Before traveling to Fiji, we’d hardly traveled much in the Pacific – besides Australia – and didn’t know much about the region. But this trip to Fiji certainly gave us an excellent introduction to the Pacific islands in both the way of life and the history and culture of the islands. Beyond its beaches, there is so much to see, explore, and experience in Fiji: from the intriguing traditions and customs that the Fijians have preserved, to the lush inland rainforests that are worth exploring on foot, and the raging rivers that flow through its rugged mountains. To give you a deeper understanding of the country, here are some facts about Fiji that we find intriguing. Perhaps they’ll change your pre-conception of the island nation.
1. Fiji is made up of 332 islands.
The Fiji Islands are arranged in a horseshoe configuration, with Viti Levu and adhacent islands on the west, Vanua Levu and Taveuni in the north, and the Lau Group on the east. Together the Fiji Islands are scattered over 1,290,000 square kilometers of the South Pacific Ocean. If every single island was counted, the isles of the Fiji archipelago would number in the thousands. But a mere 322 are judged large enough for human habitation.
2. Before the arrival of the Christian missionaries, Fijian tribes used to practice cannibalism.
The ambushed of English missionary Reverend Thomas Baker was the last cannibal act known in Fiji (1834-1907). The lack of animal meat could be one of the reasons for cannibalism to spread around the Fijian islands. But it is said that locals didn’t just eat human beings out of necessity; they actually enjoyed the taste, which they found similar to pork meat. History books are filled with gruesome stories from early missionaries. During our visit to Levuka, we met Bubu Kara (grandma Kara), said to be the last descendant of the cannibal tribe in Fiji.
3. Fijian traditions and customs are extremely well preserved and are still commonly practiced today.
Desite the flood of conflicting influences that have swept the Pacific over the past century, Fijians have retained a surprising number of their ancestral customs. The responsibilities of Fijian village life include not only the contruction and upkeep of certain buildings, but personal participation in the many ceremonies that give lives meaning. For instance, the traditional Fijian meke we witnessed had villagers of all ages participating – from two to 70 years old. When we spoke to them, we could see that they were doing it not just for their responsibilities but because they truly enjoy them.
4. Communal living is still a way of life.
Since the beginning of time, the Fijian culture has always emphasized on strong family values and Fijians have maintained strong family ties even for those who have moved abroad. You hardly see any individuals living in an isolated house in the rural areas. They usually live together in a traditional bure (thatched hut made of bamboo walls and coconut leaf roof) as a family, with extended family members living around one another. Whatever crops they grow are divided with the entire extended family. Even in today’s era, those who have a job provide for the rest of the family.
5. Fiji has a rather turbulent political history and unresolved issues today.
There have been several military coups in Fiji over the past two decades, and the country is still ruled by a military government today although peace reigns in the country these days. In 1987, there was an extremist Fijian-for-Fijian Taukei (landowner) movement where protestors threw barricade cross highways, organizes rallies and marches and carried out firebombing. On May 14, Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka and 10 heavily-armed soldiers entered the House of Parliament and announced a military coup. He then announced a new council of ministers to govern Fiji. He struck again in September 1987, threw out the 1970 constitution and declared himself Head of State.
6. At one point, there were more Indians than indigenous Fijians living in the country.
Indians have been pouring into Fiji since the 1800s to work on the sugarcane fields. In 1940, the Indian population stood at 98,000, still below the Fijian total of 105,000, but by the 1946 census Indians had outstripped Fijians 120,000 to 117,000 – making Fijians a minority in their own homeland. But in the wake of the 1987 coups, tens of thousands of Indians emigrated abroad. Now, Fiji has a total population fo over 840,000, out of which 56.8% are indigenous Fijians, 37.5% Indians.
7. Despite tourism being the number one industry, it is relatively undisturbed by tourism.
Tourism may be the leading industry in Fiji since 1989, but it still hardly receives as many visitors as other island destinations. In 2008 it received approximately 560,000 tourists, while Hawaii – about the same size in surface area – is overpacked with more than seven million. It’s therefore no surprise that its beaches are empty and its islands are left in their original state – pristine and undisturbed.
8. Most of the land in Fiji is owned by traditional landowners.
When Fiji became a British colony in 1874, the land was divided between the white settlers who had bought plantation and the taukei (Fijian traditional landowners). Today the privately owned land is known as freehold land. Almost 84% of Fijian land is communal land, owned by the indigenous Fijians and administered by the Native Land Trust Board – This is compared to the 3% Maori land in New Zealand and almost zero native Hawaiian land. Land ownership has provided the Fijians with the security that allows them to preserve their traditional culture, unlike indigenous people in most other countries. Even Fijians that are born outside of the country have the right to go back and claim their piece of land in their original community.