Black Magic, and why Missionaries stood no chance. Ambrym. Vanuatu

Ambrym is still relatively untouched by western thoughts and values, and traditional custom beliefs remain very strong, particularly in the North East and North West villages, maybe not coincidentally the furthest settlements from the two small airports here.

Mt Benbow is the focus for much of the beliefs (and also for the surrounding islands like Malakula and Epi, where its glowing orange lava lakes can be seen eerily in the night sky). It is dangerous, destroying a village in 1913, and its eruptions have caused evacuations on several occasions, yet it provides life through rich farming soil. Certain clans or groups are believed to be custodians of the volcano, and use it to their benefit to threaten to cause it to erupt unless they get their way in village disagreements. Conversely, when it does erupt unexpectedly they get blamed and can be forced to escape to other islands for their safety.

Certain parts of the volcano are reserved for their spirits after they die, each village has their special area. Not knowing this, the early Christian missionaries failed dismally in their attempt to convert the local populace, the threat of a fiery end for their souls if they did not convert was not going to provoke fear when they believed that was their future anyway.

My guide was a firm believer in the traditional custom ways. The lava bombs he eagerly collected could be buried around his land to provide protection against those families who control the eruptions of the volcano. They could also be carved into faces and placed in other peoples homes to control them and cause “problems”. These exact problems were not specified, but I can guess.

He was also an expert in sand drawings, a beautiful and unique way of telling ancient stories and beliefs by tracing a finger through the ash, in amazingly quick time. These are given as gifts to people, he kindly gave me a few drawings after I gave him my solar torch (he really needed it more than I did).

This beautiful drawing is called ‘The Leaf man’ and it represents the story of a local villager who went exploring and was about to be attacked by a group from a rival village. He placed a leaf on his head, and vegetation on his body for camouflage, and was able to move through the villagers without being seen. It took about thirty seconds to draw the symmetric and complex patterns, and after viewing it (and letting me quickly take one photograph) he destroyed it so others could not see it.


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