Few families remain in Fiji mining town

A view of neighbouring houses from Maria's residence at Loloma settlement in Vatukoula. Picture: BALJEET SINGH

A view of neighbouring houses from Maria’s residence at Loloma settlement in Vatukoula. Picture: BALJEET SINGH

Litia Mathewsell | The Fiji Times

FOR residents both past and present, Vatukoula retains childhood memories and the awakening of youth. Its layout was unorthodox, with several communities set apart by ethnic makeup and varying privileges but closely bound by a maze of narrow roads and social activities.

Those who grew up during the area’s booming days included Antonio Elaisa, a retired Human Resources training officer for the Fiji Sugar Corporation.

“I was three years old when I came to Fiji from the island (Rotuma), when my mum passed away,” the Lautoka resident related.

“I was bought up by foster parents, Jioje and Keponi. My foster mum was my mother’s twin sister and we stayed in Vatukoula in the 50s and 60s.”

Retaining cultural practices

Antonio noted that despite the distance from Rotuma, their traditional customs remained, still intact and practised through ceremonial formalities.

“The Rotuman community also held functions, especially by our elders. Most of us came from Rotuma and stayed in Vatukoula because we had relatives working there.”

These sentiments were echoed by Maria Vuan, a retired Nilsen College teacher who has lived in the area for over 20 years.

“This place was really a stepping stone for many,” she said.

Though she didn’t grow up in the area, she would become part of its vibrant communities through her husband, Sunia Albert, who worked at the mines and moved there in 1987.

As noted in the 1977 publication, Exiles and Migrants in Oceania, by Michael Lieber, Vatukoula had the highest percentage of expanded households of any of the Rotuman enclaves it studied. This was particularly due to a traditional obligation of well-off families looking after less privileged relatives, and this practice was prevalent in Vatukoula because of the high employment it afforded Rotumans who settled in Fiji.

The 50s and 60s

Antonio attended the Vatukoula Fijian Government School from Class One to eight and remembers taking a ten to 15-minute walk to school from Loloma — a settlement of mostly Rotuman families — with his cousins and friends.

“We would go to a lady named Mary Lala, who sold Indian sweets under a mango tree,” he recalled.

“At the time, the community was very close in Loloma, Dolphins and Vunisinu. There were many social activities too, especially for the church, as many of the Rotumans were Catholic, so we would get together for services on the weekends.”

The Emperor Theatre in Korowere was also a popular fixture, and regularly attracted a crowd of movie goers to its double-storey complex along Emperor Avenue, where supermarkets and grocery stores were also located.

“We didn’t have DVDs back then, so the movies were shown through reels. Admission to the movies was about 20 or 50 cents, very cheap. And we’d have movies shown in the morning, midday and in the afternoon. We just had three sessions in a day and would walk to Korowere.

“We didn’t go to Tavua because of transport problems. Buses were organised for businesses but there weren’t any daily runs otherwise. So we would all walk from our various communities to Korowere. There was a bakery owned by a Chinese businessman named Fong Lee, and a taxi base was also there. Good businesses were going on. But now the place is different.”

Greener pastures

“Vatukoula was very much prosperous in terms of business, in terms of the mining activities. It was really going very well and together with that, I could see the boom in businesses.”

As charming as Vatukoula was for Antonio, the struggles of being raised in a large household prompted his resolve to find his own path for the future.

“Sometimes I didn’t take lunch to school. It was a struggle. I set my goal to be well educated and to not have any second thoughts, but to focus on my future, and to get out of Vatukoula,” he said, noting that despite the prosperity, the mining town had limited work opportunities.

“I could see that my other friends had already proceeded to higher education and said they couldn’t come back to Vatukoula or they would be sent underground for casual works in the mines.”

Antonio managed to study afield at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, with a government scholarship and retains fond memories of growing up in the charming mining town, where he still has a few resident relatives.

Rotuman assertiveness

As studies and publications noted, the Rotumans of Vatukoula did not go without their share of challenges. One of these was the community’s insistence of retaining independence and control of their own affairs, which clashed with the rules of the mining companies. As cited by author Michael Lieber in Exiles and Migrants in Oceania, houses were symbolic to Rotuman social status and members of their community once approached a mining welfare office to request that their minister be allocated a house better than merited, which clashed with the mine management rules of how homes were assigned.

The Rotumans also ran their own mess hall and were noted as the only community in Vatukoula to take care of their own food, as a Chinese caterer oversaw the part-European and European mess, while the Fijian mess was taken care of by the mining company.

“The advantage enjoyed by Rotumans in their arrangement lies not only in profits but also in the capacity to allocate jobs within the mess to Rotumans,” it was noted.

The first Rotuman worker at Vatukoula was a man named Tafaki, who joined the mine in 1939 and was recognised as a headman. Following him, the Rotuman community elected an electrician named Riamkau as headman.

“In a short time he had gained a commitment from the company for better housing, but his aggressive manner also generated some antagonism within the community. Then chief Tausia, one of the seven paramount chiefs from Rotuma, visited Vatukoula in 1950 and appointed another man, Vai, as ‘headman’.”

Vai remained headman until he died in 1960, although his predecessor, Riamkau, remained an influential member of the community during Vai’s leadership and even put together a committee that compromised of one man of chiefly decent from each Rotuman district. They held monthly meetings.

“Interestingly, the resultant structure very nearly duplicated the social structure on Rotuma,” Lieber noted.

“Thus the ‘headman’ in Vatukoula put in a very similar position to the district officer on Rotuma, and the committee corresponded to the Council of Chiefs. Even the monthly meetings, which rotated among committee members’ households, paralleled the Rotuman custom of rotating host districts.”

Riamkau was re-elected leader after Vai’s death, though the committee passed a motion for the headman’s term to be limited to two years.

Close-knit

“The community has been close but when you look at it, it has really depended on the kind of managers we used to have,” Maria said.

“Some managers before were very easy, some were strict and managed to control the drunkards in the area.”

One of the former regulations she noted included the eviction of a whole family if a member of their household damaged property or stole from other homes.

“That kind of eased off the rowdiness of the drunkards. We only had one or two cases of when that happened, because they would worry that no matter where they were, if they got into trouble, then their whole family was put out. And it was good, because it eased off the rowdiness and danger.”

Mine managers differed in character, with some taking a more avid interest in the affairs of Vatukoula’s community, while others were more centred on production.

“Some came in and both cared for the community, as well as the production,” she said.

Likewise, the characters of those regarded as Rotuman leaders have also varied, though they have played pivotal roles of overseeing their people outside the traditional frameworks of Rotuman villages.

“Even though Rotumans are now everywhere, in Loloma, Nasivi and at Low-Cost, we still have what we call our area leader, similar to the village set-up. So whatever happens, we still do things together,” Maria noted.

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Filed under Fiji, Financial returns, Human rights

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