Published: October 15th 2008September 12th 2008
A villages mourns the death of its Chief. For more than half a century he ruled over them, guided them, helped them with their problems until, at an age far beyond the average reached by people in this area, he dropped dead. Looking at a photo of him at a recent Rom Dance he looks ancient, decrepid, but still he had the energy to take part in this traditional event which takes place once a year in North Ambrym. Even from the photograph, taken by a tourist that attended the event and left as a present for the villagers, I can see the energy and vigour pumping through his limbs as he danced his last dance.
His son, Sam, a tall, well-built but quiet young man who works as a welder in Port Vila, confides to me, "He had a magic potion that only he and I knew about. It prolongs your life, keeping you young and full of energy. How old do you think I am?"
"Maybe twenty four?" I guessed realistically.
"I'm thirty two," he replied. "I've been drinking it every day of my life."
I am in Fanla, one of the most respected centres of sorcery in all Vanuatu. Sam's father the Chief died several days ago and now nobody is allowed to work. The whole village mourns, very little taking place every day other than the consumption of kava.
Sam and I drink kava together every night. He is soft-spoken and gentle, but I sense there is something dangerous lying below his calm exterior. He spoke of his desire to join the army and fight in a war, of his plans to make a lot of money in Port Vila and never come back to Fanla. Are these serious ideas or just the grief of a lost father talking?
His brother is different; although also very calm, his eyes are empty, glazed like those of a drug addict. He staggers as he walks and finds it hard to talk coherently.
"He drinks too much kava!" People tell me and laugh. It seems strange to me, laughing at one who must be suffering so much pain.
One day a cow is slaughtered. The body parts and cuts of meat are arranged into about fifteen piles on the ground in front of the dead Chief's house. Taro, yams and other vegetables are added to them until they are quite large. Each will go to a different person, mostly inhabitants of this village although a few recipients are outsiders too. Gradually the piles disappear as villagers come and fill up their sacks. The old Chief's will is executed.
Sam decides to return to Port Vila on the same boat as me. The day before, he takes me to a taboo area not twenty metres from the village. I know I should not follow him here but curiosity gets the better of me. We break through the woods and emerge into a clearing with several vast, multi-coloured carvings lining it. They are monsters with hideous faces, three or four metres tall, staring down at us. They must have taken months or even years to carve. Sam points far over to the left at an object which, he says, is his father's corpse. I immediately look away. The place is darker than the rest of the village because trees block out the sun, and it has a powerful, foreboding presence. Something scares me and I decide to leave, taking one last look at those vast monstruous carvings that would occupy pride of place in any museum around the world.
"Listen but don't tell anyone," Sam's brother whispers to me one day. "I have one of my carvings that I want to sell. It's really big. Please don't tell anyone, please don't tell Sam, or he'll..." He draws his finger across his throat in the gesture that has come to indicate death.
"Good God," I think, "Can he mean those carvings from the taboo clearing?" I dread to think what the reaction of the village would be if he got caught stealing one of those.
Fanla is changing. The young, like youth almost everywhere, have less respect for the traditions and beliefs of old, as demonstrated by the attempted sale of the carving and even by Sam's act of taking me to a place that should have been taboo.
"Do you have a church here or do you live in Custom?" I had asked on my first day.
"We go to church but we live in Custom too," the answer had been. A far cry from the belief of the people of Marakai on Espiritu Santo that going to church or school immediately relegates you from the ranks of those living in Custom. I am beginning to understand that Custom is whatever the chief of a village wants it to be.
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