IT is often said the first impression is the lasting impression.
I was in Draubuta Village in the district of Noikoro in the upper reaches of the Nadroga/Navosa Province when the first person I met after arriving late in the afternoon at the village was Lemeki Toutou.
He shook my hand and hugged me as if I was his own son, I was surprised and felt a feeling of calmness and peace, afterall it had been a really tough week the week earlier dealing with some personal issues.
Little did I know this man I was shaking hands with and who had just hugged me is the chief of the yavusa o Emalu and traditional head of the landowning unit (mataqali) Emalu.
His land of 18,096 acres (7347 hectares) is largely untouched and is part of one of the few remaining primary indigenous forests in Fiji that is currently uninhabited with most members residing in Draubuta and other parts of the village.
He is the traditional owner of the nanai (cicada) and on top of that the Emalu forest is known to be the safe haven for some of the country's endemic species.
The Emalu project is the first national REDD+ pilot project in Fiji where a number of survey have already been carried out including a forest carbon survey, a biodiversity survey, land use survey, socio-economic survey, and a cultural mapping survey. The biodiversity survey highlighted that the Emalu forest hosts some of the richest biodiversity of flora and fauna in Fiji and that some of the species found are not only extremely rare but also hold high cultural significance.
Such is the humbleness of this man, that upon the first contact he will make you feel at home.
There is something special about this man. He refuses to be called Ratu Lemeki even though he is of chiefly status, to make it more interesting neither is Ratu on his birth certificate.
"O keitou e tukuna vei keitou me keitou kua ni vakayagataka na Ratu, ni bera na tukaqu ira taucoko era Ratu ia na marama era kacivi na Adi. Ia na gauna qai donumaki tukaqu sa nona lewa, me keitou kua ni vakayagataka (It was a decision by my grandfather for us not to use the Ratu. Before him they were referred to as Ratu and Adi for the ladies because of their chiefly title)."
The reason the Ratu is not used is not clear to Mr Toutou but one thing he was taught was to accept everyone that comes to his home and respect every individual.
"Dua na ivakarau e vakavulica vei au na noqu qase, ni se matakalailai ni tiko na vulagi e vale, au meu na lai tama yani ena vei mataka kece. Ya me vakaraitaka na noqu vakabula ka rokovi na nomuni tiko na vulagi, ya na itovo vakavanua au tuberi mai kina (My father taught me whenever there is a visitor at home to give them utmost respect they deserve. That is why in the morning I have to come and tama, to say good morning and that is a custom of respect that I have been taught)."
After completing his secondary education, Mr Toutou was one of the pioneer students that started the carpentry and joinery vocation training at Bemana Catholic School.
He worked at several places building houses before moving to Taveuni where he was enrolled at the Tutu Youth Training Centre.
After securing his qualification, Mr Toutou returned and worked in his former school at Bemana doing maintenance work. He then spent a further six years at Vatubalavu constructing homes before finally returning to the village to settle down with his family.
When the news broke that the nanai (cicada) was going to appear on the $100 note, he was happy but at the same time saddened that as traditional owners, whose totem is the nanai, were never consulted neither acknowledged for this.
"E sega ni dua na ilakolako me vakaraitaka ni kena vakayagataki na nanai ena $100, e mositi au ni lai tabaka tu na $100 na noqu manumanu turaga. E sa bau mositi au na gauna au raica kina ni kena sega ni keitou bau nanumi na itaukei ni nanai ena kena vakayagataki. Ena dua na yasana au marautaka ni taba toka, ia kevaka walega mera muria na kena gaunisala dodonu me mai vakaraitaki vei keitou na kena itaukei dina e maleka saraga ya (It hurts that the nanai is our chiefly traditional totem and we were never consulted nor acknowledged as traditional owners).
"Ia au marau vakalevu nomu yaco baleta ni dou qai suka qo esa na qai rawa ni vakaraitaki na kena itaukei dina (But I thank you for coming and it is about time that everyone knows that we are the traditional owners of the nanai)."
Lemeki Toutou, the iTaukei Emalu, the humble chief from Draubuta village is a person that will make you feel at home just from the first handshake.
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