Maybe it was because I wasn’t wearing the required red robes or lacked a white beard, but the reaction of the male children to being offered a soft toy animal was not what I expected. Or perhaps these items were too esoteric to the small boys in Tamaquto village in the interior hills of Ba Parish, Fiji.
As I drew a soft toy out of my sack and offered it to a little boy, I was surprised by the suspicious look, the turning away in disdain or the clinging to his parent’s neck in utter rejection.
It was the Sunday before Christmas. I had offered to help Columban Fr. Patrick Colgan who was on his own in the large extensive parish of Ba in the west of Fiji. For me, it was a break from life in the capital, Suva, and a return to a parish in which I had worked years before.
I was happy to get the opportunity to return to Tamaquto in the hills, a village of which I had happy memories from my previous stay. This village had Mass only once every three or four months and sometimes even less when the rivers on the way there were flooded in the rainy season.
In the absence of a priest, their catechist, Semesa, led the liturgy of the Word and distributed Holy Communion on Sundays. A couple of other catechists from villages fairly near would also help out when needed. Catechists are very important in Fiji. They also prepare couples for marriage and the baptism of their children. They often instruct children also for the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confirmation.
Catechists are unpaid volunteers who give their time willingly to God and the Church. Their wives are a big support to them and assist them in their work. The Archbishop has recently begun to commission female catechists too, but it is taking a while for them to be fully accepted. I was delighted to meet four catechists in Tamaquto after Mass and sit and chat with them.
Someone, who came from overseas, had given Fr. Pat a large bag full of soft toys for distribution among children for Christmas. Fr. Pat suggested that I take them to the small village of Tamaquto rather than leave a lot of disappointed children in one of the larger villages.
I believed that I would be a very popular priest by playing the role of Santa Claus. Not so, at least among the male children. The reaction of the young girls was different. They directed a big smile and outreaching arms my way. That was more like what I had expected!
It seems to me that gender behavior in Tamaquto originates more from genetics than from environmental conditioning. Well, maybe from both.
Columban Fr. Frank Hoare lives and works in Fiji.