The White Fijian

by John Penisten, U.S. Peace Corps, Fiji I Group, 1968-69

(Adapted from the book Green Hills and Blue Lagoons: A Peace Corps Memoir. The book is available through Amazon.com and Kindle ebooks.)

            To be called a “white Fijian” is probably the biggest compliment that could be bestowed on a foreigner living in Fiji.  To be labeled a “white Fijian” necessarily implies that you have been in Fiji a long time, so long in fact that you have become, well, Fijian.  This is especially true for those foreigners living out in the bush country on remote islands and away from urban areas.

            Father Ramon Jarre, a Frenchman by birth, was a “white Fijian” and yet one of the most respected and admired figures in the Buca Bay district of Vanua Levu, the second largest island in Fiji.  Father Jarre had been in Fiji for some 35-years then, serving the Catholic Church in numerous missions throughout the islands.  When I first met him, he was pastor of Napuka Catholic Mission on the northern peninsula tip of the Buca Bay district.

            I got to know Father Jarre during 1968-69, when I lived in the Buca Bay district of Vanua Levu as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Being one of the few “kai va lagis” (white men) in the area, it didn’t take long for my presence to become known far and wide throughout the region.  My work involved conducting an agricultural census of the region which allowed me to travel throughout the district.

            During the course of my travels, I had several occasions to visit Napuka.  I was always warmly received by the good Father.  I always found a place to stay in Father’s house and a hearty meal that was a welcome change from the routine village food to which I’d grown accustomed.

            Father Ramon, in his 60’s, was a small man, 5’6″, with a ruddy wrinkled complexion and wore the thickest pair of “coke bottle” glasses ever made.  They apparently were heavy for he always used a safety strap to keep them on his head.  Father spoke English, of course, and incredible Fijian with an amusing French accent.  Nonetheless, he had a rapport and relationship with the people of the area that was singularly solid.

            But over and above this, Father held the coveted title of “white Fijian” for his other skills.  Father was a consummate smoker of the very strong Fijian twist tobacco favored by the locals. He rolled it into small cigars and puffed away compulsively.  This stuff wasn’t for the faint-hearted. It was a deep dark brown in color with an equally pungent aroma.  When it was being smoked, it nearly suffocated you.  To the uninitiated, one puff on this tobacco sent you reeling into a wretching coughing spasm.  It was that bad.

            Most Fijians consumed the stuff by peeling off a couple of leaves from the tobacco roll and rolling them in newspaper. This made a dainty long thin cigarette.  Banana leaves were also used.  Others, the real macho-type guys, like Father Jarre, smoked the stuff straight.  No sissy paper or banana leaf rolls for him.

            Another very distinctive trait that endeared Father to the Fijians was his amazing ability around the yaqona bowl.  Yaqona or kava, as it’s widely known in the South Pacific, is a drink made from the pounded roots of a pepper plant, Piper methysticum.  The pounded roots are mixed with water to make a concoction that looks like muddy water.  Yaqona is the national drink of Fiji and villagers spend hours drinking the stuff and socializing.  The result of a yaqona or “grog” session, as they call it, is that it renders a soporific effect, essentially making one drowsy or groggy.

The good Father could easily drink many Fijians under the table at their own grog sessions.  Father was so Fijianized in fact, that he had to have grog everyday, usually in the afternoon while just sitting on the veranda of the mission house watching the school kids play across the church courtyard.

When drinking grog from a half-coconut shell bilo (cup), it was good custom to make as much slurping noise as possible.  So you didn’t just sip the peppery liquid gingerly, but you slurped and guzzled it with gusto.  This pleased the Fijians to no end and Father Jarre was a notorious grog swiller, one of the best.

            One time Father came down to Tukavesi, the village where I was stationed, to say Mass on a Sunday.  He often traveled around the Buca Bay area to visit the villages, say Mass and tend to his flocks.  He drove his own Land Rover, hunched down behind the steering wheel and it appeared that he could barely see over the hood.  Usually it would be customary for the people to have tea and cakes or some nice meal prepared for such an esteemed visitor.  But that wouldn’t do for Father Jarre.  He would have none of the niceties.  They all knew what he wanted and expected: yaqona, and plenty of it.  In fact, as soon as Mass was over, I joined Father and several of the villagers for a good grog session that must have lasted the better part of the afternoon and into the evening.  It was a standard procedure to have the grog bowl ready when Father Jarre came visiting.  And the villagers knew that if they didn’t have things in order and the grog ready, there’d be hell to pay.

            On my visits to Napuka, especially when I stayed overnight, I could count on some enjoyable socializing.  Besides being the congenial host he was, I found Father Ramon to be a very observant, intelligent, and interesting individual.  He was a well-read man, interested in world affairs, which was surprising for someone living in such a remote area like Napuka.  He avidly read Newsweek magazine, newspapers, and other periodicals as he could.  We had many an enjoyable conversation about current and world affairs, politics, and so on.

            Father Ramon Jarre, the “white Fijian,” was one of the old island hands of South Pacific lore, a truly incredible and remarkable individual.

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