Shadow over Fiji
by Barbara Restle (Fiji 197980)
Reviewed by Jim Jackson (India 196567)
CULTURAL FAUS PAS are the province of every Peace Corps Volunteer. No matter how comprehensive and rigorous cross-cultural training may have been, and how culturally sensitive the individual, every returned Volunteer can provide a list of cultural gaffes they would prefer to forget. In retrospect some are funny, much funnier than when they occurred distance and time always help. And sometimes the mistakes were serious. Often times they are both. There cannot be many that equal a mistake made by Barbara Restle early in her Peace Corps service in Fiji. Literally getting off on the wrong foot, Restle committed an act that can best be appraised for its seriousness by her Fijian hosts: No one has ever done this . . . . For this insult to us we have killed in the past.*
What lesson comes from this? Well, among the more obvious, it is good to be in the present, although the incident influenced the remaining 18 months Restle was in Fiji. What would have gotten her killed in the past sets the stage for a continuum of episodes in which different, confusing and unexpected cultural practices play a predominant role in her Peace Corps experience, all very ably recounted in Shadow Over Fiji: A Memoir.
Some blunders are so basic, readers (at least RPCV readers) may wonder if there was any cross-cultural training. For much of the book the author seems to be in the dark about what is going on around her. Perhaps she was not part of a Peace Corps training group and perhaps there was no cross-cultural training. The book does not tell us, although Restle does mention one month of language training and orientation lectures.
Her puzzlement about the situation in which she finds herself is attributed to people in the know not telling her what they should have for her to carry out her duties. This applies to both Fijians (the cultural conundrum again) as well as British colonial officials. Because of the silence surrounding her, a theme that runs the course of the book, the story unfolds as one surprise after another.
Barbara Restles job title was bulamacow [livestock officer], and she was to work with the Fijian Agricultural Ministry, and a male Fijian co-worker [he never materialized]. The scheme (project) involved 500 cattle on 3,000 acres. Restles job was to improve feeding and disease control by assisting local Fijian cattle farmers on whose 21 farms the cattle were located. Funded by a World Bank grant, the cattle scheme was financed locally by Fijian bank loans to those 21 farms, money that was not being paid back on time when Restle arrived in country.
Restle, who has a degree in journalism, is very good at drawing the characters who populate her story. She is so good that because of the negative circumstances associated with some of those characters of which there are an abundance, their names have been changed.
In addition to good characterizations, the book is generally very well written. And whatever else can be said about it, it is dramatic, and reads like a who-done-it. One chapter leads inexorably to the next, each with dramatic surprises and more mysteries to solve.
Dialog is used to tell the story, and while dialog as a literary device can effectively be used in works of nonfiction, a little goes a long way. But in Shadow Over Fiji there is, as my grandfather use to say, a right smart. One wonders if the author always carried a tape recorder. How else could she remember exactly everything everyone said page after page, chapter after chapter? Presumably, she did not tape conversations nor remember them in such detail, so her use of dialog must be a device. But it is too much. Because the dialog is copious, some doubt as to the events creeps in, not that the reported events did not transpire in some fashion, but surely not with as much color and drama.
My criticisms of the over-use of dialog and drama are personal preferences. Others who like well-written mysteries will find the book appealing and a good read.
The book could have benefited from more information about Fiji, although some reference is made to its colonial history, its use by the allies during World War II, and one of its significant, ongoing problems: the animosity between native Fijians and the minority population of Indian descendants. Fiji is not a place widely known and additional background information would have been helpful.
Frustrations for Restle abounded. As she observes, To be goal oriented in Fiji is to go insane. Besides the silence that surrounded her, the cultural conundrums, the ill will of those caught and exposed for corruption by her, and the almost limitless obstacles encountered in a third-world country, Fiji supports a plethora of tropical diseases. Restle comes down with one or more malady characterized by fever and weakness that results in her being bed ridden. No diagnosis is ever made and her work is essentially over, although in a last effort she attempts limited desk work.
But that does not work out and within a couple of months she is on her way back to the U.S. She concludes Shadow Over Fiji with poignant letters sent to her in the U.S. from Fijian friends, and this observation:
I was confident that the time would come I had no idea when that I would bring sense and find a meaning out of my bulamacow days. I told myself to have the faith to believe that some goodness had been left behind. If not that, then a few hours of whimsical storytelling.
Nothing more needs to be added. RPCVs and those with similar experiences will have recognized the familiar. Others without the experience will intuit that something important has happened.
* Restles mistake was to stumble and step into a ceremonial bowl. Later a Fijian explained to her, Our yanqona tanoa bowl is the largest in Fiji. It is a village treasure. The bowl was carved by our ancestors from a tree maybe four hundred years old. Even the oldest man in our village, born during the years of tribal wars, does not know how old our tanoa is. After the incident the village chief sent another villager with Barbara as a body guard to keep anyone from cutting her throat.
Jim Jackson was a rural health and sanitation Volunteer in Mysore, India (now Kanartaka State). After the Peace Corps he worked on the Peace Corps staff at the University of Kentucky as a cross-cultural trainer for Volunteers going to India. Later he was drafted and served in Vietnam. After having careers in the Model Cities Program in Texarkana, Arkansas, and as a lawyer, Jackson is now a librarian.