The origins of Vitogo Paipai community

Isma Azam in front of the Vitogo Paipai mosque in Lautoka. Picture: SHAYAL DEVI

Isma Azam in front of the Vitogo Paipai mosque in Lautoka. Picture: SHAYAL DEVI

AT the dawn of every new day, residents at Vitogo Paipai in Lautoka are woken from slumber by the stirring chords of an adhan (call to worship) emanating from the local mosque.

This important Islamic ritual for the for the past 25 years has been upheld by one of the community’s oldest residents, Isma Azam.

Mr Azam, 64, is a descendant of one of the oldest families that initially settled in the area during the indentured era.

Since young, he has looked after the local mosque, constructed in 1908 by a group of Muslim settlers keen to preserve their traditions and identity for generations.

Today, over 60 Muslim families reside in the area, including recent settlers and families who weren’t swept by the wave of migration that hit Fiji after the 1987 and 2000 coups.

Mr Azam, who has lived through it all, tells the story of his community and how a symbolic place of worship came to be in rural Lautoka.

New beginnings

Like the thousands of labourers brought to Fiji, Mr Azam’s grandparents were among the hopefuls who wished for a fresh start in Fiji.

Lesser known but still part of the throng of Indian workers, the Muslim populace were also keen to preserve their culture and traditions in a foreign land.

Mr Azam says his grandparents came from India and settled in Vitogo with their children.

“My grandparents were from India, they settled here in the early 1900s but I don’t know where exactly in India they were from,” he says.

“I know my maternal grandfather was originally from Rangoon (presently Yangon, Myanmar).

“I did see my paternal grandmother live to be 102. I was in Class One then.”

He grew up in a family of 10 siblings, seven girls and three boys.

“We grew up in a very poor background. When I went to school, there were instances when we couldn’t put food on the table.

“We had dhal and rice and nowadays, kids want meat. They can’t live on dhal and rice.

“Occasionally, our mother used to make us tomato chutney. When my mother was sick, my father used to make roti for us in the old earthen stoves so we have struggled quite a lot.

“I went to school until Class Eight and you have to have money to study further. I have supported my children’s education though. Whatever they wanted to study, they have.”

Establishment of the mosque

Settlers of Vitogo Paipai in the early 1900s decided to build a mosque in the area to help keep their traditions and religion alive.

The project wasn’t an easy one, especially since funding was a major issue.

This did not deter the founders of the mosque, as each person contributed whatever they could to set up a thatched bure mosque.

Mr Azam says the mosque was then moved to another location after 10 to 15 years.

“They moved the mosque to the other side of the river and all who had constructed have passed away,” he says.

“The second one — we renovated and we added a quarters for the maulvi and spent about $100,000 for the renovations.

“There was a man named Hafiz who was the main person who helped build this.

“Now when I think about it, I am not sure how we managed to spend that much money but we built the mosque with whatever resources we had.

“Hafiz was a blacksmith and I was about 10 years old when they started rebuilding. This was done sometime in 1972.”

The terrain was mountainous and covered in dense forests. Mr Azam says this made it difficult to travel to the mosque on foot.

“When the masjid was still made of corrugated iron and timber, it was our job to come on horseback to light the lamps at the mosque.

“Mohammed Yasim was the maulvi then, he used to live alone and soon after, houses started to be built surrounding the mosque.”

He says the mosque does not come under the management of the Fiji Muslim League but rather, the Vitogo Muslim League of which he is vice-president.

“This is our own and we manage it.

“There were calls to get it under the league but the original builders wanted to keep it independent and said they would look after it.

“So even after they have gone, the responsibility of looking after the mosque falls to us.

“The people of Drasa also came to this mosque before one was built in their area.

“People come here to pray daily, at least five times.

“I come in the morning and when I return at 1pm, I don’t go home. I stay here until 8.30pm and leave after the final prayers.”

Hope for a flourishing farming community

Like their forefathers before them, the first settlers of Vitogo remain deeply ingrained in sugarcane farming.

In recent years, many have chosen to branch out into other fields, either business, trade jobs or even switching farming practices.

“Many people have started to plant pineapple here,” Mr Azam shared.

“We have lived on sugarcane farming as our forefathers did but people are moving into different fields now.

“I started a shop and have been managing it for the past 12 years.

“This gives me an additional source of income.”

He says deteriorating health conditions have deterred him from continuing farming as he did in his youth.

Mr Azam has four daughters and a son.

His son still lives in Vitogo Paipai and three of his daughters live overseas.

“We have spent the majority of our lives here. It is now time for younger people to come forward and take charge.

“There has been a lot of hard work involved in keeping this mosque running and keeping the maulvi paid.

“We don’t have any other sources of income apart from farming.

“We are dependent on money from the cane but there are some instances where people have donated.”

Mr Azam feels that living in a multiracial community has also helped broaden the mind-set of people.

“There is peace here. There have been instances when our Hindu brothers have also donated to the mosque.

“There has been so much understanding between our forefathers and I want this to continue into the future.”

More Stories