Quick Note- If you’re easily offended by ritualistic animal killings andor ceremonial nudity you may want to skip this one…..
“Who want kill pig?” shouted the man leading our ceremony. My arm instantly shot up as if it had a mind of it’s own. I’m not sure why, it just sort of happened. A sort of subconscious arm-jerk reaction. I walked to the center of about 30 people, most of them fellow cruisers here to participate in the Malekula Port Sandwich festival. I was handed a club and led over to a pig that was to be sacrificed and eaten for the ceremony. The pig was bound and tied at the feet and laying on it’s side. The ceremony leader pointed at the pig’s head and made a striking motion to the center of it’s skull.
My fellow cruisers started snapping photos. I got into my best stance, lined up my swing, and landed a good whack squarely in the middle of the head. I did two more just for good measure. The pig didn’t squeal, didn’t tremble, it just went limp. The kill was quick and clean. According to the natives this is the Kastom way of killing a pig. There was a slight clapping of hands but mostly looks of disbelief coming from my fellow cruisers. I believe they didn’t expect that to actually happen. I walked away in a bit of disbelief myself, pondering the fact that I’d just killed another animal but knowing that the animal would be eaten and nothing wasted helped. It’s one thing to buy pork or beef at the supermarket, but quite another to actually see where you’re meal is coming from.
We had just watched a ceremonial dance put on by the Small Nambas tribe of Dravai Village, South East Malekula. The natives were wearing their traditional dress for the dance which means a lot of testicles were out and about. There are two tribes of Nambas here, the Big Nambas and the Small Nambas. I know what you’re thinking right now, and NO- it has absolutely nothing to do with the size of their family jewels or any other thing located in that general area! The Big Nambas just wear more leaves and cover up their rear ends. The Small Nambas simply wrap their penis in a fibrous leaf, throw on a belt fashioned from tree bark, and tie the end of the penis leaf cover into the belt holding it at attention. The Big Nambas belt is a bit wider and uses a different type of leaf. Both tribes leave their testicles pretty much exposed.
While the cruisers and other tourists sat down under a thatched roof shelter for an already prepared lunch I wondered off into the bush, following the men carrying the pig. They loaded it into the back of a pickup truck and roared off leaving a trail of dust behind them. I asked the ceremony leader where they were going with the pig and explained that I wanted to see the rest of the ceremony. The man asked me to sit down and a few minutes later returned with another man. “Brian, this is the Chief of Dravai village. His name is Chief Joseph. He says you may come to the Kastom Nakamal.” With a somewhat guilty and pained expression he explained that a Kastom fee of 1000 vatu (about $10US) was required. He went on to explain that all people not of their tribe had to pay the fee, even natives from other tribes. No worries I said and whipped out a 1000 vatu note. The Chief smiled and a few sentences in the local unintelligible dialect were exchanged. “The Chief says that we will wait for the French Army truck. When it arrives we will all go to the village together.”
It seems the French Army is here building a hospital for the island. I heard there are about 40 of them here. They have a ridiculously large six-wheeled very mean looking truck they roll around on this tiny island ferrying villagers and French Army men about. A text message was sent to the army and a few minutes later this monstrosity pulled up and 49 natives and one white guy (me) crammed into the bed of the beast. “French Army! French Army!” everyone yelled while pointing and laughing. Apparently the French Army was the bonifide taxi service here. We rolled off at break neck speed on a dirt road down the coast of the island. Everyone hooped and hollered at every dip in the road. The yells only encouraged the driver to speed up. You know he was loving his job and his driving style showed it. We raced through river beds and sand, through fields of grass and coconut plantations. Nothing slowed down the monster as it hurtled around the island.
About 20 minutes later we pulled up to the village and everyone hopped out. The French army driver jumped out and I got a good look at him. In typical French fashion he was wearing camouflaged short shorts, like something you’d see in the French Riviera but with a military flavor. They barely covered his thighs. A lit cigarette hung limply from his mouth. A little beret was covering his balding head and his belly could be seen bulging from under the stylish camouflaged frock that was his shirt. He passed out cigarettes to all the natives. When he turned around and roared off the natives pulled their shorts up as high as they could around their thighs and walked around puffing their cigarettes in a mocking fashion yelling “French Army! French Army!” while laughing hysterically. You gotta love the French!
I was lead through the village to the Nakamal which was a few hundred meters into the jungle. The Nakamal was huge, the biggest I’ve ever seen. It was bordered by a palm thatched fence and could easily have held 250 people. Inside were dozens and dozens of ceremonial carvings and tam-tam’s. The area was beautifully kept and the dirt raked clean of leaves. It looked like a impeccably well kept garden or backyard.
The pig was laying on a bed of palm fronds and a group of a dozen or so men were gathered around. The entire pig was rubbed in dirt and water. They lit the fronds on fire and proceeded to burn the hair off the pig. Someone held a burning frond in his hand and lit up portions of the hair while another man followed behind with a machete scraping the burnt hair away, leaving just the skin behind. The smell was just how you’d imagine burning pig hair to be. The entire body was then cleaned with water, and rubbed from snout to tail with papaya halves.
Another man with a machete then gutted the pig in one stroke leaving the liver, heart, intestines, and everything else laying in a neat pile. The carcass was thoroughly washed with water and quartered into chunks, which were then cut into smaller pieces and placed onto freshly cut bamboo poles. These were arranged around a fire and the meat was spit roasted. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t look absolutely mouth watering. I sat around with the men feasting on the simple dish of roasted pork and rice.
I sat down next to my guide and translator, Etienne, as he explained some of the Kastom things of this Nakamal. The island customs of Vanuatu are distinctly different, and even vary from area to area within one island. Etienne- are women allowed in this Nakamal? “Yes, of course. But before a women enters the Nakamal a man must escort her. When they get to the Nakamal entrance the tam-tam is hit five times. This let’s everyone know a women is approaching. If it’s just a man approaching they only hit the tam-tam three times. Also, everything made in the Nakamal is sacred. All food prepared here must be eaten in the Nakamal. Nothing can be removed. The feathers, clubs, and nambas cannot be removed unless it’s for a special dance and the chief has approved.”
Etienne, I’d really like to wear a nambas. Would that be allowed? He looked confused and confirmed with me “Brian, you want to wear a nambas?” I shook my head yes in the now dimming light. “I will need to speak to the Big Chief about this.” Etienne got up and swiftly walked off to the Big Chief, the same man that I paid my Kastom fee to. There was a discussion, some pointing at me, and lot’s of smiling. A small group of men gathered around and you could tell they were hatching some scheme. They were in good spirits.
Etienne returned and sat down. “Brian, the Chief has said that one of the boys will fit you with a nambas. There are three things you must know. First, you must wear the nambas with dignity. When you wear the nambas you must be serious. There is no joking around and your face must be like stone. You must be like a warrior. Otherwise the Chief will punch you.” Ok, got it I thought. No messing around, serious business, put on a war face or possibly get beaten by the chief. No problem. “Second, you must dance with us. Everyone that wears the nambas must dance. We will show you what to do. The boys are going to do a special dance for you tonight. You are very lucky Brian. Not many people see this dance we do tonight. The last thing is after dancing you must drink Kava with us. Have you had Kava before? It is very strong here.” I smiled, shook his hand, and told him that I was in and willing to do everything. And yes, I had drank some Kava before. His eyes widened when I mentioned Sulfur Bay on Tanna.
I was led behind a small thatched hut by one of the men I recognized from this morning’s dance. He spoke no English so with hand signals told me to remove my shirt and shorts. We all gave up underwear ages ago so nothing to worry about there. I stood in the jungle completely naked while for the first time in my life another man swiftly grabbed hold of my most precious element and wrapped a leaf around it. The leaf was folded over and over, making multiple layers. A band was then tied around it snuggly to hold everything in place. It was, let’s just say, a very interesting and different experience. A piece of jungle vine was tied around my waste and the nambas leaf was then folded back towards my abdomen, and tucked back into the vine. Imagine a right triangle formed by my lower abdomen and nambas leaf with the hypotenuse of the leaf attached just below my belly button.
A 4 inch wide piece of tree bark was placed around my waste and secured with another vine. A few bits of leafs were stuffed into various places to add a bit of flair. Dozens and dozens of nuts were tied together forming a native version of Santa’s Jingle Bells. The string of noise makers was then lashed around my ankles doubling on themselves and wrapping around and around. The slightest motion ended up in a huge amount of noise. It was like having a dozen tambourines attached to my ankles. At this point another man approached me with buckets of paint and went to work. There was red paint from berries for the face, black paint from charcoal, and white paint from chalk. My back, chest, face, beard, and legs were painted in native designs. A feather was stuck in my hair and I was handed an impressive looking war club. All ready to roll I was directed to stand in front of the tam-tam and wait for the rest of the dancers.
I stood in the middle of the Nakamal, directly in front of the huge tam-tam. It was hard to absorb the experience and I was in a bit of shock, standing there stark naked except for my nambas in the middle of a native village somewhere in the jungle. My fellow sailors and cruisers were somewhere far far away, no doubt enjoying the festival and sting band entertainment in Port Sandwich. Somehow, someway, I was meant to be here at this one moment. To share this experience with this tribe of fascinating people.
The Chief and his brother stood at my side and slowly but steadily began to beat their own tam-tam’s. The dancers entered through a break in the Nakamal fence and with precise and fear some movements began an intricate dance. They formed two lines and in unison weaved in and out of each other, brandishing their war clubs and stomping the dirt throwing up clouds of dust with each foot fall. The nuts tied around their ankles rang in unison with the tam-tams which were steadily speeding up. Soon the tam-tam’s were pounding at an incredible pace. The dancers kept each step perfectly timed and started exploding with energy leaping into the air and shouting fierce yells into the darkness. It was apparent that this dance was meant to intimidate. It was meant to show other tribes you were very, very tough and not to be crossed. The message came across very clearly.
The beat reached a crescendo and the dancers broke their ranks and began circling the tam-tam’s in two circles. The inner circle and outer circle revolved in different directions. The men placed their war clubs on their shoulders and walked around and around. It really wasn’t a walk though. I’d describe it as more of an animalistic prowl. A step that said “At any moment I’m ready to pounce. I could easily jump on you and bash your head in with this club.” It was very fierce. For a brief moment the recent history of these people crossed my mind. Although I felt perfectly safe being the only white guy surrounded by more than 50 natives I couldn’t help but think back to something I read just a few days before. The last REPORTED case of cannibalism here on Malekula was 1969. The practice was commonly overlooked by the government well into more recent times. The natives here would eat their dead ancestors to make sure that a piece of them stayed with the living, always.
I was nudged out of my thoughts by the chief’s brother, who motioned that it was my time to dance. I was to join one of the rings of circling dancers. So I jumped right in and began my toughest walk. I put my club on my shoulder and did my best war face. I’m really glad it was getting dark because I couldn’t help but feel really self conscious. Soon enough the beat began to speed up and up. I did my best to follow the dancer in front of me, trying to mimic his foot patterns. The tam-tam’s reached a crescendo and everyone stood in place, stomping the earth to pieces and making an incredible noise with the ankle shakers. Hunch your back, tilt your head up, and hold your war club at both ends down by your waste. Now lift your knees as high as you can before slamming them back into the dirt. This went on and on for ages and ages. My thighs were burning. This was way more exercise than running, it was like a Stairmaster on steroids. Suddenly the beat shifted and the circles began moving again in opposite directions. Stomp twice with the left foot, once with the right foot. Around and around we go with our war faces on and clubs ready to let loose. Now switch. Twice with the right foot, once with the left foot. Now march like you’re heading into battle. Do this for a while then it’s time to stomp in place again. Dancers are breathing in puffs and sweat is making the war paint run down your brow and into your eyes. Time for a rest…… Lift your head, put your club on your shoulder, and walk like a hunter surveying it’s prey. Relax a little bit but always keep moving. Never stop moving. Now repeat the whole thing again, back into intimidation mode. This went on and on for how long I’m not sure.
When the dance was over we retired to the Kava area and with great ceremony I was presented a bowl of Kava. I was treated with great honor and respect, and allowed to drink Kava before the chief which has never, ever happened anywhere else. It was a great gesture on the part of the chief and I was lucky enough to realize it.
Etienne came to my side and shook my hand. “Brian, the chief says you danced very well. He wishes to invite you do dance with us tomorrow for the circumcision ceremony. We dance at 9:00AM.”
Gut check! My stomach doubled over at the thought of dancing not only in the bright light of morning but also for the real ceremony. It’s one thing to dance with the natives privately in the Nakamal in the dimming twilight, but quite another to dance with potentially dozens of tourists around. I briefly wondered if it was right to dance with the natives. Would I be tainting the experience of all the tourists that had traveled so far and gone to great effort to see a traditional native dance, only to find a white sailor guy dancing about acting like a native? Would my participation take away from the genuineness of the dance? I only pondered for a split second before realizing this was as real as it gets. I was extended a real invitation from the Big Chief to dance in a real circumcision ceremony. To refuse the invitation would have been an insult not only to the chief but the whole tribe. If the tourists were put off by my involvement so be it, they could focus their expensive telephoto lenses elsewhere. It could have also been the fact that I was on my second bowl of Kava, but either way I heartily accepted the invitation and expressed my gratitude and honor towards the chief. We shook hands and the entire tribe belted out a shout. I was in. We spent the rest of the evening drinking Kava and snapping photos.
Early the next morning we started walking to Dravai for the ceremony. We were picked up along the way by the French Army truck and dropped off in short time. I was lead through the village and into the Nakamal while the rest of the Delos crew and other tourists waited outside. I was a big boy and put on most of my outfit myself this time. My war paint was applied even more intricately than before, and I was handed an absolutely immense club.
The tam-tam warned us of the impending approach of the mass of people. Before I had time to consider my position we formed two lines and started our war prowl out to the central area. Two rings were formed and we circled the tam-tam for ages and ages. There were well over 100 people watching, nearly split between tourists and villagers. Cameras flashed and shutters snapped. Comic book large telephoto lenses sat atop tripods ready to take it all in. One guy in particular had a complete backpack full of equipment.
I did my best to clear my mind, to focus on the dancer in front of me and not steal a glance at the throng of people watching. I was instructed to do the same thing as last night. I don’t really remember much from here. It seemed to go by in the blink of an eye, even though I know it lasted well over 30 minutes and the whole ceremony was at least 2 hours with multiple dances. Maybe it was nervousness, a rush of adrenaline, or my brain switching to warrior mode. Maybe a bit of all three. I’m not sure but when we were finished I had the hugest rush of euphoria and a wave of accomplishment and satisfaction rolled over me. It was very similar to how I felt after bungy jumping in New Zealand, basking in the after glow of a huge adrenaline rush. Many village elders approached me and shook my hand. With a knowing smile they asked me how I felt after wearing the Nambas and dancing. They knew how I felt. They had been there before.
If you’ve made it this far you may be interested to hear where the title of this blog came from. A man walks into a psychologist’s office completely naked. He is wrapped head to toe in clear plastic wrap. Around and around the wrap goes covering his entire body. He awkwardly sits down on the office couch and asks “So Doctor, do you have any idea what may be wrong with me?” The doctor looks at the man, thinks for a moment, and replies “I can clearly see your nuts!”. One of my dad’s classics!
I’m happy to say we also have a new toy on the boat. My old Olympus bit the dust so we now have a sweet new Canon G12. So far we’re pretty impressed and playing with all the settings is a blast.