It is a truth universally acknowledged that Fijians are happy people. Last December WIN-Gallup International rated us the world’s happiest nation. According to WIN-Gallup (who are they, anyway?), the mood rings for 93 per cent of Fijians they polled are stuck at ‘Happy’ or ‘Very Happy’.
This is not the first time. In 2012, Fiji came out on top – it was 89 per cent back then. Things like this often happen to Fiji and to a few other Pacific countries. Every few months or so, some research institution that few of us have ever heard of will tell us they polled a bunch of us (who or how many tends to be fuzzy) and have surmised that we are the happiest, most content people on the planet. In the Top 5 or at least the Top 10.
The news is plastered across front pages of local papers, articles are emailed and shared on social media, and from Wednesday to Saturday night, Fijians raise jugs of Fiji Bitter at local bars (or gulp down bowls of kava in our living rooms) and toast our own happiness. Tourism vendors go on a rampage with videos, slogans (‘Where happiness finds you’, ‘Fiji me’), billboards, travel packages (‘Fiji for less’), dream weddings and campaigns for setting new Guinness World Records. “We are the world’s happiest people!” they say. “Come visit us and be happy too!” (Read: Stay in our luxury hotels, eat imported food and buy souvenirs made in Bali. We promise the village visits will be tastefully rustic, we will dance to entertain you and avoid driving down the Suva-Nausori corridor where half of the country’s population lives, many in informal housing settlements.)
Far be it for me not to appreciate how good Fiji has it. There is no denying that thousands of livelihoods depend on the tourism industry and that’s nothing to scoff at. There’s a growing appreciation for eco-tourism with local communities as stakeholders. We are resilient. We have a damned near unshakeable sense of community. Even if 64 per cent of our women have experienced violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Even if every day 43 women are injured, one is permanently disabled and 71 lose consciousness from domestic violence.
When Pope John Paul II visited in 1986, he called Fiji “the way the world should be”. The following year, a moustachioed Lieutenant Colonel led a group of armed men into Parliament and deposed the newly elected government in what would become the first of four coups over two decades. Three centuries earlier, we exerted the ultimate dominance over our conquered foes by consuming their flesh. Fiji got it good. Visiting us right in that sweet spot, post-cannibalism and pre-coups, His Holiness declared us “the way the world should be”. The phrase has stuck, weighed down by layers of irony.
When I first met the Web Editor of the university newspaper I worked for while studying in Madrid, I told him where I was from and got, “¿Las Islas Fiji? ¿Qué demonios estás haciendo aquí? Yo quiero ir ahí!” (“The Fiji Islands? What the hell are you doing here? I want to go there!”) When I returned home two years later I invited him, by then a dear friend, to come visit me sometime. “Algún día si Dios quiere. O si gano la lotería.” (“Someday. God-willing. Or if I win the lottery.”)
The well-meaning Lonely Planet article ’10 reasons Fiji is one of the world’s happiest countries,’ describes Fiji as a “mostly village-based society”. I wouldn’t call the Suva-Nausori informal settlements villages. Fijian children are “cared for by the community” says Lonely Planet. True. But not all children are safe and some of them are most vulnerable where they should be the safest – in their homes, communities and with people they trust.
According to Lonely Planet, Fiji has “some of the best food in the South Pacific”. True. Indian, Asian and Pacific influences have made our cuisine a smorgasbord of deliciousness. The prospective tourists who read Lonely Planet are not likely to know that 80 per cent of fruits and vegetables consumed by Fiji’s tourism sector are imported.
Lonely Planet tells readers to expect to “see mostly the native Fijian side of Fiji”. True. Expect to see us tidying your room, delivering your room service, dancing and singing for you and serving your meals. However, if we walk into a five-star resort and aren’t wearing a resort uniform, try not to gawk.
The Huffington Post has “never seen an unhappy surfer”. Up until a few years ago, they probably wouldn’t have seen a Fijian one either. For years, locals were barred access to world-class surf spots reserved exclusively for patrons of private resorts.
There’s a lot I agree with in both articles and I’m proud that my country is held in high esteem. But these articles aren’t written for Fijian audiences. They cater to the desires of the happiness-seeking traveller. It’s not in their interest to scratch too far beneath the surface. More’s the pity because they miss the really good parts.
There’s that story my dad told me. It was the Middle East in the late 90s. He was a member of Fiji’s international peacekeeping contingent. Fijian peacekeepers are popular amongst multinational forces with their easy smiles, laidback attitudes and natural athleticism. One day, a member of the Fijian contingent is assaulted. At meal time the next day, a couple of Fijians quietly close the Dining Hall exit doors while another blocks the entryway. Fists, food trays, limbs and cutlery flew as the Fijians exacted their revenge on those responsible for assaulting their compatriot. Minutes later, Dad stitched up a bewildered foreign peacekeeper who muttered, “I thought Fijians were friendly!”
Fast forward to 2015 and I’m standing outside a bar in Suva with my new friend Marlene. She’s visiting from Papua New Guinea and we’ve spent the week together at a Pacific writers workshop. Marlene and I strike up a conversation with the bouncer. He’s a retired soldier and it turns out he served as – surprise, surprise – a Fiji peacekeeper. Marlene gushes about how friendly and happy Fijians are, and how she’d love to move here. I tell her that yes; Fiji often rates highly on global happiness scales. Our extended family networks and communal lifestyle mean there are generous safety nets to catch us in hard times. For indigenous Fijians, traditional rituals for seeking forgiveness and resolving conflict endure – singular gripes are subservient to the survival of the collective. Then I tell my dad’s story. As Marlene laughs, the bouncer’s eyes widen. “That’s true! I was there!”
In 2011, I delivered a presentation on the State of Pacific Youth at Auckland University. Millions of Pacific adolescents, part of the global ‘youth bulge’, living with their rights unfulfilled, jobless and frustrated, vulnerable to crime and violence. Someone in the audience said, “This is all rather heavy. Can you tell us something good about the Pacific?” Pacific islanders are shiny happy people who can make do with what little we have, so our problems can’t be all that serious can they?
Happiness has its humanity, its irrationality and its relaxed ruthlessness. Smiles stretch over broken hearts, addled minds and roaring tempers every day. To hell with happiness for mass production and countless musings on ‘reasons why’ Fijians are happy. Yes, we are happy. And we’re angry, afraid, confused, excited, hopeful, and more. Shiny happy people are people too.
Mere Nailatikau lives in Suva, Fiji. She is a graduate of the University of the South Pacific and participated in the Commonwealth Writers Pacific Prose Workshop in Suva in February 2015.