Thursday, January 12, 2012

Watch Your Back

nakaemas (na-KI-mas) - n. sorcery, witchcraft, evil force directed by humans that can be used to kill and harm people.

The above comes from the Peace Corps issued Bislama/English dictionary. However, after perusing said dictionary more thoroughly (it's rainy season, ok? And I'm out of Sodoku) I decided I'm not quite satisfied with this limited description of a whole culture of superstition and magic - both good and bad. So let me illuminate the subject a little.

Although belief in magic pervades all of Vanuatu, the undisputed centers of mystical activity are Maewo and Ambrym. People hailing from these two islands are understood to have superior skills and are thus greatly respected and feared. Another PC volunteer told me that when her school's regional sports tournament was scheduled to be played in Maewo, several parents wouldn't allow their kids to go for fear of that infamous island. But if you're on their good side, natives of Maewo or Ambrym can be extremely useful. In our community house, where we hold meetings and keep all the supplies for the handcraft group, we were recently plagued by a very hungry rat. This troublesome rodent ate his way through plastic bags, yards of fabric, important papers, and he even managed to chew through a solar light cord. The chiefs of my village and the managers of the handcraft group decided that this was no rogue rat acting alone. Clearly someone was jealous of our success and either sent this rat or shifted into a rat to spoil our community. Luckily we were on good terms with a "Man Maewo" who is currently touring Ambae administering kastom medicine and teaching church choirs (not necessarily in that order). We appealed to him and for the low price of $3USD, Man Maewo performed some magic to rid us of our enemy. And lo and behold. . .we haven't found any bite marks since. Of course this rodent exorcism coincided with our deciding to keep all our valuables in big plastic trash cans so who know what the real deterrent turned out to be?

Even if you avoid the folly of gaining an enemy from Maewo or Ambrym, you still have to watch your back. "Devils" are everywhere. This is a term used quite often and through context I take it to mean either a ghost of a dead person or an ambiguous creature that comes out at night and will chase and eat you. Devils frequently factor in old kastom stories such as the origin of tattoos (I'll tell ya that one later), and in fact, the tribe I belong to is said to have come from a devil (one came from a stone, one from a tree, but we're straight from a devil - and they say that's why we're so good looking :) ). I once told my host family that Peace Corps doesn't want female volunteers walking alone at night and they fervently agreed. It was only later that my sister shyly asked me if it was because I was "fraet lo devil o fraet lo man?" Slightly taken aback I replied, "Oh, you know, mostly men, but I guess you can never be too safe!" The next day my brother-in-law showed me a special plant in the jungle that devils are terrified of - holding it will repel them and strewing it in your path will ensure you're not pursued. I guess now I just have to worry about the man part!

Although I'm making light of this subject, magic is taken extremely seriously throughout the entire country. I've followed newspaper stories about black magic trials in Federal Court, I've witnessed a sori ceremony complete with an exchange of pigs and mats worth hundreds of US dollars following a threat of nakaemas against our chief, and I've heard numerous stories about vigilantes taking justice into their own hands on a suspicion of black magic. But luckily, during a discussion on love potions, I was informed that Vanuatu magic doesn't work on "white women". I was relieved, even if that comment left some of the guys looking slightly crestfallen :)

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