Amelia Rokotuivuna (1941-2005): a light shines on [The Fiji Times and Fiji Sun, 7 June 2005]
It is not easy, in a small society, to hold views that are different from your social group, especially when you are ahead of your time.
It is not easy to be a Fijian socialist, feminist, multiracial radical in a society driven by our potent mixture of patriarchal communalism and capitalism.
It is not easy to be honest with friends and foe alike, regardless of rank, status, wealth and power.
Amelia Vakasokolaca Rokotuivuna did all that, and more.
Born in the village of Vatukarasa(Tailevu) in 1941, Amelia lived her early years under the harsh conditions of the Vatukoula gold mines, where her father was a cook.
Yet she rose to being the Head Girl of Adi Cakobau School, the premier and elitist Fijian school for girls. She took on the charismatic leadership of the Young Woman’s Christian Association (YWCA).
And till the end, she also remained the fun-loving warm human being, who passionately loved rugby, good wine, music and food, and the company of old friends.
Amelia was the firstFiji staff member of the Fiji YWCA founded in 1962, and became the first Fijian Executive Director in 1972.
The YWCA was known for its traditional roles in the vocational training of women. But under Amelia, the YWCA also became a leader in the struggle for women’s rights, workers’ and union rights, and economic and political justice for all.
Amelia and the YWCA were one of the catalysts in the formation ofATOM(Against Testing on Murorua), FANG (Fiji Anti-Nuclear Group), and NFIP (Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific) which eventually became PCRC (Pacific Concerns Resource Centre). Amelia was a leading advocate for the independence movements in the Pacific.
A focal point
At the Y, Amelia helped bring together many like-minded people of all races. As a USP mathematics lecturer in 1973, I was pulled into a critical study ofFiji’s newly independent economy, being conducted by Amelia and the USP Student Christian Movement.
Fiji: a developing Australian colony was Fiji’s first radical publication, suitably published with the authors recorded as Rokotuivuna et al, attracting the ire ofFiji’s political leaders and the elite.
An Indo-Fijian non-Christian male, I found myself on the YWCA committees on economic justice or inflation, part of a YWCA team making submissions to the Street Commission for constitutional reform, marching with the anti-nuclear movement, and numerous other YWCA activities. For me, an added attraction to the Y may have been Amelia’s assistant at the time.
But the mathematician soon converted to being a life-long economist, sharing much in common with the social and political vision of Amelia and her friends.
Many others from USP and outside of the YWCA, were also drawn to the wide ranging activities of the YWCA, whether it be political education campaigns or modern dance. Many of Amelia’s friends from that time continue to be active today.
Amelia the uncompromising
Amelia, as the Executive Director of the YWCA inFiji, came into contact with all kinds of powerful people: Prime Ministers and politicians, millionaire businessmen, corporate types, communal leaders and university professors.
She interacted with all with uncompromising honesty, regardless of their wealth, power, status or qualification.
Amelia was a Fijian commoner who expected the highest of standards from her chiefs.
She was a committed socialist who participated in labour movements, but refused to blindly follow leaders who fell short of her democratic and co-operative ideals.
She was a pioneer feminist who dismayed by the populist “Gucci feminists” she saw in later years, but buoyed by the large numbers of young women taking on leadership roles.
She was the head of an NGO that benefited from donations from the business community, but refused to compromise on her opposition to employers who refused to give a fair deal to workers.
Amelia loved her friends, but left them with no illusions if she disapproved of their behaviour or views.
Amelia was vehemently opposed to the ill-effects of free trade and globalisation. Economist friends had to tread carefully when pointing out the many benefits of globalisation for the poor of the developing world, including the NGOs.
Rising to the Fijian challenges
It has been illuminating and humbling to see how Amelia as a fiercely proud Fijian, rose to the challenges of being a good citizen in a multi-racialFiji.
While non-Fijians have had a tough time in post-coups Fiji, their issues and perspectives are fairly clearly defined.
But most educated indigenous Fijians are facing profoundly difficult choices between their communal traditions and obligations, and the pitiless modern demands to be materially successful and compete with “others” in a globalised world order, while following rules set by international democratic ideals and market capitalism.
With the traditional leadership severely weakened, the ordinary common Fijians face the mammoth task of having to redefine their own personal roles and responsibilities vis a vis their immediate families, their mataqali, other communities, and the world.
For more than three decades, Amelia’s response to the critical challenges (such as the coups of 1987 and 2000) has been more radical than that of most Fijians.
In her personal life, she has been an honest citizen respecting the rights of all races, classes and genders in Fiji. But she has also taken a strong leadership role over the years, advocated the same ideals for Fijians and the wider Fiji community.
She has naturally also paid a personal price – at times, facing alienation with some leaders, some friends, and even some family members. She has faced the occasional ostracism with stoicism and good humour.
Her purity of purpose has often been vindicated years later, with friendships being renewed as Amelia’s views were grudgingly recognised to be correct, or views which people respected, even if they agreed to disagree.
Remarkably, Amelia would maintain cordial social relations even with political leaders and persons whose views were poles apart from her – a trait we would like to see more in our leaders.
Amelia The bohemian
It never ceased to amaze me how Amelia cared so little for personal accumulation and wealth.
At one stage, Amelia worked for international organisations like the World YWCA with their relatively high salaries, in exotic locations such asGeneva. But she chose to come back to Fiji’s low salaries, for the more meaningful life and challenges amongst her own people.
She loved and looked after the children of relatives. She would cheerfully blow a large sum of money on a single meal with friends, whether at the Blue Boar in London or Biddy’s Steakhouse in Suva.
Like many other Fijian leaders of her generation, she ended her life with no property in her own name.
Not goody two shoes
Amelia was not the typical “goody two shoes” whose company is painful for normal frail human beings.
Amelia was a boisterous argumentative political wit who could out-talk most persons.
Amelia loved nothing better than to be next to tuneful guitars strummed by her numerous musician friends, men and women.
Friends will remember for a long time, the joyful image of Amelia surrounded by her ACS Old Girls crowd, belting out one classic Fijian song after another, and the melodious songs of the sixties and seventies.
Dying but not the end
More than a year ago, Amelia was diagnosed with cancer. Supported by her numerous friends in Fiji and abroad, she went through her operations and subsequent treatments with courage. She continued her joyous life.
The cancer returned and Amelia faced up to her impending end with good humour. She was patient with the never ending stream of friends. Last week her earthly flame was finally extinguished.
It was a privilege to have known Amelia for the last thirty years. There are many subtle ways in which we are all changed by the company of charismatic persons. Amelia was one such person who changed people for the good.
May her visionary light shine on.