Home Author & Lecturer Articles - A Day In The Life Of A Fiji Bushman

A Day In The Life Of A Fiji Bushman
By Richard C. Murphy

My first sensation of March 26 was a desire to choke one particularly enthusiastic rooster taking full responsibility for summoning the sun to rise. It was totally dark and the rooster’s biological clock, in my opinion, was way off. Reluctantly, I accepted the fact that the day I had been anticipating for 4 years was to begin a bit earlier than I had hoped.

I was under a large mosquito net hung from the ceiling of my friend Niumaia’s 2nd bedroom. I was in a wood house perched on the side of a hill where one door opened onto two stairs, another opened onto 7 stairs and the other opened onto a vertical drop of 10 feet. I had a view of other similar houses, gardens, fruit trees, flower bushes, cassava gardens and fruit trees on the distant hillside. This was Nasigasiga Village on the island of Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands.

Niumaia was my friend of 9 years who describes himself as a bushman. I describe myself as a waterman or marine biologist. A few years ago we found ourselves without transportation on the Nasekawa River and ended up walking for hours sharing the similarities and differences in our respective lives. Niumaia had grown up and spent his life in Fiji while I lived in California and traveled extensively with the Cousteaus. One subject we shared in common was how we raised our kids. We both had a great love of nature and wanted to make sure our kids not only appreciated the value of wild things and places but also felt comfortable living in nature, without what some people consider the “necessities” of life. While Niumaia was taking his kids into the “bush” or rainforest and teaching them how to survive there, 5,000 miles away in California I was doing the same thing but in the sea. I took my kids camping at the seashore where they learned to dive and how to collect scallops, abalone and fish for their meals.

As we described the joys and challenges of inspiring a greater appreciation for wild places in the next generation, we each admitted our ignorance of each other’s preferred ecosystem. It was on that long walk that we pledged to share our favorite wild places with each other. Niumaia would teach me the ways of a bushman and I would teach him the ways of the sea. Now I was in Niumaia’s village getting ready for our day in the bush.

I pulled back the mosquito netting and emerged into the dining/living room. Through the door with no stairs I saw a typical village morning unfolding. Smoke wafted from cooking houses where women were boiling water for tea. People wandered toward the stream with men separated upstream from the women. Kids were busy doing chores or playing. Here and there a household pig or dog was being fed the night’s leftovers. One young man waved from his horse as he departed for his garden up the mountain. Venturing off to the stream, I was hailed by villagers calling out yandra (good morning) or bula (hello). Boys were already playing in the water when I arrived, splashing, laughing and doing back flips off a rock. While shaving, I noticed semi-discreet glances which reminded me of how few white outsiders have visited the village. Drying off I was struck by the beauty of the setting and how lucky I was to be experiencing a lifestyle relatively untouched by the materialism and haste of what we call civilization. I was reminded of how little one needs when the free goods and services of nature are readily available.

Niumaia’s wife, Adi, had breakfast waiting for us. We dined on cassava, rice, bananas, tea and bread. By the time we were finished a group of 6 men and their 15 dogs were sitting outside the door .It was time to go. I had no idea of what was to come other than the short explanation that we were going into the bush to get wild boar. Not being a bushman, I decided travel light, taking only a camera and Swiss army knife. I wore hard soled dive booties, shorts, T-shirt and my favorite hat of 20 + years. Most of the others carried a bushknife, some had a small backpack, two had a heavy iron spear and no one wore shoes. Niumaia bid farewell to his wife and we were off. I looked back at her smiling face and searched for the hint of a smirk at this white waterman’s presumption to think that he could keep up with native bushmen on a boar hunt. My scrutiny was inconclusive. Oh well, time would tell.

I walked in silence as the rest of the group chatted in their local language. We proceeded up the stream, crossing it a number of times. I was glad I had not worn hiking boots which would have to be kept dry. We were mostly under the dense canopy of the forest. It was cool and lush. After a mile or so we stopped under a large banyon tree. There was no underbrush as the density of the leaves and secondary trunks prevented most light from penetrating to the ground.

It was under this tree that Niumaia explained that the strategy would be to proceed toward the top of the mountain, dividing into two groups so the dogs could scour the bush for pigs between the groups. He then walked some distance away and returned with an armful of leaves. These were “salusalu” leaves used, as he called it, “to make the dogs hungry for the hunt.” He then called a dog, held it firmly and buried its muzzle in a handful of leaves. The dog did not resist. Subsequently, the leaves were rubbed over its head and shoulders. The dog was then released. The procedure was repeated with a number of the dogs. Niumaia explained that this is only done away from the village to avoid exciting the dogs where they could kill a chicken or pet pig. He also mentioned that after the hunt, blood of the boar is rubbed all over the heads of the dogs to “calm them down.” If this isn’t done they will continue to hunt and can, likewise, be dangerous back in the village. Having completed this ritual we trudged on in single file up the muddy trail. That’s really fascinating,

As we proceeded, Niumaia pointed out mango trees, citrus trees, and pineapples planted in years past. This was done for future travelers and hunters so they would have food during their journey. He seemed proud that people had the consideration to think of others in this way - a gesture of good will and bonding between the past and the present. He cut a small pineapple and gave it to me. I thanked Niumaia but wondered how one might thank that unknown hunter of the past who had the courtesy of planting the pineapple in the first place? Probably, the only appropriate thanks would be to do something comparable for the next generation. At the time this seemed simple and obvious. Reflecting on it later the little pineapple episode took on profound implications..… wouldn’t it be wonderful if such things were common in our modern, “civilized” communities.

We had already separated into two groups when we came across the first evidence of boars. Parts of the ground had been dug up and here and there were faint trails of their comings and goings. Eventually, in the distance we heard the excited yelps of dogs, presumably hot on the trail of boar. Our dogs stopped immediately, their attention totally focused on the sound of the other dogs. They did not receive the command to give chase, as the other dogs were too far away, and we continued on our trail. But our dogs were extremely excited, darting here and there and following the scent of past boar activity. Yet they were very quiet. Good dogs are trained only to bark and give chase to really recent, or hot trails, otherwise they just drive the boars further away with no hope of making contact.

It is now hour 3 of our trek and Niumaia suddenly stops and starts examining tree trunks. He explains he is looking for traditional Fijian war paint. With a whoop he says, “Over here, I’ve found it!” He points to a black cone-shaped fungus drooping from a tree trunk. It is called gumu. He breaks it off and streaks it across my forehead and cheeks then does the same to himself, exclaiming that we are ready for war! Certainly this is a photo moment and we laughingly document two of the least warlike people on the planet trying to act tough. Continuing we come upon a wider trail which is the remnant of an old logging road. It seems that the village leased logging rights to a foreign company to harvest the trees some years ago. Surprised, I asked what he thought of the project. He said, “We are more educated now and won’t allow anyone to come and cut our trees again. The forest is more valuable as a forest than just money from trees. When the bush was destroyed we lost hard wood for house frames, places to hunt for boars, medicine plants, ota ferns for eating, war paint and even fishing. When the forest is gone the soil turns the streams red and we can’t catch prawns or eels.”

I asked him to tell me about the medicine plants. He paused and then walked over to some vines growing in a sunny spot and returned with a handful of leaves which he then squeezed so that the juices could run onto a scratch on my leg. “This is the mile-a-minute plant. It is used to soothe wounds. We have another plant we call the bona bula ma kau plant which is used to stop bleeding. You see, my family traditionally has been the medicine people of our village. My father and mother brought me here to learn about plants and healing and this is where I came with my kids. The forest is important because this is where we teach our children about the ways of our ancestors. If there is no forest, then how can we pass on our culture? In the past sandalwood trees were used for chief’s houses. Now the sandalwood is gone. Europeans came over 100 years ago and cut them down.” He stops talking. My lesson is apparently over. Typically he does not condemn those outsiders who came to exploit Fiji’s natural resources. A curious culture – once among the most fierce in the South Pacific, now the most hospitable, and apparently very generous.

In the distance we again hear yelps and howls of dogs. I assume the other group has been successful in their quest for boar. Our trek continues. As we being hour 6 of the adventure it appears that may group may not be successful in the hunt. On one hand, it would have been interesting to experience completion of the hunt but were I to choose I think learning the ways of the local people, as I have done with Niumaia, would be my priority.

Niumaia points to a cut fern commenting that someone passed here a week ago. He notices my perplexed look and points to the degree of healing – a clue to the passage of time. A few moments later he stops and examines some cut bushes. “See someone just passed by here and they were coming up the hill.” I ask how he can tell which direction they were going. “Notice the angle of the cut, you can only make such a cut if you are coming from that direction.” I protest asking what if the person is left-handed. He matter of factly says, “A left-handed person would have cut like this,” swinging his bush knife and giving it a different angle altogether.

He decides it’s time to stop to cook lunch. Actually, I had thought it time for lunch hours ago but kept it to myself. But, from my point of view, there was a problem. Everything was totally soaked after a downpour an hour ago. In spite of this branches were cut from a dead tree and I sat smugly thinking there is no way we are going to start a fire with this wood. I watch as one of the group pulls a yellowish blob from his packet and begins to pile the wood around it. To my complete astonishment one match lights the blob which then burns as though it had been soaked in gasoline. Mystified at this yellow blob, I’m told it is the pitch from a certain tree which is highly flammable. The locals cut these trees from time to time so that the pitch will ooze out and can then be harvested when someone, later, passes. Soon the wood had dried sufficiently for a raging little fire. Gently, a large breadfruit was placed directly on top of the fire. The leaves of a ginger plant were cut and laid on the ground as a table and reclining mat. We chatted and dozed as flames engulfed our breadfruit. Suddenly, we are invaded by a troop of dogs with their masters behind.

The other group’s hunt had produced 7 boars – one probably 1 year old, the other 6 were only a couple of months old. Three were alive and would be kept for pets and food eventually. The other three had been killed by the dogs and were destined for our lunch. When the breadfruit was spitting steam and the meat cooked, we feasted. The dogs waited in polite attendance totally focused on our every bite. They gobbled up whatever we threw them but never fought among themselves. Finally, we concluded the little feast, leaving the “table” and scraps for them to clean up. It’s now hour 7 and I feel totally rejuvenated.

As we begin our trek back down the mountain, Niumaia shows me where some weeks before they had constructed a pig trap. It consisted of a bent sapling attached to a noose laid on a boar trail. The mechanism had worked well, yielding a 150 lb. boar. He showed me how a walking stick thrust into the ground can be used to divert an attacking boar. We discussed evidence of pigs rooting and their trails.

It was getting dark when we arrived at camp, 10 hours after we left. Hastily we bathed and got ready for dinner. The women had been back for hours after a successful expedition to the river. Their harvest consisted of prawns, eels and water snails.

As the food was being prepared we discussed the day’s adventures and laughed at our various minor misfortunes. Eventually, my 2nd feast of the day began with taro, cassava, rice, prawns, roasted pork and pork fat “stew” (made with fat, water, salt, pepper and a little flour added for thickening).

After dinner the Tanoa (kava bowl) was brought and thus began 4 hours of kava fellowship. As the evening progressed the discussion became more focused on the differences between our two worlds and lifestyles. Niumaia’s relatives seemed remarkably at peace with themselves and their lives. Of course, they were aware of the limited technology available to them but they did not seem so enamoured with the toys and gadgets of the outside world that they felt underprivileged or impoverished.

Eventually, as the invited guest of Niumaia, I was asked to tell them my impressions of their lives and how it compared to mine back in California. I began by explaining that the most fundamental aspects of our lives were similar. We both have grocery stores, hardware stores, drug stores, transportation vehicles, energy needs, and issues of garbage and waste. But each of these involved very different strategies of operation. I explained that their grocery stores were the forest and gardens, the hardware stores were the forest which provided wood and materials for construction and their drug stores were the medicine plants growing in the bush. The major difference between the native and outside systems was that the shelves of their stores were restocked naturally with very little work and at no economic cost. And if used judiciously they would continue to be restocked naturally, forever.

The village transportation system involved a few solar powered machines with the remarkable capacity to repair themselves, replace themselves when worn out and which produced fertilizer instead of pollution. Of course, these are horses which feed on grass powered by sunlight who heal their wounds and illnesses naturally, who produce colts to replace themselves and whose manure is good fertilizer. Finally, instead of expending vast amounts of effort to carry off and pile up garbage as we do, villages recycle all of their kitchen waste on site by feeding it to pigs and chickens which villagers then eat.

These natural living machines and recycling systems are cheaper and have less impact on nature than our counterparts. As all of the villagers were Christians, I mentioned that protecting the natural resource base on which they benefit is not only of utilitarian or practical value but protecting living things and their habitats (biodiversity) is really protecting God’s Creation. In the past it was Noah who protected nature from a flood of water. Now it needs to be we who protect nature from a flood of human population, encroachment and greed.

I concluded by reminding my friends of Nasigasiga Village that they may appear to be materially poor in the sense of technological possessions but they are definitely spiritually and culturally rich. We who live in modern cities are, in my opinion, materially rich and spiritually poor. We all agreed that the value of who we are inside is far more important than what we have on the outside.

As the last bilo (cup) of kava was drained the kerosene lantern was turned off and I blissfully concluded one of the most privileged days of my life.

The 9-hour flight from Fiji to Los Angeles was dedicated to napping and transcribing my notes. Approaching LAX, I was blissfully wallowing in my memories when culture shock hit. I looked out the window. Not only was the entire field of view dominated by humanity but there was almost no evidence of non-human living things. As we circled the airport something jumped out at me. It was the poorer regions which were virtual deserts while the more affluent areas were lushly vegetated. Vegetation - an interesting statement about the quality of life. Vegetation also exemplified how we can form partnerships with the other species with whom we share this planet. It would seem that, to a very small degree, we retain some of the wisdom of our ancestors, and those like Niumaia, who depended on the free services of nature such as trees and "natural" habitats to provide goods, services and tranquility.

I wonder, as the price of petroleum continues to rise and as other resources dwindle, will we begin to appreciate these free services more? Will we form such alliances willingly or will we be reluctantly forced into them? Such things as constructed wetlands to treat sewage, solar power, energy efficient buildings, hybrid cars, recycling and industrial waste reduction programs are beginning to be taken seriously. But are we changing fast enough to protect and restore the natural systems which keep the planet habitable? I’m hopeful but not totally convinced. Certainly, this little adventure in Niumaia’s forest certainly made it clear to me that living gently with nature offers benefits unattainable in any other way.

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