Island Life by David Slack

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Phoning Fiji

Let me tell you about a friend of mine who lives in Fiji. He’s a proud man, and because I’m not sure he would want me to use his real name, I’ll call him Sanjay.

I met him at Victoria University at the end of the '70s. He was a decade or so older then most of us in law school, because he started his working life at one of the Fijian sugar companies, became a manager, and worked and saved until he had the money and the qualifications to come to New Zealand.

He loved Wellington: loved the politics, loved the student life, loved the parties, loved the intellectual stimulation of the studies, and was clear-eyed about it all, because he knew how much more meagre life could be. He knew what privation was and he had been living and working in the real world for long enough to be able to detect bullshit at fifty paces.

He wasn’t in any hurry to go home, and he was still picking up new postgraduate courses long after the rest of us had had enough. But time ran out in the mid 1980s and he went back to Suva, where he got a senior management job with one of the banks.

Life was fine enough, in the way that it has always appeared to this Fiji tourist, both before and following the coups: there is a coexistence that is sufficiently settled to give the visitor no apprehension of clear and present danger, but all the same there is a latent tension; a vague sense of unease, or grudging accommodation.

The first coups came in 1987. The effect on Sanjay’s life was more in form than substance. They simply inverted the management structure at the bank. The titular heads were now all Fijian, but the tasks which came with those titles were still carried out by people like Sanjay.

He came to visit us in 1994, and was sanguine about it. He shrugged: “What are you going to do?” He chuckled about the foolishness and vanity of it all, but he was content enough.

When the 2000 coup came, I called to see how he was faring, and whether we could help. He was uncomfortable and wary. We didn’t speak for long.

He had a braver, thinner smile when we last saw him in Suva three years ago. The 2000 coup had done for any remaining goodwill. Members of his family had sustained beatings and intimidation. There was no longer any place for him at the bank. He was now subsisting on a few hours a week lecturing at the University. He is a proud man, and he was firmly declining offers of help.

Whatever outcome this present quasi-constitutional military adventure yields, I don't expect it will have much to offer a man with a generous nature, a great sense of humour, a BA, an LLB, an MBA and the wrong colour skin.

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