Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fiji -- Celebrating Taxes on Koro Island -- July 2009

The certainty of taxes may be universal, but it doesn’t need to be universally painful.  At least, that’s what we learned when we visited Nabuna Village, on Koro Island in Fiji.  We anchored off the village to say good-bye to friends before we left the area.  “Do you really need to leave so soon?” asked Mele.  “Tomorrow we’re having a celebration.”  That was about as much arm twisting we could take, so we stayed.

Turns out that what Mele called a “celebration” was actually a kind of school tax day.  It was one of three annual events by which the villagers raised funds – the other “celebrations” were for the church and the village.  They are spaced evenly throughout the year and unfold more or less the same way.  Needless to say, the fact that the villagers could turn such fund raising for essential services into a joyous occasion piqued my curiosity, for I've never found paying taxes particularly delightful.

The school needed $13,000 Fijian dollars this year for supplies and infrastructure (the teachers themselves are paid by the central government).  This burden was to be shared by the villagers, who were divided along family lines into five groups (one for each teacher), each group made up of twenty-six “men,” each of whom was obligated to pay $100 – a significant sum in this subsistence village economy.

The day of the “celebration,” people began showing up at the school at around 11:00 – things really should have gotten underway at 10:00, but, as Mele explained, we were operating on Fiji time.  Written on the blackboard was a table that listed how much money needed to be raised, along with the names of the five teachers, each of whom represented a different group.

The event had no emcee, no leader, no obvious director – it unfolded almost organically.  The kava drinking began immediately (kava is a dirty brown liquid made of kava roots that, in its Fijian form, is mildly intoxicating – it numbs the lips and relaxes the body and the mind).  Initially, our circle was small, no more than seven or eight people.  Somebody put a plastic tub near the kava bowl and the village chief dropped in a five-dollar bill.

Meanwhile, our daughters, Lola and Jana, had brought a dozen or so hermit crabs up from the water’s edge, carrying them in their little plastic green bucket.  They were surrounded by school kids in blue uniforms, as if those kids had never seen a hermit crab before.  Later on the rugby field, the kids played tag and Red Rover, among other things.

As more people arrived, they removed the desks from the classroom and rolled large grass mats across the floor, and when there weren’t enough mats, they made do with thin sheets of plywood.  Villagers arrived in groups – first they lined the walls and then they gradually filled the room.  Soon there were five kava bowls in operation within the classroom and two more outside.  One bowl was traditional, that is to say it was made out of wood.  The rest had been fashioned by cutting the tops off of large plastic fishing floats that had washed up on the beach.  The kava bowls were emptied one coconut half-shell at a time into the gullets of the villagers and replenished by plastic buckets filled with more of the brown stuff – production never ceased.  Drinking kava is a quintessentially social event; if the circle is small, two people sit at the bowl and pass out half-shells to one person at a time.  Everybody watches as that person drinks, and then everyone claps their hands together.  When the circle grows much larger, you are free to bring a half-shell of kava to somebody else; but you never take one for yourself – you must wait until somebody brings the kava to you.

After a while, two or three women started going around the room smearing handfuls of baby powder on the faces and in the hair of the participants (a common practice that’s been explained to us only as "traditional" but which clearly post-dates the arrival of Johnson & Johnson on these islands).  Someone else draped strips of colored crepe paper streamers around peoples’ necks.  Everybody had shown up in their most colorful outfits; the women in “our” group had rolls of purple and red cloth with a floral print shipped in from Suva to make their dresses for the occasion.  People were talking and laughing.  We had been promised dancing, but the radio was broken.  One group started singing songs, accompanied by a guitar and ukulele.  Others were playing cards.  The sight of little kids eating lollipops, peanuts, and mango skins betrayed an entrepreneurial presence somewhere in the crowd.

Throughout the day, tightly wadded up bills (as if no one was allowed to see) were presented to the teachers, who straightened them out and recorded the name of each contributor and their contribution in their notebooks.  Around 1pm they made their first tally – the total contribution of each group was recorded on the blackboard.  There was a brief pause as everyone contemplated the results, and then the chatter and drinking resumed.  Two hours later there was a final tally; they’d managed to raise about half of what they need.

 “What happens if you don’t raise all the money?” I asked the woman beside me.

 “Well, I guess we will have to do this again -- maybe.”  It is difficult to get a definitive answer about anything from anybody. 

“What happens if one of the men doesn’t pay his hundred dollars?” 

“Nothing,” she said.  Then she added: “He will feel shy, he will feel bad.  When someone asks him whether he paid, he won’t be able to say ‘yes.’”

“Everybody in the villages knows who has paid and who hasn’t?”

“Yes,” she said.

“No one knocking on their doors?” asked Michelle.

“Nooooo,” she said, wide-eyed.  “They all pay.”

After the results were tallied, the head teacher gave a small speech.

“She isn’t supposed to talk,” said the woman, “The head of the committee is supposed to talk, because the committee deals with the money.” 

But nobody from the committee ever did talk, and no one seemed to care.  Then, for the first time acting in concert, the villagers broke into harmonized song; the song first recounted a tale about some visitors who came through the pass in the reef to see the village and then made an extended comparison between a ripe fruit and a ripe woman.  Some one told us it was the song of Nabuna Village.

We left around  3:30 – we had been drinking kava since we arrived.  The villagers still came and went; some of them partying well past midnight.

Drinking kava, chatting with friends, singing songs – this certainly didn't feel like taxes.  For us, taxes are about filling out forms under duress and reluctantly handing over money to distant and anonymous bureaucrats.  But here on Koro Island, where the nexus between the money paid and the benefits reaped is immediate and personal, the financial obligation did not seem like such a burden.  Indeed, the obligation to put money into the communal pot was a great reason to come together and have fun.