Walking a legend

Words: Talai Narisia
Photos: Tourism Fiji

I gasped and held my breath when Misi called my name.

Misi is the priest in charge of the firewalking ceremony unfolding before guests of Beqa Lagoon Resort.

As I made my way forward, I fear the stinging, unbearable heat from the hot white stones. The spectators are a sea of faces as they watched me approach the furnace.

I slapped my face twice, and stood on the first stone.

Felt nothing.

I stood on the second stone.

Felt nothing, again.

And more stones, and it all felt like the first one, not even a tinge or shot of pain.

It was if I was just walking on the cement path to my bungalow.

That was my introduction to the firewalking rituals of the Sawau tribe on the island of Beqa. Their ability to walk barefoot across white-hot stones is legendary. Anyone growing up in Fiji like me would have learnt of the legends of Beqa and the firewalking skills of the Sawau men in primary school.

Legend has it that in the days before the palagi (Europeans) set foot in Fiji, a young Sawau chief was out in the forest scavenging for a gift to take back with him to the village when he accosted a veli (elf). In begging for his life, the elf offered to give the prince the supernatural powers to walk on hot stones. The young man asked for a demonstration and the elf gave him one. Firewalking has been with the Sawau tribe ever since, making them the only tribe in Fiji that has this special gift.

I am not a member of the Sawau tribe. But I was in Beqa to do my internship in human resources at the Beqa Lagoon Resort, where most of the women and men of Sawau also work. Misi the priest is also a hotel employee.

Firewalking at the resort is scheduled once a week. The ritual always intrigued me and I pestered my work colleagues to describe how the magic works. It’s vilavila i revo, the women would tell me. There are taboos associated with the feat, including abstaining from sex or drinking coconut juice or eating coconut flesh.

On this particular day, our resort guests were all seated and I was ready to film the ceremony with my phone. I saw Misi busy organising the lovo (furnace) and his firewalkers. Their bodies were glistering with scented coconut oil. At Misi’s orders, huge logs of firewood were removed, leaving the big white hot stones in the lovo.

The men began their chants.

Suspense was building.

I could almost sense supernatural powers descending from the sky to empower Misi and his men.

Then he called my name to join.

Walking on white hot stones was never in my wildest dream. I believe I could do it only because the invitation had been extended to me by Misi, and the time I had spent respectfully with the community. I am glad that I took up the challenge, and that I never doubted for one moment the magical powers of the firewalking men of Sawau. In hearing how the story was retold in school, little did I know that some 10 years later, I would actually be walking the real thing. I am so glad that I did.

Editor’s note: Please do not try this on your own. This author was only able to accomplish this feat through the blessing of the traditional priest of firewalkers on Beqa.

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