By Jason Jett
“…You don’t know where you’re going, and where this adventure will lead you.”
“There is no racism in hash,” said David Jamieson, owner of Yacht Help Fiji, while welcoming into the fold this new hasher in Nadi, Fiji last March. “In hash, everyone is equal.”
An African-American writer stranded by the pandemic in Fiji, I am very familiar with racism – a stain on the very fabric of society in the United States.
Overhearing the conversation, an Aussie expat interjected, “Australia is a pretty racist country, I admit.” He then asked a nearby hasher, “Is there racism in Scotland?”
The conversation continued as we shared beer and pizza after a rainy 10-kilometer run, jog and walk through cow pastures and around sugarcane fields, on paths turned into muddy rivulets after a day of rain.
No thought had been given to postponing the hash because of dire weather. In fact, the rain, the muck and the wind were reason for even more revelry among this hearty bunch of two dozen Fijians and expats.
Hashing on Mondays began in 1938 as British officers stationed in colonial Malaysia sought a way to relieve boredom and their weekend hangovers by running in the manner of the English paper chase or “Hare & Hounds.” At the end of each run, participants partook of beer, ginger beer and cigarettes, along with hash – slang for basic food.
In 1950 in Kuala Lumpur the objectives of “Hash House Harriers” were recorded as: “To promote fitness, get rid of hangovers, acquire thirst and satisfy it with beer, and persuade older members they are not as old as they feel.”
More than 70 years later there are hash chapters, or “kennels,” far beyond where the Union Jack flew. Hash organisations count 2030 chapters on seven continents in 185 countries and 1330 cities. Some are male-only clubs, but most are open.
Non-competitive, a hash typically is run over a course marked-off with chalk, flour, shredded paper or sawdust shortly beforehand by one or two specified members, the designated “hare(s).” The remaining members form the pack of “hounds” whose task it is to follow the hares’ directional markings, which include faux trails and dead ends.
There is no running clock, and while some members run ahead of others the misdirection causes leaders to often double-back. Combined with rest breaks, this keeps the pack rather uniform even amid steep climbs, tumbling descents and river crossings.
In addition to Fijian, Aussie, New Zealander, British, Chinese, Japanese and Venezuelan members, last year Nadi Hash House Harriers events – interrupted for seven months by a pandemic lockdown, saw participants from Germany, Reunion (France), Chile and the United States.
A large group of people and an unlimited quantity of beer – the scene after completion of the course – could portend disputes and altercations, but hash is a harmonic convergence of good sports. The merriment includes playful needling of members by the leader, or grand master, and him or her issuing penalties such as sitting on ice for shorting the course or past unexcused absences.
The social gathering at the course end is called a circle, or in some chapters “religion,” and there is a reverence in hash which makes for a close-knit community that members leave only upon repatriation or the physical debilitation of old age.
In 2018, Fiji hosted some 2000 hashers from around the world at the InterHash – an international assembly for a weekend of running, drinking and celebration held every two years. Canceled due to COVID-19 in 2020, in April the event is to be held in Trinidad and Tobago, and 20 members of Nadi Hash plan to participate.
From its roots in colonialism, hash always has been a sport of the petit bourgeoisie, much like tennis and golf, of which “commoners” see only glimpses. Hash members typically are professionals and businesspeople who pay a fee of F$15 (US$7) or more at each weekly gathering, with the host expending hundreds of dollars for snacks, food and amenities.
In Fiji, there are also hash chapters in Lautoka, Pacific Harbour and Suva. Across the South Pacific, there are chapters in American Samoa, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu.
One may ask whether hash is mere perpetuation of legacy colonialism, or neo-colonialism in former colonies? Why adopt a sport of your colonisers?
Then the same question would have to be asked of rugby, cricket, tennis, table tennis, badminton, water polo, netball and squash. And, while versions of football, or soccer, have been traced to ancient China as well as Greece and Central America, England was the first nation to adopt the sport in its current form.
The sun may set on the British empire, but it never does on the empire’s sports.
Meet the hashers
Rajinesh Prasad, 34, began hashing in 2019 and found it an “exciting and adventurous” way to stay fit and see all of Fiji, including some outer islands. He participated in the 2019 National Hash in which all Fiji chapters came to Nadi for a weekend meet. Prasad said Fiji was scheduled to host a South Pacific Hash including Australia and New Zealand last year, but the pandemic forced its cancelation.
Jamieson, 57, whose business formerly was branded Asia Pacific Superyachts Fiji, extolled the virtues of hash at home and his wife, Julia Narayan, began participating. Soon, hash was a family affair with the addition of her mother, brother and a daughter to the ranks.
“I was asthmatic,” Narayan said of a health condition before hash. “It has changed my life, I would say. I have kicked asthma, and I am more active now. My breathing has improved.
“It’s healthy living, a healthy lifestyle,” she added. “I think all the people who are present today, they are all are very fit. They eat healthy. Yes, they do drink beer, but they are very active. I mean they’re here because they want to be active.”
Grand Master Dr. Ram Raju, is credited with expanding the health focus at Nadi Hash by influencing a ban on smoking at events. Guests who feel the need for a smoke must leave the circle and go off-premises before doing so.
A benefit beyond fitness and socialising is travel, said Narayan, who is also the procurement manager at Kyronn Fiji. “We get to see the interior of Fiji, places many people living in Fiji do not get to see. Through hash I have explored so many places and had so many adventures.”
One of the youngest members of Nadi Hash is Shantel Priyanka Prasad, 21, Nayaran’s daughter and a psychology student at University of the South Pacific in Suva.
“I love hash, it has helped me a lot,” she said at the 6 December meet. “It makes me slim. It helps me and my grandma and my whole family. So, hash is a great thing.
“I encourage my friends to come for hash,” said Shantel. “People think only chubby people can come for hash to lose weight. Hash is not just about losing weight. Hash is about getting fit and being healthy.”
For the aspiring business psychologist, the socialising comes a distant second to the running in hash. “Because when you start, you don’t know where you’re going and where this adventure will lead you,” she said. “And you see so many new things, that you didn’t even know existed.”
A river in her path does not faze the young woman with the hash name “Garfield,” for the cartoon cat and chosen in association with her mother’s moniker “Black Cat.” “Oh, I get very excited,” she said. “Sometimes I get scared if it’s like tons of water, but, like today we had to cross a river, we crossed the Nadi River. Not everyone likes water, but that’s the thing, it’s an adventure. You have to just go through it. It’s quite fun.”
Another hasher, Rowie Lal, who describes herself as a mix of Fijian, Tongan and Samoan, said she has enjoyed the fitness break hashing in Suva provided from her busy schedule as a bridal and fashion designer.
The international diversity in Nadi Hash is largely attributable to Grand Master Babu Singh, the immediate past president of the Nadi Rotary Club and a lawyer with the hash name “Hangman” from his days as a prosecutor. Singh is an ambassador for hash, readily inviting business associates, expats and visitors on extended stays into the circle.
Singh has stated between Rotary and hash he has seen much of the world, and he seems determined to have Nadi Hash reflect it. “Hash is a crossroads of diversity, with an array of ethnic and cultural backgrounds,” he said, rolling-off a dozen nationalities of the friends he has met through hashing.
In the universal language of hash, “on-on,” is a greeting, an affirmation and a “good-bye.”