Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Firewalker adjusting pit unhurt © iTaukei Institute of Language & Culture

Traditional Healing in Fiji

Many of the practices of Fij ian medicine arise from the traditional explanations of Fijian society. The main functioning unit of Fijian society is the mataqali or land-owning unit. In mythology, each mataqali is descended from an ancestral spirit or vu who continues to inhabit his portion of land and monitor the welfare of his descendants. The vu is one of a larger group of spirits or nitu, although it is the only one who is associated with land in this way. Humans may communicate with vu or nitu through dreams or visions. Ceremonies associated with yaqona are another way of obtaining this inspiration.

In Fijian tradition, many minor illnesses are classified as mate vayago, including coughs and cold, cuts and wounds, boils, scabies, ringworm, and other minor illnesses. These are generally given little attention. However, if one of these diseases is more severe or lasts longer than usual, it is possible that it might be a mate ni vanua instead. The only way that this could be diagnosed is through the use of a traditional healer or vuniwai. (It should be noted that this is also the name now given to Western healers.)

The term vuniwai is derived from the words vu meaning the ultimate cause or source, and wai meaning water, medicine, or liquid. The vuniwai is therefore a healer who provides wai. The vuniwai may diagnose any illness as being mate ni vanua, but there are also a number of diseases that never result from incidental circumstances. These include diseases that affect the head—such as headaches or toothaches and severe attacks of fever associated with difficulty sleeping—and said to be due to boils inside the spine or abdomen.

Traditional Fijian therapeutics involved two main groups of therapeutic practices: those aimed at immediate relief of symptoms, and measures adopted to deal with the ultimate causes of the disease (as discussed above). Both lay people and the vuniwai were aware of a number of herbal and surgical remedies that were thought to provide immediate symptomatic relief. These remedies make up the bulk of present day collections of Fijian herbal medicines. In addition, the vuniwai was able to use wai that were often very specialized for certain diseases or could sometimes receive revelations in visions or dreams to make up other prescriptions.

There are also those who heal specific injuries and ailments. In Fiji, famed firew alkers of Beqa Island, have the power to walk unharmed over hot stones whose heat can be felt at least three meters away. In the olden days, a water spirit by the name of Tui Namoliwai gave the gift over heat to a prince called Tui Qalita by promising that his generations will walk on hot stones till the end of the world. Tui Qalita’s generation from the male line belong to the Sawau tribe in Beqa, and they have become its traditional high priest. In addition, Tui Qalita’s generations are endowed with the power to heal any burns of any degree if they are the first to tend to it. Numerous anecdotal stories abound in Fiji about this amazing healing power, which can bring complete healing with no scars or pain within four days after continuously and softly touching an effected area. Intermarriage has resulted in this gift passing to the children of Sawau women who marry into other tribes in Fiji.

Fire walker

Kawakawarau leaves © iTaukei Institute of Language & Culture
Just recently, an iTaukei Fijian, Waisake Naholo a winger on the New Zealand All Blacks, suffered a cracked fibula, which almost saw him out of the rugby World Cup. He headed back to Fiji to seek traditional healing. He was healed within ten weeks by Isei Naiova, an uncle of his from Nadroumai Village in Nadroga Province on mainland Vitilevu, whose family was endowed with the power to heal bone fractures. According to Naiova, locally grown kawakawarau leaves were wrapped around his legs. After four days, the leaves were removed. Treatment included gentle massages and regular application of the kawakawarau leaves according to their traditional heritage.

These are but two examples of specialized healing endowed only on specific families or clans. There are many more instances in Fiji regarding healers and their healing gift ranging over minor to serious injuries.