After a few wonderful week at Ambrym I was heading to the island of Santo on-board of the cargoship Freedom. So far my favorite one, it is a nice boat, and the friendliest crew of all. I spent most of the time on the bridge with the captain, who is same age as me but already lost 2 boats at sea, full with crazy stories! When we moored up at Santo we went straight to a kava bar with the crew… nice guys, I was lucky I had the chance to travel with them.
Originally I did not even wanted to come to Santo, but it was a sensible decision to change boats here, and as usually by the end I spent there more than a month, but this will be the topic of the next blog-post. During the initial first few days on the island I met Norah and her sisters, they operate a small guesthouse close to the harbor.
After a day or so I was already heading to the island of Malekula. At this time on board of nationwide famous Big Sista, Vanuatu’s first choice passenger ferry. Quite a different experience, the whole passage was only 3 hours as this boat basically flies above the water. When I arrived to the departure point, I met the friendly Willy, who manages the ferry for the north Malekula destinations. As we arrived very late at night he was kind enough to offer me a place to sleep at his farm in the middle of the bush. He is living there with a small number of people trying to setup a working farm by clearing a patch of jungle and planting all sort of things for food. During the night we arrived, we where talking about that he only has one kid, which is rather strange around here especially for an older gentleman (I would say he is around 55). At his farm I met a very young girl (16-17 maybe) – initially I thought she must be the kid, but only the next morning I realized that she is actually the wife and the kid is just about a year old. Well, first I was a bit confused and it did not improved much when I met the boy, who has whiter skin than me and blond hair. There where a few awkward situations, like when the grandma pointed out that he has the same color as me… and a bit later she also added, that he has a similar hair color like the French tourist who was here a bit less than two years ago. Well, if you add up the picture it is problematic on many levels, but who am I to judge and also Willy is incredibly nice and friendly person.
From here I started my usual slow progress to the north by walking. (By now I think I had a Vanuatu-wide reputation, sometimes random guys slow down next to me shouting that I’m doing great and keep walking 🙂 also I was given food and coconuts for refreshments all the way many times) as the independence day was only in a few days time, I really wanted to find a place where the village has a bit bigger celebration, with dancing and feasting. This is how I ended up in the very north, still close to the so famous cannibal sites and also where a nice celebration is expected. For days in advance football competition was already in the final stages, everybody gathered around the fields or talked about the winning strategies at the kava-bars all day long. At the first day, we quickly went to see the tourist-must-see, the cannibal sites. Eating each other was a very popular past time activity all across Vanuatu before the missionaries arrived who try to justify their destruction with the fact that they managed to stop the tribal fights and cannibalism – but the obvious question arise why the church guys from the uk/us/aus… where bothered about what someone, outside of their countries, civilization /un-civilization/, based on several thousand year old kastoms and traditions did, regardless whatever it is? This blindfolded missionaries, somehow feeling the need of erasing all the uniqueness of the globe based on their passion towards a fiction-book and some imaginary character. … interestingly, there is one quite a realistic, down to the earth theory, I keep hearing about from tribes all over the world, they mentioned the same around the Amazonas, here at Vanuatu, and also at Indonesia as well, but let’s go back to cannibalism for now.
Among all the islands it was Malekula the one kept the appetite for human for the longest, the last documented cases happened at the end of 70s, while locals claim that even later it happened. The decision to put someone on the plate was up to the chiefs, some where notorious about killing hundreds, while other where more peaceful. It was really easy to end up in the oven, if you did something against the law (cheating on wife for example) and you where captured there was two options: oven, or you become a slave for the tribe for several years.. Even without any wrongdoing some chief was famous eating someone for canoeing too loudly or just because he was not satisfied with the breakfast and some other tribe’s members where handily walking past by in the same time. Interestingly kids and woman never ended up in the pot, it was only mans fate. When someone was decided to be eaten, he was killed on the same way pigs are killed: with a strong hit to the forehead…. Later he was butchered and putted to the ground oven (you can still visit a few with bones sticking out of the ground). When the meat was cooked nicely everyone attended (man only) to the feast. Talking was not allowed same as scratching yourself, you had to use a small stick which was in your hair if it was itching somewhere.
What was even more interesting for me is the ruins of some ancient villages scattered around. People erected large stone podiums and sitting places around the community meeting are. The placement of the stones also represented the status in the clan. Every new generation piled up new large stones (usually magically carried here from the mountains or large corals where brought in from the sea) Building a new nakamal or moving the village had to blessed with a long and expensive celebration, where all the surrounding tribes where invited and hundreds of pigs where killed for the occasion. All the visitors where asked to bring a stone with them which was collected to a pile during the ceremony representing the scale of the event (I saw one of this piles with around a thousand stone inside, meaning a big celebration indeed).. also I learned that here to become a chief you had to sacrifice 100 pigs !! for every level of chief status and there is 5 altogether until you become paramount chief. It is a surprise that there are still pigs alive today at Vanuatu. Another interesting site in the area is the “royal tomb” the burial ground for the high chiefs. When one of them died they put the body in a sitting position to the ground at a different location, head sticking out of the ground, than they burned off the head by holding a burning stick around the neck until only the bones left than they break off the skull and transfered it to the royal tomb and was placed on an special purpose build altar, with the most important belongings, like the bubu shell, walking stick, etc… you still can visit this site with around 10 skulls of the last leaders still visible.
My friend Stephano also explained how sad most of the people about the disappearance of their culture by convincing them to join missions, within without properly documenting the complex status structure existed before. (The missing documentation now also making some trouble as land rights are never clear, and there is countless never ending ownership law cases going on with confusing results) Most of the locals still hope that one day they can go back to the old structures, which was based on the whole community instead of separate families, Stephano explained that it is a very popular movement nationwide and they even have an active talk with the government about achieving their goal with rather a great success, some of the kastom law now rolled into the official law-books and even the institution of the chiefs are now officially recognized, they have a similar status of a major I would say. Stephano does not really think christianity will disappear rather it will live alongside the old beliefs but he hopes the old system will come back. He explained the same theory I keep hearing all across from tribal groups, that missionaries are sent in to the area on purpose to herd the population out of the forest to centralized villages so the forest can be sold/cut with very little resistance, since the individuals where forced/tricked to the big villages they where introduced to “modern civilization” == money, an item they did not needed luckily before but in the villages that is the only way to go, which beautifully can be collected by signing up for the rich (usually foreign) businessman’s teams as loggers or farm slaves. Wonderful masterplan…The world would be a way more interesting and more diverse place without the big commercialized religions.
If Ambrym is the main place for magic than Malekula is indeed the one fears the most from it. Generally speaking I think the kastom rules kept the strictest here compared to all other islands (not counting the actual kastom villages of course). This was the first place where I was actually taking off the tusk from my arm as I felt people getting confused why I have something alike while on the other islands it was not a problem to any level at all. Also north Malekula was the place for the only murder of Vanuatu during the last years (maybe even a decade, hard to find proper historical data about it online) where they publicly hanged two individuals in suspicion of doing black magic. Knowing how peaceful, friendly and good willing are the people of Vanuatu it is easy to sea the level of fear from magic when it is leading to events like this. Although the main characters among the hanging are now in jail (the chief, his brother and the local priest!!!) As far as I know the government is actively discussing the possibility that someone could be sent to prison in suspicion of witch-craft. Which could sound strange for a westerner, but describes perfectly how strong this beliefs are here.
For me it represents the sense of freedom and a chance that at least one country dear to be unique while all the others biggest problems are how to join more “unions” or how to be even more similar to each other.
The next day I was lucky enough to see the most famous traditional dance group in action. If there is a diplomatic delegation coming they are the one being called but they also perform at magic ceremonies, weddings, village events, tourist shows, sometimes 3-5 times a week. Although they do not come from kastom villages, nor they wear grass skirts in everyday life, they all consider maintaining their traditions as an upmost important thing and even the most conservative kastom-chiefs recognizing them as genuine as they can be and they are even allowed to perform the most sacred magic dances and songs. It was really fantastic to see. Not just because it is interesting but also to experience how they make extra effort to involve the kids as well, so their culture will not disappear and also to see how much they actually enjoy the event.
I could feel how they love what they are doing and how much they are proud of it. They do not consider themselves as a folk group, rather a movement to make sure their unique culture stays alive and active. I was really fortunate to met Stephano who followed me everywhere for a few days and explained me everything I needed to know and more. Again, this few days will stay with me for my whole life, I will never forget the smiles, or the proud calmness (i can not find a better word) on Stephano’s father’s face when he showed me his freedom fighter uniform during the celebration.
From here I originally planned to take the boat back to the capital and later to the island of Tanna, but I got a call from Norah, from Santo, that her friends are thinking about to open up their village and the surrounding area for tourists, and they would like me to help them in the process a bit, so I changed my plans and traveled to the south of Malekula to catch the ferry back to Santo. It is a long journey to the south where the boat stops but one of the most magical ones. First you take a good 5 hour truck ride across the whole island to a small black-sanded beach where the road suddenly stops, from there, you have to cross the breakers with a tiny dinghy (a rather hairy experience even when you know that the skipper possibly doing this several times a day). You arrive in the middle of the afternoon, a bit before the sunset to one of the most beautiful bay I ever been during my life. A fully sheltered small refugee for boats, small hills and mountains all around covered with lush jungle. I set my hammock between two coconut trees (as the ferry arrives sometimes around 3am next day) I made a small fire to boil a bit of water for a classic instant ramen, the same time the sun went down quickly, millions of stars appeared on the sky. … I was listening to the noises of the jungle and the calm movement of the sea, while wandering about the fact that, yes, this is indeed paradise and my life can not get any better than this. I found myself, and the happiness in the world right here right now….