Urban Squatters Reconnect with Rural Kin on Sandy Island

Boat Journey to "Sandy Island"

I have gotten many requests to post some of my data regarding my research over the last months. I am very appreciative to have an audience, whether it be in my own family and friend’s circles, or a wider group, which would like to know more! I have had trouble trying to post much of my research on this blog because my research is based particularly on one Fijian family that I am living with. Ethically speaking it is difficult to post material that will reveal the identities of my research subjects. It is also time consuming to adapt my academic reports especially for general consumption. As a solution I will be posting my academic reports that replace the names of my subjects, and remove any pictures that reveal identity or place. In these latest reports I went with my host father TOMASI and brother JONE to their island of origin in the Lau island group. I cannot reveal the name of the island due to its small size, but I will replace the Island’s name with SANDY ISLAND. Also replaced is my host father’s villages names, which will be named PATERNAL VILLAGE and MATERNAL VILLAGE based on where his parents were from. The urban squatter village that I am living in in Suva will also be called SUVA SQUATTER VILLAGE. Below is the first section of my latest research report. If I keep receiving positive feedback I will continue to post more sections in this same way. I hope you enjoy!! And of course suggestions are welcome!

Also in this report is the concept of dividuality which refers to one’s identity being made up of many different places and relationships. Think of “dividual” (referring to many and separate) being the opposite of individual (meaning one whole).


Urban Squatters Reconnect with Rural Kin on Sandy Island

This section aims to ethnographically describe the practices between Tomasi and Jone, and their Sandy Island kin during a one month visit to the island. This will provide insight into the realities and challenges they faced as urban squatters maintaining their urban-rural kinship relationships. I will particularly focus on moments of disjuncture that occurred because of their differences in communication and exchange practices. Before detailing these moments at the end of this article I will firstly layout Tomasi’s and Jone’s motivations for going to Sandy Island. This is rooted in Tomasi’s desire to reconnect with his ancestral kinship ties and land. Jone is also going to the island as Tomasi regards his recent urban influenced behaviour as antithetical to traditional practice. I will secondly outline the system of communication and exchange practices that Tomasi and Jone have exhibited in the months in Suva prior leaving for Sandy Island. I will argue that these practices are derived from their urban and dividual identities and are not necessarily compatible with traditional Fijian practice. The context behind the trip to Sandy Island and an outline of their urban communication and exchange practices will help explain why these particular moments of disjuncture occurred which will lastly be outlined. This report will therefore describe the realities and challenges they face in establishing and maintaining urban rural connections

The Context of the Sandy Island Trip

When considering why Tomasi is starting to reconnect and visit his home island of Sandy Island, it must be put into context of his family migration history. Tomasi was born in Suva in 1968 (currently 48 years old). His father’s occupation was a chef on a ship, however he died in 1973. This caused the family to move to Sandy Island to his father’s, Paternal Village, in 1973. They stayed in the house of his father’s eldest brother, however Tomasi stated that the brother did not look after them properly. As a result they moved to his mother’s Maternal Village in the same year. According to Tomasi they were included more into the social landscape of Maternal Village than they had been in Paternal Village and as a result made meaningful kinship bonds. Despite this the family moved back to Suva in 1974 and eventually ended up living in a housing authority compound in Suva. His mother remarried in 1978 to a man of Solomon Island ethnicity. They eventually moved into the squatter community of Suva Squatter Village in 1989 which was barely 100m down the road from the housing authority compound. This was because the Church of England was starting a new church in Suva Squatter Village which was a congregation popular amongst Solomon Islanders. Tomasi however did not make this move with them because in the year prior he moved to the Lavuka on the island of Ovalau to stay with his uncle when he was 20 years old. He stated that he made this move because he wanted to explore. In 1990 he moved from Lavuka to Lautoka to attend the funeral of another uncle. He however stayed in Lautoka until 1994 working for a telecommunications firm laying cable. When he moved back to Suva Squatter Village in 1994 it wasn’t long before he built his own house, married Mere in 1995, and had his first daughter in 1997 and his subsequent children.

Present in this narrative is that Tomasi was not even born on Sandy Island but in Suva. Nonetheless he had a brief connection with the island in his childhood. It also includes the breakdown of the immediate family unit with the death of his father and the introduction of his step father, and his step father’s subsequent children. There is a period in his youth where he travelled Fiji, staying in other locations with other extended kin. And lastly he settled down in the squatter community of Suva Squatter Village. Whilst Suva Squatter Village has re-established traditional life amongst the network of kin that have settled there, as is common with urban settlements (Lindstrom, 2011), it has no traditional historical significance. Tomasi’s history suggests that his identity is comprised of a multitude of different kin and locations. I therefore contend that his recent efforts to reconnect with his kin and Sandy Island is to reconnect with the tradition of having kinship relationships being rooted in place of origin which he has only fleeting experience of. His reconnection with Sandy Island started in early 2015 when he visited the island for 4 months planting and harvesting with kin which indicated to me the desire to establish connection between kin and ancestral land. This reconnection continued with the latest visit in January 2016 for a month at my bequest and expense, and will continue in May or June 2016 where he will stay there for an undetermined amount of time.

The original plan for this Sandy Island trip was also to record Jone’s experience of being introduced into his paternal and maternal villages on Sandy Island. I was particularly interested in Jone because he had never visited Sandy Island or had direct experience with traditional norms and values rooted in place of origin. Furthermore he had exhibited a rejection of close family ties in Suva Squatter Village when I returned back to Fiji in September by being completely out of contact with them whilst living elsewhere in Suva. He was not rooted in any other particular place in the Suva Urban area, often jumping from one place to the other. He also at one point decided to visit Nadi for a week. It can be stated that Jone’s decision to be estranged from his family in favour of living a nomadic lifestyle exemplified a rejection, disregard, or ambivalence for maintaining kinship relationships rooted in place so important in Fijian tradition. Whilst Suva Squatter Village is  not a traditional village of origin, it is however a settlement that has refashioned kinship relationships in place as is often the case for urban settlements (Lindstrom, 2011). The context behind his inclusion in the trip was to introduce him to a traditional manner of living, in particular I believe to show him the value of maintaining kinship relationships connected to land. This is because rather than attending the high school in Sandy Island, the plan was also for him to join his cousins on the island and to work with them on the plantation, just as Tomasi had done in 2015.

He originally did not join Tomasi and I on the boat because it was planned that the rest of the family in Suva Squatter Village would be travelling to Savusavu for my host sister’s settlement in her husband’s village. That plan required Jone to look after the house while everyone was gone. This plan to go to Savusavu did not eventuate however and Jone joined us on Sandy Island two weeks after we arrived and is currently still there.

Urban communication and exchange practices of Tomasi and Jone

I will argue that the system of communication and exchange practices of Tomasi and Jone are informed by the dividuality of their identities across place and kinship network. This invariably affected how they interacted with their Sandy Island kin. For Tomasi, as I have described, has no long term connection to a particular place. I would even conclude that his connection with Suva Squatter Village is not one of great attachment. Suva Squatter Village for instance was a move instigated by his step father during a period of time when he was not even present. He has also not expressed any sentiment about leaving Suva Squatter Village, perhaps even permanently away from his wife and children for a new life on his ancestral island of Sandy Island. I would also argue that the current clearing of bush and crops on the outside of the village in preparation for the development of the community by the Suva Squatter Village Land Purchase Company weakens this connection even further. In recent activity, houses are starting to be teared down and moved within planned boundaries. I believe this emphasises the transience nature of the community, rather than the permanence of their plans. Tomais is however without question highly connected with friends and family all throughout Suva and wider Fiji. One cannot walk a few paces without talking with a relative that he once lived with, worked for, or hung out with earlier in age. Phone calls are received on a nightly basis from unidentified callers. In this regard I classify his identity to be one of high social connection, not dislocated completely from place, but dislocated from places with an established and continual meaning for him.

There was one particular moment on the boat before leaving for Sandy Island, which encapsulated his identity of social connection disembodied from place. Standing on the upper deck of the boat, waiting for it to leave, we were waving to his wife and younger children below. As they were waiting for the boat to leave Tomasi motions his hand upwards, a coin in hand. His son immediately recognised that Tomasi wanted to throw the coin down to him and came running to the end of the concrete platform. Tomasi threw a coin down to him three times which each time hit the concrete and ran off in an errand direction with his son chasing behind it. Some of the coins would roll into a crowded group of people also waiting for the boat to leave. The scene can be seen in the figure 1 below. This scene emphasised to me Tomasi’s social connections disembodied from space. Tomasi and his son were essentially already separated by water and would soon be separated by more when the boat decided to leave. The throwing of the coin as a means of communicating care in such a momentary and precarious position emphasised the insignificance of place and time in this moment.


Figure 1: Tomasi throwing coins to his son from the boat

Jone’s communication and exchange practices are also derived from his forming dividual identity completely separated from a place of ancestral importance. As mentioned Suva Squatter Village has refashioned in some form kinship relationships located in a particular place, however it is still a location of questionable ancestral importance. His chosen estrangement from his kinship connections in Suva Squatter Village for a three month period, in favour of staying with friends for short increments, also exhibits a disregard or ambivalence towards these kinship connections grounded in Suva Squatter Village and place in general. I believe that Jone’s period of estrangement exhibits an experience of confusion of how to approach social connections in an urban environment. In Port Vila, Vanuatu for instance, it is recorded that youth are in a “confusion zone” living in an urban environment separated from places of origin and tradition, where new rules of interaction divergent from those embedded in tradition are being created (Kraemer, 2015). These new rules of interaction invariably include communication and exchange practices. His new urban systems of communication and exchange have been on full display since his return home in late November.

For instance, on Christmas day I decided to purchase for the children of the family a present each as a gesture that I was appreciative of their hosting, and wanted to be in a continual relationship of mutual obligation with the family. I decided to give Jone a new cap because he liked to wear them when he hung out with his friends in large groups. In general the opening of presents was not of great excitement to the openers, however Jone’s reaction to his present was especially muted. The day after Christmas his mother saw another youth in the village wearing Jone’s new hat. Jone had sold the hat to him on the afternoon of Christmas for $5. Later that afternoon Tomasi bought the hat back from the boy and lamented that Jone did not know the “value of the gift”, which indicated to me that he didn’t recognise, or perhaps consciously rejected, my intended gesture of maintaining a social relationship. This along with many other money motivated transactions including the sometimes hourly appeals of kerekere directed towards me, as well as the continual theft of coins from his siblings (which I have gone into detail in previous reports) were motivated in general to have money to gamble. I am convinced that the rejection of the gift and its subsequent conversion into gambling pocket change, along with incessant kerekere and theft, is derived from the practices he has learned from his experiences living with other youth while away from Suva Squatter Village. I recognised this particular money centric system which I hesitate to call exchange, and prefer to call a fetishism for pocket change. I had observed it months earlier while “hanging out” with Suva youth where he had seemingly learned these practices.

During a moment of sitting around in an abandoned house where Jone used to live with other youth, one youth took coins out of another drunk/hungover youth’s pocket without him realising. He immediately gave the coins to another even younger youth so that he could buy him cigarettes down the road. The youth then looked at me and said “we live out of each other’s pockets here”. The event did not create any resentment between the boy who stole the coins from behind the other’s back and the unsuspecting victim, rather I believed that the access to one another’s coins symbolised a certain solidarity, a shared hardship, but one that does not respect any sort of personal ownership. The fetishism of money through the selling of gifts, theft, and incessant kerekere, that he has learned whilst away from Suva Squatter Village in the confusion zone of Suva, are forms of exchange that are not aligned with traditional practice.

These particular urban dividual identity based communication and exchange practices exhibited by Tomasi and Jone caused particular moments of disjuncture between them and their Sandy Island kin. This is particularly evident with Jone who has not experienced how kinship relationships set in a fixed place of ancestral importance, nor whose motivation to come to the island was not his own but his father’s. It is also evident for Tomasi however, despite having being self-motivated to reconnect with traditional practices. These moments of disjuncture will show the difficulty of maintaining urban rural kinship connections, framed in the particular context of Tomasi and Jone.

Moments of disjuncture between urban squatters Tomasi and Jone, and their Sandy Island kin

Starting with Tomasi, I would like to make a comparison between him and the other men of his age in Paternal Village village. As one would expect from villagers they live and work around the village. However, according to Tomasi the villages of Paternal Village, Maternal Village, and Sandy Island Village 3, are the dominant land owning villages on the island with some other smaller villages with very limited land holdings. Tomasi’s particular clan is described by him to be a large landholding group but the land has not been worked by anyone of his clan for a long period of time before his arrival in 2015. Tomasi’s land holdings do not neighbour Paternal Village directly, rather they are somewhat outside of Paternal Village. His land by the coast is still quite accessible from the village however he has decided not to plant there because a cow is roaming in the area and digs up planted crops if they are not fenced. Rather he prefers to plant crops on his other more inland segment of land which from Paternal Village is over a large hill in the centre of the island. This makes it difficult to access from Paternal Village directly. His strategy in farming has therefore been to live in his Maternal Village and take a relatively low lying path from Maternal Village, rather than the hilly road from Paternal Village to work his land. When he was in Sandy Island in 2015 he worked in a group with other members from his maternal village along this path. Jone will be working with this same maternal kinship group and planting on this same paternal land.

I do not contest the practically of Tomasi’s working arrangements. It is much easier to travel from Maternal Village to his paternal land via this path. I also do not contest that the nature of Tomasi’s temporary migration to Sandy Island so far would make it difficult to maintain fenced plantations on this coastal area of land. I however also don’t believe it is a coincidence that Tomasi has chosen to live and work primarily with his maternal kin. In-line with his migration history he has a greater connection to kin in Maternal Village which is evident in my observations. His work group relationships with his cousin 1 and 2 are ones of continual joking. During his 2015 visit, Cousin 1 in particular looked after Tomasi not only in terms of providing meals in his kitchen, but also giving advice with how to interact with other villagers. This particularly included advice not to eat with specific individuals who may conduct sorcery on his food in order to do him harm as a new comer. Tomasi’s  maternal village has also been described as a place where he is able to “take everything”, which is inherent in the sister’s son relationship (Hocart, 1915). Tomasi’s kinship relationships in Paternal Village however are of a different nature. Historically speaking the Paternal Village hierarchy have only recently encouraged him and others to live back in the village. This is because many of his older brothers and other family members of his clan living on the island have since died leaving the land unattended. This has led me to believe that his kinship relationships in Paternal Village are formal in nature, of which the formal contract is still fresh.

It is hard to theorise whether the context behind Tomasi’s arrangement to work his paternal land with his maternal kin is a personal decision informed by his dividual identity, or is a result of it. It is however unquestionably involved in the context despite the logistics of travel to his paternal land from Paternal Village. The continuance of this arrangement of living amongst his maternal kin while working on his paternal land emphasises his continued dividual identity. One in which the strongest social relationships are not connected to ancestral land. In this way my interpretation that Tomasi’s decision to migrate either permanently or temporarily to Sandy Island in order to reconnect with traditional kinship relationships embedded in land has its challenges due to continued separation of the two.

Jone’s moment of disjuncture with his Sandy Island kin was much more distinct than Tomasi’s and occurred on the very same night of his arrival in Paternal Village. My journal entry on the 28th of January describes this particular moment.

During dinner at Cousin 3’s house, Cousin 3’s very young daughter found a pre hand rolled cigarette on the floor and held it up to show her mother. The mother called “mai” as in to come and give it to her. It was most likely hers as I have seen her roll many beforehand. On the infants long slow journey to her mother Jone intercepted her, grabbed the cigarette out of her hand. The mother’s outstretched hand dropped. Jone then went over to the fireplace, took a piece of wood with some embers on it, put the cigarette to his lips and lit it. He then sat down against a wall in the house and started smoking it. There was an unmistakable silence and awkwardness in the room. I looked over to Tomasi and saw him mutter under his breath “Jone…” in an embarrassed way. The next day when Tomasi and I were alone I asked him about the incident. His response was that he “pulled” the cigarette “city style”. It has not been the first time I have heard the term “pull”. It has also been used with regards to my host mother “pulling the clothes”, it has also been used in gambling such as “he pulled all the money”, when somebody takes all of the winnings from the pot. The term pull seems to signify the acquisition of money or objects of value under circumstances of luck or opportunity.

The pulling of the cigarette without regards to the ownership of that cigarette, and that he pulled it as the opportunity presented itself much like the theft of a coin aligns with the practices exhibited amongst Jone’s friends in the abandoned house, and in Jone’s actions when he came home in November. As previously stated he is currently living in Maternal Village and his working on the plantation with Tomasi’s maternal kin, particularly Cousin 1. I have plans to return to Sandy Island in the final stages of my research to see how his relationship with his kin on Sandy Island develops, particularly how his communication and exchange practices evolve whilst amongst others who hold traditional practices.