Saturday, October 2, 2010

Tales from Government House

by Ifereimi Nadore

Fiji Times - Sunday, October 03, 2010
It was a walk down memory lane for 74-year-old Josese Rokotakala who paid a visit to Government House on Friday only to get a glimpse of the place he once called home for three decades.
The Nakorosule native in the upper reaches of Wainimala in Naitasiri Province could only stand outside the main gate and reminisce about the good old days he once served as a public servant for 34 years beginning from 1966 and ending in 2000.
Mr Rokotakala considers himself lucky to have worked under three governor generals and two presidents. He witnessed the transition of leadership of the highest office of the land from the colonial era up until Fiji's Independence in 1970.
Mr Rokotakala's fairytale journey from the foot of Korobasaga Range to the Government House was something he would always cherish because of its historical value to the people of Fiji and those in Britain.
He began his career as a steward for the Governor of Fiji who was plucked out from his yaqona farm on the banks of the Wainimala River in 1966 and later rose through the ranks to become the longest serving butler for Government House to date.
Mr Rokotakala saw the highs and lows of those he served.
He witnessed the change of leadership from the British monarchy under the leadership of Governor Sir Derek Jakeway who took up office in 1964 up to 1968. He also worked under Sir Robert Foster who succeeded Mr Jakeway and later became the first Governor General after independence.
Mr Rokotakala also served Ratu Sir George Kadavulevu Cakobau, the vunivalu of Bau the first indigenous Fijian to be Queen Elizabeth's representavive in Fiji from 1972 until his death in 1982.
During his term as a butler Mr Rokotakala witnessed two coups - the first by Brigadier General Sitiveni Rabuka in 1987 and George Speight's civilian coup in 2000. Even though he had been away from the hustle and bustle of city life Mr Rokotakala's experience in the hotel industry qualified him to become a steward for the Governor back then before he rose through the ranks to become not only a butler, but a close pal to all the five high profile figures who he once served at Government House.
After leaving Ratu Kadavulevu School in 1953 Mr Rokotakala first worked for the old Morris Hedstrom in Suva before joining the Colonial War Memorial Hospital as a medical orderly.
He then joined Lautoka Hotel which was operated under Northern Hotel Group of companies then where he worked for two years. He decided to join the police force in 1962 but unfortunately failed to complete his training as he had to return to the village to look after his elderly parents.
It was on one of his monthly trips to Suva that he overheard a conversation at the Suva Market that one of the stewards at Government House was about to retire.
"I went straight to Government House and enquired whether they were looking for a new steward. I believe luck was on my side and I was offered the job," said Mr Rokotakala.
He said been given the full benefits of becoming a steward for the Governor was the beginning of a long journey and he never looked back.
He said that working under a very strict program was a challenge for him especially when he had to work under white men who they served with high respect.
He had fond memories of each leader and their style of leadership.
His role as butler was demanding. He was responsible for the leader's clothes, beddings and even the food he had to consume daily.
"It was respect at its highest level that kept me on my toes. I got to know their favourite food and the clothes they had to wear on each occasion. And having to gain access into their bedroom to look after their attire and the food they ate on a daily basis was a privilege that I will always cherish," said Mr Rokotakala.
He said Mr Jakeway being a former military man taught him about discipline. "He would wake up early and take a stroll along the seawall and usually came through Flagstaff alone. But he couldn't leave his two dogs behind for they acted as his personal bodyguards," said Mr Rokotakala.
He said Mr Jakeway was a very straight forward leader who always demanded the best out of the workers.
"I was once locked up for a few hours for not cleaning the dogs' house. He could be that rude," said Mr Rokotakala.
"However, he always maintained that the welfare of the staff should be prioritised and taken care of," he added.
"He was a family man. He even visited my wife when she gave birth to our first child," said Mr Rokotakala.
For Sir Robert Foster, Mr Rokotakala said he looked up to him as a mentor.
"He was always cool and did things with a lot of wisdom probably because of his age. He loved his food and his favourite was roasted beef, pork or roasted lamb with a lot of vegetables," said Mr Rokotakala.
He, however, said the three Fijian chiefs who succeeded the two expatriates also taught him how to become a better person in life.
He said Ratu Sir George being a high chief in his own right showed him that respect was always paramount.
"He drew a clear line when it came to work. He would tell us not to clap our hands when he finished his food on the table. He would tell us, "do that in Bau not here."
He said that like the two colonial leaders Ratu George would maintain discipline in all facets of life.
"He would come in his special attire during dinner and he maintained that discipline throughout his life until his death," said Mr Rokotakala.
But he had a very special bond with Ratu Sir Penaia Ganilau who he described as someone who had special powers.
"He would like to see me on his side all the time. He would take me on all his official trips and would joke openly with me saying words like kai colo," said Mr Rokotakala.
He said Ratu Sir Penaia being the paramount chief of Cakaudrove had special powers which were beyond his imagination.
For example on all his trips to the outer islands he would see giant sharks escorting the boat to the main passage.
"We spent some great moments with Ratu Penaia especially at his home in Vuniduva, Taveuni," said Mr Rokotakala.
He said when he was to retire from work in 1991 Ratu Sir Penaia refused to let him go and asked the Public Service Commission to extend his term at Government House until he died in 1993.
Mr Rokotakala, however, considered Ratu Sir Kamisese, the Tui Nayau as a chief who had a lot of wisdom.
"He is no doubt a great statesman who was born to lead not only because of his chiefly status but his intelligence," said Mr Rokotakala. Like Ratu Sir Penaia, Mr Rokotakala said the Tui Nayau was always a person to look up to for fatherly advice and always strived for the betterment of his people.
Mr Rokotakala said that apart from being a butler Ratu Sir Kamisese would assign him with multiple roles, one of which was to massage his legs which had troubled him for years.
"I took away the pain in his legs and he made sure that I was paid for my good deeds, something I did not expect from a high chief of his calibre," said Mr Rokotakala. "He gave me a pig and a big

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