An island ‘yavirau’ experience

Fish, fish, fish, fresh from the sea, after the yavirau in Vadravadra village, Gau. Picture: VILIAME ODRO

MY 2018 Christmas period was one of the most exciting experiences of my life.

Out of all the adventurous things I could have done, I accompanied the villagers of Vadravadra, Gau in Lomaiviti to perform the yavirau, a traditional fish drive that is now seldom practised in rural Fiji.

This took place a few kilometres along the sparkling stretch of the beautiful Nuku Katudrau Beach, which runs between the villages of Lovu to Yadua.

Being the first time for me to participate in the traditional fish drive, I didn’t know what to expect except sensing it would be fun-filled and full on pomp. It turned out to be a learning experience for me.

The village headman made an announcement on the village green on the Thursday, December 27, 2018, that the vanua would take part in the yavirau, the second in a space of six months.

In some parts of Fiji, to perform a yavirau, the graveyards must be cleaned, which has enormous ritualistic importance because it connects present generation to their deceased forefathers and -mothers.

People celebrate and drink yaqona, so that the yavirau will receive the blessing of their ancestors and the catch will be plentiful. Deemed a source of bad luck, pregnant women may not participate, especially if they have kept their pregnancy a secret.

My yavirau experience began with accompanying a group of village men and combing nearby forest clusters in search of wild vine known locally as walai.

Once stripped off trees and cut, they were transported back to the village and later tied around coconut trees to allow the coolness of the night and whispers of the sea breeze to soften the vines and make the weaving process next morning effortless ease.

On the Friday, December 28, 2018 as soon as breakfast was over, all men went to cut coconut leaves to tie them around the vines.

When the tide went out, which was in the afternoon, Isoa Seru the leader of the yavirau team, briefed all the men and women gathered for the yavirau before they headed out to the reef flats.

Two fibreglass boats, filled with the vines and coconut leaves, went out to sea ahead of a few remaining boats and the villagers.

As soon as the first boat reached the spot of the yavirau, one of the men jumped in the water to mark one end of the vine.

The whole length of the vine was put out into the sea until the other end of the vine was reached.

Next up, the rest of the villagers came together and held the vines with coconut fronds, forming a huge U shape in the water.

They moved closer together to tighten the circle and drive the fish into the shallow water.

“I’ll be watching everybody and tell them what to do, and if the vines get loose, we have to fix it before we reached the shallow waters. Remember that nobody is allowed to take their fishing spear or fishing guns during the yavirau,” said Isoa Seru told villages during his briefing.

“If anyone is caught taking their spear and the guns, they will have to take it back to shore.”

It was breathtaking seeing the different kinds of fish moving towards the shallow waters as the arch of the semicircle got smaller.

As the villagers of Vadravadra waded through the waters, a boy shouted that two puppy sharks were among the fish, much to everyone’s surprise.

The boy dived underwater and chased the sharks away. It had been six months since the villagers performed the yavirau. A taboo was imposed on the village qoliqoli prior to the fish drive.

“Na i naki duadua ni neitou vakatabuya na neitou i qoliqoli e na loma ni ono na vula e na yabaki sa oti, o ya e na neitou marautaka na kena calata na neitou koro na mate levu na misila ka ra mate kina e milioni vaka milioni na lewe i vuravura e na yabaki 1918,” Isoa explained.

“Na neitou koro duadua ga o Vadravadra, e na yanuyanu ko Gau, e sega ni bau dua e vakaleqai kina e na neitou masuta na Kalou Levu ko Jiova. O ya na vuna keitou vakayacora kina na yavirau e na kana magiti levu me vakananumi kina na mate rerevaki o ya ni sa oti e 100 na yabaki na nona ravuravu.”

“The main objective of having a “tabu” on our fishing grounds is to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Spanish Flu outbreak that killed millions of people around the world including Fiji,” described Isoa.

“Vadravadra was the only village in Gau Island where no one died from the epidemic because we prayed to God to free us from the disease.

“That’s why we engaged in the yavirau – to celebrate and remember the historical event with our fellow villagers and friends.”

It took about two hours for villagers to pull the vines from the fishing ground to the white sandy beach that day.

As the villagers reached waist-deep waters, Isoa instructed the ladies to put fishing nets around the vines to catch fish that may try to escape beyond the circle of vine and coconut fronds.

Isoa said in the olden days when there was no fishing net, most fish would escape when fishers moved closer to shallow waters.

During the yavirau, fish feel overwhelmed by the sound of the coconut leaves rubbing against each other and the reef as villagers pull the vines closer to shallow waters.

As the yavirau moved from the deep to the shallow, villagers seated themselves around the vines while young men speared fish trapped inside the circle and put them in the two boats.

Villagers picked their choice of fish and broiled them in the open fire on the sandy beach.

The remaining catch was cleaned by the ladies and put in the refrigerator for the village party on Saturday, December 29.

“We are teaching our sons in the village the processes involved when we perform the yavirau, so that its knowledge remains with them and so they can continue to practise in the future,” said Isoa.

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