With the President in Fiji
This article continues the account of the travels of the Society’s president N. H. Knorr and his secretary M. G. Henschel.
DOWN the runway sped the DC-4 Skymaster and soon the island of Oahu melted away in the haze and clouds. That was at 1:30 p.m., Sunday, March 4. With us we had the fragrance of the leis and there was time to think of the ones behind and those ahead. The sun set and we felt need of some sleep. After a couple of hours we were awakened, for we were nearing Canton Island, a small coral isle used for refueling by all transpacific planes headed “down under”. We landed on the square-mile gas station at 10 p.m. and remained for about an hour. It was warm without the sun’s rays and doubtless during the daytime would be most uncomfortable in any attire except the wraparound few yards of cloth tied at the waist by the employees from the Gilbert Islands stationed there. We had crossed the equator and were in the Southern Hemisphere, but we were very near the equator and I was glad we did not have to stay overnight as we did on the previous trip.
When midnight came we were flying again. Sunday had passed and somewhere along the way Monday disappeared too, for we crossed the International Date Line en route to Fiji and at the end of our seven-hour flight at the Nadi airport it was Tuesday morning. It was just past 5 a.m. and we had been flying for 16 hours and 42 minutes from Hawaii.
It was the rainy season in Fiji and heavy dark clouds hung overhead as we alighted from the aircraft “Clipper Monsoon”. We had scarcely reached the shelter of the airport terminal building when down came the rain like a flood. We passed by the immigration and health inspection all right and while we were waiting for the baggage to be unloaded from the plane we spied Bill Checksfield, attired in white shorts, which are typical of a British colonial. Of course, we were glad to see him, for he is the only graduate of Gilead now working in Fiji. There had been opposition to the witness work in past years because of the influence of the clergy, and at one time the literature of the Society had been banned from the colony. We were not the only ones who saw Brother Checksfield. The customs men knew him and they were therefore very much interested in what we might have in our possession in the way of literature. The inspection was quite thorough and certain things were put aside, namely, my copy of the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures, The Watchtower, the Informant, and some Scripture notes we used in giving talks. It seemed very odd that the Bible should be taken away from someone to be passed through inspection, but I thought that if the customs men wanted to read it it was all right with me. There were other Bibles that would be available in Suva through the local publishers. But the inspectors wanted to be sure and they did not want to take the responsibility of allowing Watchtower publications into the colony. Why the Fijian government should be afraid of the Bible is difficult to understand in this enlightened day. Perhaps sometime the answer will become known. Evidently it is only the Bible in the hands of Jehovah’s witnesses they do not like. At any rate, after spending a half-hour with the customs inspectors and having them seal up the publications and papers, I was given the things under seal, to be delivered to the Collector of Customs in Suva for clearance and approval.
When we cleared through all formalities at the airport we could talk to Brother Checksfield, and he was delighted to have some brothers visit him. He works alone a good bit of the time and it is nice to have companionship sometimes. He told us that it was the hurricane season there, and that may have been the reason for some bumps in the air when we neared Fiji. Brother Checksfield seemed to be used to the rains, yet he had experienced something different on his way around the island from Suva—a swollen stream had filled the floor of his car with water as he plowed through and all of his clothing had been soaked, his suitcase having been filled too. He would not promise what road conditions would be like on the return trip to Suva, but it was raining as we piled suitcases and ourselves into the waiting 1936 British Ford and started on the 133-mile trip to Suva.
The trip proved to be very interesting. On the ground one can see things. Along the roadside in the rich sugarcane districts Indian cultivators can be seen working in the canefields. Where the road skirted the palm-fringed beaches there was a constantly changing scene as the green ocean swell would break foaming white on the coral reef and merge into varying shades of blue and light-green with the changing depth of water on the shore reef. The road continually passed through native villages where Fijians live their own happy life in a very carefree way. They live in picturesque thatched houses. A house is called “bure” by the native. It is quite large and the entire family stays together. The house of the chief is designated by the poles sticking out at either end of the peak of the roof. The villages are built in clearings, often near a river or stream, and all around there is dense jungle growth. Toward the center of the island of Viti Levu, which we were on, there are some fairly high peaks, all of volcanic origin, and often jagged or of odd shape. The mist hanging down in the valleys accentuated the dark green of the mountains and explained why there is such lush growth.
One thing which would make the viewing of the sights in Fiji more pleasant would be improving the highways. The road is corrugated all the way and in many places there is loose gravel that caused a skid. Bridges are wide enough for just one car and often have no fences or railings at the sides. Sometimes the railroad tracks go over the same bridge, for a railroad that gives free rides to all passengers on its narrow-gauge train. There are many curves and hills. It took seven hours to cover the 133 miles, with plenty of work for Brother Checksfield. After sitting for 16 hours on the plane and 7 hours in the car, standing up was a pleasure. Perhaps a horseback ride would have the same aftereffects.
In Suva the roads are paved and very good. It is a town of interest to the visitor, because many races of the South Pacific mingle in the streets or the market place. Europeans, Indians and Chinese run shops in the city. The Indians, with their brown skin and fine features, are numerous. Sikhs among the Indians always are identified by the turbans. Women wearing saris are a common sight, and many have jewels or gold ornaments set in punctured noses. There are the Fijians with the bushy hair of which they are proud, and the powerfully built men wearing sulus, which a European might compare to a skirt. Indeed it is a crossroads of the islands, for there are Polynesians, Melanesians, and Micronesians on the streets beside the Chinese, Europeans and Indians.
Suva is built on a hilly peninsula. We entered the city from the Queens road, which runs west from Suva, and drove straight through the business section and down the broad Victoria Parade to the Grand Pacific hotel where we were to stay. Behind the hotel was the bay and almost directly across the street stood the huge government buildings and the clock tower. Every fifteen minutes we heard the clock strike. This helped us to keep track of the time as the few hours passed before the convention opened. After registering at the hotel, we proceeded to the Customs House to present the sealed parcel we had carried through from Nadi. The official who looked after us was very kind and friendly and informed us that he was merely doing his duty under orders from the government. He found no fault with any of the things we had and turned all publications and papers back to us.
The convention in Suva was held on March 6, 7 and 8, in the evenings. All meetings were in the Kingdom Hall on Thompson street, one flight up, except for the public meeting. It was right in the center of Suva and convenient to all. The opening session ran from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. without any interruption. The brothers had expected that we would be there for only two days, but due to a change in flight schedules we were able to stay four days. That explains why the first evening’s program was so full, with talks, service meeting, ministry school, experiences, and songs. Brother Henschel and I spoke too. There were 51 present—Europeans, Fijians, Indians, Rotumans and Euranesians.
It was certainly a pleasure to be with them for four days. We had the privilege of engaging in the field service in Suva and found the people easy to talk to. The territory was near the government buildings and not far from the hall. Since there are different kinds of people in Suva, going from door to door means you never know whom you are going to meet. Indian women usually let you talk and talk, and they say nothing, even though they know English. Often the people would say they would have to refer the matter of taking literature to a husband or father; however, one young Indian woman did take the book “Let God Be True” without comment at all. She merely handed me the contribution and promptly sat down on the floor to read. It would be interesting to know how the back-call turned out when the local publisher called.
The public meeting was to be held that evening, March 7, and so the day was devoted to advertising the meeting and distributing handbills at the homes. The Suva Town Hall had been engaged for the public meeting and at 7:30 p.m. a good crowd of people had gathered at the old wooden structure that houses the town offices and the hall. The audience of 187 persons included all kinds of people. It was noticeable that a good number of Indians came, but all were men. The listeners were very attentive, and surely there is a splendid opportunity in Suva for helping the interested ones. Many booklets were handed out after the meeting. The police inspector who attended made no comment.
The other talks that had originally been listed to follow the public meeting were held over until Thursday night to make a better convention program. On this last night of the convention there were 44 in attendance in the Kingdom Hall. A heavy rainfall that night had kept away those that were living a distance from the center of the city.
While there is a lot of interest and good will in Fiji, the problem is to get the publishers out into the field regularly. In the past four years there has been an increase from 9 to 12 publishers, on the average. A look at the company chart in the Kingdom Hall showed that during the 1951 service year the report would be much better, because there was a peak of 20 reporting. The company has begun the street magazine work now and there is more field activity, because some of the publishers who were living on a farm have come into the town. Another factor is that a zealous couple from Australia took work in Fiji, and they have been a help to the graduate of Gilead who is acting as company servant in helping others appreciate the importance of preaching the good news. It is sincerely hoped that the assembly did much to make them appreciate their responsibilities before the Lord as a company in getting the good news preached in Fiji.
What would help the work in the Fiji Islands, in addition to regular service on the part of the company publishers, would be to have a few energetic pioneers there, and it is hoped that some can be sent in and that some of the local company may be able to enter the pioneer work. Also, literature in the Fijian language will go a long way in helping the native people to learn the truth. A brother is working on a translation, and it is hoped that he will soon have it completed. To the end that more workers might be serving in Fiji, a visit was made on the colonial secretary, presenting the matter of having more assistance sent in so as to aid Brother Checksfield in the missionary work. One brother came over from the other large island, Vanua Levu, but there is no organized preaching there nor in the other smaller islands, and someone is needed to go there. The colonial secretary listened but made no promises, so all that can be done is to make application for some new entries. The Society has tried from time to time to send other persons in there to take up pioneer service, but the government has always turned down the applications. The policies of the Society and the manner of carrying on the work were explained to the colonial secretary and his assistant, and now they have a clear idea of what the aims and purposes of the Society are, and this may bring a more favorable reaction to new applications.
After seeing the colonial secretary that Friday noon, the next thing to do was to check out of the hotel and start on our journey to the west to Nadi airport. The brothers had arranged to have us eat a real Fijian feast, giving us all the native dishes to taste. So we stopped at the roadside a few miles out of Suva and were guided to the home of a brother who is a sea captain. There we enjoyed Fijian hospitality to the full. It was a new experience for us. We started out with a drink from a polished half coconut shell, a drink of brown color that is made from roots. Each one took his turn drinking and there was a clapping of hands for each one, a sign of joy and honor. For the meal all of us sat on straw mats on the floor and the food was set in front of us. The food was delicious and different in flavor from other things we had eaten; there were such things as breadfruit, dalo (taro root), coconut milk, banana and tapioca pudding, and pineapple pie, with a fruit drink. We were told that the custom in Fiji is to lie back and sleep after a feast like that, but time would not permit us to carry out that part of the custom.
A few things were learned concerning the Fijian customs and the language. We found out that “b” is pronounced “mb”, as in “timber”; “c” is pronounced “th”, as in “thy” (not as in “thigh”); “d” is pronounced “nd”, as in “handy”; “g” is pronounced “ng”, as in “singer”; “q” is pronounced “ng”, as in “finger”. So that meant that we were heading for the Nadi airport, but we should call it “Nandi”.
At 3 o’clock many of the brothers were on hand to tell us farewell, and a number showed their love by joining with us for the long ride to Nadi. There were 14 of us traveling in the faithful Ford and a Dodge panel truck. We traveled the same route as on the way to Suva after our arrival in Fiji. On the way I saw one of the most beautiful sunsets of my life. It helped me forget the humidity and heat of Fiji and the heavy rains that had fallen. The storm clouds had broken up and the setting sun turned them to gold as it went down slowly over the breakers of the South Pacific, which spent themselves on the coral reef about a half mile from the shore. Even the sea took on a golden shimmering tint. The palms and bushy trees between the road and the beach looked black against that golden background. I was glad the sunset lasted a good while, for it was a feast for the eyes that only Jehovah could prepare.
Then came the evening stars and darkness of the night. The trip went fast because of the good company. Some were singing and others dozing, while some told experiences they had had. Traffic was light and only very seldom did we pass an oncoming car or truck, perhaps every 15 or 20 miles. Often around the curves we would suddenly come upon one of the gods of the Hindus, a member of the cow family, standing in the center of the road, and the brakes would have to be quickly applied, and sometimes there would be Fijians or Indians along the roadway. It was after 9 o’clock when we saw some of the red lights that told us the airport was there in the distance. At 10 o’clock we stopped a few moments in the town of Nadi to fill the fuel tanks and have some refreshment and then made our way to the airport three miles distant. One of the tires on the truck blew out near the airport and the car which was ahead kept going, because none of the occupants of the car knew what had happened. So some of the brothers and sisters who were riding in the truck walked with me to the airport, my pocket flashlight helped to find the way, and the car was sent back to fetch the baggage which we were to take on to New Zealand.
At the airport we learned that the Stratocruiser from America would be a bit late and our departure would not take place in a DC-4 until after the Stratocruiser left for Australia. Some mail and passengers on the big plane were to be sent to New Zealand and all we could do was wait. Here again we appreciated having so many of the brothers with us, and a very pleasant evening was spent with them at the airport from 10:30 p.m. until 3:30 Saturday morning. They had brought a lunch with them and this was put to good use. Brother Henschel arranged with the Pan American passenger representative to take all of the publishers aboard the Stratocruiser to see the plane that had been so widely publicized in Fiji, and this they appreciated.
It was very kind of the brothers to make the long trip with us, and when the Clipper Monsoon took off at 3:30 for Auckland we could not help thinking of their hospitality and being grateful to them. We hoped their return trip to Suva would be a safe and pleasant one and that they would return in good form for the magazine work that was scheduled to be done that afternoon.