggests a shift in their orientation to the activity being written about – one that is apparently informed by gender (see below).
In their essays about both God and Sunday school, children seem more concerned with doctrine and procedure than with their personal involvement; the following three examples (by a girl aged 9/4) demonstrate the shift in tone that may be found in essays about death ceremonies written by children over 9 years old; the first essay is about God, the second about Sunday school, and the third about death ceremonies. Note how this child, even while she gives a generalized account of what is done for a death, injects a distinctly personal note.
A story about God We perform church services to God. Church services to God are really very useful. For we may sing hymns, for we read the Bible. God orders our lives. God alone. He helps us in all our activities. God is good. He helps us and looks after us wherever we go. God also formed the parts of our bodies. God takes care of us a great deal. God also loves/pities us. God has power. We always pray to God. We always ask God to give us wisdom.
Reading on Sunday We always read on Sundays. We children learn some stories about our reading on Sunday. We read the sacred book. We sing during Sunday reading. Some are bad children on Sunday. We learn a lot of stories in the sacred book. Our teacher reads very clearly to us some stories about Sunday reading. After lunch the drum sounds, we go at once to church so that we may attend to our duty or reading. If every single day we read no trouble will come to us. Our teachers always help us.
The somate The somate is truly a terrifying thing because someone is dead, the ladies cry. The somate is held in the place where somate are held if a gentleman or lady dies they are at once carried here to their house. There are also communal meals according to clan. We eat together if there is a death. For myself, if someone died in our house I should be absolutely overwhelmed. If there is a somate a cow is killed and chickens and a pig. After that the coffin of the dead gentleman or lady is carried away for burial. Beautiful mats are spread below [the coffin], after that a little earth is put on top, then it's buried completely.
Unlike a number of much younger children, this child does not, in her account of the somate, mention the church service or prayers and hymn-singing at the graveside; most salient for her are the weeping, the communal meals, the burial, and the grave itself. Weeping and preparing and cooking food for communal meals are women's duties, and the frequency of their mention in girls’ essays implicates not only the gendered nature of the activities, but how gender is intrinsic to the learning process itself. Boys also remark on weeping, but refer more often to activities such as the burial and the service at the graveside which are presided over by men, who are also implicated in references to the grave, which is dug and prepared by men.
Boys are less likely than girls to inject a personal note into their stories (41 per cent of boys compared with 65 per cent of girls over the age of 9) and when they do so, these personal references have a tone that is qualitatively less engaged. Thus boys by and large continue to make use of goal-orientated verbal constructions and, when they do use actor-orientated constructions, tend overwhelmingly to use third-person plural pronouns (they). Only one boy, aged 11/10, produced an essay about the somate that was similar in tone to the girls’ essays (an extract is to be found in the appendix).
The tone of the following piece, by a boy aged 11/9, is more typical of the tone of essays on the somate by boys aged 9 and above:
When someone dies the somate is done, children are forbidden to be there, or meet together or play or shout or laugh, the [people in] the somate are silent, when someone appears with valuables they weep, if some guests come those in the somate may be happy or crying … When those who are kin of the dead do the burial they will cry in the village. The grave-diggers are ready, they wait to carry the coffin there. The coffin carriers carry it on their shoulders to church for the service, then there is the service, after that [the coffin] is carried to the grave for burial, when they arrive there at the grave they do the church service, then the minister speaks: earth to earth, sand to sand, after that the burial is done at once, after the burial they come [home] here, after that there is the ceremony for the fourth night, after that the kin of the one who is eating stones disperse, they will go home and it will not be long before there is the [ceremony for] the hundredth night.
Nevertheless, that some boys over 9/0 do inject a personal note into their stories, shows that at this age they, like the girls, are consciously assimilating mandatory collective activities to their sense of themselves as particular children, in particular kinds of relations with particular kin. Death at once disrupts the relation between the child as ego and his or her dead kinsperson and is an occasion for the elaboration of other relations with other kinspersons.11 This developmental shift suggests too that at around the age of 9/0 to 10/0 children are deliberately reflecting on what they know and, in so doing, assimilating their understanding of Christian doctrine to their embodied knowledge of Christian ritual, such that the doctrine becomes explanatory of the ritualized behaviour, which had earlier had no particular meaning beyond its performance. Thus what I have called above a ‘procedural bias’ is the foundation of the child's knowledge.
This procedural bias is apparent too in Sawaieke adults’ accounts of a wedding, funeral, or other occasion elsewhere. This is a casual observation derived from listening to people relate their experiences; their accounts routinely contain a blow-by-blow description of the festivities, beginning with how the narrator got up in the morning, bathed, dressed, went for breakfast, what he or she ate, how afterwards they made their way to the village hall, entered, sat down in such-and-such a place, and so on – apparently conforming to an idea of narrative structure that places weight on temporal and procedural aspects. Thus the children's written style of ‘telling a story about …’ is similar to adults’ oral style when they tell others about what happened at the Methodist Conference or Provincial Council or other meeting or festivity or ceremony.
What I think is important in the case of both children and adults is that this procedural bias is evidently related to ritual, which itself tends to be talked about not in terms of meaning, but in terms of who should do what, when, and how. In anthropological texts, ‘ritual’ usually refers to discrete ceremonies; I use ‘ritualized behaviour’ here to refer more widely to behaviours that are pervasive in daily life (in our own as well as others’), so taken for granted that their ritual quality is rarely recognized. I argue that most, if not all, human behaviours have a ritualized aspect – that is to say, an aspect that can be rendered explicit as ‘a rule’. Here I am following Lewis's formulation that,
‘[i]n all those instances where we would feel no doubt that we had observed ritual we could have noticed and shall notice whether the people who perform it have explicit rules to guide them in what they do … What is always explicit about ritual, and recognised by those who perform it, is that aspect of it which states who should do what and when (1980: 11).
Adults are usually capable of ascribing a meaning to ritualized behaviours, but from a child's point of view that meaning cannot be obvious; it does not declare itself. For a child, the significance of the behaviour may be simply that ‘this is how you do X’. In my previous work, I have shown how this childhood experience of embodying a ritual behaviour or series of behaviours is crucial for the process through which, over time, meaning comes to be ascribed to that behaviour such that its performance becomes symbolic of that meaning.12
The developmental process through which a Sawaieke child makes Wesleyan doctrine meaningful for him or herself has to be such that ‘the Christian way’ comes to be at one with ‘the way of the land’ and ‘the chiefly way’. Sawaieke adults in general explicitly hold all three to be in perfect accord. With apparent ease, they can reconcile their devout, and in most respects apparently orthodox, Methodism and their acceptance of the Word of God as written in the Bible, with their equal certainty that the old Fijian gods and ancestors still exist and in their benign aspect come under the Christian God's aegis and do his will, punishing those who wilfully abjure the obligations of kinship or attendance on a properly installed chief; the ancestors’ malign power is also routinely unleashed in witchcraft. The question is, how can this reconciliation be achieved when there is no explicit acknowledgement in any church service or Christian prayer or Bible story or Sunday-school teaching of the continuing existence of the ancestors? The answer lies, I think, in the day-to-day pervasiveness of ritualized behaviour in Fijian village life, in the dominance of ritual performance over doctrine in villagers’ ideas of what it is to be Christian (which is not to deny the many explicitly and implicitly syncretic statements to be found in both the historical archive and in contemporary Fijian media), in the connected idea that it is attendance on the Christian God, or ancestor or living chief that actually empowers him, and in the idea that the ancestors’ power is immanent in the world, while that of the Christian God is transcendant.
In the child's lived experience the ritual quality of daily life is learned through obedience to endless injunctions from their elders to do certain things in certain ways and not to do other things. For the young child bowing one's head and closing one's eyes for prayer and not playing or making a noise on Sunday are thus of the same order as adopting a respectful body posture in the company of adults and not playing on the village green when a chiefly ceremony is being performed in the village hall. Doctrine is not unimportant here. Nevertheless, the child has embodied an array of ritualized behaviours to the point where they are automatic, long before it arrives at an understanding of the doctrinal orthodoxies that are held by adults to render their ritualized behaviours mandatory.13 From the adults’ point of view their injunctions to children about how to behave all bear on aspects of veiqaravi, ‘mutual attendance’, in its most general sense; so, for example, when children are asked (as they often are) to give out an impromptu prayer before meals, they are explicitly implicated in an act of recognition paradigmatic of Fijian ritual interaction. It seems probable that it is in such mundane ritualized practices that children come to recognize veiqaravi as a pervasive form of recognition that unites different domains of Fijian social life.14
Elsewhere, I have shown how, in respect of Fijian hierarchy, this process of constituting the meaning of ritualized behaviour results in conforming behaviour that suggests a complementary consensus about its meaning, whereas in fact people hold significantly different ideas of hierarchy as a function of both age and gender.15 This is likely too in respect of the articulation of specifically Methodist ritual and doctrine, though it is a difficult thing to get at, since the doctrine appears at first sight to be as thoroughly assimilated as the ritualized behaviours. Note, however, that the various forms of Fijian Christian practice and doctrinal differences (between Seventh Day Adventism and Methodism, for example) may be a topic of conversation when people are drinking yaqona, and also a topic of debate.16
Fijians I know are all Christians (mostly Wesleyans); all are assiduous in their Christian practice and all assert beliefs that accord with the Bible and the Methodist hymn- and prayer-book. Mostly such assertions seem not to be merely conventional and to be characterized by an emotional tone that shows the beliefs to be considered unassailable and personally relevant. The emotional tone of this commitment is especially apparent in the mourning ceremonies that accompany a death.
The ceremonies for death
The announcement of a death precipitates the impassioned weeping of women who are close kin to the dead and members of his or her house: wife, mother, daughter, sister. Their shrill wailing can be heard far across the village interspersed with tearful appeals to the dead: Isa, Watiqu! (‘Alas, my spouse!’); Isa, Tamaqu! (‘Alas, my father!’). Soon they are joined by other, especially elderly, women (many of whom wear black), who have come to perform their duty in the bikabika, the house where the corpse, dressed in its best clothes, is laid out – usually for no more than one night – before it is buried.17 The ladies who are close kin sit on the floor near the body, which is placed on a pile of fine new mats in the place that is called ‘above’, in the position of honour, and they weep. Other mourning kin come in groups – men and women together; they enter by the common entrance below, seat themselves on the floor below the tanoa (the large wooden vessel in which yaqona is mixed and from which it is served), and present, on behalf of their clan, their yavusa (group of clans related by ritual obligations and intermarriage), or their village, the valuables that they have brought with them for na reguregu (literally, the kissing) – rolls of mats, bark-cloth, whalesteeth.18 During the speeches of presentation the weeping subsides, only to begin again when the speeches are over and one or two of the visiting ladies, who are close kin to the mourners and the deceased, proceed up the room to embrace the immediate female kin of the dead and weep with them for a while beside the coffin before retiring to a more humble seating position. The sound of weeping and wailing rises and falls as each new group of visitors enters and more and more ladies join the bikabika; during this first night, until the body is buried, they will join in the periodic wailing of the closest kin.
Meanwhile, the men have gone to join their male kin who are drinking yaqona for the death in another house nearby belonging to the same clan. When the bikabika becomes crowded, the presentations of valuables and feast-food are conducted in the house where the men are gathered; the sound of the men's repeated thanks expressed in the formulae of speeches and ceremonial clapping (cobo– a soft clapping with cupped hands) can be heard in the bikabika. Younger men and women have also their duties to perform. Young men have to go to the gardens and bring back bundles of taro and casava, to butcher a cow and a pig or two, and to pound yaqona root to maintain a constant supply to those of their peers who are looking after its mixing and serving in the bikabika and the other house. The young married women and girls together prepare the food, lay the cloth, and wash the dishes for each of the communal meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) that will be served over the next few days to the scores of mourners who have come to attend on the death.
The name for the ceremony of presenting valuables (reguregu, kissing) refers to the final goodbyes of the living to the dead. Just before the coffin is closed, a whalestooth is placed on the chest of the corpse,19 and the close kin of the dead come one by one to press their noses against the cheek or forehead of the corpse and sniff deeply, taking into themselves its sweet rotting smell.20 The coffin is then removed from the house via ‘the land door’ (darava e vanua), which is closed after it.21 There follows the church service and the procession to the grave, which is usually situated on land belonging to the clan of the dead; it is lined with a layer of mats – the coarsest next to the earth and the finest nearest the coffin. There is a further brief service of prayer and hymns for the burial. Then those mourners who accompanied the coffin to the grave return to the village – the ladies to the bikabika and the men to the other house – and, soon after their return, there is the ceremony of ‘the opening of the door’ (na idola ni katuba). A tanoa is brought into the bikabika via the ‘land door’ through which the coffin had exited, and yaqona is solemnly prepared and served; the first bowl is poured out on the ground through that same door and only then are bowls served in due order to the highest-status men present and thereafter to the mourning ladies, who will remain there until the fourth night. On the day of the fourth night, the ladies of the bikabika employ themselves in making intricately beautiful and sweet-smelling garlands which, along with bark-cloth, they take in procession to decorate the grave. For the fourth night, the men join the ladies in the bikabika and there is a presentation of feast-food and yaqona-drinking, and the singing of secular songs and joking resumes. After this, the mourners disperse to their own houses, only to regroup for the ceremonies of the tenth night after the death, when there are further presentations of feast-food, and the hundredth night when, with the ceremony of vakataraisulu (‘permitting clothes’), the final mourning restrictions are lifted and valuables are presented to those who have taken on themselves the various tabu that are a sign of mourning (these include the wearing of black dresses by ladies, and abstention from shaving on the part of the men).
Death is explicitly a sacrifice to the Christian God. Consider the following extract from the sermon made by the Wesleyan lay preacher at the funeral service in church for an elderly Sawaieke man in 1990:
This evening my kinspeople, we who are able to be here this evening, it is right that we should look at the path followed by this kinsman of ours. No one of us will be excepted from the same course. Today in Sawaieke there are two gentlemen [who have died]. Just one household, just one clan from which yesterday their two lives were removed. One died in Suva, one was stricken here.
We shall ask who perhaps is to follow? We made a joke about it during our making of the new road that we should buy a cart for ourselves. So those who are stricken here, their coffin would be loaded onto a cart then taken up to the grave. We were making a question of who might be the first fruits offering for it. And [who that might be] is understood today. The day that was appointed by God for this elder to be made the first offering. He will turn towards this path, incline at once towards the land into which his body will dissolve, so that he may sleep eternally.
Gentlemen and ladies, if we are saying much this evening, it is because we are speaking of our lives. It is right that we should confirm today what Jesus says in the lesson we have already read: I am the path. The holy book tells us that the end of all the paths that are proper to us people is death. But the path Jesus spoke about to his disciple, to Thomas, was this, I am the path, and the truth, and the life. If we follow it, or we rely on it, or we raise our eyes towards it, or we look at it, we will discover comfort there every day of our lives. At the time when we are called, as yesterday this gentleman was called, we shall accept the call in a contented and resigned spirit.
The idea of death as a sacrifice pervades all the speeches made for a death. The Christian God is said to appoint the day of death, just as he appoints that of birth, but it is still the land –na vanua– which reclaims its own, for people are na lewe ni vanua (literally, the substance of the land), and this is why people who die in Suva or elsewhere are usually brought home to be buried on land belonging to their clan. The ancestors are implicitly invoked in all the speeches for reguregu and the other traditional ceremonies; these are addressed to those present using their honorific titles, which themselves name the yavu tabu (‘forbidden house foundations’), situated on clan land and sacred to the founding ancestors of each clan (na kalou vu, literally, root gods) who are their owners and guardians.
In cases where witchcraft is suspected, death is a sacrifice to the ancestors in their malign guise as tevoro (devils) – in other words, one who wishes evil towards his or her kin drinks yaqona alone, pouring out a libation to the ancestors and requesting that they strike down a named kinsperson. By contrast, God takes us in the spirit of love – for God's loving compassion for us is held by Sawaieke people, as by other Christians, to be his primary attribute. Even so, God is said to allow the ancestors to strike down one who offends against the land, for example, a corrupt politician who defrauds the people; and it is the ancestors who, under God's aegis, implicitly demand the performance of all proper traditional ceremonies for the dead, for it is these ceremonies that placate the ancestors in the person of the newly dead who has joined them.
The mana (effectiveness) of the ancestors is immanent in the fertility of na vanua (the land), and this is acknowledged when, on the occasion of a death, the land's products are given back: in the body of the dead, the coarse and fine pandanus mats in which the coffin is swathed, the bark-cloth and garlands that go to decorate the grave, the bowl of yaqona that is poured out on the ground as a libation. The whalestooth laid on the chest of the corpse is a product of the sea, but it is also that supreme valuable (ka liu, literally, leading thing) with which, in life, chiefs reciprocate the tributary offerings of landspeople. All these valuables are sacrificed, along with the dead who takes up his or her place alongside ancestors whose continued presence still demands proper acknowledgement. Until these ceremonies are performed, the newly dead will not rest in the grave and is likely to appear in the village and terrify the living who, for at least the first four nights, and even up to the tenth, do not walk alone in the dark across the village green or from house to house, but go in groups, while those who are accustomed to sleep alone – young men for instance – make sure of their safety by sleeping together in one house. Only after the ceremonies for the hundredth night can one be sure the dead will rest – especially those whose death was untimely or who were installed chiefs.22
While the speeches for these ceremonies implicitly invoke the ancestors, they always explicitly refer to the Christian God and his Church. The ancestors have their rightful claim on their descendants (nodra kawa) and God enjoins the ancestors’ compassion for the living in so far as they fulfil their kinship obligations to the dead and to one another. Death ceremonies make these obligations take material form in the ritual services performed and in the valuables and feast-food given by each household, whose members together carry them to the leading house of their clan so that the amassed valuables and food may be taken in procession and presented to mourning kin vakamataqali, according to clan. Similar ritual services and presentations are a feature of all life-cycle ceremonies – birth, circumcision, marriage, death – and of the festivals at Christmas and New Year and the ceremonies that welcome honoured visitors or install a chief, and so are communal meals, but death ceremonies are distinguished by the rupture that occasions them and the sorrow and fear that are intrinsic to them.
Children and death
Children are forbidden to attend somate, though they may indeed be present at the funeral service in church or at the graveside, but they cannot avoid knowing about them. I want to argue here that somate are peculiarly important for the process through which Fijian village children learn to be Christians – in particular that whereby Wesleyan ritual and doctrine become personally relevant to them. I begin with an edited extract from my fieldnotes for 1982; it concerns people I know well – their real names are not used here.
Adi Mere [a married woman in her early 30s, separated from her husband and living in her natal house] tells me that sa leqa ko Ratu [‘Father is dead’, Ratu being an honorific term for a father of chiefly rank, here the speaker's FYB]. A message had come over the radio that her younger brother should go to Qarani [where the post office and other government services are located] to await a telephone call. About 7 p.m. she comes to my house to hear the radio. The death of her FYB [a man in his 70s] is announced and at once she jumps up and rushes outside into the darkness. I get up, look out, see several old ladies loitering near the kitchen under the lemon trees, awaiting the official announcement and the performance of their duty. Within a few moments they and Adi Mere are in [the other house belonging to this clan] where her YB and some of the men are already drinking yaqona, and a great wailing and moaning begins … Every twenty minutes or so a new contingent of women comes to join in.
It is the dinner hour and food is already laid out in the kitchen, where I join the children who have nearly finished eating. Alisi [a girl aged 11/1] tells me that in the night Adi Mere had seen the cat jumping about in a particular manner and had known thereby that someone was about to die. Suddenly, without warning, Alisi and Tu Kini [a boy aged 11/3] and Tu Peni [aged 6/3] jump up and rush outside. They are crying too now. They stand under the lemon trees wailing, go over to the house where the adults are drinking yaqona and peer through the cracks in the bamboo lattice walls. They cry and cry. Alisi has already told me that on her way to the village store she cried because her grandfather is dead. Little Tu Peni is crying loudest of all. I think he is frightened. The children look very lonely there in the dark outside the house; they would not dare to enter and no adult comes out to take any notice of them. I have finished eating, return to my house, but hearing Tu Peni's shrill crying I call him in, get him a bowl of tea and some biscuits.
Village children are often left to their own devices and the mother knew no obvious harm would come to her youngest son because she could rely on the older girl and boy to look after him; the children's being afraid was simply to be accepted as an aspect of everyone's lived experience. Note that the older boy, usually a stoical child, also cried, even though boys should not cry for the dead – this being explicitly a female duty – and that none of these children were especially close to their dead grandfather whom they had rarely seen. It seems likely therefore that what children in such a situation identify with is the impassioned weeping of their mother (in the case of the older boy, his MYZ); her weeping makes them afraid and confused and so they weep too, but no adult – all of whom have other, more pressing duties to perform – comes to console them.
It seems probable that this experience, which is both predictable and relatively frequent in the life of a village child, is crucial to the child's constitution over time in intersubjective relations with others of his or her ideas of self – ideas that are invested with obligation as a function of veilomani, mutual compassion or pitying love, which ideally describes all relations between kin.
What Sawaieke children wrote about the weeping that accompanies a death is contained in an appendix (below). Ninety-two per cent of girls (twenty-three out of twenty-five) made references to weeping compared with only 59 per cent of boys (thirteen out of twenty-two) and, as may be seen, girls’ and boys’ essays differ somewhat in tone – boys’ references to weeping tending, with a few exceptions, to be more removed, less empathetic. Even so, it seems likely that the dramatic weeping for death ceremonies is important in boys’ lived experience; indeed, it is suggestive that one boy (aged 10/6) insists on promiscuous weeping by everyone: ‘all his/her kin will cry, his/her siblings and household. … Also the gentlemen will cry and his/her cross-cousins, siblings, grandfathers, grandmothers, they will cry … The gentlemen, young men, girls, will also cry …’ Note also the boy (aged 9/10) who remarks somewhat testily: ‘Yes, those who are still in the village are tired out with all the crying in the village.’
Further, 64 per cent of girls (sixteen out of twenty-five) and 64 per cent of boys (fourteen out of twenty-two) referred in their essays either to a named kinsperson as dying, or to the particular kin who weep, dress the corpse, and/or perform other duties incumbent upon them as kin. These references implicate the idea that the fundamental conditions of social life are given by kinship, which ideally encompasses all relations between people, including marriage, and which ordains for any particular kinship relation the precise nature of the duties that are entailed by veilomani, ‘caring for each other’ or ‘loving each other’.
The effectiveness of ritual
Sawaieke people's ritual practice is all about veiqaravi, attendance on one another, and in every case, from the least to the most elaborate, it implicates at once relations that are vakaveiwekani (according to kinship), vakavanua (according to the land), vakaturaga (according to chiefs), and vakalotu (according to the Church);23veiqaravi in all its various forms implicates the mana of the ancestors, whose continued effectiveness continues to be immanent in the world, even if it is ultimately referable to the transcendant Christian God. My argument here has been that these social relations manifest in veiqaravi, especially those ‘according to kinship’, mediate Sawaieke children's constitution of ideas of the peopled world and what is in it, and that the process of constituting over time an understanding of the meaning of ritual practice is itself the very process of the fixation of belief. And given that this is so, it follows that, for anyone who grows up in a predominantly Wesleyan Fijian village, Christian practice is bound to become invested with the emotional force of early and repeated experiences of death ceremonies, which themselves are all about the obligations occasioned by the mutual love of kinship and the sacrifice and grief it can entail. The incidental triumph of this Fijian ritual practice is that, without the utterance of a single unorthodox word, it assimilates God's power to the mana of ancestors and installed chiefs and makes it go to work in the world in such a way as to validate an idea of the person and social relations that is always about mutuality.
This article has shown that what may appear to an observer to be a coercive power that is intrinsic to ritual and religious doctrine is the constituted end-product of a long process through which, over time, people render their early lived experience meaningful. It follows that, for the overwhelming majority of those contemporary adults and young adults whom I knew as children in 1990, it is still the case that the power of the ancestors is immanent in the world and that belief in God refers to the necessity for at once acknowledging God's pre-eminence and augmenting God's power through attendance at church services, rather than to the matter of God's existence, which is simply not at issue. The immanence of ancestral mana renders it knowable even if capricious; it is always a function of the nature of the being it informs, whether animal or human, and where that being is human it is always human passions that drive its manifestation.24 And in the Fijian idea of the person25 as a locus of relations with others, human passions are always informed by, and take their form through, relations with other humans.
Girl, 7/10 … They cry. Some of them cry. When someone dies they weep … Some of those who gather for the somate cry a great deal …
Girl, 8/9A … If one of our kin dies they will weep for him/her … If another elderly man [literally, grandfather] dies, the children of that elder [literally, grandfather] will weep for him.
Girl, 8/9B … There is crying …
Girl, 8/10A They cry …
Girl, 9/0 At the somate the ladies cry … Some of the ladies weep sorrowfully – most of all the wife of the one who has died. Her eyes are all swollen with the crying she does. All her sorrowful crying might also kill her. The rest of the ladies keep on crying until the wife's crying is almost over …
Girl, 9/1A … For the somate there is crying when a lady or gentleman dies in a village or house.
Girl, 9/1B One day my grandmother died. I cried all that day. My mother cried sorrowfully a very great deal when my grandmother died … My mother [MEZ?] and my mum and aunt [FZ?] were really overcome … The sorrow felt by my aunt and my big mother [MEZ] was something else. The two of them cried every day …
Girl, 9/3A Someone dies in a village. They cry about it together in the somate …
Girl, 9/3C … This somate was truly miserable for me. For this somate the guests cried or the ladies here in the village. They went crying to the grave because a gentleman died …
Girl, 9/4 The somate is truly a terrifying thing because someone is dead, the ladies cry … for myself, if someone died in our house I should be absolutely overwhelmed …
Girl, 9/6 … Those attending the somate weep … during the service some of them are crying because they won’t see each other again … Some of them are crying when they arrive from the house, some of them are not crying …
Girl, 9/10 … One of my little fathers [FYB] had died. My little mother [FYB's wife] cried. There was mourning because of it … I cried a great deal and my little mother cried a lot too. … When we arrived home here Little Mother photographed the crying. Big Uncle asked, ‘Is your little father dead?’ I at once answered him, ‘Yes.’ Then the crying was photographed …
Girl, 10/3 … If someone dies the kin of the dead person will cry …
Girl, 10/4B … All the ladies cry. His wife is crying a very great deal …
Girl, 10/6 A long time ago my grandfather died. We who are siblings to one another cried. Likewise those who are my cross-cousins … All my father's siblings cried … After lunch we noticed the ladies weeping noisily because of going to bury my grandfather. A little while after that they stopped crying …
Girl, 10/8 … My mother replied in a tearful voice that her older [male] sibling had died. My sorrow was something else because he was one of my uncles [vugoqu, here mother's brother] whom I loved … Our kin went to the place of the somate and we who are siblings to one another cried together there in our house …
Girl, 11/0A … The couple's children cried and so did their mother. When they were weeping about it the people of Sawaieke heard them … His children cried … They then kissed their father and said goodbye … After the burial the gentlemen and ladies returned crying to the village …
Girl, 11/0B … The ladies cry. The gentlemen do not cry. It is disgusting for gentlemen to weep. But when a high chief dies, or an installed chief, crying is forbidden. Only the conch shell cries … The mournful weeping of the dead one's siblings or children or other relatives is pitiful …
Girl, 11/5A Last week my momo [MB, FZH] died. My sorrow was something else … The ladies came to weep … I called his children and grandchildren to come and kiss him … The ladies cried …
Girl, 11/5B … When he died his children and grandchildren cried. It was a pitiful death ceremony … inside the house his children were crying because their father was going to be buried. Their mother was crying …
Girl, 11/6 … Then a big death ceremony was performed, they were crying, the boy's mother was weeping dreadfully. All the people of the village were very sorry …
Girl, 11/7 … When they hear they are really very sorry … We hear the weeping …
Girl, 12/2 … When he died the people of his house cried. … When they went to kiss their grandfather they were crying … His grandchildren wept mournfully … those who were with his daughter went on crying and so did some of her remaining siblings. The Minister told them not to mourn …
Boy, 8/2 … There is crying. …
Boy, 8/6 … There is weeping. … The [dead man’s] wife weeps …
Boy, 8/9B For the somate we [inc.] weep … For the somate we weep …
Boy, 8/10 For the somate we cry. For the somate we cry sorrowfully. For the somate we cry a great deal … For the somate there is weeping …
Boy, 9/1A … For the somate there is weeping.
Boy, 9/1C … For the somate there is weeping … When someone dies the ladies go to the place where the somate is so that they may weep …
Boy, 9/8 … His spouse and children will cry. When someone dies the women weep …
Boy, 9/10 … the very first thing that is done is the weeping. The crying goes on for a long time, after the crying the dead body is taken to church to have a service done for it. … When the preaching is over there is again a great deal of crying and the Minister's children and the children of the dead person are very sorry [about the death]. Also the people who are there for the burial are also very sorry. Yes, those who are still in the village are tired out with all the crying in the village … the burial takes a little while and those who are doing the burial are crying …
Boy, 9/0-10/0 … At the somate those who remain cry. The somate is really admirable. Because they pity the person who has died … the ladies and the gentlemen of the village weep. Especially those who remain at their house [i.e. at the dead person's house]. At their house they weep for the person who died. The somate is sorrowful for the gentlemen and ladies in that house …
Boy, 10/6 … When someone dies all his/her kin will cry, his/her siblings and household … Many people cry … When someone dies they will cry loudly. Also the gentlemen will cry and his/her cross-cousins, siblings, grandfathers, grandmothers, they will cry … The gentlemen, young men, girls, will also cry …
Boy, 10/7 … Then the ladies will cry, then one of the ladies will say ‘Earth to earth, sand to sand …’
Boy, 11/9 When someone dies the somate is done, children are forbidden to be there, or meet together or play or shout or laugh, the [people in] the somate are silent, when someone appears with valuables they weep, if some guests come those in the somate may be happy or crying, they will slowly fan the corpse, when we who are kin of the dead do the burial they will cry in the village …
Boy, 11/10 … My sorrow that our cross-cousin had died was really something else … All the elderly women [literally, grandmothers] burst out weeping again when the box in which lay the body of my cross-cousin was brought in … When we arrived home our mother was crying mournfully in the window. It was a bad day for us when my cross-cousin died because my mother was just weeping sorrowfully … when my mother heard what was being said on the radio again her tears began again to flow, just because that is the way of it, it was a bad and heavy day for us …
Many thanks to Fenella Cannell, Peter Gow, and two JRAI readers for their useful comments, and to Fenella Cannell and Maia Green for a London School of Economics and Political Science workshop, ‘Anthropology of Christianity’, where this article was first presented in 1997.
Fieldwork occupied twenty months in 1981-3, four months in 1990, and two months in 1993. In 1990, the population of the chiefly village of Sawaieke was around 270 and of Sawaieke vanua about 1,500. The economy is mixed subsistence (gardening, small numbers of livestock) and cashcropping, yaqona being the most lucrative crop. Fiji Indians make up almost half the population of Fiji, but on many smaller islands like Gau, the population is entirely Fijian.
For an analysis of the specifically Fijian nature of Fijian Wesleyanism, see Toren (1988); others have written ably on Fijian Christianity, including its history, the articulation (or not) between Church and vanua, and its significance for Fijian politics from the early 1830s (when the first missionaries began their work) to the present day, when it is taking new forms such as Pentecostalism: see, for example, Kaplan (1990; 1995), Miyazaki (2000), Rutz (1992), Ryles (2001), Thornley (1979), and Tomlinson (2002).
The children were all those who at the time were pupils in classes 3-6 in Sawaieke District Primary School. The abbreviated form for years and months is used hereafter.
The neurologist Damasio (1999) argues for a model of self and consciousness that makes emotion intrinsic to reason; he takes no account of intersubjectivity.
This and the preceding paragraph are taken verbatim from Toren (2002).
For a full explanation, see Toren (1999a; 2002).
For example I attended at least six such ceremonies in Sawaieke village during my first eighteen months there and numerous others in other villages of the vanua.
Kalou denotes the ancestors (kalou vu, literally ‘root gods’) as well as the Christian God; wilivola denotes Sunday school, literally ‘reading’. Thus children might have written about either God or the gods, about either reading or Sunday school. In writing about na kalou, children confined themselves to the Christian God; in writing about wilivola, a few children who produced a second essay addressed ‘reading’ in the general sense, but in the first instance they all wrote about the reading that denotes Sunday school. Somate, meaning death ceremony(ies), contains no obvious ambiguity.
See Toren (1999b).
On the ‘decline of mana’ see Tomlinson (forthcoming).
It is also at age 9/0 or so that Sawaieke children begin to focus their ideas about kinship explicitly on relations with peers and the reciprocal competitive equality that characterizes these relations and differentiates them from others (see Toren [1999b]).
See Toren (1990; 1993a; 1993b).
See Toren (1995). Provided one supposes that it is meant to mean, ritual can always be rendered meaningful and thus communicative. Even so, ritual and ritualized behaviour are not primarily‘a form of communication’ as Robbins (2001), following Rappaport, would have it, because the meaning that can be made of ritual is necessarily secondary to its performance.
I am indebted for this insight to Hiro Miyazaki (personal communication).
See Toren (1990: 198-247).
For a debate, see Miyazaki (2000).
Bikabika denotes any house where ladies are gathered to observe ‘the four nights’ for a death or first birth.
The valuables are classified as na i yau tabu (forbidden valuables) and na i yau tara (permitted valuables); the former are put to one side me nona isole ko koya ka mate (as the wrappings for the one who is dead) and the latter are divided up among his or her close kin when the four nights are over.
‘Vatu ni balawa. Na tabua ka dau biu e na dela ni kisi ni mate me nona i curucuru ki Naicabecabe ko koya ka sa mate. [Stone of the pandanus. The whalestooth that is placed on top of the coffin as the dead one's entrance fee to Naicabecabe (literally, the steep place).]’ This is one of ‘the uses of whalesteeth’ listed in a ‘roneoed’ booklet produced in the late 1970s for students at Gau Secondary School. In pre- and early colonial times the vatu ni balawa was to be thrown at the pandanus (palm) at Naicobocobo, the northern point of Bua Bay, Vanua Levu that was ‘the jumping-off place’ for the spirit on its way to Bulu (see Williams 1982 , 243; cf. Thomson 1968 : 118). In the booklet, Naicabecabe is probably a deliberately chosen substitute for Naicobocobo since, wherever it is possible, Fijians I know find in their traditional practices a pre-figuring of Christian ideas (see e.g. Toren ).
This ceremony implies that today, as in the past, death as a radical conversion of substance is pivotal to the cycles of consumption and exchange between the people and the land. The intangible substance of the dead is consumed by their living kin and their tangible substance is buried on ancestral land (or, in the past, in the foundations of houses). (See Toren .)
The coffin was removed via the land door at each funeral I witnessed, but I never asked if only this door may be used – that is, as opposed to the sea door opposite it or the common entrance below. Given the sacrificial logic of the death ceremonies, it follows that the coffin should leave the house via the land door.
For comparative accounts, see Waterhouse (1978 : 324-7) and Williams (1982 : 187-200) for the nineteenth century; Hocart (1929 : 177-84) for early twentieth-century Lau; Hooper (1982: 101-8) for contemporary Lau; and Ravuvu (1987: 179-202) for contemporary Waimaro.
For the aesthetics of veiqaravi, see Miyazaki (2000).
Where mana is manifest in animal form it takes the characteristics of that animal, a shark, for instance.
See Toren (1998).
Devenir chrétien aux Fidji : étude ethnographique de l’ontogenèse
Au moyen d’une analyse ethnographique et développementale, cette étude montre comment la pratique quotidienne d’un rituel est essentielle à la constitution progressive des idées qui sous-tendent, en l’occurrence, le christianisme fidjien. En s’attachant au processus développemental qu’est la fixation de la croyance et à la signification du rituel dans ce processus, l’auteur explore la transformation des idées concernant Dieu, le catéchisme et les cérémonies chez les fillettes et les garçons Sawaïeke âgés de 7 ans et 10 mois à 13 ans. Plus largement, l’auteur cherche à montrer (a) comment les données recueillies systématiquement auprès des enfants peuvent éclairer notre compréhension du rituel et de sa signification, et (b) comment l’analyse du processus développemental s’accompagne nécessairement d’une analyse concomitante des relations sociales qui le sous-tendent.