The good people of Fulaga feel pretty remote from the centre of government in Suva and, overall it seems, don't expect much attention from it. Historically the Lau Group of islands in the east of Fiji were the centre of traditional politics of the region and many Fijian leaders came from these islands but, with the arrival of the British, the centre of power shifted first to the town of Livuka on the island of Overlau (which, confusingly, isn't in the Lau Group at all) and then to Suva. With the last military coup about 9 years ago, the once-powerful Council of Chiefs was disbanded and individual village chiefs lost their united voice (and, some say, their overblown sense of self-importance that led, in some cases, to corruption) and so remote islands like Fulaga began to feel increasingly disconnected from the country's political system.
With last year's democratic elections behind them, the government appears to be continuing to reform things. A lot of effort over the past few years by the military government of the coup (which then got re-elected by a popular majority) has seen a clamp down on the once-prevalent corruption in local and national offices and a focus on infrastructure projects. The rights of the Indio-Fijian people, who make up almost 50% of the population, have been championed, though racial tensions remain in some parts of the country, but the economic challenges remain huge, with widespread unemployment and significant reliance on aid and loans from New Zealand, Australia and, increasingly, China.
Against this backdrop, politically-sleepy Fulaga suddenly became the centre of government attention over the past two days. We'd been told that a government ship was coming and on Monday it arrived to disgorge over 100 officials from 21 different departments and commissions, led by the Commissioner for Lau, who came, talked, questioned and ate and drank. The poor villagers of Muanaicake (population about 95) doubled in size overnight as the visitors had to be found places to sleep and a huge team effort of fishing, cooking and washing-up was required to feed them all. Within the party were some engineers who came to repair some of the faulty solar panel inverters installed last year and install a couple of new water tanks but most people seemed to come to take notes. Poor Sera, the island nurse, had 15 people to deal with from the Ministry of Health and other welfare-related departments so looked particularly shattered by the time they all left.
On Tuesday morning we heard the ship, which had anchored overnight in the lee of a nearby island, calling Fulaga Radio on the VHF. The Fulaga Radio VHF was donated by a visiting yacht three years ago and we added a new aerial, with the brilliant technical help of Adam on Bravo, last year. Anyway, no reply was forthcoming so the ship then called 'Any sailing vessels in Fulaga'; Graham replied and chatted to the skipper who needed to let the shore party know of his impending return. Graham walked into the village to pass this message on, meeting the Commissioner and a few of his advisors en route. At the nursing station he passed on the message and found the reason for the radio silence there – one of the jobsworths had decided that the VHF was unlicensed and had to be removed! Sikele, Sera's husband and all-round good chap, was absolutely livid and stormed back to the people responsible to point out the stupidity of the situation they had created where a visiting foreign yacht skipper had to dinghy ashore and walk 20 minutes to tell them that the ship that would take them away needed to talk to them!
On his way back to the dinghy, Graham met the Commissioner's party again, which was accompanied by Simone, one of the village elders, so he held Simone back and quietly told him about the VHF. By the time they had reached the village, Simone had talked to the Commissioner about it and the Commissioner told Sikele and Sera 'if you need the radio, you should use it' so it wasn't removed but was left, disconnected, when the visitors left. It's now reconnected!
Anyway, that little fracas apart, the visit seems to have been judged a success and we'll no doubt hear more about what was said, discussed and promised in the next few days. The size of the entourage still amazes us and the junket is rolling on to 6 more islands before returning to Suva two weeks after it began its contribution to the process of bring government to the people.