Fieldwork Journal: The Double Edged Sword and Village Hopping

Village Hopping

Picture Caption – Village Hopping: The colourful open air buses that connect surrounding villages to Suva city.

This article will focus on the last two days in Fiji which provided an abundance of experience. The first, recounted in the story The Double Edged Sword below, outlines how Joni enticed money out of me in the same manner the infamous sword sellers of Suva entice money from tourists; by appealing to a sense of friendship, and the promise of a “gift”. The similarities of the methods used start to reveal that the conceptual frames of youth are guided by the environment of the informal market, and that this in turn, guides their everyday practices. The second story, Village Hopping, will recount my experience of visiting the kin of the family I had gotten to know during my short stay in Fiji. It will recount how taxis and buses were taken from village to village, whilst revealing variations between these villages. This story will help designate how kin across different villages in the broader vicinity of Suva keep in contact across a diverse landscape. It will help provide an initial outline of a system of Fijian communication and transportation for which mobile money will need to be positioned. As always, all identifying information such as names and places will be obscured in these stories as required by ethical guidelines. Suitable alternative names will be used. To read how I came to be introduced to the family and community portrayed in these stories, you can read my previous article here.

The Double Edged Sword

I was sitting in my hotel, late afternoon, two days before my departure from Fiji, reading the newspaper, and relaxing before the day of the big lovo (a big feast of traditional Fijian vegetables, and perhaps some meat, cooked in an underground oven). The lovo had been organised by members of the village I had come to know over the previous two weeks, specifically for the last day of my stay in Fiji. It was framed as a big send off, the climax of my stay, so that I would have a true last authentic experience of Fijian culture. I thought back to how the idea was hatched during my very first meetings with Joni, the boy who I had met in a cafeteria selling bananas. He had stumbled across me eating Indian curries for lunch and, in addition to selling his bananas, felt compelled to advertise the various Fijian food stalls in the cafeteria. From this, our earliest conversations were about the pleasures of eating traditional Fijian food, especially that of food cooked in the lovo, with him as an animated describer and me a passive but attentive listener. Ever since these first days, the idea of the lovo was a much talked about, and even informally advertised event in his village for my last day in Fiji. As the plans progressed throughout my stay, it was supported by various authority type figures in the village. It was especially lauded by my “Fijian Nana”, a women that I felt had great gravitas in the village not only by the relative quality of her house, but of the attentiveness of the boys to her commands and actions. The village boys were also very much looking forward to it as they relished the opportunity to do the cooking. I was very much looking forward to the lovo as it signified to me a notion of my own success. I had un-expectantly found myself a research community that wished to throw me a traditional send off. I thought, in this particular moment, that it was the time to relax, a sort of time of self-congratulations before the big lovo. I was unaware that some of the most useful insights from the trip were yet to come.

Obviously I was not expecting any contact with anyone from the village so I was surprised when the phone rang with Joni’s number appearing. I answered and his hush quietened voice came through the receiver as is typical of most Fijian calls. Whilst it was also typical, as far as my two week trip could tell, that Joni would call and make unexpected requests to meet, or sudden changes of plans, his request to meet immediately in Suva in the late afternoon did seem somewhat out of place. Most calls would be in the evening or in the morning, sometimes extremely early, in order to make plans to meet during the day. He told me that he wished to go shopping for some supplies for the lovo and that he required some help. I was more than willing to provide the assistance as the lovo was being organised in my name. I walked to our meeting place in central Suva, a small bridge over a small water outlet into the ocean, outside of the multi-story department store, Tapoo City. I caught eye of him, however the Joni on the bridge looked much different to the one I had met selling bananas on the streets. He was wearing a crisp new white T-shirt, a far cry from the singlets that they wore day-in-day-out the village. He was also in shorts, tartan design, extending down to his knees. Lower still were a pair of casual athletic shoes that he liked to call “canvas”. He had great reverence for these shoes as he had taken me into an athletic store before and pointed out the shoes that he liked the best. He even told me his shoe size in the hopes that one day I would purchase some for him. I was therefore very surprised that he already owned a pair and that he had an outfit to suit.

His demeanour was different too, he was not in his typical joking mood but had the same hushed quiet demeanour that he had on the phone. We stood there quite awkwardly for a while making general conversation, leaning against the rail of the bridge. I had not much idea of what he was intending apart from buying some supplies for the lovo, so I asked him what he wanted to do. At this he asked quite nonchalantly that he needed $100 FJD. I was inwardly quite taken aback. Not only was this amount a large amount for him to have access to, but this was also an amount that I would consider a large sum. At this unexpected abrupt request I said that I would buy the supplies with him at the supermarket and contribute what I could at the checkout. I wanted to know what this large amount was paying for. Again, he nonchalantly said that he would go himself and that I could go back and relax at my hotel, it was obvious that he did not want to come with him during this trip due to his atypical suppressed mood. I offered him $20FJD which he snapped at the chance to obtain, he did not question that I offered a much lower amount than he requested. After he acquired the money he took fairly quick leave. I went back to the hotel thinking that the whole encounter was quite strange and very atypical of the boy I had met selling bananas.

I woke up early the next day and taxied to the village in order to help and observe the preparations. I had tried calling Joni in the taxi as had become custom so that he would sit up at the shops where the taxi would drop me off. He did not answer. It was lucky that I had learnt how to pronounce the area and street name correctly, as my phone would often be passed to the taxi driver, by his or Joni’s request, so that it could be assured that the taxi was going to the right place. I arrived at the village, however unlike the previous times there were none of the youth that I had come to know to greet me. I walked into the village by myself to the house of Joni’s mother, Miriama. Her and her two younger sons greeted me enthusiastically, however Joni was nowhere in sight. Miriama told me to take a seat while she phoned around to find where Joni was. Some of the younger boys who had seen me walk into the village came by to see how I was, at this Miriama asked them where Joni was, but they said they did not know. They were asked to walk to various people’s houses to go looking for him. Standing outside, one of the older boys, also called Joni, I will call him older Joni, came to me and said, in an equally hushed voice that Joni had been drinking last night, implying that this search for Joni would be fruitless as he wished to recover from the night before. It had become obvious at that point that the money requested was not for the lovo but for a good night out at the night clubs around Suva. As my suspicions of the meeting of the previous day had been confirmed, I began to appreciate that I was not yet, in this early stage of integration, a part of Fijian society. Nor did I expect to be. I was still, to some extent, a target to extract money from.

This was not the only occurrence of money extraction that I had experienced. I was also the target of an informal street worker known as a sword seller that has methods in extracting money from unsuspecting tourists. Their sales strategy is highly deceptive and cunning. They have the strategy of identifying you on the street, firstly as a western tourist of wealth. They approach on the street, typically with a loud greeting of “BULA!”, smiles, and a handshake that pulls you in towards them. To anyone that has spent some time in Fiji, a loud and emphatic greeting by a stranger is learnt to be regarded with suspicion. You also become conscious of the true motives behind a handshake. To the un-expecting tourist the greeting is supposed to evoke a sense of welcome, lulling tourists into a sense of comfort and friendship. They then ask you questions such as where you are from and how long you are staying as a means of strengthening this brief friendship. After the conversation, a wooden souvenir sword is pulled out and is offered as a “gift” to which the receiver feels obligated to take from such a hospitable citizen of Fiji. Before giving it to the tourist the seller pulls out a little carving instrument and asks for your name which he carves into the wood.

Luckily I had read of sword sellers before arriving in Fiji. I let it get to this point but I grabbed the seller’s arm before he could carve my name into the wood. No qualms were made as he was obviously aware that I knew of his strategy and we immediately walked in our own separate directions. What would typically happen to an un-expecting tourist is that their names would be carved into the wood and then to their dismay, they would be asked for payment. The sword is a gift of deception, it’s not a gift at all. The sword seller would then insist on the purchase of the sword saying that it had their name engraved in it making it irredeemable for sale to anyone else. They would at the same time evoke this sense of friendship and personal hurt if it was not accepted. The tourist, exacerbated, would then feel obliged to purchase the sword. In general, the sword seller’s strategy revolves around the creation of a brief bond or friendship that can be used as a means of extracting money, through a gift of deception. One could make the analogy that the sword seller uses a double edged sword of friendship and deception to extract money from tourists.

The strategies of extraction recounted in my experience outlined with Joni fits a similar mould to this story of the sword seller, as Joni too used a double edged sword of friendship and deception. Joni and I created a bond of friendship through our meetings on the street with general talk about where we came from, sports, and food. Cynically speaking, this initial friendship bond may have been to acquire a regular customer of his bananas. The growth our connection made by fishing and cooking however presented an opportunity to seize a much large gain. He took advantage of this opportunity at our meeting on the bridge. He dangled the notion of the lovo as a sort of “gift” of Fijian traditional experience saying that the money I would give him would contribute towards it. From that I felt obliged to give a certain amount of money or risk the prospect of breaking the bond that was created. I am, less cynically speaking, under the belief that the lovo was initially offered as a gift in the traditional sense of solidifying personal connections. This seems to be supported by Joni’s and the other boy’s genuine excitement about the lovo during our initial talks and fishing trips. As our connection grew the lovo perhaps became important for the connection to be solidified to ensure that I return to them as promised in September, and that I may perhaps offer some form of generalised reciprocity upon return. This seems to be supported by the fact it had the approval of a few authority heads in the village who expressed their wish for me to return. However, for Joni, the potential gain of using the lovo as a gift of deception, in the same vein of the sword seller, may have in the end overtook that of the lovo as a gift in the traditional sense. Perhaps he suspected that I was not going to buy him the “canvas” he showed me, at least in the short run, and therefore took the opportunity to take what he could get. I am however not totally privy to this inner calculation as of his yet.

This passage is in no way meant to chastise Joni for duping me, as stated previously I am under no illusion that I have broken the barrier from outsider to insider. It is quite possible that I won’t be able break this barrier for the duration of my research. The true purpose here is to understand the conceptual frame of Joni’s actions. My main conclusion from this experience is that I believe a portion of Joni’s conceptual frames come from the environment of the informal economy, not only because he sells bananas on the street, but because it seems as though he shares the same conception of the double edged sword as sword sellers. Literature can indeed be read on the conceptual frames and practices of informal street sellers which I do plan to undertake. Any further analysis of Joni and the other youth in the village will pay attention to this literature on the conceptual frames and practices of informal street sellers as these are what their actions seem to be directed by, at least according to these initial experiences.

Village Hopping

Waiting for Joni at Miriama’s house, and the realisation that the day would be spent in his absence, provided an unexpected opportunity; a day of village hopping with Miriama and her daughter Lelea. The story starts with Lelea coming by to visit her mother early in the morning, a couple of hours after I had arrived. She had come specifically for the day of the lovo to help out. She was a young women, in her early twenties and pregnant with her first child. She was an obvious source of pride for Miriama as certificates of her achievements from school were proudly displayed on the walls of the house. I judged her education to be beyond that of Joni and perhaps those of other youth in the village who almost had an open disdain for education, stating that they would rather fish and hang around the other young men around road side stalls. She had a quiet disposition that was cut through by a friendly curiosity about my stay in Fiji. Her higher level of English and inquisitive nature made conversation more free flowing and relaxed. These traits made her a great guide, a key informant, for the duration of this story.

When the three of us realised that the lovo would not be held after hours of waiting, it was agreed that we would go visit Miriama’s brother Taito in another village. We headed out the village along with Miriama’s two younger sons, up towards the main road where a taxi could be hailed. Walking out of the village the young boys who I had spent days fishing with followed us. Before we got into the taxi I said my goodbyes. The boys responding very glumly, sitting on a concrete block playing with sticks in the grass. Getting into the taxi meant that their hopes for the lovo were now totally extinguished too. There were not only the five of us in the taxi, but also another women, and her two very young children. I had a child on each knee due to the cramped space. It had been agreed that we would drop them off at another bus stand closer to Suva. When they arrived at the bus stop they jumped out and waved their goodbyes. No payment was made, just a favour.

We were now on our way to the village, but Miriama thought it was best to stop off at her twin sister’s village first to pick up her nephew, Maciu. The entrance to the village was up a fairly steep hill off a main road which made it difficult to drive up. The various deep potholes did not make the taxi driver’s job any easier and I feared for his suspension. This village was much different to the village I had first come accustom to. Miriama’s village for instance had a relatively open plan with houses surrounded by a small portion of land. It also had some semblance of organisation with rudimentary corrugated iron churches occupying the centre. The village we were entering on the other hand had houses extremely close to one another with little room to grow anything between them. It also had houses as far as I could see in all directions. From first inspection I could not see a logic of organisation such a central church or grounds. It is my instinct that this may also be a squatter village, perhaps in a more obvious sense based on its appearance. This is merely an assumption at this present state, perhaps a brash one, however, if true, it would be insightful to know the circumstances of these two women’s journeys to these two quite different squatter communities. Marriage will almost certainly be involved as women are for the most part obligated to leave their home village to go live in their husband’s village. However, as previously stated, Miriama’s husband’s village is in Lau where he presently lives without her. I will strive to find out these women’s journeys when I return to Fiji as they may provide revelations into the growth of squatter communities and perhaps influence how they communicate with their networks between the villages, as we are starting to see now.

Miriama’s twin sister’s house was just off this inner village dirt road, so Miriama told the taxi driver to just pull up outside while she shouted out for her out of the window. She brought Maciu out, he quickly jumped into the front seat and we were quickly off again down the dirt road, and back on the road to Miriama’s brother’s village. The series of brief pick-ups and drop offs up until this point, to bus stands and villages, gave me the impression that we were village hopping. The taxi acted as an object to latch on and let go when it passed through for anyone that knew the passengers commissioning it. The passengers were willing participants in this process, actively searching out those that needed a lift or those that wanted to tag along. I’m yet unsure whether this is common practice as I was the one designated to pay for the taxi. It is quite possible that this was akin to a novelty practice taken as a unique opportunity due to my presence, rather than an established practice. Repeat visits will help ascertain if this is common practice.

We turned down another dirt road to Miriama’s brother’s village, going up and down various slopes. Lelea pointed out that there were a number of different villages down this little inlet of a road, but the one that we wanted to get to was at the end down next to the water. This village again had a completely different feel about it. From the outside the houses looked like they were made of more sturdy materials and had a logical design, construction, and arrangement. Most were elevated off the ground, and the ones that were not elevated did have at least suitable flooring. All the houses were connected with concrete paths, making it possible to walk about without the prospect of getting muddy feet. There was also a church built down next to the coast with a distinctive red high angled roof. Entering the family house, it was much more partitioned, a sitting room in the middle, with a sizeable kitchen partitioned to one side, and two smaller partitions as bedrooms on the other side. The village, in all of its aspects, had a general sense of organisation which made me believe it was not a squatter community.

I was introduced to Miriama’s brother, Taito. A man that I judged to be very proud of his country due to the Fijian emblems on his shirt and the large Fijian flag displayed prominently in the main sitting area. It came to my attention that Taito had not been well for a couple of months. The family tried to describe his condition to me and from what I could ascertain is that he had accumulated liquid in his knee, perhaps a clot, causing it to swell. This prevented him from doing any work around the village, as made explicit by doctor’s orders, which he seemed quite agitated about. After receiving this information I wondered if that was the important factor behind this visit to show support and compassion for kin who were unwell.

The day for the most part was spent lying on mats, relaxing the day away. Taito’s wife cooked us a large meal which we all lazily ate. Miriama had brought a portion of food grown from the garden for the meal. The Fijian rugby team were on television in one of the adjourning rooms. Maciu retreated to this bedroom after lunch to catch the second half as he drifted in and out of sleep. The day seemed as though it would pass away sleepily, however a fairly short and merry man walked in while we were visiting Lelea’s friends in an adjascent house. He seemed a little taken aback to see me there, but immediately invited me to join him and his friends to drink some kava. I was happy to take leave as the girls were starting to gaggle away just like any group of young women typically does. We approached a little open aired dwelling with two other men seated around. One was quite a sullen astute man that was preparing the kava in quite a methodical manner. He occupied most of the preparation time judging the right amount of crushed kava root to water ratio. He then prepared it by enclosing the crushed kava root in a type of material, squeezing it whilst dipping it in the water of a bucket leaving a brown water which is known as kava. The kava was transferred from the bucket to a bowl especially designated for kava called a Tanoa. It was taken from this bowl and then served to each of us in half of a hollowed out coconut shell. After each person drank, one after the other, the group would simultaneously clap three times for reasons unknown to me thus far. The merry man I meet earlier made the entire process a noisy one as he interjected continuously with his high pitched laughs.

The other man sitting with us was a man that had an aura of business acumen. He was telling me about his newly formed vehicle hire business. He claimed to have five vehicles already that he would hire out to tourists. He did however point out to me from our seated positions, a fairly new looking red car that he especially used as a taxi. I asked why the taxi had no advertising markings like the other taxis. He replied that the taxi was used only by arrangement rather than used for mindlessly combing the streets for passengers. He got my phone number and email address so that I could arrange a taxi upon my return to Fiji. He also requested that I send any other people I know their way to use the service. I have since gotten an email from him in an effort to add me to his client base. This is a group of men that I will also keep in contact with as there does seem to be some alignment of mobile money with taxi services. I observed on the last days of my stay in Fiji advertisements for mobile money on the back of taxi windows, however I am yet unsure whether this indicates whether or not this means payment to a taxi driver can be made with the use of mobile money. The problem with reading advertisements on the back of cars is that they are often moving… In general it will be insightful how this village based business keeps in contact with its customers by phone, and as we have seen, by email. Payments systems for the vehicles that they hire out to tourists will also be insightful for exchange in a business sense.

The sun was starting to lower and it was time to take Miriama’s young children home. It was decided that we would wait for the bus rather than take another taxi. Waiting for the bus in the village does not literally consist of waiting at a bus stop, it does not even require you to move from your comfy position amongst the pillows that you’re lying amongst of your house. The bus arrives in the village with an engine that roars in a manner that would wake anybody up in time before its departure. The bus then waits there for at least 15 minutes while passengers hop aboard. I felt that Sunday was an especially significant day at the bus stop, as even though this particular village was not too far from Suva, perhaps 40 minutes, I got the impression that fathers got on the bus every Sunday to move closer to work in Suva during the week. Alternatively, perhaps Sunday was a common day for visitors, and that like us they were returning home also. Nevertheless there were many children gathered around waving goodbye to parents, or older brothers. The same scenes occurred at the various bus stops getting closer and closer to Suva. The man in front of me even got passed a baby through the open air window from a women on the road below. Arriving at Suva central bus stop on a Sunday afternoon also had a different vibe than most days. It was a day of an even greater frequency of greetings and goodbyes. For me it was also a scene of goodbye as I had to leave the family that had graciously taken me under their wing, not just for the day, but for a majority of my very brief stay in Fiji.

What I observed during this day of travel and visits was the outlines of a system of communication and contact between other squatter villages and villages of origin. In terms of transport this was in the form of village hopping by taxi and by that of bus. Unfortunately I did not observe how the sisters got in contact to arrange the pickup of Maciu, let alone arranging the visit Taito’s village. Such information would be insightful in how people in different villages remain in contact. This will be a point of emphasis if I get the opportunity to visit the village once again. I also gained an appreciation in the variations between villages, perhaps even amongst squatter communities. Variation is not altogether that surprising as even squatter communities vary in definition, however the types of variations between villages may provide future insight to who lives in each, and the associated communication connections. Lastly I gained access to a group of young entrepreneurial business founders in the transportation sector. Access to this group of men could potentially provide an alternative perspective of how mobile and exchange practices, perhaps even mobile money practices, are conducted by village based businesses.