Coming of Age in Fiji

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PHOTO: Sandra Upson

If you’re a fan of our profiles, you’ve probably noticed a pattern: Early on, they mention degrees earned from vaunted institutions and then describe illustrious steps on the road to the top. The subject’s grade school days, by contrast, tend to evoke skirmishes with acne and squeaky-voiced humiliations. So when Associate Editor Sandra Upson visited Arieta Gonelevu in Fiji for this year’s Dream Jobs report, she wasn’t expecting to end up at the energy specialist’s rather epic high school reunion.

In October, hundreds of alumnae descended upon the campus of the all-girls Adi Cakobau School, outside Suva, the capital of Fiji, for the academy’s 60th anniversary. Dressed identically by graduating class, the women met on a central lawn ringed with palm trees. A yellow-clad group of graduates unfolded pages of newspaper on the grass and arranged themselves next to a floral-print cluster of women. Gonelevu’s classmates, in mauve skirts and blouses, sat daintily on their shoes. The head of the school began speaking from a podium. Under the intense noon sun, the Old Girls of Adi Cakobau chatted quietly in Fijian and watched frogs hop over their feet.

An SUV with pure black windows drove up a side road and onto the grass. The field fell into a hush. Ratu Josefa Iloilo, the 88â¿¿year old president of Fiji, emerged from the vehicle and tottered up to a dais on the arm of a guard. ”At first I was startled,” Upson recalls, noting that Iloilo had been deposed in a military coup d’état in December 2006. ”Then someone explained that Fiji’s military dictatorship had effectively cleared the president of all responsibilities,” allowing him to return nominally to office. A group of boys from a neighboring school, ceremonially bare-chested and wearing grass skirts, presented Iloilo with gifts: a pig wrapped in leaves, mats woven from pandanus leaves, and several bowls of kava, the tranquilizing drink that forms the backbone of Fijian social gatherings, which he obediently consumed.

Later, with the speechifying done and the president off in his giant black car, Gonelevu and her friends danced in a procession and sang school songs. Mindful of her guest, Gonelevu soon left the reunion to show Upson solar panels that she’d installed long ago at a nearby farm. It was a first step for her as a professional, on a road less traveled.

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