By Shazia Usman
Picture this – two girls around 10 years old. Wearing two-sizes-too large psychedelic-coloured shorts their mums bought for them at some sale, catching the Number 21/22 bus on a bright Saturday morning in Samabula, Suva, Fiji. Their destination? The Suva City Library, of course.
They were great friends, these two, but stronger than their friendship, was their love for reading. Oh, those Saturday mornings were very much the highlight of the week. On the tap were the many books by Enid Blyton, and The Baby-Sitters Club and Girl Talk series. Whatever that library had, we read it. Of course, the library made sure we only read age-appropriate books, but your girl is a child of the ‘90s whose parents didn’t supervise what she read, and so I grew up reading anything and everything – from Agatha Christie, James Hadley Chase, Alistair MacLean, to a random copy of the biography of Cher, I found in our home bookcase. As I was writing this piece, I realised that my first understanding of transgender people came from Cher – when I would later read of her son Chaz Bono’s journey – because you see, I always kept up with Cher’s life after reading her book as child. I follow her on Twitter now. She remains très cool.
Those years in Samabula – a vibrant and large but densely populated suburb in Suva City, made up the formative years of my childhood. Afternoons were spent playing Zorro with my younger brother, and friend, who also happened to be our downstairs neighbour, rendering her parents our Downstairs Aunty and Uncle – said in Fiji-Hindi of course, which sounds much better, or maybe not, come to think of it.
We lived in three different places in Samabula in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In Belo Street, from babyhood to kindergarten, where our friendly landlord, child-free at the time, was so enamored by me that he would often take me everywhere, with people regularly thinking I was his child. Not sure how much child safety was at the front of people’s mind at that time, but he was my trusted ‘Master Uncle’ – more family than landlord. He went on to have two daughters of his own later. We had a postbox at that Belo Street place – shaped as a little white house and I would often sit and watch the postman slip letters in it.
We moved to Rewa Street after that, and off to school I went – Gospel Kindy then Primary – in my pink gingham dress and pigtails. There I discovered Christianity. Oh, how I loved Scripture, my favourite subject alongside English. Mister Tamani was our teacher – the kindest of teachers with the gentlest voice and demeanor. Mrs Hazelman and Mrs Nair, my other favourite teachers, always greeted with me with a “hello Shazia” and a smile – an interaction I cherish even to this day, as I was the only Shazia in the school (you’ll see what I mean in the later part of the story).
While at Rewa Street, my brother and I would often slip out to visit our downstairs neighbour. She’d feed us delicious sponge cake after we prayed over it. I would excitedly recite the prayer I learned at school. In fact, I loved praying so much that I would often ask another beloved neighbour of ours, Aunty Kini – who was a gifted masseuse – to “please massage my legs, Aunty Kini, they hurt very much” – but secretly just wanting to do masu together in the end. It made me feel safe and loved. It would be remiss of me not point out that my family is Muslim, and it was my gentle Nana who taught me how to pray namaaz. But it was all in Arabic, you see, and made little sense to 10-year-old Fiji-Hindi and English-speaking me. Mister Tamani, on the other hand, told us stories of Jesus’ benevolence, and that was my love language, story-telling, and remains the same to this day.
I was still in Gospel Primary School when we moved to Totoya Street in Samabula – my psychedelic-coloured-shorts-wearing-book-reading-Zorro-playing era. We lived next to the Old People’s Home, and I would often come home from school to see my parents hosting a resident to tea. There was a caretaker who lived there by the name of Shiu who also had a pet parrot, and you wouldn’t be surprised to find my brother and I running to a shop nearby in the evenings to buy “one-dollar waka and one-dollar lewena” for my dad’s weekend grog sessions with family and friends.
We moved out of Samabula when my parents decided to build a house elsewhere. Not to sound like a teenager but it was the WORST DAY OF MY LIFE to leave my school, my friends, Mister Tamani and Scripture lessons. I arrived in Suva Muslim Primary in Class 6 into a class that had three Shazias already (that’s right dear reader, in just ONE CLASS), knowing more about Christianity than Islam, a fact that was not lost on my parents and who clearly wanted to course correct, and honestly, some 30 years later, I am still recovering from that move.
Shazia Usman is a Fijian feminist activist and writer. Her first children’s book Kaluti, a story of a 10-year-old girl facing colourism, was released in August 2019. For this she was nominated as one of the International Women’s Development Agency’s ‘6 must-read women writers from Asia and the Pacific’. She is one of Asia Foundation’s 2023 Development Fellows, and currently works as a Communications and Media Specialist with UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office’s Ending Violence Against Women and Girls programme.
Views expressed are her own.
This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, January 2023.