Others Lighting My Way

Fr. Iowane Gukibau
May 20, 2014

Columban Fr. Peter Woodruff (center, blue shirt) with the Gukibau family.

I am Fijian, and we have a proud history. The other major group of people in Fiji is the descendants of Indian indentured laborers brought in by the British to work the sugar cane plantations. They retain their language and traditions while we retain ours. A few of us speak both Fijian and Hindi but, for the most part, our two communities carry on independently. Part of our seminary training required spending time among Indo-Fijians, and I spent nine weeks cutting sugar cane with Indo-Fijians; physically it was tough, but I was more or less used to being around Indians so did not really move out of my comfort zone.

That changed when I went to continue my initial formation in Sydney. I did a clinical pastoral education course, which involved working with alcoholic and homeless men. I worked under the supervision of Sisters Pauline and Margaret, Sisters of St. Joseph. This work was quite challenging – washing broken men, taking them to the bathroom, generally helping them with the basics. I was moved by the way the Sisters did this work so graciously and with such kindness. I wondered whether I would be humble enough to serve in such a way. I did have one success that surprised the Sisters. I was able to persuade one of the men, who had not washed or changed his clothes for at least a month, to have a bath and change his clothes. I was never able to be totally honest with the Sisters about how precisely I had achieved what they could not, but I did play a lot of rugby in those days and had the build of a second row forward.

Also, one of the Columbans in charge of our formation program, Chris Farrelly, motivated me with his passion. He truly empathized with those in need, with the poor. He seemed to be able to enter into how the other felt; I felt that I was not so good at such a degree of feeling with the other person. Chris also helped me a lot during the 30 day retreat as he helped me move towards imagining a variety of possibilities for mission; he helped expand my missionary dream.

My first missionary appointment was to Brazil. My Fijian racial characteristics allowed me to blend in with the descendants of slaves who had been shipped across from Africa, but I could not identify with their story of slavery, centuries of abuse, discrimination and destruction of all aspects of family life. We were never tenants on our land in Fiji and have always had a strong sense of rootedness in our land. In fact, I felt a little lost in Brazil where I had none of the social structures – family and friendship networks – that I was used to in Fiji. This, I think, led me to greater trust in God; I was like a boat cast adrift hoping for rescue or landfall.

An experience that helped me enter in some way into the memory of slavery was a dramatization of the history of slavery that Australian Columban, Fr. Colin McLean, produced. After I was ordained priest I was appointed to Peru, a challenging mission in many ways. Many people, both Peruvians and Columban missionaries, enriched my life, but I will mention just two elderly Columbans, Frs. Chris Baker and Leo Donnelly. Fr. Chris is now in his 80s and, even though officially retired, continues to lend a hand here and there, in particular with a center for the physically disabled in a very poor part of Lima. I admire both his dedication to mission and his focus. He is able to return to the house after being out on some job and then switch off whatever might be happening around him and turn to the reading or writing that he wants to do. Fr. Leo passed away in Feb. 2014 but continued to pursue his interests in our mission and his hobbies of writing and painting throughout his retirement from active mission work. There seems to be a balance in these men that challenges me to give myself some time. I am inclined to be forever outgoing and don’t give time to myself.

Now I have come full circle and am back in Fiji, beginning to work in the seminary teaching missiology and church history. I want to share with you, the reader, some memories of significant family members, now long dead, but alive in me. My grandfather was captain of the diocesan boat that ferried priests and religious to the 32 mission stations in Fiji. For this service he received only pocket money and a scholarship for his children to go to school. In those days there were few roads so most travel around our islands was by boat. On one occasion a nun fell overboard in rough weather, and he dove in to save her. On another occasion the boat capsized at night after hitting a reef. He was ferrying the bishop and two priests, all of whom were resigned to dying in the capsized boat, but my grandfather (Josefo Dau Gukibau) told them to wait saying: “If I don’t return in ten minutes that means I’m dead.” He dove to find a way out, returned and rescued them one by one but insisted that they take off their cassocks before attempting to swim out with him. He was a hero model for me, and Mum and Dad used to tell me stories about him. He received a medal from the Vatican for his valiant service to missionaries.

My great-great grandfather also lives on in family lore. His name was Dionisio Dau and was a catechist who accompanied a French priest in a boat visiting the missions along the coast of our island.