Fiji's Family Network
By VASITI V RITOVA
Two of Fiji's former First Ladies have passed.
Lady Seruwaia Lelea Cakobau, second wife of Fiji's first Governor General, the late Ratu Sir George Kadavulevu Cakobau (1912 - 1989), Turaga na Vunivalu, passed away last week.
Lady Veniana Bale Ganilau, third wife of Fiji's second Governor General and first President, the late Ratu Sir Penaia Kanatabatu Ganilau (1918 - 1993), Turaga na Tui Cakau, also passed in Suva this week. Both ladies had suffered long illnesses and were surrounded by families at the time of their passing.
Lady Cakobau was from the chiefly island Bau while Lady Ganilau had her roots in Korocau with maternal links in Natewa, villages of traditional significance in Cakaudrove Province in the North.
Today, as Fiji and its people with traditional alliances to Kubuna, Burebasaga and Tovata Confederacies, families, relatives, associates and friends, prepare for traditional funeral ceremonies, it is perhaps fitting to pay tribute to the lives of Lady Cakobau and Lady Ganilau here.
Their lives of service to Fiji during the tenure of their husbands at Government House, to Her Majesty and the Commonwealth of Nations, the United Nations, the Pacific Islands Forum, Fiji's diplomatic corps, the civil service, the battlefields where their husbands held military distinction as courageous leaders, in sports and the vanua in general, were significant as Fiji made steady progress through the years.
First Ladies are often rarely praised but their roles and souls have to be compatible with those of their husbands, leaders who are ear-marked for the critical roles they play at State and Vanua levels.
When Akuila Yabaki called for a major change to the selection of a President, Ro Filipe Tuisawau wrote a Letter to the Editor of The Fiji Times and explained the importance of the role.
"The position of the president symbolises unity of both traditional structures of leadership which existed before parliamentary rule was established and the currentWestminster system of parliament. This is where the Western system meets our traditional vanua system and we acknowledge the indigenous leadership that has evolved and catered for all races in our multi-cultural society. By nominating the President the nation is acknowledging the role our chiefs have played in society and I think the Fijian people would appreciate that the status quo stay." RO FILIPE TUISAWAU
The tasks and responsibilities of Fiji's First Ladies were often those of subservience or was stipulated as a subservient one because Fijians often believe in the notion that leaders' wives were born and raised to fill these roles. Many times, these women were traditionally recruited to become First Ladies, in every sense of the belief, if they did not fall in love. Their husbands were always chosen because of their traditional status and their civil service and military experiences, two qualities that made our leaders at the time.
First Ladies were often required to take up certain roles in the Vanua, in civil society and the Church, yet their life's experiences also told many stories because they were from significant Fijian families that produced daughters who would fulfil certain leadership roles.
Almost all of Fiji's First Ladies had civil service and traditional leadership experiences. Lady Cakobau and Lady Ganilau, like Ro Lady Lala Mara, and now Adi Koila Mara-Nailatikau, filled several different roles in Fiji and many times, their support at State level were demanded of them.
The people of Fiji, at all levels, understood those roles and showed them a natural form of support required for wives of leaders.
FIRST LADIES' ROLES IN FIJI'S POLITICAL TURBULENCES
As Fiji made some pretty strenuous political progress in the early 70s, 80s and 90s, when Ratu Sir George, Ratu Sir Penaia and Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara began discovering and were going through some latent conflicts between the roles of leadership (at both political and vanua levels), it would be worth it to mention the endeavors of both leaders and their wives, as people began a journey of taking a whole different perspective and direction of political discovery in Fiji.
Former British High Commissioner Roger Baltrop made a tribute during Ratu Sir Penaia's passing in 1993 - both First Ladies would have played their roles as their husbands underwent "political pressures and conflicting legal advice".
Yet, we would have never doubted Ratu Sir George's and Ratu Sir Penaia's good faith although some of their resolutions to the crises created under the circumstances "seemed to falter". Both First Ladies stood by with unfailing support, we would always presume. Their respective roles were never too exposed but they were there.
Ratu Sir George played a controversial yet prominent role during the political trubulences of 1977 when the National Federation Party narrowly defeated Ratu Sir Kamisese's ruling Alliance Party (who had an equally formidable First Lady behind him all the time). Ratu Sir George made a decision to swear Ratu Sir Kamisese back in as Prime Minister when NFP leaders like the late Siddiq Mohammed Koya and Jai Ram Reddy "splintered in a leadership brawl". Ratu Sir George called on Ratu Sir Kamisese to form a new government when NFP leaders did not turn up at Government House for two days.
Meanwhile, Ratu Sir Penaia, warm and with a generous personality, met a lot of difficulties in his position as Governor General and Representative of Her Majesty the Queen during the military coups executed by Major General Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987-88.
These were circumstances that may have allowed for some strengthening of First Ladies' roles at Government House. It became quite common for us to learn a lot from our First Ladies as they played their roles even if or when the titiles were bestowed on them "as a term of endearment". If they didn't, they proved themselves to be of exceptional talent in special circumstances, even if that talent was not all evident or non-political".
A lot of us referred to them as the GG's wife or the President's wife (Radi ni Kovana or Radi ni Peresitedi) yet they would have often referred to themselves as their children's mothers, and their grandchildren's grandmothers. They filled the pages with their special stories and that of their offsprings. Photos and family portraits from Government House became special pieces.
Traditionally, they were Radi Levuka (Lady Cakobau) and Radi ni Vanua o Ca'au (Lady Ganilau). Theirs were sheltered lives but everyone in Fiji wanted a piece and got it. They were for the people too.
Like their successor years later, the late Ro Lady Lala Mara, Fiji's First Ladies served their husbands in the many different roles they played for many years. They took on diplomatic roles, and almost frequently represented Fiji abroad during State visits or other. They were many times regarded as formidable and astute and sometimes played some influence on their husbands in considerable Vanua and political circumstances.
These are stories played over and over again in Fiji - at Vanua, State, family or political levels. Fiji's First Ladies were (and are) a formidable bunch of women and Lady Cakobau and Lady Ganilau counted.
Fiji's political experiences during the tenure of our Governor General and Presidents were almost quite an anguish for the people, and these men and women in leadership were acutely conscious of their roles and what Fiji's links to many institutions meant for the people of Fiji.
Just how good they were meant they all had to be visible, and also to be responsible to Fiji and the Fijian people. The First Ladies were there in public as we saw them and at personal level, we saw them as strong women who played assertive roles.
Sometimes we read of their reaction to Fiji's political problems and the tag they were so exposed to, but those were their cups and they drank from them with much feeling as First Ladies, as Fijian First Ladies.
Many times they challenged different assertions about who they were at Government House in Suva, and what their different roles were at all levels in society during their husbands' tenure of leadership, but our First Ladies' directions at their levels were often determined by the strict roles of their husbands. It was something that was demanded of them and they played it.
As Fiji and us overseas remember Lady Cakobau and Lady Ganilau today, let us not forget their lives of service to the Vanua and Fiji. As we all prepare to bid them farewell in the coming days, we will always pay tribute to their lives for being there for our leaders.
Vinaka vakalevu sara na bula ni veiqaravi cecere e na Vanua, Matanitu, Lotu kei na Matavuvale.
"I am determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may find myself. For I have learned that the greater part of our misery or unhappiness is determined not by our circumstance but by our disposition". A quote by Martha Washington, First Lady of the United States, wife of President George Washington.
Editor's Note - Lady Lelea Cakobau (right). We could not find a photo of the late Lady Bale Ganilau