OPINION: The identities of our fellow Fijians

Paul Geraghty points out that our nation is not only multi-ethnic, it is a multi-lingual society. Picture: AFP

SOME of you may have read a tongue-incheek letter I wrote to the editor of this newspaper that was published last Saturday (September 18th) with the heading “A modest proposal”. 

It was, of course, satirical after the manner of my compatriot Jonathan Swift’s synonymous essay of about 300 years ago; but like all satire was intended to raise, among the laughs, some serious thought about the way we do things in Fiji, in particular the way we acknowledge, or fail to acknowledge, the identities of our fellow Fijians.

It was in part prompted by the government’s decision to ignore ethnicity in the past census, and its reaction when the government statistician did publish some data on ethnicity. Many more eminent and knowledgeable authorities than myself have commented on the need for reliable information on ethnicity in planning and delivering government services, including Richard Naidu, Steven Ratuva, Dr Eddie McCaig, Jioji Kotobalavu, Wadan Narsay and Vijay Naidu, so I will not add unnecessarily to the chorus.

However, I would like to endorse a comment by Prof Ratuva that it is a myth that ethnic-based statistics promote ethnic division. Stating, for example, that there are 60 ethnic Irishmen and women who are citizens of Fiji in no way promotes hatred or discrimination against the Irish, it is merely pointing out a fact that helps explain why St Patrick’s Day is not a national holiday in Fiji. Nor does asking about a person’s ethnicity mean you are a racist.

For instance, politely enquiring of a fellow Fijian you have just met “On turaga/marama beka ni vei?” Does not show that you are in any way prejudiced against people from any particular part of Fiji – it is a respectful way to establish your relationship with that person and to understand their identity. It could even be considered impolite if you didn’t ask the question. As a linguist, I would like to further point out that our nation is not only multi-ethnic, it is multi-lingual. Unfortunately, it is part of our latter-day colonial tradition – inherited from the 1930s New Zealand education system, and still very much alive today – to ignore this fact, and pretend that we all speak English. Of course we don’t.

The vast majority of us use one of the two main vernaculars as our everyday language. Which brings me to another criticism of not only the most recent census, but every census since 1966 – the complete absence of statistics on language use. In censuses up until the most recent, this shortcoming was not very keenly felt, for two reasons. One was that all censuses contained information on ethnicity, and ethnicity is a rough guide to language use.

For example, if you identify as a Banaban, there is a strong, though not 100 per cent, likelihood that your native language is Banaban; but there are many exceptions to the generalisation, such as the many Rotumans and Solomon Islanders whose everyday language is Fijian.

Now that ethnicity has been officially banned, and we are all soon to be identified by a six-digit number, we don’t even have that rough guide to language use. The second reason is that successive governments have functioned almost entirely in English, so have little interest in data on any other languages. They have failed to develop our vernacular languages in any way, or to use them effectively in education, with the result that those of us who are not fluent in English feel hopelessly disenfranchised, even though the present constitution insists that no-one is to be discriminated against on the basis of the language they use. The current government has gone one step further by banning all languages other than English in Parliament, thus barring all who are not fluent in English from effective participation in the political life of the nation. This is a scandalous waste of talent.

I suggest we step outside our latter-day colonial past and look at how other multilingual nations in the world function. Our penchant for copying everything from ‘ovasis’ – a land of milk and honey roughly equivalent to Australia and New Zealand – ignores the fact that they are largely monolingual countries (despite which linguistic minorities in those two countries are given a lot more information in their own languages than are the linguistic majorities in Fiji).

Let’s look for guidance to other multilingual nations like such as Belgium, Switzerland or Canada. In these nations, at least two languages have official status and are used in education and in government, with professional translators available when needed; and as a result most of the population know and have an informed interest in what the government is doing and how their country is being run. This is something that is sadly lacking in Fiji.

Because of government’s refusal to function in any language other than English, many children leave school with not even a basic education and functionally illiterate in both English and their native language, and many people have no investment in the government, rumours flourish and ignorance thrives, with sometimes dire consequences I need not elaborate on.

Including statistics on language use in the census would be a good start, but in the long-term government needs to take multilingualism seriously, train a cadre of professional translators (currently there are none) and develop at least our two main vernaculars for use in all domains, including at least primary education.

Only then will we be on the way to becoming a nation in which all citizens are equally informed and competent to be involved in determining our future – not just an elite who happen to be fluent in a foreign language.

 PAUL GERAGHTY is an Associate Professor of School of Language, Arts & Media at The University of the South Pacific. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect the views of this newspaper.

More Stories