Cross-cultural experiences at schools play a key role in helping bridge the divides that separate us and confine us from fully realising and celebrating the delights of diversity in our lives.
Last week, I brought to you particulars about the recent reunion at South Taveuni Indian School where I spent the first five years of my life as a primary school student.
It was highlighted that it is not uncommon for us to develop new understandings of things that we have lived with as we move along the path of life and acquire new knowledge through experiences.
The gates of South Taveuni Indian School that were once dreaded was suddenly being seen as the welcoming portals of a very fond and cherished existence. In fact, it was much more than that.
This was the first experience at life outside the parental umbrella that children get so used to before being shooed off to school.
This is where we encounter differences away from home. And more importantly, this is where we come into contact with people who are different from us.
The point is that these schools act as cauldrons for helping forge cross-cultural understandings and these understandings are critical for accepting differences in multi-cultural societies like ours.
Let us now move focus to the second school reunion that I participated in on the chiefly island of Taveuni. This time, it was as an “esteemed guest”.
Wairiki Secondary School
This was the school that I attended for the final year of my primary and the first four years of my secondary education.
The primary school was called Wairiki Catholic Mission School and the secondary school was called Wairiki Secondary School. This is now the widely respected Holy Cross College.
As you will have guessed, Wairiki Catholic Mission School was part of the Catholic Church’s enormous contribution to education in Fiji. At this point in time, it has a total of 63 schools scattered all over the country. Of these, 19 are secondary schools and 44 primary ones.
When I was enrolled into Class Six in 1973 by our landlord Ratu Ilaitia (Major), my parents were keen on ensuring that I had a clear pathway to further education.
There were no issues about religion because the first Catholic Indo-Fijian parishioner of Taveuni was my greatgrandmother. Monica Nani is buried among the nuns in Wairiki. I used to go to church with her whenever I visited her place on Sundays.
The church, therefore, was not new to me. What was new was the fact that there were virtually no Indo-Fijian teachers at Wairiki. I had moved from a school where they were the only “type” of teachers.
At Wairiki, our class teacher was Mrs Bache, the wife of the manager of the most prominent hotel on the island at the time, a white woman. This was about the furthest one could go on the spectrum of difference for a young local child I would dare say.
She was white, did not speak our vernaculars and wore miniskirts as part of her regular attire to school. It goes without saying that I struggled, and it took a while to zoom onto the content of her teaching.
The other thing that I encountered in that first year was student bullying that was rife at the school. In retrospect, I think this was largely because I was a small Indo-Fijian who was new to the school – easy, new prey.
Anyway, that year passed, and I moved to Wairiki Junior Secondary School. With this progress, life changed greatly. I was now acknowledged as a “smart” student and had friends among the bullies.
The legendary disciplinarian master Sakiusa Sing was the principal and the school was growing fast both physically as well as intellectually.
The teachers were Peace Corp volunteers from the US, other volunteers from New Zealand and Australia, nuns who were largely foreign, plus graduates of Corpus Christi Teachers College.
This teacher training college was a part of the Catholic Archdiocese of Suva/Fiji. I will tell you more about life and learnings at Wairiki in a later article.
For now, it was this life at Wairiki that we celebrated at the recent reunion in Taveuni.
Reunion at Wairiki
This reunion had been in planning for a long time with ex-student Jone Katoni doing the initial spearheading in consultation with a number of key figures.
I was not part of the communication network that was being used at the time, so I relied on whatever I could pick up from my regular exWairiki contacts and from Facebook.
As we drove past the parish hall and the ground on our way to the drive up the hill to Holy Cross College, I could not stop reminiscing and marvelling at the depth of the history of both the church as well as the school that we had been so privileged to be a part of in our formative years.
The parish hall on the roadside had hosted so many significant boxing programs.
It was here that prominent boxers like Sunia Cama, Jeke Naqelevuki, Ruata Teupa, Samu Vocea, Tongan Luke Veikoso and even a very young Sakaraia Ve graced the haloed boxing ring.
The bay in front of the playground was where marauding Tongan Prince Maafu’s conquest of Fiji was conclusively extinguished by the Tui Cakau with key assistance from the Tui Vuna and his gonedau.
Credit must also be given to the Wairiki Catholic Mission and the sacred cross that prevented a total primeval carnage on that fateful day. As one looks up from the road, the Holy Cross stands tall in the green distance capped by its blue halo of benevolence.
The road to the Holy Cross diverges into Holy Cross College quite early in its journey.
This is the road that we climbed to make it to the Golden Jubilee Celebration that preceded the week of reunion. It was here that I met the legendary former principal master Ben Salacakau after having heard so much about him.
In his illustrious career, he had also been our ambassador to South Africa. It was master Salacakau who embraced me first before introducing me to many others who were from different batches of ex-Wairiki.
The program had an amalgamation of the traditional as well as the religious/ spiritual. There was a yaqona ceremony and a mass presided over by His Eminence, the Archbishop Peter Loy Chong.
The Archbishop then delivered a most illuminating speech where he highlighted the importance of jubilees and how ours presented an excellent opportunity to “reset” our priorities and our lives.
This was followed by the elegant Maria Yates who had been carefully chosen and she delivered a worthy speech that took us down memory lane. After two more speeches, we were treated to a sumptuous lunch that befitted the occasion.
I was simply blown over by the katavatu and dalo. With the formalities over, I met ex-head boy Takinana Nonu who immediately invited me to Rabi. Then I met ex-policeman Benedito Masikau who was once a part of the Fiji national rugby team. I am told he is now Tui Lavena.
We managed to have a brown bowl session with Champak Lal (Meridian), Rodney Yee and former principal Anil Shankaran. There were so many others who called me by my nickname, Dea Dea.
These were people who had been part of our family at Wairiki. I promised to meet up with them later, but as happens, this did not eventuate. So much was left undone. This is the part of reunions that pushes us towards planning for the next one.
We want to relive those ephemeral moments, that life that we took to be ours, that part of us that we left behind, and we look for it through planned programs in the future. Both ends are hazy, and neither will give us what we crave for.
The precious times that we spent at Wairiki will remain with us as cherished memories. The focus and discipline that we put into our lives and studies. The importance of physical fitness to complement mental acuity and prowess.
It was at this school that I became a member of a champion national quiz team at the age of 13. All of these values that are increasingly considered “old school” these days launched us on different paths to life.
And we have continued to carry that Wairiki flag with pride. After the program, as I drove back to my uncle Harnam Singh’s residence in Ura where I was billeted, I could not help thinking about how Wairiki had given us so much to celebrate and be thankful for.
Then suddenly we hit a famous Taveuni pothole, and I was jolted back to reality. That brought me out of my reverie as I reached for my handkerchief and looked through the mist in my eyes at the bumpy road ahead. I will share more next week.
• DR SUBHASH APPANNA is a senior USP academic who has been writing on issues of historical and national significance. The views expressed here are his alone and not necessarily shared by this newspaper or his employers subhash.appana@ usp.ac.f