You know those target brand, 5 for $25 ones? Yeah, those. It had been a particularly rainy few days out here on the island and I had done my laundry during one of those sparse moments where the sun breaks through the clouds in the morning. It was a mistake, and I knew it then. Afternoon rains are entirely too common here to rely on a short break in the cloud cover as an indicator of good weather to come. But alas, after 4 solid days of rain, I took that break to wash my musty, damp, and slightly moldy clothes hoping that break would last just long enough for my clothes to get at least halfway dry.
I filled up my bucket with a few shirts, skirts, sulus (our wrap around sarongs worn just about every day), dish rags and the aforementioned underwear. I kneaded my holey clothes until the sudsy water turned brown from the expelled dirt from a hard week of working, and let them sit for about an hour, more for the vanity of a clean scent than the actual benefit of allowing my clothes to soak in dirty albeit soapy water. I took out the clothes one by one, scrubbed them with my scrub brush, and rinsed them out in my sink in a trickle of brownish water. Once they were all relatively free of suds, I put them back in the bucket, brought them outside, lowered the bamboo post that holds up my laundry line, and pinned up the clothes one by one before hoisting the bamboo stick back up into place.
I was distracted during the day and ended up leaving my house until nightfall. When I returned home it had already been raining steadily for about 3 hours, blessing my clothes with an extra rinse cycle! I thought nothing of it, my clothes were soaked again and there was no point in bringing them inside to hang overnight. All that would accomplish would be to have still wet clothes in the morning, along with a huge puddle on the floor, and an even more humid house. So I left them up.
About an hour and a half after sunset, my neighbor came by to check up on me. We chatted at the front door despite the steady drum of rain that seemed to engulf the village. After about 10 minutes, he turned to leave. When he turned, he caught a glimpse of my clothes hanging on the line and just about gave himself whiplash spinning back to face me.
“Ru, biuta nomu sapo I loma!” [Ru, put your underpants inside!]
“Baleta, sa tau tiko mai na uca. Noqu sapo sa suasua dina” [Why, the rain is falling. My underpants are already very wet.]
The rest of the conversation was basically me repeating, why should I bring them inside if they won’t dry, and why just my underpants? Why not all of my clothes? He wouldn’t tell me the reason, insisting that I ask my boyfriend why it wasn’t okay to leave them outside. Eventually I threw a sulu to cover my head (because here in Fiji if the rain hits your head, you will get sick) and dashed out in the rain to recover my contested underpants. I hung them up inside, more than a little frustrated I had lost an argument regarding the placement of my own underpants in a rainstorm! I was confused and made a cup of green tea with ginger shavings and the last of my Ginger Snap cookies from town, long gone stale from the latent humidity awaiting Naca’s arrival and an explanation for the hot debate about my holey underpants.
Eventually Naca arrived and I asked him why I couldn’t leave my underpants outside. He looked at me calculating his response, and eventually told me, “You just don’t, don’t ever leave them outside at night.” I remember from training in Fiji 2 years ago, that clothes weren’t left outside at night because many people believe that you will get various sicknesses from doing such, scabies being the one that stuck out in my mind most prominently. I sat there drinking my tea thinking back to training, and realizing that in my 26 months in Fiji, I have actually never left any of my clothes out overnight. I thought back to the nights before it started raining, and realized that tonight was around the time of the full moon and looked carefully back to Naca and asked if the reason had anything to do with witchcraft.
He looked back at me, probably frustrated to have to explain things that come so normally to them, and sheepishly said yes. We ended up buying 4 bags of kava and mixing a basin on my kitchen floor and talked for hours about the witches and undoubtedly my underpants on the line.
The belief is that the witches have the most strength during the full moon and this is when they go to various places in the village (which I won’t mention here, but everyone who lives here knows about) to dance naked to the full moon and perform their rituals.
How do witches, full moons, and rituals relate back to my underwear hanging on a line in the middle of a powerful rainstorm? They believe that witches can touch your clothing and transfer a sickness to you. Since (for women) a bra and underwear are the closest things to your skin, that those are the most affected articles and thus should be protected inside the home at night when the witches wander with less fear of being seen. The same principle applies to shoes left outside at night. I remember about a year ago, being woken up by frantic knocking on my door and someone calling my name. It was about 11 at night and I groggily opened the front door to my neighbor holding my shoes, still muddy from a walk earlier in the day. He pushed them into my hands and said, you must keep these inside. At the time I thought it was just for fear of someone stealing them in the middle of the night.
Back in America, I would disregard this type of thinking as foolish or fearful, but here in Fiji… I completely believe it. It’s not a matter of cultural integration. It’s that I actually believe these things here.
I personally know 6 witches in this village alone. I have seen them wander out in the middle of the night to their ritual performing places. I have seen them leave kava sessions immediately after arriving, or seen them come to the door and turn around and leave.
The kava sessions… They are another arena for the village witches to curse or hurt people. My favorite house to drink grog at takes preventative measures against this. Every night when we mix the first few bags of kava, a pinch of salt is added to the powdered kava and a small handful of salt is thrown out each doorway keeping the witches out. It is a really interesting practice to observe. I have never questioned it. There is no need. People regularly place salt across window panes and doorframes to keep out suspected individuals, and amazingly enough I have seen people turn away immediately upon reaching the threshold.
Finger placement when passing a bilo (coconut shell) full of kava to someone is also extremely important. I never noticed it before it was pointed out to me, but if someone passes you a bilo and their thumb is placed down into the cup, you should really pass it along to another person instead of drinking it. If someone wants to curse you, its most effective for them to pass it immediately to you with their thumb down in the liquid. If you take the cup and pass it along to someone else, the curse is removed because you (the person intended to be cursed) did not actually take the cup. See the pictures below for proper thumb placement during grog sessions!
Another interesting thing to notice at a grog (kava, yaqona- whatever you would like to call it) session is HOW the people drink it. I’ll be honest with you, kava doesn’t taste delicious. It’s not terrible, but it’s not like drinking a fruit smoothie or anything. The way that kava is mixed (through a sulu-a porous piece of cloth… like the Indian Salwar Kameez or Sari dress materials) some of the powdered mixture inevitably gets through the material and ends up at the bottom of the basin, or your bilo. Before every round of kava is passed around, the basin is thoroughly mixed by the man (or woman) preparing the grog for the group by using a bilo to drag up the dregs of kava left at the bottom of the basin so its mixed more thoroughly. When you drink your bilo, sometimes there are little pieces of kava at the bottom. It’s a slightly chalky, viscous material and a bit of the kava clings to the bilo when you are finished drinking. Because of this there are usually a few droplets left at the bottom of the bilo when you finish drinking it and hand it back. Okay, so some people… I don’t want to name names here or anything (ahem-witches) tend to leave a bit more kava at the bottom of their bilo (maybe 2 teaspoons to a tablespoon) and proceed to throw the kava from their bilo on to the grass, or bushes, or just outside depending on where the grog session is taking place. This “throwing out” of the kava is seen as an offering to the spirits that help the witches.
One last kava session precaution comes at the end of the night. On rare occasions, grog cannot be finished. Its 4:30am. Everyone else has left… its just you and the mixer. Neither one of you wants to keep drinking those last eight rounds in the basin. So it comes time to throw out the kava. Like I said, this is NOT common, but it does happen. When the kava must be thrown out, the basin is placed under a flowing tap of water and the basin is allowed to fill up and run over, diluting the kava with plenty of water so when it enters the stream through the pipes it won’t be seen as an offering to the spirits.
One last short story regarding the spirits in this village. There are typically different spirits that are associated with each of the different clans (mataqali) and there are some spirits which are just prevalent. The one I have the most experience with are the VELI. The veli are described like little forest gremlins, the picture that always comes to my mind when people describe them to me are those trolls I used to have as a kid. Short, squat, with unruly hair and a gem for a belly button. They aren’t mean-natured, but they enjoy playing tricks on people and have a tendency to run loose through the village on occasion and create some issues. In September 2011 after I came to the village we were in the process of completing a water project through Habitat for Humanity Fiji connecting a spring water source about 2 kilometers up in the bush to a new piping system throughout the village. Since the veli live in the forest, you are supposed to ask for permission before doing any construction, clearing, etc. so that they won’t destroy things. Well, I don’t really know what happened before the project started because I wasn’t here… but for a few weeks there were constant stories of the veli coming into the village and playing little tricks on people. I heard of sightings constantly.
So. A long discussion about witchcraft, spirits, kava protocols, village life, and laundry on a line all started because I left my underpants on the laundry line in the middle of a rainstorm during a full moon.