We are saddened to learn of the death of Ratu Epeli Kanaimawi, the first elder to be ordained within GCI in the Pacific island nation of Fiji. Following is a tribute from Rod Matthews.
Ratu was a hereditary chief in his Fijian tribe on the island of Taveuni, hence the title “Ratu” (meaning chief) was the term of endearment and respect given him throughout the church in Fiji and among his friends. It is with the deepest sadness that I announce that he died on Sunday evening, October 28 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at the age of 74, following a short battle with lung cancer.
Ratu has an amazing life story. He was a student at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia in 1965 when his attention was drawn to the church through The Plain Truth magazine. God’s work in his life led him to be baptized in 1974, ordained a deacon in 1977 and an elder in 1979.
His career path took him to the level of a senior civil servant in various government departments in Fiji and included the office of Director of Agriculture. He was appointed chairman of the Grants Commission of the University of the South Pacific which is based in Suva, Fiji – a responsibility that sometimes required him to visit the 12 extension campuses in other Pacific nations, including Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Kiribati. This turned out to be a God-inspired responsibility because when he traveled on university business, as an elder he also took the opportunity to visit the remote members we had in some of these nations.
As chairman of the Banaba Trust Fund, he served the people from the remote Pacific island of Ocean or Banaba Island who had been resettled on the island of Rabi in the Fiji group by British authorities after World War II. Ocean Island was a British owned phosphate island mined to exhaustion but not rehabilitated. Eventually it could no longer support the native population, and after an extended legal battle in the British courts, the Banabans were given some compensation for the “inconvenience” of losing their homeland to the business interests of the phosphate companies. For a time Ratu Epeli chaired a board of trust administrators to oversee the proper and expeditious use of the funds to best serve the Banaban people now settled in Rabi.
In 1986 he was asked by the Church to take on the role of a full-time employed pastor for the church in Fiji and some neighboring Pacific countries and left government employment to do so. During this time he also served as a negotiator for the Great Council of Chiefs of Fiji, playing a significant role in the negotiations to resolve the standoff arising from the coup attempt of 2000 and he was a leader in the Association of Christian Churches of Fiji. Then in late 2008, he was appointed by the Fijian government of the time as High Commissioner to Malaysia (equivalent of Ambassador within the British Commonwealth) and Ambassador to Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. This required him to reside in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
What was a remarkable honor quickly took on a different perspective when, within two months of his appointment, there was military coup in Fiji and the new leadership of Commodore Frank Bainimarama rescinded virtually all the Fijian diplomatic appointments overseas. Because of Ratu Epeli’s relationship with and appointment by the previous government and his involvement as an intermediary and negotiator in the coup of 2000, which had been severely misinterpreted by some Fijian powerbrokers, he was advised not to return to Fiji. So for the last six years he and Sofi, his wonderful wife of 45 years, continued living in Kuala Lumpur in virtual exile with the assistance and understanding of the Malaysian government. He simply turned his attention to serve with dedication the church in Malaysia, giving occasional sermons, helping with the church’s local magazine production and distribution and even as a van driver facilitating the travel of members to and from services each weekend.
He developed an excellent relationship with the Sidant Injil Borneo (SIB) church close to where he lived in the suburb of Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur. He was asked to conduct a Christian education course for their young people using our Discipleship 101 course. He also spoke occasionally to their congregation. More than 70 from this congregation joined with our members for his funeral service in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, October 30, conducted by Malaysian senior pastor, Wong Mein Kong. In addition to eulogies from GCI members, the service included a heartfelt and moving tribute to Ratu from Pastor Edwin Agong from SIB and a group of SIB youth sang a song. Pastor Agong plans to establish a scholarship fund for young people in SIB to be named after Ratu Epeli.
Throughout their six years in Malaysia, the Kanaimawis have dearly desired to return home to be with their children and grandchildren but apart from occasional visits to Malaysia, Skype© has had to provide the blessing of ‘virtual’ contact with the family.
In early October, Ratu experienced significant breathing problems and was advised by the doctors not to attend the church’s annual retreat and festival in the Genting Highlands because of breathing difficulties at that altitude. He had to have fluid drained from his left lung on several occasions.
These circumstances prompted Epeli and Sofi’s daughter Alisi, her husband James Panuve and their son Dovi to travel to Kuala Lumpur the week prior to Epeli’s death, so that all of his immediate family was present. He was cremated on October 31 and his ashes will accompany Sofi back to Fiji next week where a memorial service will be hosted by the Suva congregation.
Ratu was a man of exuberant spirits, with an always-positive disposition that reflected his vibrant faith. He was everyone’s friend, embodying a humble attitude of acceptance and service not often found in someone who held the high offices he did. He left a fine example and legacy for his country and for our fellowship through his life and family. He was one of those special people whom we eagerly anticipate embracing when we pick up on our relationship in the resurrected life around the table of the Lord. I know that Sofi and all her family appreciate your love and care expressed through your prayers.
Cards may be sent to:Grace Communion International PO Box 16697 Suva, Fiji