Tui Lawa’s final journey

SITUATED some minutes from the coast of western Viti Levu, the Mamanuca Group of islands is not only home to thousands of Fijians.

The picturesque Mamanuca Group, with its white sandy beaches, turquoise waters and swaying coconut palms, has become a much-loved holiday destination for people across the globe.

Over 20 properties are spread across the islands. The success of tourism in the Mamanucas has become a crowning achievement for the vanua o Lawa.

And one of the people behind the success of the industry has been the late Tui Lawa, Ratu Sevanaia Vatunitu Lalabalavu, who was laid to rest at the chiefly village of Solevu on Malolo on Wednesday.

The people of the vanua o Lawa who are from the villages of Solevu, Yaro, Tavua and Yanuya are mostly traditional landowners of most resorts and properties in the Mamanuca Group; Castaway Island, Likuliku Lagoon, Plantation Island and Tokoriki Island Resort to name a few.

Ratu Seva, as he was commonly known, touched the lives of many people and this was witnessed at his funeral as people from all walks of life gathered at Solevu to pay their last tribute to a chief known to many as a father figure, mentor, true friend and someone who was always there to help.

It was humbling to be part of the Tui Lawa’s final journey home despite never having met the chief who reigned over the vanua o Lawa for nine years and his love for his people was evident at his funeral.

It was not just a funeral which brought together the people of Lawa but also brought together villagers, ordinary people and tourism stakeholders from the Mamanuca Group.

The company director for Plantation Island Resort and other properties in Raffle Hotels and Resorts group and also Robinson Crusoe Island Resort, Brian Kirsch, delivered the eulogy on behalf of the Mamanuca chapter of the Fiji Hotel and Tourism Association (MFHTA).

Not a single person’s eye was dry as Brian shared the life of the Tui Lawa and how he had touched the lives of many people, particularly those in the tourism sector.

“We gather together this morning to honour the late Turaga na Tui Lawa, Ratu Sevanaia Vatuntitu Nabola Lalabalavu, and to grieve with Merewai and the Mataqali Ketenamasi and the vanua and to express our deepest appreciation for his friendship and the consistent support he gave to the tourism community in the Mamanucas and especially here in his Malolo waters,” Brian said.

“Ratu Sevanaia was taken from us — far too early — two weeks ago on November 8, 2017. It was an unbelievable shock to all of us in the tourism industry who knew and respected this noble, great, yet extraordinarily humble chief.

“Whilst we all awaited the formal announcement by the chiefly herald in accordance with the traditional protocols, the unhappy message spread as if announced via the Vatu Tagi (Crying Rock).”

Every single person who knew Ratu Seva, according to Brian was extremely saddened by his untimely passing.

Ratu Seva was installed on November 18, 2008 and accomplished remarkable achievements during his nearly nine-year reign.

The tourism stakeholders also shared in church Ratu Seva’s many passions; the environment, education, rugby, health and welfare of his people, and for co-operative and mutually rewarding relationships with tourism developers and hoteliers which were extraordinary. “But we all expected he would have at least another 20 years to see them come further to fruition.”

The co-operative relationship Ratu Seva fostered with the resorts in Malolo waters was best expressed in 2013 when he bestowed upon them the unprecedented honour of declaring the hoteliers and tourists in the Malolo waters to be the honorary sixth yavusa, joining the yavusa of Lawa, Taubere, Ketenamasi, Motu and Yanuya.

This was a declaration they never took lightly, and they strove to be equal to the task, ensuring they co-operated with the vanua. When he announced the sixth yavusa he mentioned that “we have created a bond that we are like family”.

“All of the resort operators in the Mamanucas had strong and enduring relationships with Ratu Sevanaia — none more so than the Raffe, Smith, Whitton, Turnbull, and Reed families, all of which are represented here today,” Brian said.

“But I feel it is appropriate to mention that Ratu Sevanaia was the head of the Tokatoka Nalotulevu, Mataqali Ketenamasi who are the traditional landowners of Qalito Island, the home of Castaway Island Resort — the first resort in the Mamanucas.

The personality of the late Tui Lawa, according to Brian, was a testament to the Tui Lawa and his forebears that they have always seen the opportunity for mutual reward in the sustainable development of the tourism industry.

“Shortly after we were informed of the sad news I spoke with Geoffrey Shaw who said that Ratu Sevanaia would be dearly missed by all who knew him, as he touched so many lives in a positive, giving and sincere way.”

Ratu Seva supported all of the efforts by tourism industry representatives as well as Fisheries, Environment, Lands, and iTaukei Affairs ministries for the conservation of their pristine marine environment and the education of the vanua as to the importance of our natural environment.

“He was a true leader in this regard and supported MFHTA and was a patron of the Mamanuca Environmental Society and will long be remembered as an example to all who have the blessing to work and live in these beautiful islands. We knew that we could count on Tui Lawa and the vanua to support sustainable, environmentally friendly development. In this regard he was always firm and fair.”

Tui Lawa, according to Brian, supported traditional tabu requests to replenish fish and other marine stocks, therefore, understanding the health of reef ecosystem and the pristine nature of the sea were critical to continuing attracting visitors and the tourism dollar to Fiji and this presented tangible benefits to the vanua.

He also helped to ensure the villages in his realm — Solevu, Yaro, Yanuya, and Tavua — were always well-kept and presentable.

“In a country where we constantly encounter challenges to reduce unsightly litter, it was rare indeed that the villages in the Malolo waters were ever in an untidy state.”

Ratu Seva, according to the tourism stakeholders, even supported and championed efforts to replant native dry forests, improve water reticulation and sanitation in the villages, harness the potential of solar power, encourage domestic animal population control, giant clam restoration, turtle hatcheries and breeding programs, and the banning of shark and turtle fishing, among many other projects and initiatives — all of which support an improved environment — and require a medium- to long- term vision and to forego sometimes more immediate needs.

Another of Ratu Sevanaia’s top priorities was education and the honorary sixth yavusa was delighted and privileged to assist with funding of the Ratu Lalabalavu Memorial Secondary School.

Most of the resorts on Mamanuca have contributed to this project.

The Tui Lawa was also known as a keen promoter of health and wellbeing for his people. He worked with tourism stakeholders members for dental and eye clinics and other health evaluations to combat the scourge of NCDs.

His reign even saw him instituted a three-year tabu on drinking yaqona from the 1st to the 15th of every month and all the resorts supported this initiative, mostly noting health and productivity increases and enhanced harmony among staff.

Tui Lawa, the vanua o Lawa heard, was a progressive and open-minded chief, yet one who dedicated himself to the traditional customs and protocols of the vanua and never shied away from his duties.

He always put the values and needs of the vanua above personal recognition or gain.

He supported development and the tourism industry. The resorts in the area were proud that he formed a business — Lexmee Evening Star — to transport guests to surf breaks the Mamanucas are so famous for. He ensured the business was run professionally and with the best of customer service.

“This was a man who had incredible power but who remained a paragon of humility. He never used the power to bully or exploit anyone.

“As he told the next generation of leaders in the prefects of Ratu Lalabalavu Memorial School and Malolo District School earlier this year: ‘I want to emphasise that leaders are meant to serve — not for showing off and bullying.”

“Ratu Sevanaia was a person who practised what he preached. He knew that the best way forward for the tourism industry and the vanua was to work for win-win solutions. He epitomized the Fijian spirit of ‘talanoa’ and we all knew that we would be able to work through any challenges in a cooperative manner.”

Ratu Seva may have gone from the midst of the people of Lawa and those of the tourism stakeholders, he, however, has left behind a legacy that most probably everyone else could learn from.

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