Today was Patrol Boat lafet, which was shorter than the party organized for the Cardinal. This celebration of the new Vanuatu Mobile Force Patrol Boat, donated by Australia, was scheduled for Eight O'clock this morning, but I assumed it would be late, so was still in bed at that hour (having returned after feeding my little goats). The word came up the hill, however, that I was to drive my boss's wife, Aslika, down in the Local Government Council's green truck, so I showered and got going down to the seashore. It's a good thing we went only a little late, because the ceremony started at 0830 and all the other "smart" expats who came late missed all the good stuff.
The Patrol Boat anchored out a ways, which was too bad, because like all the people who watched us come into beaches on southern Malekula (see previous letter), I hoped to be entertained by watching it sink on a hidden rock. We all lined up on the beach to shake hands when the time came, and three canoes were sent out to bring in the officers plus assorted bureaucrats and politician (the Minister of Home Affairs) who had come to bask in the limelight. We were specially honored because this was the boat's first stop after the capital on its show-it-to-everyone tour. We were lined up on the side of the wharf where canoes usually don't come in (too muddy, but more spacious for the coming ceremony), and as I foresaw, all the canoes headed to the usual side, and a guy had to run out on the wharf and wave them in on the other side (I got a photo). Men in semi-custom dress (i.e. leaves over shorts) went out and carried all the bigwigs to shore, where they lined up opposite us. Then the local village chief strode out in true custom dress waving a big club and asking these guys just who they thought they were coming onto his ground without first asking permission. After a few minutes of threats and club-waving, another chief in custom dress came out with a kava leaf and explained that these people had meant no harm, and they should all make peace with the kastom lif. This satisfied the custom owner, and the two chiefs exited, stage left. This is the first time I had seen this ceremony. I think it signifies that the people here really see this patrol boat as being a big deal. It symbolizes them taking control of their as-yet-theoretical 200 mile exclusive economic zone.
Chief of Litzlitz village confronting Patrol Boat Officers and Government Officials near Lakatoro Wharf (Minister Reganvanu second from right). Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.
American tuna boats have traditionally just come in and fished without paying a license fee, although the Americans finally signed an agreement and paid up early this year (to keep up with the Russians, who did it last year). Mind you, the Australians, who donated the boat (31.5 metres, top speed 23 knots) refused to put a gun on it. I suppose they can tote along a "numba 12" (shotgun) to shoot over the bows of any renegade fishing boat. (Which will no doubt reply with something like a .50 cal. machine-gun.)
Then we had speeches, in which Keith (my boss, the LGC Secretary) thanked the Minister for all of his hard work in getting the boat. You would have thought the Minister had built it himself - not a mention was made of the Australians. After, a light breakfast of grapefruit pieces, whole roasted steer and pig, and roasted yam, banana, and taro was served. The custom dancing that all the expats came late to see never materialized, although a few men beat on slit drums and sang a bit.
. . . I made an error a while back when I told you that half the people here believe in custom sharks. Everybody does. I had a chat on the subject with Kalosak, my new counterpart, the other day, and with a guy in Lamap on my recent cruise around Malekula. The ability to assume the form of an animal and work other spiritual magic is nakaemas (pronounced na-kie'-mas). I think it is inherited. It isn't all fun and games, because if you don't use it, it will kill you. Also, while your spirit is inhabiting another body, your own body looks like you are asleep. If anyone tries to wake you, you die. The same if someone kills the animal whose form you have taken. Kalosak tells me that there used to be lots of men with nakaemas on Malekula, but not so many anymore. Ambrym, on the other hand is "fulap". Everyone in Vanuatu is afraid to go to Ambrym. Government workers who are assigned there often refuse to go, or leave shortly after moving there. Kalosak said that if a man Ambrym wants to kill you, he does the deed. Then he guts you and fills the cavity with kastom lif (custom leaves) and his spirit enters your body. He then returns to your home and lives with your family, sleeping with your wife (this always enters into the issue), for some predetermined time until abandoning your body and returning to his own. You can tell such a possessed dead man because he passes green stools (from the leaves). Kalosak told me that everyone here has to learn science in school, but think it is all gyaman (lies). In response to his inquiry, I told him that because I was a whiteman, I have trouble believing in nakaemas, but his attitude seemed to be that, well what can you expect - that was my problem.
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©S. Combs, 1987