Saying Grace in Fiji

At the “sevusevu”, the traditional welcoming ceremony at a Fijian village, my head was spinning with all the protocol that I had to remember and the token gift which I was to offer, so as not to insult the chief. I repeated some of them off in my head. Sit with my legs crossed, don’t forget to leave my shoes outside the hut, (called a bure), and absolutely make sure my toes were never pointed at the chief. And, definitely no standing if he was sitting and to keep my head lower than his at all times.

I couldn’t believe I was doing this. Here I was in the bush in Levuka, Ovalau, a small Fifian island minutes by plane from Nadi (pronounced Nandi). Chief Jeremiah Tukituku was dressed in the traditional Vesa (arm decorations) and a Liku ( a sarong type skirt). Hanging from his neck was a huge boar’s tooth. And let me tell you that must have been some big beast, but that’s another story. Was I uncomfortable? Well, to be honest, I couldn’t figure out how I had agreed to this as I looked at my accommodations. I’d be spending my nights in my very own bure. Sounds good? Well it was 8 feet by 10 feet with a thatched roof, mosquito netting around the floor mat on which I would be sleeping and a kerosene lamp. I figured I’d worry about everything later. At this point, I had to decide how I was going to down the kava, a strong black celebratory drink, offered as part of the welcoming rites. Sip slowing, was the answer.

Chief Jeremiah was a kind man and wanted the best for the youths in the area so he realized he’s have to create jobs. With the help of some locals, he decided to build an authentic Fijian Cultural village without any of the kitchy touristy aspects. Believe me, Devokula Cultural Village is as genuine as it could get. The chief invited me to dinner. Again, I went through the protocol roll call in my head of what and what not to do. As I sat cross legged, a difficult position if held too long I soon discovered, and that even after years of exercise classes.

While his daughter Luisa and his niece Rosa, ran back and forth with steamy dishes from the outdoor kitchen, he told me that we’d be eating yams, taro root with coconut milk, freshly caught fish and fruit. A perfect meal and thought of all this energy providing nourishment. Then he told me he was going to say grace in his native language, Fijian. I listened, he finished. I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I told him I would now like to say grace in my native language- Hebrew. At this point in this tale, dear readers, I have to admit that I don’t speak more than 10 words of Hebrew. But I did go to summer camp and never forgot the ‘Motzi”, the Hebrew grace.

There I was legs folded, shoeless, sitting on pandanus leaf mats in the middle of a bush in Ovalau, Fiji, saying grace in Hebrew, yet. That night I slept surprising well, draped with the gossamer white netting for which I will ever be grateful since dozens strange small frog-like beasties seemed to be staring from the grass outside my doorless bure. My ablutions the next morning was a pail of cold water which, I tossed over my head. At breakfast, same venue as the night before, Chief Jeremiah asked to hear the Hebrew version of grace again. I rattled it off like a pro. But then he asked for a translation. This really threw me. Even though I knew it once, it had been too many years to admit and I was so stunned, I just couldn’t recall the words. I found myself creating an entirely new and very lengthy interpretation of the usually succinct and meaningful prayer. Nevertheless, the Chief was pleased.

At the highway, as I was leaving, he thanked me again for my participation and said he would try to remember some of the prayer. So if you ever go to Luvaka on Ovalau in Fiji in the South Pacific and hear the ‘Motzi’ (grace) in Hebrew, you’ll know where it came from.