Reflections in the rain

Fiji has had four coups in 20 years, but Owen Sheers finds racial harmony survives despite the polit

It has been raining in Suva, Fiji's capital city, almost continuously for two weeks, from the damp air of early mornings to sudden, tropical downpours - total rain that turns roads into rivers and fills the dark beyond open windows with the sound of water boiling in the night. I was born in Suva. The city's smells, sounds, shower-room humidity and buckled streets all contributed to my earliest sensory blueprint. So I should be used to this rain, my neural pathways formed to the tune of its percussive beat. I should, on an unconscious level, be familiar with the sheer power of it, the way it wipes across the bay, blurring the skyline and drowning out the traffic under its static determination. After two weeks, however, I feel as beaten as the city's streets. Every time I've looked out of the windows I have seen rain. Its rattle and roar has played constantly upon the roof and its slanting bars across the sky have left me feeling imprisoned. So, when it finally breaks, I leave my work, like the rest of the city, and head outside.

I decide to go for a run along the foreshore. Jumping in a taxi, I get out at the abandoned colonial-era Grand Pacific Hotel, its whitewashed wooden planks greying like a smoker's teeth from the base up. The Grand Pacific is not the only landmark at the start of my run. On the street beside it, there is a roadblock manned by beret-wearing police carrying batons. Metal spike-strips lie between rows of bollards and red-and-white cross-poles are piled on the kerb like showjumps at a village gymkhana.

There are 12 roadblocks like this across Suva, the most visible legacy of the country's coup six months ago, Fiji's fourth in 20 years.

On the whole, things have calmed down since Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama seized power back in December, but away from the roadblocks there are plenty of other signs indicating that the country is far from settled. Australian and New Zealand sanctions are starting to bite at the pay packets of ordinary Fijians; airline staff with relatives in the military can no longer fly to these countries; dissenting voices have been called for "interview" at the barracks, after which either they are silent or they issue statements about the importance of not "destabilising the situation".

The foreshore path is busy tonight, everyone taking advantage of the rain-cleared air. I run with Fijians, baseball-capped groups of young Indo-Fijian women, I-Kiribati and Tongan students. Older Indo-Fijian and Fijian women stroll beside the choppy bay, chatting or pushing pushchairs. On the bridges, Chinese and Korean couples are line-fishing. On the outskirts of the city, a woman in a green-and-gold sari stands on her balcony looking out towards Nukulau Island where, until recently, George Speight, arrested after the country's third coup, had been serving his life sentence; he was transferred to Naboro Maximum-Security Prison in December.

The ethnic diversity of the foreshore path has, to varying degrees, been said to lie at the root of Fiji's coups. The first two, headed by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, were fuelled by stirrings of Fijian nationalism against increasing Indo-Fijian dominance in politics and business. The coup in 2000 was presented as another nationalist response, this time to the election of Mahendra Chaudhry and his largely Indo-Fijian government. But, as ever, at close quarters nothing is as clear and everything is more complicated.

There are many reasons why Bainimarama chose to take over in December. Depending on whom you talk to, his was either an anti-racist coup or the action of a fledgling dictator. What is clear to me, however, is that, away from politics, Fiji is remarkably multicultural. At cafes and in restaurants, I have often seen groups of people sitting down to eat which, between them, represent five or more ethnic groups. In the 19th century, through Britain's indentured labour policy and the resulting migration from India, Fiji's population doubled in a matter of years until 50 per cent was Indian. I've often wondered how the UK would have dealt with a similar situation.

Ash-grey clouds are piling up over the puckered hills across the bay and the air smells of rain again. I run back towards the city, accompanied by wheeling squalls of bats and wafts of rotten seaweed. I see an Indo-Fijian taxi driver parked under the low branches of a mango tree. He sits in the double front seat, arm around his Fijian girlfriend as they watch the clouds' steady advance.

As I move up into Suva's hills, the street names begin to speak of the country's past. Thurston, Brown, Gordon, Brewster and Amy. These are the names of British governors, administrators and businessmen who, following Fiji's cession to Britain in 1874, stamped their own and their children's names on the city's maps. These are also some of the people involved in the 1876 establishment of the Great Council of Chiefs, a non-elected constitutional body recently suspended by Bainimarama. Of all the coup's consequences, this is the one causing the most concern and discussion. The very fabric of Fijian society, in the form of the importance and standing of the chiefs, has been questioned. Support for the Great Council has come from an unlikely source - the European Union, which is threatening to withdraw $300m (roughly £152m) in sugar farming subsidies. A Fijian delegation has now returned from Brussels having signed up to a road map towards elections and normalcy by 2009.

The older, colonial streets of Suva get me confused, so I'm surprised when I emerge opposite the maternity unit of the Colonial War Memorial Hospital. As the first big drops of rain land on my shoulders, I stand there a while, panting and looking at the building where I met the world. My birth wasn't the easiest and my mother had to have a Caesarean section. In the end, however, both mother and child were fine. And as I begin to walk back to my lodgings through the suddenly soaking streets, I find myself hoping with a renewed passion that, with the EU as midwife, Fiji's most recent delivery from trouble will, eventually, be similarly fortunate.

© Owen Sheers, 2007. Owen Sheers's debut novel, "Resistance", is published on 7 June by Faber & Faber (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent