31 October 2023

Singing, rugby-playing Fijians bring warmth to Goulburn in cultural match-up striking a chord

| John Thistleton
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people preparing traditional Fijian lovo

Fijians wrapping food for their lovo, a feast prepared on hot coals and buried. They shared the food with friends and supporters of the Taralga Tigers to mark Pacifica Day earlier this year. Photo: Taralga Tigers.

Sing. Man, can they sing! They’re handy on the rugby paddock too, having lifted the injury-depleted Taralga Tigers into a quarter-final play-off this season. Unfailingly polite, reasonably fluent in English, and happy to cook and share a traditional feast, what’s not to love about Goulburn’s Fijians?

Employed in meat processing, poultry production and aged care, a large contingent of mainly Fijians and other Pacific islanders is adapting to life in Goulburn, enriching the community with their beautiful singing and easygoing natures.

Nineteen Fijians arrived in June, to -7 degree temperatures.

“They arrived in their T-shirts and thongs and could not get their head around cold weather,” said Sue Edlund of Goulburn, who is helping them adjust to life in Australia.

All of them had never left Fiji, never been on a plane and never lived outside of 30C. Somehow they have adapted well and quickly to Goulburn’s icy weather and four-seasons-in-a-day climate.

At a welcome dinner at the Blue Plate Restaurant, they sang ”grateful” and ”thank you” songs in a harmony evoking the Pacific’s ocean-going tranquillity.

“We could almost cry, they make us that happy,” Sue said after replaying on her iPhone one of their impromptu performances.

Taralga Tigers Rugby Club’s vice-president and coach Evan Rees said the islanders’ arrival had helped the club fill positions after 25 players had left after the 2022 season.

With the Fijians’ on-field enthusiasm, opposition teams took some time adjusting to their physical strength, while the islanders are struggling with match officials’ communications – but this would get better, Evan said.

To mark Pacifica Day, the club played the Bungendore Mudchooks, who also have some islander players, and cooked a lovo, Fiji’s equivalent to the Maori hangi, afterwards.

Farmers donated a pig, lamb and goat to go with traditional dishes and lots of sweet potatoes and vegetables on hot river rocks. These were cooked on a bed of hot coals in a shallow pit in the ground. Wrapped in foil, the food was covered with mats and corrugated iron before the fire pit was covered in earth until the food was cooked.

“It was amazing,” Evan said. “We are trying to embrace their culture and mix it with ours as much as possible.”

Hymn singing has become a post-match ritual that opposition teams join in. The Tigers plan to make Pacifica Day an annual event.

The main diet of the Fijians is rice, vegetables and chicken. Everything was expensive in Fiji, but carrots and chicken were cheap here, they said. But the cigarettes are expensive here – they are only $9 a packet in Fiji and $50 in Australia – and some of them may have given up smoking.

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Formerly a hotel driver in Fiji and a little older than his fellow islanders, Semi is a father figure among them and an invaluable help for Sue to meet the visitors’ needs.

Sue wants to provide them with maps of Australia and Fiji to help communication, explain how vast Australia is, and learn which islands they are from. Sydney is the only part of Australia they know and now Goulburn. Some have not seen the ocean since their arrival, but Sue said a trip to the South Coast was on the agenda.

“Most of them enjoyed fishing in Fiji, and they would catch fish called elephant tuna, a giant fish, using hand reels rather than rods,” she said.

The young men are happy to pitch in at work or play whenever asked, except on Sundays, which are reserved for going to church, singing and coming together as a community for lunch celebrations.

Aside from their spiritual worship, singing at church is a big drawcard. During their earliest school days, Fijians are grouped into their voice type of either baritone, tenor, soprano or bass, and never look back.

“It doesn’t matter where in the world, a group of Fijians can come together in harmony and it is so moving,” Sue said.

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