Rotuma is a Polynesian island, north west of Fiji. It was administered as part of Fiji by the British colonial administration. During the decades of colonial rule many Rotumans moved from Rotuma to Fiji so today there are more Rotumans in Fiji than in Rotuma itself. Rotumans started occupying many important positions in Fiji, including in the civil service.
The first Rotumans I got to know were Mr. and Mrs. Tui Malo. Mr. Malo was my colleague when I started teaching at Jasper Williams High School in Lautoka. Mrs. Malo was the District Nurse in Lautoka based at the health office where I used to take our daughter Shree, who was only a few months old, regularly for check up. The Malos were transferred from Lautoka soon after. Years later their daughter Ruth became my student at Jasper Williams High School as the Malos decided that the best option for Ruth was to be a boarder at Jasper and attend that school. So my relationship with the Malos continued through Ruth.
Shree had a close Rotuman friend in Lijiana who went to primary school with her. Lijiana became a physiotherapist later and worked at Lautoka hospital. In 1991 when Shree was also at Lautoka hospital they were able to enjoy each other’s company again. When our grandson Ashwath was born later that year Lijiana used to look after Shree well which Shree still remembers gratefully.
Ashwath, though born in Fiji, moved away from there as a five-month-old baby when his parents moved to New Zealand. Though he used to come regularly to Fiji for his school holidays until 2000, when I also decided to move from Fiji, his understanding of Fiji was more as a visitor than as a resident so it was limited in many ways.
As the New Zealand school holidays did not coincide with Fiji school holidays I used to be at work often when Ashwath used to be in Fiji. So he used to sometimes come with me to my school and spend time in the library or in the office. Since he has always been a chatterbox the library assistant and the secretary at the office were happy to have him around and he was happy to run little errands for them. At other times he would go with his grandfather to the Daily Post office, the newspaper for which my husband worked at that time.
In the evenings Ashwath used to sit with us and watch TV news. Fiji TV in those days had limited programmes mainly in the evenings so Ashwath did not get to watch much TV in Fiji. He was happy for the chance to watch in the evening though it was mainly the news and most of it was not of interest to him. The one thing he could follow was the weather news. One day he asked me: “Why do they always say Fiji and Rotuma? Where is Rotuma?” (The weather forecast is always for Fiji and Rotuma).
So I explained to him that though Rotuma was not really part of the Fiji group it was administered as part of Fiji by the British colonial government. I also told him how during the colonial rule many Rotumans moved to Fiji and since there were more Rotumans in Fiji than in Rotuma itself, when Fiji became independent it was decided that Rotuma would become part of Fiji.
To make my point clearer I gave Ashwath an example. I said: “You know Uncle Freddy at the Daily Post. He is Rotuman”. Fred Wesley, who had attended Natabua High School with our daughters was the sports reporter for the Daily Post at that time. Still Ashwath did not understand how Rotuma was different – after all there are over 300 islands in Fiji and why was Rotuma different from any of the other island groups?
Then I decided to tell Ashwath the story of the biscuits: “I will tell you a story about the Rotumans but you must not go and say anything about it to Uncle Freddy.” Ashwath agreed and I told him.
According to the story, I explained to Ashwath, a few Rotumans came from Rotuma to Fiji for a visit and they had some biscuits which they had never had in Rotuma. They liked them so much that they decided to take some back with them. When they reached Rotuma they decided to plant them so that they would have a biscuit tree which would give them a regular supply of biscuits! Ashwath had a hearty laugh and again I reminded him not to say anything to Fred.
The next afternoon when he came back from the office Ashwath said to me: “Sorry Ammamma, you told me not to mention anything about the biscuit to Uncle Freddy but I just could not resist it and I blurted it out!” I thought it was my fault in the first place to tell the chatterbox something like that so there was no point in getting angry now. Instead I asked him what Freddy said.
Ashwath explained what happened. ‘I asked: “Uncle Freddy, are you one of those Rotumans who plant biscuits?”’
I was more interested to know what the reaction was. Ashwath said: “There was a great big laughter in the office and Uncle Freddy also laughed and said, ‘No, no, I am not!’”
One journalist who always used to refer to the biscuit story in his columns was Robert Keith-Reid. As his wife was Rotuman no one could accuse him of showing racism or prejudice though according to what he used to write in his column sometimes his daughter who is part Rotuman would ask him if he was “being ethnic” and threaten to tell her mother! (This suspected Rotuman mocking could be even in using a term of endearment like ‘sweet biscuit’ to address his daughter!)