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The biblical, the barbaric and the Bati

Jope Tarai
Friday, November 24, 2017

Scintillating is an understatement to describe that 4-2 win by the Vodafone Fiji Bati, against the Kiwis on Saturday.

It was no doubt riveting from the kick off whistle to that emotional finish, which left many in our squad of beer drinkers, slightly sober and silent if only for a moment.

Apart from this, the pre-match spectacle of the Kiwi haka vs the Fijian hymn, was a marvel to observe because of the supposed persona and traditional attributes of the Fijian "Bati" (traditional warrior).

Observing the persona of this fearless warrior face the traditional chant of the Kiwis, while he switched to a new chant, his hymn, was equally remarkable as it was impossible to witness.

Notwithstanding the evocative tears and sky pointed gestures, the fact that this Fijian warrior appears different if not symbolically morphed by two contending worlds, was immensely captivating.

Since 2008, the Fiji Bati, had traded in the traditional war chant "quruquruvatu" (literally meaning to chew stone) for the religious practice of singing a hymn.

It was reported that the team had opted for their spirituality and faith in God to give them strength.

The traditional, pre-Christian warrior, the "Bati" persona is venerated for its barbaric aggression, brute force and fearlessness.

However, in an inverted contrast he now fears his Christian God for his strength.

These two worlds collide in a way, with the "i wau" (war club) now replaced by clasped hands in prayer with a bible.

No doubt this is not represented in the images portrayed, of a war club wilding indigenous Fijian warrior.

It certainly does not resonate within the Fijian cultural idealism of masculinity but does indicate a deeper underlying and developing character to the Fijian warrior, the Bati.

It is worth acknowledging that religion and rugby in Fiji have always been inseparable, as the classical 7s triumphs, scores and interviews, have all shown countless times.

What makes rugby league unique, is its personified pre-Christian and distinctly masculine Fijian warrior persona, molding itself, almost losing itself after letting go of its traditional war chant, taking on a new chant, a new song, his new hymn.

Therein lies the fascinating spectacle before the start of the game, the persona of the "warrior", transitioning into perhaps a Christianised "Bati"?

This new Christian warrior has been catapulted by the rising demonisation of cultural tradition and norms, predicated on a variety of Pentecostal accusations.

It's fascinating how certain aspects of wealth and privilege accumulation, afforded to organised religion through cultural obligation is not demonised but rather encouraged.

These notions deserve equal scrutiny especially from those who for generations have been burdened to observe them.

The onslaught of demonising cultural practices and protocol, ultimately culminating in its elimination, is nothing new and has largely been part of "religious sanitisation".

It is interesting to note that to a similar extent, there are concurrent events unfolding in the "vanua" and the Fijian society in general.

For instance, the recent major chiefly installation processes of the latest Tui Nadi and the Roko Tui Bau, which have favoured some form of religious legitimation over the traditional protocols, indicate some resonance with this shift.

Certainly, the transitioning persona of the Bati is not alone as his vanua appears to be undergoing a somewhat relevant shift.

This leads to crucial questions that deserve to be asked of these daunting, if not inevitable changes. To what extent can these changes be accommodated, without having to undermine the essence of cultural norms and its uniqueness?

To what end can cultural and traditional integrity be maintained, while having to satisfy the pressures of belief systems. In the political landscape, there's something similar to be said of the recent sedition case of the 14 that have been charged for attempting to form a separatist Christian State and the first Zionist Party applying for registration to contest Fiji's 2018, national general elections.

Putting aside the contradicting predisposition of the latter to the former, these developments paint an interesting picture in the background of constitutional secularism and even more so, in its misconstrued public perception.

While the political nuances of these facets can be ambiguous, only one aspect is clear. Fijian Pentecostal and religious zeal has never been stronger than ever, evidenced not only by its variety of representations in rugby but also in the vanua and politics.

As I thought of these things, the game was winding down to the last few seconds and the Fiji Bati captain, Kevin Naiqama and the team appeared to be in tears, overcome with emotion.

A drinking buddy next to me, thoroughly inebriated resisting his own tears sniffled, "vinaka vakalevu Turaga" (thank you God) after which he had proceeded to swear at the commentators.

It seemed as if, this was a means of salvaging ones masculinity from that teary moment, while affirming ones Christianity.

The spectacle of the haka vs hymn not only exemplified an interesting interplay on the field but also among spectators alike.

Proof of this can be witnessed on a variety of social media posts and debates, which at times were amusing for some but rather infuriating for others.

I realised the warrior, the Bati has become a representative ideal of sorts in the Fijian psyche.

He is peddled almost anywhere and everywhere at times.

He is a "climate warrior" against climate change, he is at the center of the disputed "Ratu" and "Bati" alcohol Paradise Beverages Ltd and in a sport that expects him to be impressively masculine, he sheds tears of joy at the end of the game.

As this new and historic win is celebrated, a new found warrior has also been won. Perhaps for now he will remain the i wau wielding traditional warrior in countless images and logos but its rising religious resonance is emphasising a dualistic persona.

In physicality the Bati is expected to draw on his pre-Christian tenacity, in spirituality he is now firmly soaked in his Christianity. Biblical or Barbarian the Bati is definitely now a product of both worlds.

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