Coups and kava, Ian Johnstone

Kava in the blood
Peter Thomson
Tandem Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1 877178 54 3

Peter Thomson is passionate about the country where he was born, Fiji, and compassionate towards his countrymen – much more so than they deserve, when you consider how they treated him. Fijian nationalists insulted and abused him, and he was kicked out of his job, imprisoned without charge and forced to leave the country by a Fijian demagogue. After all that, you might expect this memoir to be somewhat bitter, but, amazingly, there is not a vindictive word about the people of Fiji. That kava is powerful stuff, drip-feeding tolerance, humour and understanding into those who, like Peter Thomson, drink enough of it to end up with kava in the blood.

When kava is drunk, the centrepiece is the “tanoa”, the wooden bowl from which the “wai ni vanua” is served. Draped round the tanoa’s rim is a “magimagi” – a halter plaited from strands of coconut fibre, and studded with glistening white shells. A fine magimagi is a beautiful artefact, symbolising I suppose, the link between those sitting round the tanoa now, and those who have drunk from it before. This book is a sort of magimagi, adding significance to old ways, celebrating a lovely country, encouraging reminiscence and comment, but not animosity.

One strand in the magimagi is Thomson’s account of the period after Rabuka’s coups and his own part in the process which – eventually – restored democracy to Fiji. It reads like a political thriller, and the detailed and acute narrative will intrigue people interested in Fiji or politics. But do not go looking for people to blame for the anger and treasonable acts which consigned Fiji to a decade of confusion. There are names, of course, and insights into what people did and why they did it – but the most valuable thing you will find in this strand is understanding about why it all happened.

The other and central strand, in which the author recollects the episodes and places which locked themselves into his memory and affection over the half century he spent in Fiji, is an absolute delight – for any reader. Starting with what was obviously a golden, mangrove-exploring, rain-sliding, horse-riding childhood, he takes us all over his beloved country. To Taveuni, where he was District Officer, and where “the land slopes away like a dove’s fanned tail into the sea”, then to his house, where the view “was framed by two immense rain trees that were home to a profusion of birds, ferns and daydreams and … the blue ocean currents swirling through the Somosomo Strait below and the squat hills of Vanua Levu beyond.” Thomson’s lyrical, deft descriptions take us out to the Yasawas, inland to Nadarivatu, and
north to Labasa. With this engaging, wry and delightful travelling companion, we visit haunted houses and villages devastated by the flooding Rewa river, meet Indian friends who offer us curried goat, and sit with Fijian ones to drink gallons of kava.

In 1987, Peter Thomson was, of course, drinking kava when the fearsome and fearful Colonel Rabuka went into Fiji’s Parliament, dismissed and locked up Prime Minister Bavadra’s Government, and declared martial law. Thomson cogently describes the harshness and mistrust of the power plays that followed. Like most Fiji-born Europeans, he was a neutral in the simmering struggle for influence between Fijian and Indian, but now he had to choose among three leaders – all Fijians, all, in their way, brave men. Dr Bavadra had courageously tried to share political power with Indians; Rabuka was a dauntless warrior; and Governor-General Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau showed the bravery expected of a high chief – determination to hold the centre, restore calm and move to reconciliation. It is no surprise that Thomson, fifth-generation son of Fiji and loyal public servant, threw in his lot with the man he had admired since childhood – the chiefly peacemaker. It was to cost him dear. Throughout his descriptions of the negotiations, the hopes raised and then dashed down, is the sorrow at the loss of friendship, the suspicion, calumny and mistrust which were to drive him away from his homeland before peace was restored.

Thomson does not spare New Zealand when he describes the behaviour of our Government and media in the early, dangerous days after Rabuka’s coup d’état, when we preferred to grandstand rather than be good neighbours. But, as ever, he tempers justice with mercy, acknowledging the major part played by a New Zealander – Sir Paul Reeves, Chair of the Constitution Review Commission – in reconciling the factions and returning Fiji to democracy.

Perhaps because there is so much kava in his blood, Thomson modestly claims no kudos for the very significant contribution that he made to Fiji in its darkest days. He did not walk away, as did so many others. He could have become instantly famous as an outraged democrat, or instantly powerful as a Fijian loyalist and experienced administrator. Instead, he patiently set about showing the people of Fiji that, despite all the bristling and growling, there was a path of sharing and accommodation that they could follow. I hope he looks back on that period with pride, for he gave his country far more than many who claim it to be exclusively theirs.

In a moving episode in this enchanting and beautifully written book, Peter Thomson describes a conversation with the man who had cradled him in his arms when he was a baby, and for whom he now worked – Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau. Penaia comments to Thomson, a fifth-generation son of Fiji, that there is much less experience of democracy in Fiji than there is in “your country”. He means Scotland, the home of Thomson’s great-great-grandfather. It’s an innocent enough remark, but in a moment of poignant lament, Thomson realises that to the Fijians he will always be a Scot – a “vulagi” – an outsider. Blood is thicker than kava.

Thank you, Peter Thomson, vinaka vaka levu, for the exquisite magimagi you crafted and gave us when you wrote Kava in the blood.

Ian Johnstone’s book Stand and Deliver (Cape Catley) was reviewed in last December’s issue of New Zealand Books.

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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