A Kind Of Magic

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My last full day here on Efate, Vanuatu, was packed full of surprises. It started off, as expected, with me heading back to Mele and the ‘Secret Garden’. They had to wait for enough people to arrive before they could put on a show, so I whiled away the time reading about various stories from the different Islands. They had an information section about cannibalism, where they’d stuck various news stories onto boards inside a cave. This was pretty horrific but also fascinating, as many gruesome parts of history are! What were, perhaps, most disturbing, were the photos taken by visitors to the ‘New Hebrides’, as they were called then, who happen to stumble across cannibalism in practice. It was largely done as a form of sacrifice, but also to conquered warriors in order to ‘take on their vitality’, during times of great starvation and very, very occasionally to the missionaries! By the time I’d finished picking through the cave, the show was ready.

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A man from Ambrym, the island where ‘black magic’ is said to originate from, prepared himself to display some magic tricks. Below you can see him kitted out in the traditional sheath from the area he comes from. A couple of men from other islands assisted. Here you can see him breaking open a coconut with his hand. I’m not sure if this is a magic trick, really, more just a demonstration of brute strength!

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This man cut off the leaves of one side of a palm branch, waved it around on the floor for a bit, then lifted it to show how the cut off leaves had been restored!

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The most impressive trick was when the man from Ambrym took a palm leaf, made a pit in the floor and planted the leaf in. It was then completely impossible to pull out! So much so, that one kiwi – who couldn’t handle the affront to his strength – ripped the branch entirely from its stalk in his attempt to pull it from the ground! Very impressive!

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After the show had finished, I headed off, on foot, back in the direction of Port Vila, hoping to flag down a bus on the way as I’d done the day before. Instead, I bumped into some girls wearing grass skirts, asking me to come and watch their show for a ‘donation’. With a ‘why not’ attitude, I followed them into their village where they showed me their bow and arrow, a couple of hilariously uncoordinated dances, and sang to me to thank me for my visit. One of the smallest girls, 10 years old, then took me by the hand and walked me through the village, pointing out her pigs and each member of her, typically enormous, extended family. After I complimented her face paint, she sat me down and got out the powders to draw on my face too!

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Whilst she was in the process of drawing these coloured lines on my face, a man with a sack strolled past and asked me to come and watch his coconut demonstration. Thanking the girls, I followed him to the beach where he promptly shot up a coconut tree! He gave me a coconut to drink, for which I gave him an appropriate ‘donation’, then I carried on my way down the beach.

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I eventually managed to clamber onto a crammed bus, hoping it was heading in the right direction! They tend to only run between Mele and Port Vila really. We ended up winding through all the back lanes of Vila for half an hour before getting to the town!

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It’s now Sunday morning. With a flight in a few hours, I’ve hurriedly put together this recollection of yesterday! Hopefully I’ll have a little more time (and better internet!) in Fiji, in which I can reflect properly on Port Vila itself, and my time here as a whole. If there’s no internet at all then I guess this is it for now!

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Old Habits Die Hard

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This morning I headed out, with an Australian couple, to another little village where they do cultural demonstrations, around 20 minutes from Port Vila. The lady was terrified of spiders which became pretty problematic once they started playing about with their ‘toys’, as they like to call them. A man from the village, kitted out in traditional attire, talked us through a number of different aspects of their culture.

Firstly he explained to us about their methods of food preservation. In earlier times when banana and breadfruit were the staple parts of their diets, they had to work out methods of preserving them in case the crops were destroyed by cyclones. They’d grate bananas using a piece of coral then place in all in a large sack to let the water drip out over a period of time. They’d then place the dried mush in a hole in the ground lined with coconut leaves – larger waterproof leaves would be wrapped around the banana which they would replace everytime they went brown. To secure the ‘fridge’ they’d cover it in heavy rocks. Apparently this could then last over 5 years! This seems hard to believe! To make the dried brown mush palatable after such a long time in the ground they’d add coconut milk – covers a number of sins.

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He demonstrated the various traps they use to this day to catch chickens and pigs in the bush. Then similar contraptions for marine life.

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He showed us a weird looking staff with vine tied onto the end which apparently sucks the oxygen out of the water as it expands. In large quantities (50 men or so each with a staff) they can kill all of the fish in a rock pool through sucking out the oxygen.

The most fascinating was the spider web net – they spin the wooden structure around in spider webs like it’s candy floss until the web gets thick enough to act as a form of net for smaller fish!

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The various herbal remedies he was talking about, again, seem a little hard to believe. It seems such a strange concept that you’d go out into the jungle – pick a plant – then squeeze its juice into some water to get rid of a headache… He then told us a story about how he broke his leg a few years ago from falling out of a coconut tree. Instead of taking him to the modernised hospital on a different island his father had carted him, a similar distance, over to a traditional hospital where they ‘operated ‘ with their bare hands and, crucially, without anaesthetic. He says he cried for a week then was furious with his dad for a month. Thankfully, he recovered fully!

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The most fascinating area that he talked us through was the history of the spirituality of the country. In the past, ‘black magic’ was widespread, and still believed in to this day. The man explained to us, completely in earnest, how somebody practiced in black magic could strike down someone’s house with lightening or remove their intestines. He says some people do it now today but it’s difficult to tell who because ‘we’re all Christians – they pretend to be Christians too so we cannot tell’. He went on to describe ways in which the missionaries made ‘good changes’ to their culture. For example, until a hundred years ago or so women were made to mourn for 100 days after the death of a husband in which time they could not leave their house – which would be kept in complete darkness with no daylight. They were also not allowed to wash at all within this time!

Chiefs could have as many wives as they had tusks. By tusk, I mean a special kind of pigs tusk which curls right the way round to form a circular shape. The importance of this circular tusk is such that it is on the country’s flag! If a man had kept a pig long enough for it to grow a tusk like this, and then killed it – he would earn himself the right to one wife. One notable chief around 200 years ago had fifty circular tusks on each arm! All of those women were then buried alive with him, as was also tradition, when he passed. All of the people who have brought up the subject of marriage have stressed that they are thankful to the missionaries for changing this as ‘one wife is much better’ they keep saying, through giggles.

Another previous tradition which the missionaries fizzled out was the tactical manipulation of the blood line: a first born to a family HAD to be a son. Any unwanted daughter would have to be disposed of. He proudly explained that over the years their culture has changed for the better: any good suggestions, they take on board and any bad ones – they ignore. This is the main reason why they maintain this primitive way of life in this particular village – they want to show to tourists and their own youngsters how life used to be in the country in order to maintain a sense of their own culture.

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Their village's banyan tree, or 'cyclone shelter' as he called it!

Their village’s banyan tree, or ‘cyclone shelter’ as he called it!

After fish and chips in town and a stroll around the market to pick up a couple more lavalavas (sarongs) I went off to ‘survivor’s beach’, which apparently has something to do with the TV program ‘survivor’. Will let the photos speak for themselves, again! Armed with the underwater camera, I found a pretty massive giant clam – a very weird looking creature!

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P.B. a few fairly major spelling mistakes have been pointed out to me over the last few days (draw-dropping seemed right at the time, haha) so apologies for my lack of proof reading – am so relieved once everything finally uploads on this horrendous internet that I then promptly retire.

For The Widows In Paradise

The deeply rooted belief in the supernatural in Papua New Guinea is astounding. Sanguma (witchcraft) and sorcery are very much ingrained into society. Many people think that they are the same but they’re not. Sorcery is predominantly practiced in the coastal areas and is defined as the “ritual employment of substances, objects and spells for malevolent purposes.” It is a technique which can be learnt. ‘Sorcerers’ can also be seen as healers. Sanguma on the other hand is defined as an internal force that resides within the human psyche and inflicts harm or death on others. Sanguma witches are believed to possess an ‘animal like’ spirit: they roam around at night sometimes in human form, sometimes in animal form, searching for human flesh, corpses and faeces to eat. Lovely. Sanguma is seen as one of the major causes of sickness and death in the highlands: the people don’t ask what caused the death but instead who. Every morning on the drive to school I pass a stall selling coffins with their own individual windows. Verena tells me this is so that the family can watch the facial expression of the corpse. If the expression changes when a particular person approaches then that person is pin-pointed as the cause of the death. The reason for burying loved ones in your gardens is so that the spirits can guard you from the sanguma!

Some characteristics by which witches are identified:

–          Old or untidy people

–          The weak and defenceless

–          Widows

–          Those who have a great appetite for meat

–          Those who show insufficient grief at funerals

–          Those who are found in unusual places at unusual times

–          Those who isolate themselves

–          Those who have personal conflicts or grudges against others

–          Women or people with valuable properties with no grown up sons to protect them

–          Children of previously suspected witches

Accusations are taken very seriously. Supposed witches can be tied up and thrown over cliffs or into rivers; locked in their houses and burnt alive; severely wounded and buried alive in pit toilets; brutally tortured and hung on trees with fire below; tied and dragged behind moving vehicles; gradual torture over the course of several day;, burnt with hot iron rods or – the relatively pleasant alternative: killed instantly with axes or bush knives.  Houses of the accused are burnt down and livestock are eaten.

Some of the related murders are never reported to the authorities because of fear of retaliation. Even if a case is reported, the police do very little as they either believe in Sanguma themselves or lack the manpower and equipment! It’s like stepping back into the middle ages!