January 2014 Volume 11

Fortis from the Land of Your Breadfruit Ancestors – Aitu

Michael O. Walters
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Many of you have heard duppy (Jamaican ghosts, spirits) stories or may have even seen duppies.  As a Jamaican, I have heard my fair share but have not seen any.  Consequently, I do not believe in duppies.

 I want to keep it that way, so I would not be stupid enough to walk through a cemetery at midnight where proof may stare me in the face.  The Bible makes many references to spirits, so they do exist but not in the sense that they just go around the place frightening or harming people as some in Jamaica seem to do. 

Whether in the form of a rolling calf or something else, the duppy’s sheer intent in Jamaica is to frighten the dickens out of you.  Some Jamaicans have attended and know of the nine-nights practice of feeding the duppy by leaning the deceased mattress on the wall to encourage the duppy to leave the house and enter the grave. Widows are to wear red panties to keep the deceased husband away.

All cultures appear to have a word in their language for ghosts, despite the fact that the cultures have been isolated geographically from each other and would have no way of exchanging information, say up to 500 years ago.  Yet, they all have their independent stories of ghosts.

When I first came to American Samoa in June 2012, I concluded that this may have been the only culture that did not believe in ghosts.  Why is that?  As I drove around, I noticed many houses with large grave(s) in front (Front_Grave_Photo).  Some of them even had roofs built over them and they are decorated at Christmas (Decorated_Grave_Photo). 

Not only were the graves there, but on some of them were adults and children picnicking or frolicking; and in general they were just having a good time.  That was a lot different from Jamaica or the USA where we tend to bury our dead in cemeteries, remote from where we live. If the dead are buried at the house, they tend to be to the back or side of the house; but definitely not close to the house and certainly not in front.  Furthermore, in Jamaica, no one would be having a picnic on a grave. 

However, in American Samoa, I was having a discussion with a Pilipino work colleague on a water supply facility that we had closed down for a few years, but we were thinking of restoring the operation.   My colleague stated that while the plant was running, it took three people 24/7 to operate it.  I told him that we have a lot more automated equipment these days so maybe one person could operate it.  He said it would have to be at least two.  I asked why and was surprised by his answer. “Ghosts,” he said.  I commented that I often see people picnicking on graves and that I did not know that they believed in ghosts.  He responded that they will do that on the graves of loved ones because they know loved ones would not harm them and would, in fact, protect them from others.  But to go to another village where they knew that there were harmful ghosts of strangers, they had to protect themselves in numbers.   In general, I found that Samoans were reluctant to talk about aitu because apparently it is an open invitation for aitu to harass you.  In speaking to two Palagi (non-local white people) Baptist Pastors in American Samoa, this is how they explained it: 

For the family to obtain the deceased person’s ghost protection, the family must demonstrate that they were happy about the person while they were alive.  They do this by showing their happiness by burying the person in front in very elaborate graves, picnicking on the grave, etc.   Based on the bible (e.g., Luke 16: 22, 23), the Pastors explained that when humans die, the spirits leave the body and go to heaven or hell.  Therefore, we should not be afraid of spirits for they are gone and cannot protect or harm us in any way after they have left this earth 

I also spoke with a Samoan Baptist Pastor and his wife.  The Pastor acknowledged that many times he had felt the presence of ghosts, but had not seen any.  His wife who lives at the same place had not seen or felt any presence.  The Pastor told me of a case where a widow effectively used her deceased husband’s grave to control the children, and he said it was a common practice.  Whenever any of the kids misbehaved, she would go and lie on her husband’s grave in the front yard and speak to her deceased husband.  She would then tell the kid who misbehaved that her deceased husband reported to her that the child would get sick if he/she did not behave.  Having established that the American Samoans do believe in ghosts, I asked and heard stories as follows:

On a school campus, a ghost would scratch the face of any lady who walked under a certain tree at night. The locals obviously kept away, but this was refuted when a Palagi woman disproved the theory by having walked under the tree at night many times and was not scratched.  Theory disproved or not, the local women still would not walk near the tree at night.

There is a famous bridge in the Manu’a Islands (a group of the American Samoa islands) where tourists jump off for a recreational splash in the cool water below (Manu’a Bridge_Photo).  They do this at their own risk since they have been warned of a spirit, “the flying teeth,” which may bite them as they descend.  

Julie Schoeneck, a Palagi teacher in American Samoa, relates some of the stories she was told:  http://pinkpangea.com/2011/10/ghosts-of-samoans-past-living-with-superstition/. These include never running alone, or walking alone for that matter, because there is a monster living in the tangled bush along the shore.  Her students told her that she would know when ghosts are around because dogs would bark.  (Come to think of it, I have heard the dog barking explanation in Jamaica too).

While working, I visited the famous Manu’a bridge (right) sometime ago.  It seemed very peaceful and quiet.  I can’t believe it has such a ghostly reputation.  I walked freely back and forth on the bridge but there were no teeth, flying or otherwise.  The only thing I noticed was that the local man who accompanied me stopped short of the bridge as if he was afraid to walk on the bridge.

While working in Tutuila, I visited a site where we planned to drill a well.  I had been on the site many times before, but this time was different.  I was accompanied by two people from a government department, one a Palagi man, the other a Samoan woman.  The Samoan asked me if I had ever seen anyone on the site at noon.  I answered that I did not know because I really never looked at the time to correlate if people were on site or not.  When I asked why she asked, she told me that many years ago a cannibal by the name of Tuifeai lived there, and he usually has his meals around noon.

 To this day, his ghost would roam the site looking for food.  The Samoans knew that to keep out of his pot, they should not be on the site at noon.  As she told the story, I could see that she was very, very serious and believed in it.  

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