My first field trip from Lakatoro was to Lamap, on Malekula's SE corner. After a day of opening ceremonies for the Island Soccer Tournament, I accompanied a group of "bigmen" going to a nearby island to mediate a dispute that was tearing apart the community. This was the beginning of my education in Vanuatu realities such as the unbending demand for complete social conformity that is incompatible with western notions of "development".
I finished off this marathon letter home with a couple of observations on the local scene and a treatise on exterminating the wily Malekula rat.
. . . On the second day, I went to Maskelynes Island with Keith (the Local Government Council Secretary, my boss) and three influential chiefs to mediate a peace accord between warring community factions. A truck had been hired for the 5 km trip to the beach from which we would leave for the island at 7:30. When it didn't show, we found another one and got off at 8:30. Keith was concerned that our taxi boat (a small open boat with outboard engine; these are all known as "speedboats" here) would have been kept waiting, but no, it was just arriving when we got there. Keith had told me it would be a five-minute ride. Actual time was 1 hour 20 minutes - they have a refreshingly informal notion of time here, although everyone wears a big wristwatch. We told the truck we'd definitely be back by 15:00.
We got to the island and shook hands with everyone (whenever we arrived at a village, the entire population would line up and we would move down the line, shaking hands with one and all. The Melanesian handshake is a limp single shake, but once in a while I would run into someone who would demonstrate their knowledge of expatriate ways by crushing my unprepared hand in a western-style grip.) and, after a while, headed into the village community centre (frame building with concrete floor and corrugated iron roof) with 70-80 men. We "honoured guests" all sat at a table in the centre of one wall and everyone else sat against the wall on benches or the floor around the room. Keith began by announcing that we had to leave by 14:00 to catch our 15:00 truck.
The big problem was that the island, with a population of 2,000, was solidly Presbyterian, but three men and their families (total twenty people) had converted to Seventh Day Adventist. Last year, the SDA families had accumulated some building materials for a church, but the Presbyterians had taken the materials away. The police were called in, and eventually the SDA got their stuff back, but they still weren't allowed to build the church. Now, everyone wanted peace, and Keith was supposed to provide the solution. I told him he needed Solomon. Of course, the community's sole idea of peace is for the SDAs to move off the island and that's that, even though the SDAs couldn't move even if they wanted to, because they only own land on the island. Land, by the Constitution, cannot be sold here and belongs to the "custom owner", although after 100 years of colonization, there is a big fight to determine who many of the custom owners are. I've met one CUSO who works on it full time, and a whole system of courts have been set up. Lots of land sits unused because it is under dispute.
Besides this, the Constitution also guarantees "Freedom of Worship". The people at the meeting argued back and forth in Bislama, and I didn't understand much besides a few general choruses of "Gyaman! Gyaman!" (Liar! Liar!). I did understand one guy who got up and argued that the Constitution also guaranteed "Public Safety", and how could you have public safety with another church in town? At 13:00 everyone just got up in disgust and walked out.
We went to the chief's for lunch (rice with tinned fish and greens stew) and after, Keith went out and engaged in a little "Spirit Out!" style of faith healing. By 14:30, we all met again, and Keith announced that we had to go in 15 minutes to catch our truck. Keith and the chiefs all gave speeches, and the populace argued, and we quit about 15:30. We outsiders all came to the conclusion, of course, that these people had to work out a solution themselves, but they are absolutely unwilling to compromise. Keith told them that this type of dissension would doom any type of economic development they attempted. I wouldn't recommend a project for them on a bet if they can't come to an agreement won a little issue like this. A typical development problem, I guess. I'm reading a book on Community Development now that states that social development must precede economic development, and I agree. Lots of time is needed, I guess.
It was high tide on the way back, so we took a shortcut over the reef and met the truck at 16:40. One of the chiefs tried to get me worried by asking me what if the truck wasn't there? I called his bluff by saying we'd just walk (it's only about 5 km) - what else would we do, anyway? In the event, the truck driver told us no problem, he had just arrived. It's hard to tell - "just arrived" could mean he'd been waiting 2 hours. Of course, I could easily spend 2 hours at that beach. A bunch of team members from the soccer tournament were there swimming, spearfishing, cooking their catch and weaving hats from palm fronds. It had been a beautiful ride back on the boat between lush islands rings with sandy beaches and coral reefs. I thought that most Canadians would have to pay big bucks to get into that situation - eat your hearts out!
I flew back to Lakatoro on Friday and got a good view of the south part of the island, as we first made a stop on the South West corner and then flew up the west coast of Malekula, crossing back to Norsup at the "dog's neck". (People claim that Malekula looks like a sitting dog. Norsup and Lakatoro are on the back of his neck.)
The interior of Malekula is mountainous and full of the Small Nambas Tribe, who continue to live the custom, i.e. pre-whiteman-contact, lifestyle. They are called Small Nambas, as opposed to the Big Nambas on the north end of the island, because the men wear small nambas. A nambas is a penis wrapper, or a leaf wrapped around the penis and tucked under a belt. This, a boars-tusk armband, and a wristwatch are all the men wear. All the men on all the islands dressed this way. You can imagine the reaction of the local London Missionary Society Rep. when he and his wife first arrived.
The Big Nambas of north Malekula make their nambas from big batches of fibers. Their women wear grass skirts and red fiber wigs. Most of the Big Nambas, however, moved to the coast because of constant intertribal warfare that killed many of them.
. . . I mentioned that Keith, my boss, dabbles in faith healing. There is a small chapel here in Lakatoro without a label. I asked Lambert about it and also, about Keith's religion, because Keith's daughter had invited Heather to Sunday School (I vetoed pending further investigation). I figured Lambert would be an authority because he studied several years for the priesthood before changing his mind. The story is that until last year, all the local denominations had ecumenical services in the chapel, but then a group including Keith decided that they weren't being evangelical enough and took over the chapel for themselves.
A week ago yesterday, this group held a revival meeting in the local hall. For every night the previous week, the choir practiced in Keith's house next door to us. The choir consisted of two electric guitars, an electric bass, and amplified vocals. They only practiced at full volume - we listened to such gems as "I'm felling mighty fine, I've got heaven on my mind..." over and over again. After a while, I got out my guitar and played along. Another favorite was "I'm making sounds of joy (whoop, whoop)". These selections weren't in our hymnal in Edmonton (Alberta, where I grew up.), that I recall.
Before I let you go, I've got to tell you the saga of me vs. the rat. We had a rat in the attic running around and chewing all night. (I thought we also had one inside, but the rat sign turned out to be gecko droppings.) I got a trap and put it up there. My first bait was bread, which disappeared, so the next night I tried bread with peanut butter, which also vanished. The night after, I tried tying bread on the trigger with thread. That damn rat just ate it and took the thread. The next night, I filed down the triggering mechanism so I could hardly set the trap down without setting it off (only caught my hand once!) - bread vanished again. Finally, I had had it. I took a cabin biscuit (hard cracker) and put a wire through a hole in it and wired it to the trigger. About 21:00 that night, I heard a SNAP! and thump, thump, thump". That will learn him to mess with me! I disposed of the carcass in the garbage can. (With this sure-fire technique, it never took me more than one night to catch a rat for the next two years. Later, in Port Vila, I once cleaned out an infestation of 7 slow learners from our storage room in about 45 minutes.)
This letter probably won't get mailed until Holly pedals into Norsup Wednesday for market. Its too big for a single stamp, and she can get it weighed at the Post Office.
Men gathering on Sakao beach, Maskelyne Islands. The man in the centre is holding a fishing spear. Photo ©S. Combs, 1887.
Chief Virhambat and Wife in Big Nambas custom dress, Amohk, North Malekula. Chief Virhambat continued to live the traditional lifestyle, aside from charging people to take his photo, until his death a few months after this picture was taken. He allowed me to take one photo because I had over the preceding couple of weeks brought him treatment for the infection on his leg (see leaf bandage) and transported some palm thatch from relatives on the coast. Upon his death, his five wives immediately abandoned the custom life and moved to the coast. Photo ©S. Combs, 1887.
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©S. Combs, 1996.