A Trek to the Small Nambas Village of Imarao, South Malekula

Imarao Women and Children.

Women and Children, dressed due to the presence of outsiders, on their way to a village meeting. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.

Tuesday, 13 October, 1987

Now, since I last wrote to you a month ago, my life has been full of all sorts of exciting happenings. First, I trekked into deepest darkest southern Malekula to the land of the Small Nambas. It is a 3-hour flat walk from the road to Melken, where there are a few sheets of roofing iron in evidence (they roll them up and pack them in). Another hour's flat walk, and then it's straight up a muddy trail. They don't believe in switchbacks here. It's real take off your thongs and dig your toes in country.

After 3 hours of this, we got to Imarao, our destination. Here, they wear clothes, but all have holes in their nasal septums (only one woman had anything stuck in there, though, a silver metal tube). They have a custom house that only initiated males are allowed in. It contains the heads of departed male ancestors. When a man dies, they put his body up in the rafters of his house. After it gets a bit soft, holes are poked in it with thorns to let the juices out. Because they don't have chimneys, the bodies get smoke-cured. The heads are removed at this stage and dried over a fire and mud used to reform the facial features. Anyone who complains about the smell during all of this is heavily fined (vatu and pigs with big tusks) by the chief. After one hundred days, the body is laid out and funeral dances take place. The body of bigwigs are then also put into the custom house, and in times of war, arrowheads are made from their bones. These arrowheads are believed to be poisonous. Of course, they also have a Presbyterian pastor up there with a chapel and small school. The men and women sleep and eat separately. I think they, uh-hum, have their marital relations out in their gardens.

If you walk another half-day up and down mountains, you get to Lendamboi, which is real custom country. No pastors, schools, or clothes up there. The men from there were wearing their nambas at Imarao, right along with their T-shirts.

Man blowing triton shell.

Calling the village to the meeting with a Triton shell trumpet. Photo ©S. Combs 1987.

Anyway, we had our big community meeting in the school - us with the men in one room and the women listening through the wall in the other room. We discussed the road (they had requested a road to the coast, an impossibility given the terrain), warned them that with a road comes civilization, and asked them to think about it a bit. We spoke Bislama and a young man translated into the local language. The next topic of discussion was where to have the polling station in November's general election, and it was decided to pack the ballot boxes into Imarao, rather than all the way up to Lendamboi.

The guys in their nambas from Lendamboi had one other request: they want barbed wire to pack in on their backs, since one guy has already done it! I told them that I had heard that John, an Australian volunteer who had visited them, had the idea that they could use salt to control cattle with, and maybe we should all sit down and consider the alternatives before a final cattle-control strategy was decided upon. After all, it is pretty well a free-range situation, with miles of bush before the next guy's property is reached. I told them that in these situations in Canada, we just rounded up cattle with horses, but they weren't too interested. Resistant to change, I guess. John told me yesterday that right now they are chasing the cattle with dogs, spearing the cows, and tying up the calves with vines. We dropped off some rope for them during our circumnavigation of Malekula last month. We got an offer from the New Zealand Air Force yesterday to drop off anything anywhere that can be reached by a helicopter, but John has decided not to assist them with barbed wire, on the theory that if you have to helicopter it in, proper marketing channels don't really exist yet. The theory of the present system is that they will lead rope-trained calves down to the coast to sell.

I discussed these people with the curator of the museum in Vila (originally from Ohio) last week, and he says they use money to buy pigs with tusks from the coast to use in their various ceremonies and exchanges. He gives them a hand by buying stuff for the museum from them. He lived with these people for a couple of years in the Seventies, and was disappointed to see most of them were wearing clothes in my pictures. He is also very anti-Christian as it applies to these people. Apparently the first conversions were in 1980, and he says they are just playing with it to see what material goods it gives them. It is now possible for them to experiment with Christianity because most mainstream denominations allow custom practices to coexist with the Christian ones.

Although they have firearms, the Small Nambas like to hunt birds and pigs with bow and arrow, presumably because there is no cash cost involved. Military technology is at a low level - the arrows are not fletched (fitted with feathers). It probably isn't a disadvantage in the dense forest, where you can't shoot very far anyway. Bows and arrows are lying around everywhere.

Anyway, after the meeting, we had the traditional awards ceremony. All the women were sent off to the other side of the village, and someone went off to the custom house and returned with a Nambugi ("against sorcery" in Small Nambas Language), a stick with a stylized head on the end. It has bug eyes and big nose and pig's tusks embedded in the cheeks. Kirk Huffman (museum man) told me that men achieve or buy the right to make certain styles of these things, and at their 100-day-after-death ceremony, the types that the deceased used to make are all made and stuck in the ground around the body. Real powerful ones have a skull in them, but this one is made of leaves covered with spider webs (they are very strong here) and mud, then painted with vegetable pastes. The nambugi was presented to Keith, then spirited off before the women came back. Women are only allowed to see these things during the public funeral ceremonies. When we left that afternoon, a guy gave it back to us, wrapped in leaves, a few metres down the trail.

Man carrying nambugi.

Our guide carrying the nambugi down the trail. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.

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©Stan Combs 1997