Monday, August 19, 2013 by Ilaitia Turagabeci
UNDER the watchful gaze of Semiti Cama, the camakau took shape on the shore where a dream to turn the canoe into money was born.
There is no mistaking the passion in his eyes. He points out the weaknesses to the builders and they rectify.
The camakau — a smaller version of the two-hulled ocean-going drua that slowly disappeared into history and replaced by modern-day sea transportation in the last century — has a special place in his heart.
It was his father Jimione Paki’s dream to cruise the Suva Harbour with his camakau and drua as a tourist attraction in the late 1980s when he arrived from his island of Moce in Lau.
After sailing from Korotolu in Moce on a drua, followed by his favourite son, Metuisela Biuvakaloloma, on a camakau, his family followed.
They settled down on a piece of mangrove swamp at Suva Point that was given to them by the then Tui Suva in 1991 and named the settlement Korova. It was from there that his 16 children went to school.
It was also there where he dreamt of a drua cruise business.
His boy Metuisela died chasing that dream. He disappeared at sea in December 1993 on a trip back from Moce on a camakau meant for his father’s business.
Eleven years later, and still saddened by the loss of his son, Jimione decided to sail home again and bring another camakau.
He was last seen sailing past Moala, the same place his son Metuisela was last seen on his camakau in 1993.
Today, as the eldest son in Jimione’s family, Semiti has not given up on that dream.
He is in fact very close to it.
“There are a lot of camakau in the harbour now. I may be growing old but I’m more excited by the day as we build our camakau here at Korova,” he said.
Ironically, the same year Jimione was lost at sea, American scientist Dr Greg Mitchell was studying key elements of Fijian culture — meke, other traditional music, story telling, artwork and crasftsmanship — looking for the one most essential element of Fijian culture.
While strolling along the street in Suva one day, he saw a Telecom phone booth.
The iconic representation of the sail and mast of the Fijian sailing canoe answered his question.
“I realised that Fiji was always linked in the ancestral time by the boat and that the boat is the common element that could be a focus. It was obvious, all at once, that the sailing craft, built with such pride by hand, was what allowed Fijian communities to create their identity, even though they were on hundreds of different islands separated east and west, north and south by hundreds of miles of open ocean,” said the founder of the Pacific Blue Foundation.
“I tried to learn if there are still communities building traditional sailing canoes. I spoke with many Fijians, citizens, government officials and eventually this led me to Dr Paul Geraghty at the University of the South Pacific.”
Dr Geraghty introduced him to Semiti and his family and from there the wind filled the sails of Semiti’s dream.
“Eventually we arranged to bring several camakau from Fulaga by ferry and to have them managed in Suva by the Moce group including Semiti Cama, and also members of the Fulaga community living in Suva,” said Dr Mitchell.
The camakau race — Veitau Waqa, the Boat Lives — was born in 2010 as a tribute to the cultural tradition of sailing canoe races that Fijians always had practised for centuries.
When Queen Elizabeth visited Fiji on the HMS Britannia following her coronation, she was greeted by a fleet of camakau in the Suva Harbour. Camakau sailing in Suva died out in the years that followed until its resurrection upon the arrival of such people as Jimione.
Thanks to the foundation, the camakau race, which was meant to coincide with the Hisbiscus Festival, has picked up popularity.
Semiti has never felt closer to his father’s dream as he does now.
With the Veitau Waqa to be staged in Suva on Friday, he feels like the youth he once was.
“I have been very busy and excited. I wake up in the morning and my blood rushes when I see the children of Korova eagerly preparing their camakau for this race,” said Semiti.
“We have a lot at stake. The camakau and traditional Fijian sailing is the cornerstone of our very existence.
“My father and my brother died sailing on the camakau. This is our way of life, our tradition and one that we must never lose as the world around us moves ahead.”
Semiti, who is now 69, oversees the building of the camakau of his nephews and grandchildren at Korova.
Just like old times, they are wary of the other competitors in the Veitau Waqa.
How their camakau performs in the water hinges on how they are shaped. They have to be sleek and of the right weight for speed.
The proportions of the dago levu (main hull) and cama (small hull) has to be right to allow the vessel to turn quickly.
In the old days, canoe builders in Lau had their own faiwa, building secrets that they kept within the family and passed down the generations.
Semiti and his lot have their own faiwa and closely guard them.
The first of their camakau went on trial yesterday and the trial exposed some weaknesses.
“Most of the camakau we brought from Moce were originally from Fulaga, Kabara and Ogea and meant for fishing.
“We modified some of these camakau for racing. There will be changes and adjustments right up to race day.”
Across the harbour from where his family settled, their rivals from Fulaga at Veisari are hard at work on their three camakau.
Fulaga, renown for its canoe builders, has produced some exceptional camakau in the past and Semiti is pushing his boys to think harder.
“There is certainly a lot of rivalry, and jealousy, since the Veitau Waqa started.
“But it’s fun in the end. It’s part and parcel of our tradition. Each island always wants to beat the other and building the winning camakau takes a lot of hard work.”
The builders are secretive about the wood they use and unlike in the past, when only magimagi (coconut sinnet) was used to tie the hulls and mast together, they use nails today.
“We have some tricks up our sleeve to fix anything that needs to be in the next few days before the race.”
Last week, boys from Korova went to Kasavu in Tailevu to cut a tree for a dago levu of one of the camakau.
Semiti said they were fortunate that while trees were becoming scarce in the islands of Lau, Viti Levu had an abundance of them.
For the sails, which used to be made from voivoi (pandanus) leaves, the builders have fallen on tarpaulin, nylon sacks and other material that’s light and tough in the wind that’ll push the camakau across the harbour.
Jim Fuluna, the son of the late Metuisela, is among those building the camakau of Korova.
“I’m building mine and this should be completed in the next three days. One of the other camakau that went to sea on trial showed some flaws so I’ll need to work on the same areas on mine that I think is suspect,” said Fuluna, who sailed on the Uto ni Yalo through the Pacific to the Americas and returned home last year.
“The Uto ni Yalo has helped me realise a lot and I hope to continue to pass on the message of ocean conservation and sustainable sailing.
“I’m pleased to see that the Veitau Waqa has brought alive the enthusiasm of our youth.”
The Roko Sau, Roko Josefa Cinavilakeba — the paramount chief of the yasayasa Moala group of islands which includes Totoya, Matuku, Moala and Vanuavatu — said the use of camakau was not only limited to Lau but the rest of the country.
He said the waqa vakaviti was a proud symbol of our tradition and the race had helped create awareness of their importance.
As the foundation’s government and community relations director, he said it was crucial to merge tradition and modern technology in an effort to develop sustainable practices that would benefit both the coral reef ecosystem and the local communities that depend on it.
He said their main focus was to commemorate and keep Fiji’s seafaring culture alive.
“Ancient Fijian craftsmanship and sailing should never be allowed to disappear like some of the Pacific’s cultures and traditions have.”
For Semiti, he has had some sleepless nights the past weeks. The only talk in and around his home and the settlement has been the Veitau Waqa.
“Our preparation has involved everyone. We’re all just eager to see our camakau in the water.”
Come Friday, the canoe will be on Hibiscus street.
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