Written by Emmaline Matagi
Fiji Born of Fijian descent
Our good friend Google gives us this definition …
Religion – noun
the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
a particular system of faith and worship.
plural noun: religions
a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.
“consumerism is the new religion”
I grew up in a beautiful Methodist family in the islands. My entire family was religious. Church on Sunday was a must, as was reading the bible before bed and prayers before eating/bedtime. The belief that God is the be all and end all, that he gave us the bible to follow his rules while we are here on Earth was very strong in my family. We abided by his rules and begged for his blessings and mercy daily. God was a huge part of my life growing up. It was all I knew. This amazing man who saved us from our sins because he loved us and for that we should be grateful and serve him faithfully. It was great growing up in such security, purpose and love. It gave me strength and moulded me in to an obedient (my parents would probably argue otherwise LOL), hard working and respectful young person.
Throughout my childhood I would hear stories about things that were happening around Fiji. Odd things like people being possessed, places which were Tabu (sacred) and you weren’t allowed to visit and even stories around Kava and the Tanoa which were quite scary. Every time I heard a story like this I would think about how weird it felt hearing these sorts of stories and I would always try and fit them into the Christian world in which I lived. I always struggled to do so. I also encountered many LBGTI people growing up, both within my family and as acquaintances of my family. They were always loved and welcomed and appreciated in many different ways. I didn’t understand growing up that there was a ‘difference’ between straight people and LBGTI people. It wasn’t until I moved to New Zealand and lived here that I saw them being treated differently. I would always try to fit this into the Christian world I grew up in and again I struggled.
Reading my bible was one way to stay close to my Nana. She was a fiercely religious woman. Being her namesake I was expected to be like her. So I took on all those strong beliefs and tried my best to be a good Christian. I went to high school and attended church. Went to youth events with like minded people. It was a commitment I made. Then I faltered. Hormones, life, peers, alcohol, drugs, a boyfriend and pregnancy. All at the age of 17. Whoops! After I had my first child I continued with the bible readings (when I got time) and had a bible in my baby’s cot. I said prayers every night and did all the normal things I was used to minus going to church. Why? Because what 17 year old do you know goes to church with a new born baby?! I felt such shame! Shame that I wasn’t like all the rest of my church peers and that my ‘mistake’ defined me. None of my church friends stayed close post baby (but we are closer now we are older). I had two more children before I turned 30. It wasn’t until just after my daughter (second child) was born that I began to reassess my faith and beliefs.
I started to read more widely about the birth of the church in Fiji and what Christianity meant. The first ever missionaries in Fiji came along around 1830. They were from Tahiti and the London Missionary Society. Not long after (1835) came the Missionaries from the Wesleyan Methodist Church, they arrived from our neighbours over in Tonga. The church in Fiji grew quite quickly and Christianity is A BIG DEAL there today. But I began to question things, wait, hold up … this religion was bought to my country by Missionaries and ordained natives from different countries. The Missionaries however where European, they had ordained natives from other islands e.g. Tonga, Tahiti e.t.c. They came by orders of London and were told that my people were savage and needed civilising from their ways. They came because my people and their traditional Gods were seen as ‘crazy, uncivilised, devils’. They came to give us the teachings of Jesus and make us better people and of course to ‘SAVE US’.
My biggest question was “Save us from who?”. Who did my people need saving from? The ‘devil’? Themselves? Their Gods that had sustained them since the beginning of our time in Fiji? It was so confusing and such a crazy thought. What was wrong with our Gods beforehand. We really did have some amazing Gods. What was wrong with how we were living?
We were self sustainable, amazing ocean explorers, we built the most amazing sea vessels (Drua), were traders, family oriented and we had our own functioning Matriarchal society. We had traditions and a culture deeply-rooted in spirituality and being one with the land and the people around you. What was wrong with all of this?
Apparently one of the things which were wrong was that it didn’t fit into the European model of what was right, just and ‘Godly’. Men were always in charge what were we thinking letting our beautiful goddess like women run things! I mean ok I get it we ate each other every now and then but thats the nature of our type of war, why waste your opponents bodies when it could be such great sustenance and a way of holding spirit and pride. Which makes complete sense to me. European culture has always seemed so wasteful to me. But I digress, it seems that on the path to worldwide evangelism/domination the European Missionaries had found their way to my home land. To ‘save’ us.
This really didn’t sit well with me, it still doesn’t. I don’t feel comfortable with the fact that a group of people thought they knew better than an entire nation of people. I don’t feel comfortable with the fact that they came and TOLD US that our belief systems, our traditions, our culture were all ‘wrong’. I don’t feel comfortable that we let this happen. That my own people believed these white men and their crazy ideas and stories and teachings. It hurts in a weird way. It hurts because I know deep down inside that there is more to my beautiful home land than the religion which so strongly controls it. There is more to our spirits, more to our traditional ceremonies, more to our medicines, more to our lives than Christianity.
Yet its so hard to have these sorts of conversations with my family. Many of my Aunties, Uncles and even Cousins are devout Christians. Its so hard to say to them WHAT ABOUT US? What about the people we were? The people we truly are deep down inside! Its so hard to see people give their all to the Church and their God and still suffer in many other ways, financially, mentally, physically and spiritually. Its hard to hear hate speech which comes from the deeply religious ones. Its hard to fight what I was raised to believe and what I know in my heart to be true.
There is a feeling, deep down inside me. Its almost like a voice, its a spirit that exists around my children and it is what makes me cry EVERY SINGLE TIME we touch down on Fijian soil. Its my ancestors, they are calling, I feel them, I hear them, I know them and they are fighting to be heard. They give me strength and they reassure me that there is a God but this God isn’t the one the bible tells us about, it isn’t the one people worship in Church. This God is made up of all the different Gods which gave my people the life they lived before Christianity was introduced to them. I don’t even think I would call it a ‘God’ I can’t find an English word for it but its more of a Spirit or group of Spirits that look after us all in different ways. These Spirits don’t need a book for me to abide by, they don’t expect me to pray to them in a church, they don’t want money (which they can’t use!), they don’t expect me to act a certain way or do certain things to be accepted and they don’t need me to hang out with like minded people. They are there and helped create the beautiful group of people I call mine, Fijians. I am thankful for this and I am thankful that I am able to be one with my Spirit without all the extras that come with Religion. I truly believe they are fighting to be heard amongst my own people. I might sound crazy or anti Christians but I am not. Everyone has the right to their own beliefs and these are just mine. I will always love everyone just the same (unless you bust out the hate speech against others cos then CUT!).
My journey with the decolonisation of my own mind and the relationship I had with Christianity.
Photograph by Burton Brothers (1884)