Appeasing Angry Ground

In March, 1987, while I was at a meeting on the Maskelyne Islands off Malekula's SE coast, a woman suddenly started wailing in the distance and continued until after we left. Upon inquiring, I learned that someone on our boat had brought word of the death of her son. Back home a few days later, I learned some of the details of the death and subsequent events.

One of Vanuatu's less well-thought-out development projects was Metenesel Estates Limited, a government-owned cocoa (beans from which chocolate is made) plantation on the west side of Malekula Island. The site was chosen on the basis of rainfall records from the island's east side without consideration of the rain shadow effect caused by prevailing winds from the east and mountains running north-south down Malekula's spine. The poor choice of site was compounded by the decision to start with a full-fledged plantation rather than a small test planting.

Quite a bit of violence was done to several hundred hectares of forest, with trees bulldozed over, roots torn from the ground, and the whole mess burned before cocoa seedlings were planted. A village with good quality houses and health, recreational, and market facilities was built to house 300 workers and families. As well, there were Western-style executive offices, a clubhouse with swimming pool, and housing for the expatriate management, who were in general pretty good people doing their best with a poor site chosen by others.

A week previous to the death of the young man from the Maskelynes, a woman had died from cerebral malaria, in which hordes of parasites lodge in the brain, cutting off the blood supply. When the young man suddenly collapsed and died in the fields from what management felt was the same cause, his fellow workers came to a different conclusion. Overnight they abandoned the MEL village and fled to their home villages, fearing that the "ground was angry" because it had been disturbed.

Work stopped completely, and management took direct action to prevent the project slipping even further behind schedule. A local "keva", or sorcerer/healer, was hired for vt3,000 (about US$25) to make the ground happy again. The kleva came with a potion of kastom leaves and water in a large bottle and had himself driven over the fields. When he sensed that they were at a hot spot, he got out, performed a short ceremony, and poured some potion out. Upon returning to project headquarters, though, he declared that the ground was most angry in the Director's office and, to the consternation of the Director and amusement of everyone else, proceeded to avenge the ground by emptying the bottle on the carpet.

Satisfied that the ground had been mollified, the employees returned and work carried on.

That wasn't the end of the episode, though. When word got out that a kleva had performed heathen ceremonies at the project, one of the local Christian pastors demanded that he be allowed to bless the ground. Not to be outdone, pastors from each of Malekula's other denominations then demanded their turns, and Metenesel Estates Limited became the most blessed place on Malekula.

Carl Edwards, the Project Director whose carpet was soiled, subsequently moved to an Oil Palm plantation in Papua New Guinea. Three years later, we got word that he had been discussing a work injury with some employees when a relative of the injured man stepped forward and fatally stabbed him. The developing world lost a caring, competent, and good man.

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©Stan Combs 1997.