The Firewalkers of Fiji have long baffled scientists with their feat. It is my chance to get to the bottom of this, so to speak, as the chief’s son Madigi obligingly raises his ample barefoot in front of my camera, while he and his two companions chuckle at my request.
My wristwatch, mistakenly an hour fast, resulted in my early arrival at Pacific Harbour’s Arts Village and in a serendipitous encounter with this shy, lanky 22-year-old firewalker who had come out to the bleachers to meet his friends before the firewalk began. As Madigi leaves, he nods in agreement to my appeal for, “Another photo after the firewalk please.”
The Island of Beqa (pronounced mbenga) the home of the legendary firewalkers looms off Pacific Harbour Bay of Viti Levu, the largest Fiji Island. Members of the Sawau Tribe of Beqa have for over 300 years been passed the uncanny ability to walk on scorching rocks from their forefathers.
Spectators soon reach the rafters of the stands facing the large circular mound of rocks covered with blazing logs that had been heating the rocks for four hours.
Joseph, our MC, begins by recounting the lore of how this mastery over fire began long ago with a famous story teller Dredre. It was customary to trade gifts for stories. When asked what gift he’d like by the villagers, he said each should bring the first thing they caught hunting the next day. For one warrior this was an eel, which when pulled from the mud assumed the shape of a spirit god. In return for being freed the god promised the power to rise unscathed from a four day burial under hot coals. Finding this too frightening, the warrior said he was satisfied to just walk on the burning coals without injury.
“Two weeks prior to the firewalk the participants do not eat coconut and have no contact with women.” Joseph grins as audience hands shoot up. “I know, I know what you’re thinking with ceremonies Wednesday to Saturday each week,” he chortles. “The good news is, since Christianity was introduced these taboos have been replaced with prayers before and after, and another change is in special cases the Sawau pass this mystifying capability to members of other tribes.
The crowd hushes as Chief Rusiate Roko Tavo strides onto the grassy stage. He lifts his arms and bellows the age old chant that Joseph translates, “As long as our blood flows we can walk on fire” whereupon five young men from this bloodline run out to join him. A row of sacred bala bala leaves form a band of green around the waists of their straw skirts that fall to mid-calf. And if this is not enough to conjure up images of fuel for a flash fire, around their ankles is a band of tinder-dry tree ferns.
The young men using poles clear the burning logs from the rocks and then level the rocks so they will not tilt when tread upon. They bring leaves to place around the edge of the circle.
The chief thunderously calls for entrance of the spirit god. A thick vine hoisted by two men walk on either side of the pit enticing the spirit into the circle of leaves, where he will stay until the leaves are removed.
First to step onto the white hot rocks is the chief, who walks slowly to the middle and lingers holding up his arms to the crowd before crossing to the other side. I cringe, thinking of my furious hobble to get off a bit of hot beach sand, yet see no sign of discomfort on his face. One by one the young men follow suit. Lastly the leggy Madigi leaps up with his size 12’s and smiles in my direction before he sashays around the sizzling rock bed for longer than I can hold my breath.
How do they do it? There is no definite answer but scientists allude to the power of suggestion. Medical doctors who have inspected the feet of these firewalkers report their skin is neither thicker nor tougher than is normal for barefoot walkers. They found no evidence of any substance applied to their feet, nor were they under the influence of opiates. It was also determined before and after the ceremony the participants reacted normally to painful stimuli on their feet, such as contact with a hot stick. I can personally vouch that they are not in a trance, having seen them laugh and chat during the performance.
At the end of the show Madigi appears along a side path with a dimply grin and points to his foot. I hurry over. As he bares his sole I peer closely at only the same bit of grime accumulated from barefoot walking as before. I click my camera to capture for posterity the inexplicable fact that his slow dance on the searing rocks had no ill effect. And leave wondrously mystified.
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