Tradition and open hearts

It’s customary to present kava to the chief of a village in a ceremony called sevusevu. The visitor offers the kava, introduces himself and his party and asks permission to anchor in their waters, and fish or swim or snorkel in their territory. If the chief accepts the gift — I haven’t heard of anyone refusing — he welcomes the party to the village and grants access to use their resources. It’s an old tradition, but this is a traditional society and it’s impressed on all visitors that following the customs shows respect for their way of life. 

We were already in the Bay of Islands for a day before two other boats came in and we overheard an old hand on the VHF radio caution that we should have presented sevusevu at the village of Daliconi, six miles south, before we anchored here. Oops. It was too far to dinghy, so we offered to run the whole crew in Escape Velocity and do the ceremony together. 

We arrived at lunchtime to a village that looked deserted. Damage from Cyclone Winston was still very much in evidence, but the rubble had been cleared away and the whole place was clean and tidy. Turns out most people were indoors eating lunch but someone called for the official welcomer, a woman named Buya — I may have got that wrong — and she beckoned us to follow her as she had a few animated discussions with several people. Turns out the chief was in Suva. His son was off cutting timber to rebuild houses, and that left no one to accept our offering of kava and grant us permission to stay. 

Eventually our hostess enlisted the aid of the chief’s daughter-in-law who finally led us to a man who would accept our sevusevu. We sat on a mat on his porch enjoying the view while the two ladies searched for the guest book. 

Modesty is the guiding principle in these remote islands. Shoulders and knees must be covered. You are not to wear hats or sunglasses, and even men are required to wear the traditional skirt, a sulu, or wrap a sarong over shorts.

Jack introduced us and pointed out our boat anchored off the village and the kava bundles were placed in front of the stand-in. We never learned his name or position, but he spoke to us for a good while in Fijian. When he was finished our hostesses translated the welcome and permissions granted. And then we just chatted for a while, asking questions about village, the cyclone, and so on. We asked how many people live in Daliconi. The chief’s daughter-in-law thought for a moment, then said, “It’s about …” more thinking, then finally, “one hundred four.” She told us all but one resident survived the cyclone. Most of the houses lost their roofs, many houses were completely destroyed. 

Jack needs to practice sitting in a skirt. Whenever he changed position he flashed the two ladies who brought us here, causing them much merriment. We figure next time we need to rig a modesty panel.

We all signed the guest book, then took a walk over the hill past the village generator (runs only at night unless someone requests it during the day, for which they pay extra for the fuel) and eventually to the garden, tended by the women. They sell the vegetables to the villagers to keep the garden going and told us many cruisers had brought them seeds. We wish we’d known because seeds are easy to carry and so needed after the destruction of all vegetation and fruit trees during the storm. Every single leaf was blown away by Winston, they said, so that all you could see on the hillsides were rocks. Knowing that, it’s amazing how much has grown back in the five months since. 

Immediately after the storm the New Zealand Army came in and cleared the rubble and buried it on the hillside, then erected a new school building to replace one of the three that was destroyed. They rebuilt the community center and helped replace some of the roofs that blew away. International aid organizations brought food, water and temporary shelter, and people are still donating much needed goods. One lady told me a boat had just delivered bags of bras for the village women, and she confided that she hoped next time they’d bring panties. Think about it. How would you cope if everything you owned was blown away in the space of a few hours? Not only do these beautiful people cope, but they continue to smile and welcome all comers, even as they struggle to rebuild the life they had. 

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