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Legacy of the Koya clan in Ba

Litia Mathewsell
Monday, May 11, 2015

"I'm OK beti — physically weak but my mental power is good as gold."

True to his word, Mohammed Shafiq Koya delved into the past with stunning detail and accuracy.

Whatever notions were held on 93-year-olds were dispelled once this retired school principal began a vivid recollection of Ba and the political and commercial powerhouses that raised it to prominence.

Of course the accompanying commentary was priceless, though in all his humour and hospitality, there remained a deep resonance about MS Koya, a patriarch who is also quintessentially a community gem.

The oldest and last surviving brother of the late NFP and Opposition leader, Siddiq Moidin Koya, he is now retired peacefully at Varoka, where a steady flow of visitors consistently grace his home.

As I was informed and soon witnessed throughout the course of our interview, these include relatives from far and wide, neighbours and even religious figures seeking counsel at odd hours.

The town was established a century ago and the Koya clan were already settled on the outskirts of Ba's commercial centre when it was officially inaugurated as a township in April 1939.

"My parents were both girmitiya," he related.

His father Moidin Koya and mother Khadija were among about 60,000 Indians recruited to Fiji to work the plantations of the Sydney head-quartered Colonial Sugar Refinery Company, whose operations included a mill at Nausori.

"My parents were brought in from Kerala without the consent of their parents in 1912.

"They thought Fiji was nearby but were misguided and deceived and suddenly, two months had passed by on the ship.

"They arrived in Fiji on the Ganges 5 and were quarantined at Nukulau Island for two weeks before coming ashore. Then they were both sent to Rakiraki for an indentured term of five years."

Both, he said, had barely finished the contracted period.

"They didn't complete the term and argued with the CSR. They were from Kerala, a place of high literacy, and could not sustain such injustice. It was the courageous people that asked for their rights.

"They had a hard time there and were released by the CSR and fortunately, were allowed to remain and they stayed at Wairuku."

The couple wed in Rakiraki and moved down the coast to Ba after several years and began a new life, first settling at Toge before relocating to Vatulaulau.

They were still young, finally free of the gruelling, back-breaking girmit system and looked to the future with hope.

"While they were at Vatulaulau my father worked for the CSR at the Rarawai mill, as an assistant to an engineer. After that, he thought he was all right and became independent."

It was here at Vatulaulau that the Koya brothers were born, beginning with MS Koya on August 6 in 1921, followed by the late Siddiq Moidin Koya, Abu Bakar Koya and Abbas Moidin Koya.

"My brothers and I were all born at home," MS Koya noted, adding that such deliveries were commonplace at the time.

"In those days, there would be a midwife to help out and life back then — people, especially those from India did not believe in drugs and injections. They healed themselves through herbal treatment."

These remedies and self-help approach meant that MS Koya himself went to hospital for the first time aged 40.

"Shankar Bhai Patel (the father of hardware giant, Vinod Patel) had a shop on the bank of the river and people would often buy from him because he was quite reasonable.

"In those days, a labourer's earnings for a week were about ten shillings and six pence. Some had five children and owned farms and poultry and their own feed, and they survived."

He marvels at the resilience of the people at that time, acknowledging that many were also girmit who were rebuilding their lives after the cruel indentured labour system was abolished in 1920.

Looking back, MS Koya also remembers that Ba was pretty much a Chinatown before its gradual expansion.

In 1930 the family moved to Maururu, where a canefarm and taxi business sustained their earnings.

"We had our own house and canefarm, and my father owned a taxi and the first car made by Ford in Ba. It was made in the USA and we survived from the earnings of the taxi and farm."

Although the population burgeoned around the mainstay of sugar, Ba was also emerging as a manufacturing and hardware centre and becoming an increasingly key supplier for these industries.

"Up to the age of 11, I received Islamic knowledge and read the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed and at the time, my parents were not prepared to send us boys to other schools because they feared that we may be converted to Christianity."

Despite these initial reservations, his parents relented, and reconciled with the notion that it would be the best direction towards giving their children as many opportunities as possible.

"They decided that it would be vital so I was sent to Namosau Methodist Mission School and my brothers followed."

Difficult times meant that Siddiq would not complete primary school nor attend high school but despite the hardships, the brothers excelled academically and all forged into education and law.

MS Koya had barely attended school for six years when he was awarded a scholarship to the Davuilevu Teachers Institute, where he was taught by Australian graduates for two years.

He began his teaching career in 1941 and Siddiq joined a law firm as a clerk. Sighting his brilliance, Siddiq's superiors at SV Patel and Company recommended that he take up law studies and with additional support, the young aspirant was soon accepted as a student at Auckland University, New Zealand.

"He joined in 1947 and made a start but didn't take the examination. From 1948 to 1950 he took up four legal subjects a year and passed with flying colours and then completed his LLB at the University of Tasmania in Australia. He was then called to the Bar as the first non-European in Tasmania," MS shared.

In 1954, an old family friend by the name of Douglas Chalmers was on the verge of retirement and called upon Moidin Koya, congratulating him on Siddiq's success in Tasmania.

"He told my father that he wanted to hand over his law firm to SM — we called him SM — and after four days, he agreed and was reluctantly released from the firm he was working at in Tasmania."

Siddiq was also known for his fiery demeanour and an incident in the 1950s would only propel his push for equality across the racial borders. An avid hockey player, he led a team to Suva that was rejected at the plush, Europeans-only Grand Pacific Hotel, where he argued with management until they made an exception and allowed the team to camp.

While Siddiq was in Tasmania, younger brother Abbas was wrapping up secondary school studies at Natabua High School in Lautoka and was also accepted for law studies in Australia, at the University of Melbourne.

"Abbas managed to get his LLB from Melbourne and when he returned to Fiji, looked after SM's firm in Ba. By this time, SM had opened another outlet and was based in Lautoka," MS related, adding that their mother Khadija had died years earlier.

"My father returned to Kerala and re-joined his family. Political changes also began taking place in Ba."

These political aspirations would creep into the Koya family and command much of their attention.

As MS Koya highlighted, politics revolved around the sugar industry and Siddiq's active participation in negotiating new cane contracts with the CSR on behalf of the Federation of Cane Growers would play a significant part in propelling his political leadership.

Siddiq succeeded Ambalal Dahyabhai (AD) Patel as head of the country's first political party and became the first Muslim elected to the Legislative Council, contributing to the country's transition to independence from British rule.

Younger brother Abu Bakar Koya also joined NFP activities while the youngest, Abbas Moidin Koya concluded his profession as a magistrate.

As MS related, a career in law also looked promising, though he ended down a different path.

"I was accepted and supposed to go to London for law studies but there were issues and I guess I was not fated to do so."

He has no regrets though, and remains more than content at the generations he spent educating countless school students during the tenure of his teaching career.

Today the Koya clan is spread out over the country and overseas, with MS's own children residing abroad in the US, Australia and New Zealand, where their assorted professions include law, agriculture, education and bank management.

Siddiq's children include Nadi lawyer and former magistrate, Faizal Koya and current Minister for Industry, Trade and Tourism, Faiyaz Koya.

MS remains proud of his family's contribution to national development, and despite the passage of time, still speaks of his late brothers with fondness and respect.

He maybe soft-spoken but remains highly articulate, sharp and giving, and even in his twilight, this obligatory sense of servitude continues.

"You know, some people even come at midnight for technical advice but I always keep my door open."

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