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Dr Ropate Qalo, a free spirit

Professor Wadan Narsey
Saturday, April 09, 2016

This is the eulogy delivered by Professor Wadan Narsey for Ropate Qalo, who died this week and was cremated yesterday.

DEAR Salote, Sivo, Emele, Tui, the relatives and friends of Ropate. Thank you for the honour of asking me to deliver the eulogy. It is so pleasing to see so many of Ropate's old friends here this morning, to pay tribute to one of our remarkable sons of Fiji.

Nothing I say today will surprise you the family members or these old friends, who have at some time or other, all enjoyed the company of Ropate.

I have been privileged to have had the company, the comradeship and friendship of Ropate Qalo from 1973 when I first met at him at USP through our mutual friend and his Natewa kin Jone Dakuvula.

Ropate was an energetic Fijian intellectual, following in the footsteps of great Fijian academics like Rusiate Nayacakalou, deeply challenging the orthodox views on Fijian development.

Ropate had a great big heart, great love of sports, a love of music, a love of academic life in theory and, unusual for academics, theory put into practice, and he was a free man, subservient to none.

His genuine independence did not endear him to people in power, at the university where he worked for decades, or the wider body politics in Fiji. This showed in the trajectories that Ropate proudly followed throughout his life, with great personal dignity, self-respect and the respect of all who knew him, right to the end.

It was a dignity that shone because of his great warm heart, bursting with energy and music, with his home being open house to all his family and friends.

But, as Salote, Emele, Tui and other relatives will readily admit, Ropate was also a very complicated person, indeed a very stubborn and difficult person at times. He rarely listened to advice, even when offered by his loving family members for his own good, as over his lack of attention to his diabetes and health. Had Ropate listened more to his family, we would not be gathered here so sadly today.

I will speak only about aspects of his life which the public may not be aware of, especially with the passage of time and the emigration of virtually 90 per cent of many of our former academic colleagues from the 1970s and 1980s.

Last year, I was very privileged and lucky enough to be able to record some amateur music videos of Ropate and his friends, a small selection of which have been played, which really illustrate better than words, what kind of person Ropate was.

Our love of fishing

More than 40 years ago, Ropate and I indulged ourselves in our common love of fishing. Of course, we did the usual rounds around Nukulau and the Sandbank Passage. But with his close Bauan connections from his mother's side, he and his uncle took me fishing in the protected Bau chiefly fishing grounds.

Precisely lining up distant beacons, we would be hauling them in, at the drop of the lines. If the kawakawa was not biting, and even if the sabutu and kawago were still being hauled in, Ropate would pull anchor and move.

It was heavenly to be gliding back to Bau under sail, the starlight just giving way to dawn, with a full esky.

Most of the catch would be left in Bau, while the remainder would go fresh into the frying pan in my USP bachelor quarters, washed down with the usual amber liquid.

Soon, Ropate was accommodating other keen fishing friends Vijay Naidu and Rajesh Chandra, until Ropate was gently reminded by his seniors on Bau, that we were outliving our welcome in the chiefly fishing waters, no doubt an early fish conservation measure.

A decade later, in the UK in the early eighties, Ropate and Salote came down all the way from Birmingham University, to the Brighton Registry Office, where I caught the biggest fish of my life, a grand-daughter of Yee Man Sue, a shopkeeper from Korovou. Joan and I were blessed at our simple registry ceremony by other friends from Fiji, Vijay and Shamima, and Navi Naisoro and Barbara.

In the seventies and eighties, Joan and I were sharing Ropate's rich family life in Nepani and Bagasau (Toorak).

Ropate and Salote shared my parents' Toorak home once upon his return from ANU when he had no ready accommodation. I won't forget the lesson he taught this economist that the production of the usual light Gujarati roti, cannot be roughly estimated at three per person, when you have a big, six foot rugby winger to feed.

The sportsman

Ropate was a keen sportsman, and despite his size, was an extremely fleet-footed winger on the famous rugby Fiji first 15 that played the Lions at Buckhurst Park.

He was not averse to challenging another rugby winger for a minor Marist rugby team to a 100 metre sprint, and used to be quite peeved when he did not always get his nose in front. But Ropate was fantastic to have on our USP Staff soccer team, his size and speed no small asset when playing and beating many senior Suva teams.

Singer and musician

In the early years at USP, our staff Christmas parties were not at Holiday Inn or other snotty expensive places, but in one of the larger lecture rooms at the bottom of the FBE (Faculty of Business and Economics) building, with BYO (bring your own) huge pots of goat curry and kegs of beer.

The few oldies who remain will remember that the derelict nature of the surroundings were more than made up by the fantastic happy spirit of all the SSED (School of Scocial and Economic Development, now FBE) staff, academics, typists (remember that occupation) and cleaners alike, something a bit strange, I suspect, for the USP "staff parties" of today, where the old community spirit seems missing.

Ropate with his guitar and singing, would help keep those parties going until the early hours of the morning.

Sometimes, Joan and I and our young kids, would end up at the Tailevu farm with Ropate and his uncle Sam Marriot, while a Jesse Mucunabitu, long before he became famous, would sing along with us until the break of dawn.

At USP, Ropate fought for the underdog

Looking at the USP management today, no one would think that local regional academics once had to struggle to be trained and promoted or appointed to the highest positions.

With expatriate cliques running the show, regional academics like Ropate and us, often faced a Catch 22 situation.

They could not be promoted because they did not have PhDs, they could not easily get scholarships for training, and if they did, they would not be promoted until they finished their PhDs, or they were terminated.

Others who never bothered with higher qualifications had little difficulty rising.

While it would have been so easy for Ropate, as an indigenous Fijian academic to receive favourable treatment, Ropate threw in his lot with the underdogs.

He was one of the "Gang of Four", including Yadhu Nand Singh, Rajesh Chandra and yours truly, who defied the establishment, and eventually won our rights to be sent for our PhDs.

Some, like Ropate, naturally paid the price for taking on the management, with promotions refused for years.

But the young regionals did prevail in the battles for regionalisation, although it today seems a pyrrhic victory, young regionals again being bypassed by new expatriates.

Ropate and social capital

Ropate was one of the few Fijian academics who obtained a PhD from Australian National University.

His pet academic hobby horse was the importance of "social capital" in economic development.

Ropate believed that decision-makers in Fiji were far too focused on the economistic material concept of capital and capital accumulation, ignoring the far more important good social relations that ought to be at the centre of all our development strategies.

Ropate believed that our planners, and most of Fiji's political, social and even religious leaders espoused material values in practice, even if they preached otherwise.

Rusiate Nayacakalau is well known for advising Fijian people that it was a monstrous lie for Fijian leaders to preach to their people that they could have both capitalist development and still cling to their traditional ways.

But Ropate thought there was a middle path where Fijians could enjoy capitalist development while preserving their communal strengths.

Of course, a major weakness of free market capitalism is that high rates of economic growth usually occur without a fair distribution of benefits, with the workers and weakest people being largely left behind, and income distribution often worsening.

Ropate believed that family run small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and co-operatives should be the desirable engine of growth for Fiji, rather than large corporations. SMEs and co-operatives ensure the benefits were immediately enjoyed by the poorest members.

While we all know of the historical problems of co-operatives in Fiji and the failure of central planning in former socialist or communist countries, Ropate pointed out the great capitalist successes of union co-operatives such as Fijian Teachers Association, Fiji Teachers Union and FPSA Credit unions.

What distinguished Ropate from other USP academics who espoused similar views, was that he put his ideas into practice, by fostering his family concern, the Mucunabitu Iron Works. His ideas may be read in his book "Small Business: a study of a Fijian Family. The Mucunabitu Iron Works Contractor Co-operative Society Ltd".

You can read my two-page review of that book in The Daily Post, April 4, 1998. "Balancing tradition in a capitalist market economy". A book review of MIW, Fijians in business by Dr Ropate Qalo." (Just search my blog NarseyOnFiji with the word "Qalo").

The MIW, powered along by Ropate's energetic uncle Sam, his small dedicated group of workers, made many steel structures around Suva, as well as two at my own home at Raisara Rd off Nailuva Rd in Suva.

We all know that the greatest economic challenge facing Fiji for decades has been to ensure that indigenous Fijians occupy all the levels of the Fiji economy, and not just be the one leg providing land for the three legged stool.

Ropate was well aware of the many Fijian businesses which received huge preferential funding, such as through the National Bank of Fiji or the EIMCOL schemes, with the enterprises collapsing under the weight of non-commercial demands made by family members, the mataqali for marriages or reguregu, or the numerous church talatala.

Ropate knew only too well that no Fijian of Indian descent or Gujarati or European or Chinese entrepreneur would make such extreme material sacrifices to sustain their social capital, but indigenous Fijian did, and many still do today.

In his book, Ropate fostered the critical importance of Fijian owners of businesses to completely separate out the accumulation and reinvestment needs of their businesses, from the resources that they freely chose to allocate for their traditional social obligations.

The tragedy, however, is that MIW stopped operating last year, not because of the burden of traditional demands, but because many large corporations obtained quality work from MIW after paying a small deposit, and then dragged their feet on the final payments, with some very big names not paying at all.

The need to protect small business operators from our predatory large corporate sharks is rarely talked about at the frequent talkfests on SMEs.

Young researchers could write a nice project paper by just talking to Salote and Ropate's uncle Sam about their bad debt-collecting experiences with large corporations.

Ropate the social person

Ropate Qalo was a social trailblazer for indigenous Fijians following in the footsteps of YWCA activist Amelia Rokotuivuna and the distinguished former USP vice-chancellor and governor of the Reserve Bank, the late Savenaca Siwatibau.

Ropate, like Amelia, wanted to be cremated, somewhat disturbing to Christians who want the traditional burial. But more importantly, Ropate, like Siwatibau, also asked his family and mataqali not to have any reguregu or floral tributes, so that they would not be unduly burdened.

But even this hard-boiled Gujarati economist knows what sociologists and good social leaders all know.

Funerals, births, marriages and church services are also occasions when family, mataqali, friends and communities, strengthen their common humanity, cultural identity, sense of purpose and values in life, by getting together, talking, eating, drinking, and singing, all requiring the sharing of resources.

I am sure that Ropate's family and mataqali must have been in a terrible quandary these last few days, trying to respect Ropate's wish that there be no reguregu or floral tributes. Just as he was in life, so also in death, Ropate continues to be a difficult person for his family, mataqali and friends to deal with.

Ropate's trajectory in life

It is a fact of life at USP (as elsewhere in Fiji), that any reasonably articulate indigenous Fijian, of chiefly connections, and especially with a PhD, will rapidly ascend in public or corporate life, sit on boards and enjoy all the perks that come with such positions, often enjoying the patronage of some corporate or political leader.

But right from the earliest days of the governments of Ratu Mara, and all which have followed, Ropate chose not to seek these high positions nor the patronage of any powerful political or corporate persons.

Neither has he ever been tainted by any financial scandal in a country where the NBF (National Bank of Fiji) disaster left many persons ruing their involvement in "get rich quick" schemes.

At USP, those who have been close to him over the years, know that Ropate felt he was not given a fair go by those in decision-making, sometimes with alternative appointments being total disasters.

About 20 years ago, I was part of a scre­ening committee which put too much weight on what appeared on CVs which we later found to have been totally inappropriate for the job and the appointee was a disaster. I could not face Ropate for several years, until he forgave me for my personal blunder in judgment.

Ropate was deeply hurt when a 65-year retirement clause was applied to him at USP, while many others close to power, were retained.

Many of us thought that Ropate, with his passion for teaching, had so much to contribute to young Fijian academics; as a mentor, as a thinker of contentious ideas, a writer, and a willing communicator with the ordinary public, which few of our academics bother with.

But he kept contributing

As a committed academic, Ropate did not stop thinking and working at the age of 65. It is a great measure of Ropate's dedication to learning and teaching, that he continued his community education work, by writing columns for The Fiji Times, followed by many readers.

Government statistician Epeli Waqavonovono often enthused to me how glad he was that Ropate was writing and articulating issues for indigenous Fijians.

Ropate of course had his own unique writing style because he was never too direct in comments or criticisms.

Ropate would delicately go around, above, and below his central messages, his style puzzling to non-iTaukei, but very clearly understood by other iTaukei, who knew exactly what subtle points were being made, without being explicitly stated.

As one very senior iTaukei chief once reminded me in Parliament, "you know Wadan, for us Fijians, how you state the facts is just as important as the facts you state so clearly".

Fijian politics is far more sophisticated than those of other ethnic groups, who usually behave, as is evident from our Parliament, like bulls in a China shop.

Mind you, Ropate could be quite bullish with his close friends, just as he was on the rugby field once upon a time.

Even after suffering a severe setback with the amputation of a foot, Ropate devoted his energy to encouraging his MIW co-operative workers to venture into farming on their mataqali land, and to diversify from their steel construction work.

Ropate and Salote showed great willingness and humility in supplementing his considerable Fijian knowledge of farming with ideas from skilled modern farmers like Yee Wah Sing.

In the last few months of his life, Ropate would sometimes announce, to the great annoyance of family and friends, that he had achieved all he wanted to in life, and was ready for the next stage. But that was just his few disappointments talking. Because Ropate kept learning, kept trying new ventures, kept singing, kept calling friends to his open home where he shared many a beer and kava (in that order), kept writing, and kept debating ideas with his intellectual friends.

He really put into practice the great philosophical principle, that life like love, is in the living, the striving, and the journey and not to be judged by achievements we all enjoy, or failures that we all find hurtful.

Ropate and even his family may not have seen his own life in full perspective, because he was far too immersed in it and his family also were too close to him, hobbled by familiarity.

He came from a poor background, lived a materially poor life, did not accumulate any great wealth, or achieve any great status with the powerful in the land, yet accumulated massive amounts of social capital, that money cannot buy.

This multifaceted and complicated man, whatever difficulties he may have occasionally created, has been a bundle of energy and great joy throughout his life, for his family, mataqali, friends, and even strangers who came in contact with him.

Salote, Emele, Tui, and all his mataqali, may I please bear witness on behalf of all our friends who have known him for four decades and more, that it was a rare privilege and a joy to have been in the company of Dr Ropate Qalo and he will be sorely missed.

The few videos of Ropate you have seen today, convey these sentiments, far more than words ever can.

Bless you all.

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