A Fijian Postscript

fiji-childrenFiji is an interesting country. The local Fijian people are a joy. A smile is never far from their lips. They seem to have a natural affinity with deaf people. Let them know you are deaf and they communicate in mime, gesture or by writing as if it is second nature to them. Fiji is also a third world country. Apart from tourism the locals rely largely on agriculture to exist. Cows roam the roads, pigs are bred in backyard lots and the locals walk the roads carrying their produce purchased from the roadside markets. In Suva while looking for the Fiji Association of the Deaf, we stopped at Fiji’s largest hospital to seek directions. The first room we walked into we found two local Fijians of Indian descent making a coffin. It was a stark reminder as to where we were. Despite this, the level of acceptance and willingness to communicate made one feel an equal.

Meanwhile the age old to have or not have a Cochlear Implant debate has been reignited by an article in The Age. Professor Clark, inventor and chief promoter of Cochlear Implants, was at his misleading best. Cochlear Implants, he says, will allow, “…deaf children to compete with their hearing peers on a normal footing. In Sweden, 95 per cent of profoundly deaf children have a cochlear implant.” Millions will read his comments and garner false hope and unrealistic expectations as to the benefits of cochlear implants.

Deaf Australia in an attempt to balance the debate put forward the opposite extreme. They had this to say, “….The implant implies that deaf people are ill or incomplete individuals, are lonely and unhappy, cannot communicate effectively with others and are all desperately searching for a cure for their condition.” Of course the implant doesn’t imply any of this; people do. In an attempt to counter the extremes of Professor Clark, Deaf Australia have probably and unwittingly driven a few million people towards him. Why? Simply because many will not understand the Deaf culture arguments and will resonate more with the “CURE it” mentality of Professor Clark. It is an uphill battle that Deaf Australia must fight. Meanwhile the deaf and the hearing understand each other just a little bit less.

Back in Fiji we visited the hostel for Deaf kids in Suva. In Suva they have a primary school and a high school for the deaf kids. Over 50 deaf kids reside at the hostel from all parts of Fiji. They attend the two local Deaf schools. We arrived at the hostel just as the kids were coming home from school. To say they were excited to see us is an understatement. The kitchen was standing room only. There were no shy kids or ones that were unable to communicate. There was not a cochlear implant or hearing aid in sight. Just happy, well adapted and curious deaf kids communicating at will. I tell you once a Fijian person smiles, they smile for a long time. As we left they all followed us to the van to wave us off. It was inspiring.

Back in Australia Can Do for Kids and Deaf Can Do CEO, Paul Flynn, has resigned. He claims he has resigned to pursue other interests. He resigns at a time when the interpreters and the Deaf community in South Australia are in turmoil. He resigns at a time when Deaf Can Do is in dispute with the National Auslan Booking Service. The dispute touches on interpreter monopolies, deaf choice and interpreter rights and is dividing the Deaf and interpreter fraternities of South Australia. Access anywhere is never a smooth path and sometimes Australian Deaf organisations do not make it any easier. Deaf people and many interpreters in the meantime look on in confusion. The majority just want interpreters and most interpreters just want to work.  If only it were so simple.

After visiting the hostel we visited the Fiji Association of the Deaf. The Association lobbies and coordinates events for the Fijian Deaf community. It is run and controlled solely by Deaf Fijians. The only hearing person in sight was the interpreter. Here we are in the so called backwaters of Fiji and Deaf people are in complete control of their own lives and their community. It is something Australians, especially the hearing people that cling so desperately to their control, can learn from.

Questioned about hearing aids and cochlear implants the Fijian Deaf people were dismissive, almost as if hearing is just an afterthought. Communication and belonging were values foremost at the front of their thinking. Being able to hear was not needed for any of that. Language, acceptance and friends were. Back in South Australia everyone is at war about interpreting provision. Deaf Fijians would be bemused because the level of interpreter access to be had in Australia is something that they can only dream of.

We had agreed to speak to the Fiji Association of the Deaf and their interpreter trainees. Once again we had a full house. It was overwhelming. We spoke to the group about captioning. Fiji doesn’t have captioning on TV. Most were, frankly, quite dismissive about the need for captioning. They were almost of the view that captioning on TV wasn’t needed. They could get captioning on DVDs they said. Having no captions on the TV was no big deal for them. What they do want are more interpreters. Indeed the Fijian Association of the Deaf is the organisation that organises and implements training for interpreters. (Remember, it is controlled solely by Deaf people.) There are not many interpreters in Fiji but they recognise the need for interpreters in a variety of situations. For them this was the priority, not something seemingly as self indulgent as captions on the television. The gulf between values and needs of Fijian Deaf people and Western Deaf people is huge. We, who have nearly everything, perhaps need to appreciate more of what we do have.

Meanwhile over in Fiji Deaf people are smiling broadly. The Fijian hearing populace are also smiling broadly. Not for them is it to worry about whether deaf people can hear or be fixed. The important thing is that they be happy, loved and included. To be deaf is to be an equal. Sure Fijian Deaf people have disadvantages in interacting with their community and this is part of the reason that they are lobbying hard for more interpreters and doing their best to train more. But it all comes down to acceptance and this their society has in abundance.

I could be wrong but Deaf and hearing Fijians seemed to me to be equals and they respect each other as such. We here in Australia, who moan when television hows are not captioned or when the trains are late, can learn from the Fijians – arguably more, in fact, than Fijians can learn from us.

Life is like this: sometimes sun,
sometimes rain.
Fijian Proverb

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4 thoughts on “A Fijian Postscript

  1. Let’s also remember that being gay is illegal in Fiji.

    It’s not the island of love and caring and sharing you make it out to be.

    Fijians discriminate against others in terrible ways.

    FYI…

    Fiji PM Invokes Bible for Anti-Gay Law
    GayNZ.com, April 15, 2005

    Fiji’s Prime Minister has told international gay and human rights groups to keep their noses out of the country’s affairs, invoking the Bible as justification for the country’s laws prohibiting gay sex which last week saw a 55-year-old Australian tourist jailed.

    PM Laisenia Qarase says the country has no intention of repealing the law, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years jail. He said in a radio interview that the Bible clearly states homosexuality is a sin and Fiji’s law reflected that.

    Various groups in Australia and New Zealand are calling on their governments to become involved. On Monday Australian gays demonstrated in front of the Fijian consulate in Sydney, joined by Greens senator Kerry Nettle.

    In New Zealand, OUT! Magazine editor Warren Chapman-Taylor has written to MPs expressing concern, and is asking for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to issue an official travel warning for gay and lesbian New Zealanders travelling to Fiji, as the United Kingdom has done already. No response has yet been received.

    • It does not surprise me as the church has a huge influence in Fiji. It is almost missionary in its application. That said our own Tasmania, until recently I believe, also had anti gay legislation and the previous governments views on gay marriage are nothing to write home about either.

  2. Tasmania overturned its draconian legislation in 1997. It was the second Australian state to recognise same sex unions, passing its Relationship Act in 2004. Tasmania has in fact come a long way in a short period of time. Katz, your response doesn’t even make sense.

    Looking at Fiji: “The Fijian Penal code states that any person who has carnal knowledge against the order of nature faces imprisonment of 14 years, with or without corporal punishment and indecent practices between males is punishable by 5 years imprisonment.” An Australian was sentenced to two year imprisonment in 2005.

    Please do not belittle the consequences of harassment, bullying and neglect of human rights on the GLBT minority group just because you want your article to paint a picture of a Fijian utopia full of equality. If we are committed to ending discrimination and if we are true about our notions of equality, then we should view the actions of a country or group in its entirety, not just a small part. Your comment from the article above “But it all comes down to acceptance and this their society has in abundance” is sadly hollow.

    And let’s not overlook the fact that Fiji is still run by an interim government after a coup d’état in 2006. It is not a democracy. And I wonder do all Deaf and hearing Fijians feel equal? Tension between the ethnic Fijians and Indian Fijians has led to four coups in the last 20 years – group distinctions are alive and kicking in the island paradise. Did you meet with both a combination of Deaf/hearing and ethnic/Indian Fijians?

    One last thing, Gazza, you write some great articles, but sometimes, like a true tabloid journalist you give in to some terrible overgeneralizations: “I tell you once a Fijian person smiles, they smile for a long time.” It conjures up a lovely image, but it is in fact condescending – and for some of those living in oppression under a military government, simply not true.

    • I do apologise for the SMILE line in the article. It is frankly almost nauseous to read. Not one of my better efforts. 😀

      I also apologise if I gave the impression I was belittling human rights or rights for gay people in anyway. It was not my intention.

      My intention was threefold .. one was to demonstrate that Australia has had, in the past, anti-gay laws. As you said it was only in 1997 that Tasmania changed its draconian laws. Secondly, Federally at least, Australia still continues to grapple with same sex marriages. In my clumsy way I was trying to point out Australia still had a long way to go.

      Thirdly I was trying to suggest that the Church has a huge influence in Fiji and may well be a large reason for the anti-gay laws. Not that it makes it acceptable, only that it is probably a huge part of the reason the laws exist. I am totally in agreement with you that the Fiji gay laws are a totally unacceptable.

      But remember the church and laws in general were introduced by the people that TOOK OVER Fiji. They are not natural institutions of Fiji. I did mention in my editorial that Fiji had a lot of racial tension and political upheaval. I in no way wanted to paint it as utopia.

      BUT I wrote of my experience of the people I did meet. The real Fijians if you like. The ones not responsible for the laws and ceratinly not the government. The government and the people, particularly when the goverment is a dictatorship, should never be confused. I stand by what I wrote that the Fijian people are an accepting lot, happy and made me feel very equal. THE PEOPLE not the GOVERNMENT.

      Fiji is not a perfect country by any means but there is much we can learn from them, at least as far as their attitude to deaf people goes.

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