Copyright © 2005 Tom Ludvigson. All rights reserved.
CHAPTER 1: BACKGROUND
1.1 Espiritu Santo
1.4 Tombet and the northern interior
1.5 The Ari valley
1.6 Early days at Vorozenale
1.7 Disease and death
1.8 Making friends
1.10 Big man
1.12 Living at Truvos
1.13 Resistance to enquiry
1.14 Participation: exchanges
1.15 Participation: everyday life
1.1 Espiritu Santo
My interest in the mountain people of Espiritu Santo was first sparked off by Dr Max Rimoldi. This was in 1973; he was lecturing in anthropology at the University of Auckland and I had come to see him in his office to tap his knowledge of contemporary Melanesia. I was a post-graduate anthropology student at Gothenburg University in my native Sweden, newly arrived in New Zealand and looking for a feasible spot in the Pacific where I could do field research.
Dr Rimoldi told me about a friend of his, Bud Jackson, who had lived on Santo, studying the Nagriamel movement. This, he explained, was an indigenous movement with mild anti-European flavour, aimed chiefly at reclaiming land alienated by early European settlers. Bud Jackson had lived for over a year at the Nagriamel headquarters at Vanafo, a squatters' settlement on land owned by a French company. He had told Dr Rimoldi about the occasional visitor to Vanafo from further inland - short, shy and naked except for a belt and a strip of cloth. These were the mountain people, still holding their own against the onslaught of missionaries and administration, leading a subsistence existence in the centre of the island.
This sounded like just the sort of place I had been looking for. Not very much was known about the mountain people; there had never been any intensive anthropological study made in the area. And the absence of missions held out the promise of an ongoing indigenous religion with associated ritual and other exotica - a romantic novice anthropologist's dream.
I immersed myself in the literature available on the mountain people. As deadlines came up for applications for research finance from various likely sponsors, I wrote up what I had learned so far and asked for money to go and live in central Santo, to "study the language and customs" of the people there. In between I read with growing fascination about cargo cults and anti-European sentiments, and a hard-headed people who, though numbering less than two thousand, seemed determined not to give up their independence to the newcomers who had settled on the coast.
The island had a chequered contact history. It was discovered and first settled as early as 1606 by the Spanish explorer de Quiros. His "Nueva Jerusalema" only lasted for five weeks before it was abandoned, owing to disease, hostile natives and a mutinous crew (Kelly 1966).
Though records are scant, Espiritu Santo certainly had its share, along with the other islands in the group, of the often ruthless practices of whalers, sandalwooders and blackbirders, during the course of the nineteenth century (Shineberg 1967:129 - 35; Harrisson 1937:206).
The next known attempt by Europeans to settle the island took place not until more than two and a half centuries after de Quiros. In 1861 the London Missionary Society landed some teachers and their wives at Cape Lisburn in the south - western corner of the jungle-clad land mass. This settlement was also abandoned after a short time, but ten years later a
renewed attempt was crowned with success (Bourge 1906:188 - 90). Shortly after, planters started arriving, settling first in the Segond Channel in the south-east.
In 1887 Britain and France set up a Joint Naval Commission to safeguard the interest of their nationals resident in the New Hebrides. This was replaced in 1906 by an Anglo-French Condominium, providing for the joint administration of the island group by Britain and France.
At the turn of the century both planters and missionaries were firmly established on the South Coast of Espiritu Santo, though the island was in a state of chaos. Feuds and epidemics were common, taking a heavy toll of indigenous lives. There were outbreaks of violence between natives and settlers, and several Europeans were killed.
I read about the British planter Grieg, who was killed with his two daughters on the South Coast in 1908. In return a punitive expedition shot five women and a little girl and took eight prisoners, none of whom ever returned home (Guiart 1958:76 - 78).
Fifteen years later, Clapcott, another planter, was killed and mutilated at Tasmalum, also on the South Coast. This I found a curious incident. It had been precipitated by the activities of a prophet named Ronovuro in the mountainous centre of the island. He had had a mission education. Now he advocated the killing of all pigs and claimed to be able to raise the dead. There were rumours of a ship that would bring the ancestors back alive. Watch was kept on the beaches day and night.
In return for that murder H M S Sydney shelled the bush. Eighteen were arrested and Ronovuro and two of his accomplices were executed.
In 1937 there were more rumours. Another prophet was said to urge the killing of a white man in order to resurrect the dead. The man, a mountain-dweller named Avuavu, was arrested by the British and died in prison (Guiart 1958:202 - 03).
Though the fighting never reached the New Hebrides, the Second World War had a large impact on Santo. As the largest of the islands in the group and with a good natural anchorage in the Segond Channel, it became the main base for the Allies during the Solomons campaign. During a brief period in the early nineteen-forties the island was literally flooded with American troops. They drained the swampland in the south-east, built a wharf, and put in roads along the east and south coasts. The south-east quarter of the island became one big military camp, with thousands of tents huddling under the coconut trees of the European plantations. At the peak period there were more soldiers on the island than there are people in the whole of Vanuatu today! James Mitchener's well-known documentary Tales of the South Pacific is set largely in wartime Santo (Mitchener 1947).
Then, as the fighting moved further north, the soldiers moved on and the camp was closed. The equipment used to maintain that amassment of people was destroyed - literally thrown into the sea (!) at a place south-east that since then has been known as Million Dollar Point.
The indigenous reaction to this marvel was not long in coming. At the end of the war a road was being constructed in the bush for the arrival of American "cargo". The leader of the enterprise, a man named Atori, was arrested together with five others. They were later all released (Guiart 1958:203 - 04).
Another prophetic movement, the so-called Naked Cult, began in 1945, and lasted until the death of its leader, Zek, six years later. The movement was centered in the upper Peiorai valley in central west Santo, but it spread to cover most of the mountainous interior.
The purpose of the movement was the same as in the previous ones: to put an end to the disease and depopulation that had followed in the wake of the settlers. The way to do this was by returning to the primitive purity of Adam and Eve. The followers of Zek took off their clothes, killed off their domestic animals, destroyed all the European goods they had acquired, stopped working on European plantations, abandoned bride price and marriage rules, burned down their houses and loved communally in separate dwellings for men and women. Soon "Amerika" would come with all things good and cult members would live forever (Miller 1948, Guiart 1958:208 - 13).
Not long after the death of Zek, in 1952, there was another altercation between mountain people and settlers. Two men were killed in a quarrel with the planter Chavereau at Big Bay. As a result a mountain chief, Mol Valivu, again place a ban on all plantation work and many planters found themselves without labourers. In 1954 the French anthropologist Jean Guiart was sent into the mountains to try to put an end to the strike (MacClancy 1980:119). He made five trips inland, all in all spending four months in the interior - part of the time accompanied by police. During this time he took a census of the mountain people, gathered some ethnographic information, and managed to negotiate an end to the blockade, thus securing the labour supply for the new settlers.
Guiart had written a book about his exploits in the Santo interior, which I read with great interest (Guiart 1958). Though the sociological section of his publication was meager, a large part of the volume was taken up by a narrative of his experiences during the four months in the Santo mountains. This I found very interesting. I felt I was getting to know the mountain people through their reactions to Guiart's intrusion into their territory. I formed an image of a proud and independent people who didn't want to have anything to do with Europeans and their ways, still fighting their losing battle against a power beyond their comprehension.
This image was further reinforced when I read the published results of the 1967 census of the New Hebrides. A special page was devoted to "The Census in Santo bush", explaining how the figures were approximate, being based on estimates, as many of the mountain people refused to cooperate with the census teams (McArthur and Yaxley 1968:100). 1967 - that was only six years into the past. I wondered how they would receive someone with my intentions.
Another thing I learned from my reading was that they were not the unspoiled traditional people that I had first imagined after my interview
with Dr Rimoldi. They had undergone many changes since their first contact with Europeans. They suffered depopulation and pacification, they now used steel tools, firearms and money, and they had abandoned the chief-making rituals of the "graded society" - an institution at the core of traditional political organisation in the Northern New Hebrides (Guiart 1958).
At the end of the year I received notice that I had been granted funds to carry out my planned research. Still there were a few months before I was ready to leave, transferring my studies to the University of Auckland with associated formalities, obtaining research permission from the authorities in the New Hebrides, purchasing field equipment and so on. At the beginning of May 1974 I was finally through with all the preparations and on my way.
I had timed my arrival in Santo to coincide with Bud Jackson's paying a short visit to the island, to make a film at Vanafo about the Nagriamel movement. We met in Luganville township located by the Segond Channel in the south-east, form which it also takes its local name, Canal. He told me I had better go to see Jimmy Stevens, the leader of the Nagriamel, to obtain permission before going into the bush. This was standard practice - government geologists traveling in inland Santo did just the same. Without this permission I might find people in the interior standoffish and uncooperative.
Bud came with me, both to introduce me and to act as interpreter, as i didn't yet speak Bislama, the New Hebridean variety of Melanesian pidgin. He took me to an old house in the back streets of Canal, where Jimmy Stevens lived when not at his house at Vanafo. Standing inside the front gate and by the entrance to the house were half a dozen New Hebridean youths, all with badges pinned to their shirt sleeves or pockets. On the badge was an emblem consisting of a bunch of leaves set above a five-pointed star and with the letters N.G.M. at the bottom. I knew from my reading that the leaves were a bunch of cordyline surrounding a cycad frond - na karia and na mele in a number of local languages, all adding up to na kariamele, written Nagriamel, or N.G.M. for short (Jackson 1972:159; Steinbauer 1971:92). Bud told me the youths were Jimmy Steven's "guards", but they all seemed to recognise him and made no attempt to stop us as we crossed the yard and entered the house.
Once inside, we were taken to a glassed-in verandah where the leader of the movement sat by a round table in a corner. I saw an ageing man with grey hair and beard wearing semi-military dress and a badge like the ones I'd seen outside. Against the wall next to his chair stood a pair of crutches - Bud had been telling me about Jimmy Steven's recent leg trouble.
We shook hands with him, sat down, and Bud outlined my plans, translating back and forth between me and Jimmy. I was glad Bud was there, as Jimmy spoke a mixture of English and Bislama, and I could only understand small portions of what he said on my own. Jimmy had no objection to my project, but he had one point to make. People like Bud and me came to the New Hebrides to study, and when finished we would leave and that would be the end of it. He was concerned that we should give something in return, that some time in the future I should remember to turn the results of my studies into something of benefit for the people of the New Hebrides. This was the first in a series of reminders that however much I wanted to construe myself as a detached "observer of society" I was also, and perhaps primarily, a participant involved in the network of personal relationships that made up that society, and that I should honour these relationships as such, rather than hide behind a smokescreen of "scientific objectivity".
Jimmy Stevens suggested that I move to Vanafo. There was to be a meeting there in two weeks' time, and a lot of bush people were expected to attend. This was surprising to me, as up until then I had been under the impression that Nagriamel was a coastal affair that didn't concern the hinterland and the people I was aiming to live with. Jimmy said that after the meeting I could go with the people as they returned to their mountain homes. That sounded to me like a good plan, though I was eager to get into the interior, and two weeks seemed like a long wait. Still, I had no better alternative - maybe some earlier opportunity would offer itself once I got to Vanafo. At least it was a step away from the coast and into the bush.
The next day I packed a minimal amount of necessaries and took a taxi to Vanafo village. The driver dropped me short of our destination, as part of the road was boggy and impassable by car. I shouldered my pack and walked for about an hour, uncertain that I had taken the right turn at a crossing, and with misgivings about how I would be received. Eventually I came to a wire fence with a gate. On one of the gateposts was a blackboard with white writing, saying:
PLEASE KEEP OUT
Beside the gate was a small hut, like a guardhouse, but there was no one in sight. I walked through and continued up the road.
Inside the gate the road was straight and continued for as far as I could see. It was surrounded by much denser bush than that which I had passed through for the last hour. I walked on in the midday heat, wondering where the village was. I had expected a group of houses, bustling with activity.
Presently the landscape opened up into a park like clearing with a small house next to a huge banyan tree. The road continued over a small hill to the left. Coming down the road were a group of people, all wearing the now-familiar badges. They shook hands with me, and not knowing how to explain my presence I simply asked for Bud. I gathered from their replies that he wasn't there, but he would come back eventually. Meanwhile I could stay in the house by the road.
The house was similar in construction to those I'd seen so far since leaving Canal; plaited bamboo walls with a sago thatch roof. Inside there was an elevated wooden platform hung with a mosquito net where I could sleep. I made myself at home and spent the rest of the day talking to people who came by to have a look at the visitor, practicing my minimal Bislama and trying to learn more. In the evening some young people came by with a guitar and we sat singing each other songs by the hissing light of a pressure lamp. I was really pleased to be out of town and in a more obviously New Hebridean environment.
The following day I spent walking around Vanafo with a young man who spoke a little English. He showed me around the village and taught me more Bislama. I found Vanafo very extensive and scarcely deserving of the name "village". It was more like a large plantation, with gardens succeeding gardens in all directions. Interspersed with rows of young coconut trees I saw taro, yam, kumara, manioc, plantain, peanuts, bananas, pawpaw and pineapple. Here and there were small groups of houses, some of them with boards with the name of an island painted on them. I saw an Aoba hamlet, a Malekula hamlet, an Ambrym hamlet. My guide also took me to see a "headquarters" building, Jimmy Stevens' Vanafo residence - a large traditional style structure - and a church house. There were very few people within sight, only a few around the houses, working in gardens, or walking along the numerous tracks that criss-crossed the area.
That afternoon Bud Jackson finally arrived back at Vanafo, and by nightfall a small crowd of people had gathered around us at the house where I had stayed the night. Most of them were young men in shorts or trousers and colourful shirts, but one was an older man with a wooden comb stuck into his graying hair and a large plastic bracelet around his wrist. He was wearing only a belt with an old ammunition pouch attached, a faded red loincloth, and the inevitable Nagriamel badge, pinned to strip of cloth tied around his upper left arm.
Bud, who had been talking to them, explained to me that they were mountain people who had been to Canal because of a dispute. Anglican missions had been established in two mountain villages about a year back, staffed with teachers from the Melanesian Brotherhood - two young Hebrideans from other islands and two Solomon Islanders. In addition there was a medical orderly, or "dresser", in one of the villages, a Banks Islander, generously provided by the British administration. By now some of the local people had changed their minds about the desirability of the mission, and one man had placed a Nagriamel "blackboard" like the one I had seen at the entrance to Vanafo by the dresser's house, telling him to get out. The sign had been pulled down by a member of the pro-mission faction, and the Nagriamel adherents had called in the French gendarmes. The result was that the people involved had been taken to the French police station at Canal to sort out their differences. They were now on their way home, spending the night at Vanafo, but intending to leave for the interior at dawn. Through Bud I managed to arrange with one of them to go with him and use his village as a base while he guided me around, exploring the interior. The man's name was Vohia. His home village was Tombet, the mission village with the dresser.
That night I went to bed delighted with the turn matters had taken. Instead of the anticipated two weeks, I had only had to wait one day at Vanafo, before moving into the interior proper. Admittedly Tombet was a mission village and therefore not likely to be my final choice as a place to do my research, but it was another step on the way, and seemingly a large one.
1.4 Tombet and the northern interior
We left Vanafo early in the morning, crossing the Sarakata river and walking to a village named Putmas, where we spent the night. The following day we continued across Mount Tankara, eventually crossing the Peolape river and arriving at Tombet in the early afternoon. I was installed in the dresser's house, next to the teachers' building and a stone's throw away from the rest of the village - only six houses surrounding a central red clay clearing.
I had only been in Tombet for just over two hours when who should arrive but Bishop Rawcliffe, head of the Anglican church of the New Hebrides, having walked in from Big Bay. That same evening I was treated to my first course of exotic ritual, as the bishop staged a service in one of the village houses. Clad in full regalia including his mitre, awesome in gold, silver, red and white he exorcised the Devil and evil spirits from the villagers with cross signs on their foreheads and a cross in oil on their chests, all the time reciting his lines in Bislama. Afterwards he gave the congregation a pep talk, encouraging them to be "strong" and resist the attacks by Nagriamel - all adding up to an enlightening first day among the mountain people!
For the next ten days I was confined to Tombet with dysentery and big toes damaged by too small boots. As I recovered I toured the Peolape and Peiorai river valleys together with Vohia, looking for a suitable place to settle in for intensive fieldwork. I wanted to find out where the people were, as my maps were out of date and most villages plotted on them were now abandoned. I also wanted to find out what language was spoken in what area. From my reading I had learned that there were at least ten different languages spoken in the interior, some with only a small number of speakers (Tryon 1972:50 - 52), and I wanted to make sure that once I settled somewhere and learned the local language it would give me access to a reasonable number of speakers. What I had read about central Santo language areas also turned out to be hopelessly misleading. Even though the article was only two years old it listed languages as spoken in areas now devoid of people with the villages long since extinct.
During my time in Tombet and in villages I visited on my bush tours, people often asked me what I was doing there and why I had come. I explained as best I could in my halting Bislama that I was looking for a place where I could live for at least a year while learning the local language and customs. When they asked why I wanted to learn these things, I replied with a parallel: people went from the New Hebrides to New Zealand to study and later returned to teach in their home country. In the same way I had gone there to study and later to return to New Zealand to teach. But would anybody want to learn their customs, they asked. I tried to put across the idea of a university, as a big school where everything was taught, with a branch teaching customs from all over the world. It was this skul kaston (B) or "custom school" that had sent me there to study. Little did I know at the time that in coining this translation of the "anthropology department" I had linked two concepts that were radically opposed in the way the locals talked about the world. Naively I assumed that skul meant "school", but most schools in the New Hebrides were run by the churches, and the word skul had come to mean primarily "mission" or "Christianity" or even "cult" - the so-called Naked Cult was known locally as Zek's skul, I learned later on. Kaston on the other hand was the opposite and opponent of skul. It referred to the old "heathen" ways, gradually being replaced by Christianity. Inadvertently I had laid claim to being an emissary of a "heathen mission", a description rich in contradictions, but as such perhaps tickling the imagination of the inhabitants of this cult-ridden area. The discussion rarely went further, and I often heard Vohia use the words skul kaston in what to me was a stream of unintelligible discourse, as I lay back in the shadows inside houses we visited on our tours, listening to him presumably explaining why he'd brought this strange white man to visit.
1.5 The Ari valley
After nearly a month in the northern interior I was forced to reject it as a suitable area for my study. Only two languages had a sufficient number of speakers for my liking. One of these was Merei, the language spoken in the mission villages and their surroundings, but I wanted to get away from the mission influence and so it was unsuitable. The other was Tiale, spoken in the Puria and upper Peolape river valleys, but there the settlements were too small and scattered for my purposes. I decided to try my luck further south. Vohia took me across the Peolape and left me at Tonvara on the ridge separating the Peolape and Ari river valleys, after arranging for another man to take me across the Ari to Vorozenale. From the edge of the Tonvara village clearing I had my first view of the valley that was to be my home for some time to come, though at the time this matter was still not settled.
I liked what I saw. A lush, green valley, barely two kilometres across at the widest point, sloping gently down from the high pass in the mountains to the south-west, the valley floor rarely level but sliced into chunks separated by ravines and gorges, all centering on the Ari winding its way along the foothills of the mountain wall opposite me. Dominating the landscape was a large settlement by local standards: Duria, with eight houses loosely grouped around the inevitable red-ochre clearing, lifeless in the merciless late midday sunlight. Further away and to my left I could see a few single houses, scattered in the shade of a large grove of coconut trees on the far bank of the river. Spread sporadically over the valley floor and the hillsides were jagged garden plots, suggesting the presence of a fairly large population strung out along both sides of the valley. It looked promising from the point of view of my project; a possible area for me to live in for intensive study.
The following morning my new guide took me down the hill from Tonvara and across the valley, stopping for a meal in one of the houses at Duria. I found the climb up from the Ari to the top of the ridge on the south side of the valley very strenuous. By the time the track leveled out on the grassy slopes of Truvos I was dead tired. We walked through a Kuvutana empty of people and continued along the ridge to nearby Vorozenale, where I finally was able to rest my legs inside the only house with people at home as we arrived. Vorozenale had seven houses altogether. Together with Kuvutana it made up the largest settlement that I had seen in the Santo interior up until then, offering the best prospects so far in terms of easy access to informants. But I was out on a limb, having passed from Bud Jackson to Vohia, and then to my present guide who wasn't even from this settlement but lived close to Duria on the other side of the river. I had no idea of what Vohia had told my guide about my intentions; I didn't know anybody there and wondered how the villagers would react to my presence as they returned home at the end of the day.
As the day wore on the people started arriving, sitting down talking to my guide after first having shaken hands with me on entering the house. Some of them brought me food, a customary gesture, honouring a guest by feeding him. By evening the house was full of people, kava was being made and I had been put through my by then well-rehearsed explanation of my presence a number of times.
All of a sudden a man in his mid-thirties came into the house, sat down on a mat by a fire and asked me in what seemed to me to be an aggressive manner - he talked very fast - if we didn't have customs where I came from. I said yes and he asked why we didn't "write" them instead of those of Santo. In the dead silence that followed his question I thought that this was it, I was going to be thrown out of the village the next day. Keeping my surface calm I retorted that we had done this already, and, grabbing the bull by the horns, I suggested that he didn't like me coming to his village and, if so, he could say so straight out and I would continue on my way in the morning. At this he retreated, saying no, he was only asking, and repeated his question, the tension of a few moments earlier gradually dissipating as people around us starting moving again, having been frozen still during the peak of our abrupt confrontation. I felt as if I had won a major battle during that short exchange, though I couldn't say why or how at the time. We then launched into a long conversation, with others gradually joining in, touching on a number of themes and topics that were to become familiar during the course of my stay in the area. They laid at my feet all the pain, confusion and resentment of a people finding themselves reduced to a parish in their own back yard. As a European I was held answerable for the behaviour of white people on the island - for all the wrongs, injustices and racial discrimination following in the wake of colonisation.
You come here, they said, you eat for free, you sleep for free. This is our custom. But when you go to Canal everything costs money. We have go pay for food and for housing. Nothing is for free. But we have no money. If it rains you white men won't invite us inside for shelter. If you are having a meal, you won't invite us to join you. They call this "ravis fasin" (B): "bad manners".
They said they had to call white people masta (B), :"master" - a form of address I had consistently refused since arrival - but the masters were only masters because of their large plantations. They didn't work; only black people worked, and for only a little money, while the masters had lots of money and fine things. And it wasn't their land either. They'd stolen it - shot the owners or tricked them out of it for a little tobacco and matches.
They asked me if I had come long han blong Mol Patundun (B): "by Jimmy Stevens' hand" - most people called him Mol Patundun in the Santo interior. They had heard that I had come via Vanafo and thought I was involved with the Nagriamel movement. This they didn't want to have anything to do with. They said that Mol Patundun was only deceiving people. You had to pay one or two dollars per family member to join, for which you got Nagriamel badges for all of them. Those you should wear all the time for your own safety, as when merika, the American soldiers, returned to Santo in the near future they would shoot everybody who was not wearing a badge.
Mol Patundun had tricked them once before, they told me. He had traveled around selling rifles - collecting the money, the rifles to be delivered later. This was years ago, but they never got their rifles, nor did they get their money back.
They said Mol Patundun had a bank now, for people to put their money in. When there was enough money in the bank merika would come and the Nagriamel members would be "masters" and have their own stoa - stores or shops full of goods, like the ones at Canal. But it was all lies.
Another reason they were against Nagriamel was because it was associated with skul - there was a church house at Vanafo now. They didn't want skul in the mountains, as they wanted their children to remain on their land. Skul people all eventually moved down to the coast; they had seen this happen in the past. If it happened in their area then maybe some white men could come and steal their land.
Skul cost too much money, they told me. You had to buy clothes and give money to the teacher and pastor - they knew, as this was the case on the coast. That was all right for the people on the coast, as they had coconuts and could earn money by selling copra. But in the bush they had no way of making money; there was nothing they could sell, as they were too far away from the market at Canal. Except their labour - work on European plantations brought in about a dollar a day.
They also complained about the hypocrisy of the skul people on the coast, contrasting what they had heard of Christian doctrine with the behaviour of the believers. Nobody would feed them on the coast, and they had to sleep in the bush, like pigs. The skul people had taken fasin blong waitman (B): "taken the white man's ways". Worst were the people of Tangoa, a small island just off the South Coast where the Presbyterian Bible College is located. They called the local people man bus (B): "bush-men", said they were dirty and smelled, and ridiculed them because they wore loincloths rather than clothes. But loincloths were kaston blong mifala (B), my companions said: "our custom".
It went on for hours while I sat cross-legged on my mat in the shadows, surrounded by dark bodies, some of them only barely discernible in the faint light of a home-made kerosene lamp. I was fascinated, learning more about ethnic stratification and Nagriamel in one night than I had during my entire sojourn in the northern part of the mountains. At the same time I felt defensive, as they seemed to be challenging my right to be there under the circumstances being discussed. I explained to them that my link with Nagriamel was only incidental, that I was not a member of the movement and that I knew very little about it. I said I was not a "master" - in one way I was even worse off at home than they were, as I didn't even have any land to grow my food and build a house on like they did, but was doomed to buy food and pay rent. I told them that I was not a skul person like the ones that they had been describing, that I wasn't interested in Jesus, but that my schooling was concerned with kaston all over the world - the reason I had come to their village in the first place. In this way I rejected their attempts to fit me into categories of people that they held grudges against, disclaiming responsibility, hoping they would give the benefit of the doubt.
Towards the end of the evening the man who had started off on such an aggressive note asked me if I carried any medicine in pack, as he had a headache. Guessing after a few questions that he was suffering from the all-too-common mild attack of malaria I gave him Nivaquine. So it came about on my first night with the people of Truvos I more or less inadvertently sowed the seed that would eventually grow into a place for me in their community, as a healer of their sick; a source of western medicine in an area ridden with disease.
The following day I continued further south, guided by the man in whose house I had slept that night - he told me his name was Maliu. We crossed a ridge and descended into the Vailapa valley, passing through more villages, but I had already made up my mind. I had found my hard-nosed conservatives; I wanted to stay in Vorozenale if the people would let me. We turned around at the river and came back. As I offered to pay Maliu that night, like I had paid my guides in the past, he refused. No, he said, I was a guest in his house. Truly an astonishing difference from the attitude in the mission village Tombet, where some people had even quarreled over who was going to guide me, for the sake of the money.
1.6 Early days at Vorozenale
Though I had now found a place that seemed suitable for my study, I was not sure if I could stay. When I asked Maliu if he thought they could let me live there for a year or more, his reply was evasive, referring to his neighbours. Mi no save long olgeta (B): "I don't know about them".
I knew what he meant, especially after that inauspicious first evening in Vorozenale. In particular that one man who had so eloquently opposed me over the kava bowl didn't seem too keen on my presence in the area. But the way things worked out I needn't have worried.
Late in the afternoon on the day after my first night there, that same man came to see me about his youngest child, a two-year-old boy named Maritino. Emi sit wora (B): the man explained to me: "He shits water." Did I have any medicine against diarrhea?
I had in my pack a Tupperware container with medicines of various kinds that I had brought from New Zealand mainly with my own health in mind. After a month of handing out medicines in the bush my supplies were almost gone, but I found some Thalazole sulpha tablets left in a tin and counted them out to the man, with instructions on when to give them to his son.
He thanked me and disappeared off to his house in nearby Kuvutana, but reappeared only shortly after with some cooked taro and freshwater snails on a plate. These he gave to me. Not long after he also gave me a piece of taro pudding, and for the evening kava session a grapefruit and a delicious slice of pineapple. He commented that if this had been at my home I surely would have had to pay for the food, while according to their ways they put no price on hospitality. Kakae natin, slip natin. Kaston blong mifala (B): "Eat for free, sleep for free. Our custom."
I protested at this rather harsh, though understandable, interpretation of European custom, saying that even though I would have to pay for food in a restaurant, I would eat for free at another man's home. The white people on the coast were held up as a counter-example, and the discussion was under way again: Canal vs. the bush; money vs. hospitality; skul vs. kaston.
That night I was told that a feast was imminent at Vorozenale, and that I should stay for that. The man in the southernmost house in the settlement was giving a feast because a daughter of his had died some time ago - they did this for all their deceased.
So I remained at Vorozenale and joined the others in the preparations. A feast is called aniani in Kiai, meaning simply "food" or "eat", and the preparations all revolved around food. The day after our excursion to the Vailapa river I helped Maliu fill the rack in the back of the house with split firewood for the oven stones. The next day we carried taro to the village from a garden on the other side of the Zari. The day after that we all went down to the bank of the Ari close to Vunpati and killed a cow, carrying the meat back to Vorozenale on poles.
As the day wore on guests started arriving from all over the upper Ari valley and were fed on the wealth of food. In Maliu's house they made savisavi, a gigantic pudding, from peeled hot taro fresh out of the oven, pounded for a good hour on a wooden plate the size of a tractor wheel by men in shifts of six, wielding wooden pestles as tall as themselves. Lots of kava was prepared and consumed with gusto. Throughout the night the lamp was kept burning, and the men drank kava until dawn - in Maliu's house they seemed to be sleeping in shifts, drinking more when they woke up again. I too only slept intermittently as the men talked all through the night and kept breaking into song sporadically, the tune sometimes being picked up by someone else, or others singing along, seemingly spontaneously and without any set order.
Before noon the next day a pig was killed in front of the house of the sponsor. A group of men pinned it to the ground with their bodies, while another man stuck a knife in its heart. The pork made a huge pile together with the remains of yesterday's beef on a bed of Heliconia leaves in front of the centre post in the sponsor's house.
I missed most of the rest of the proceedings, as I had my first attack of malaria at noon that day. I took a dose of Chloroquine and tried to sleep in the midst of all the activity in Maliu's house, but failed. Instead I lay awake all day in pain.
Strangely enough I felt quite good the following day - a bit washed out, but still able to walk all the way to the South Coast. One of the guests, a young man named Lulu, had offered to take me to Canal and back to bring some of my equipment and replenish my supply of medicines which was running low. He came originally from Tonvara - the village where Vohia had left me less than a week back - but Lulu had joined a large -scale migration to the coast and skul only three years previously, settling at Namoro on the west bank of the Vailapa and planting coconuts there with a view towards easy money for copra in the future. The trip down to Namoro took us eight hours, downhill most of the way. Needless to say I was exhausted on arrival, in spite of the fact that we had been traveling light.
After five days on the coast during which we visited Canal as planned, we left again for Vorozenale, loaded with supplies. There was so much that Lulu had to recruit another two men at Namoro to help us carry it all - his elder brother Ravu Puepue, and Tavui Lotu from Vorozenale, both now resident at Namoro like Lulu. Apart from a small number of personal items, we had between us a four-gallon drum of kerosene; a suitcase full of tapes, books and paper; a rucksack loaded with medicine (generously provided by the British District Medical Officer, Dr John Mills) also containing plug tobacco, salt, matches and cloth for gifts; another rucksack with a tape recorder and tinned meat; and a sack of sundry items including a pressure lamp and a hurricane light - the latter intended for Maliu, as he had hinted via Lulu that he would like one.
The return journey took us two days. We slept one night at Zaraparo, overlooking the Vailapa close to the place where Maliu and I had turned back towards Vorozenale on our bushwalk ten days earlier. In the morning we somehow ended up on the wrong track, which involved us in an unnecessary descent into a gorge with a murderous three hundred metre climb up the other side at an unbelievably steep angle. I didn't think I would make it to Vorozenale in the end - we had to stop and rest every few minutes as my legs simply refused to carry me. But we finally got there, ending the day around the kava bowl in Maliu's house, recounting our experiences on the coast to the usual assembly of villagers.
I spent most of the next day on my back, recuperating after the exhausting journey. News had spread about the things that I had brought, and some of the local people brought bottles to be filled up with kerosene from my drum. Though I had intended to use the kerosene for my pressure-lamp and the nocturnal sessions noting down the events of the day as I had read that all good anthropologists did, I did not want to refuse their requests after the lecture on the stinginess of Europeans on the day of my arrival. I also handed out plug tobacco without discrimination, eager to show that I was different and hoping this would be taken as a token of my good intentions.
The reaction was not long in coming, though it was different from what I expected. I was absent from the village for the next four days, going with Maliu and a few others to a feast at the lower reaches of the Ari. At the evening kava-session on the day I returned, I again had to explain and defend my motives, this time to a local man who had arrived home from a journey while I was away, and had not yet met me. As before, I said i had been sent by skul kaston, to learn their language and customs. In support of my claim, I fetched out my cassette recorder - newly arrived from the coast with the rest of my equipment and supplies - intending to demonstrate its use as a language-learning tool. I put in a blank cassette, pressed the "record" button, and urged the man to say something. When I was satisfied that I had some speech on the tape, I played it back to the kava assembly. On hearing his own voice on tape my questioner suggested that it was olsem stil (B): "like theft". Bambae man i harem, i mas pem long yu? (B): Later when someone listens to it, he must pay you?" The implication was that I was there to make money, collecting things for later sale.
I was also questioned by the man who started on such an aggressive mode on my first night in Vorozenale - by now I knew his name was Lisa. Man ia emi gud tumas (B), he said: "This man is very good" - but why? Why was I giving away tobacco and kerosene without charging any payment for the goods? He wanted to know what I wanted in return, as longtaem finis ol waitman oli rabem mifala tumas (B); "in the past the white man robbed us a lot" - paying for gigantic plantations with stik mo mases nomo (B): "nothing but plug tobacco and matches". Bambae yu go long gavman yu talemaot mifala i no pem, gavman emi talem olsem wanem? (B) "When in the future you go to gavman (i.e. the British or French district agent in Canal) and say we didn't pay, what will gavman say?"
I told him it was no business of gavman. I only gave these things to them as they gave me food and helped me in my enquiries, suggesting it was fair exchange. He did not seem convinced.
I suspected at the time that Lisa was afraid of learning one day that their land was mine by rule of gavman, as I had "paid" for it, and they had accepted the "payment" - the gifts I had been handing out.
But people kept coming, also from neighbouring villages, with their empty bottles and their stik i finis? (B) "Is the plug tobacco finished?". I assumed word had got around that there was a crazy waitman at Vorozenale who gave things away for free, and they were eager to get their share of the goodies before I came to my senses.
Two days later Lisa announced a "rule", as he called it, at the now regular night-time kava gathering in Maliu`s house. Everybody coming for tobacco and kerosene had to bring me something - taro, sugarcane, bananas - and not accept anything from me without giving something in return.
Following that announcement I had an influx of food, which petered out with the kerosene - the drum lasted only five of my days in the village! Most of the food I received was eaten by visitors, and by the children who hung around me as I attempted to work on my notes during the days - watching me write, and trying to impress me as children do, or asking for plasters for minimal sores after carefully picking off the scab.
My guess about Lisa's fears was confirmed later, as we got to know each other better. He had indeed been worried that I was trying to trick them out of their land. Much later I heard a story that most likely had served as a model for that interpretation of my gifts. One of the largest plantations on the South Coast had been acquired through just such surreptitious purchase. A chief living close to the coast used to recruit labour for a planter, who paid him for his services with plug tobacco, the story went. Then one day this "master" had told him that his land was not forfeited. It now belonged to the planter, and the tobacco was the payment. According to the story the planter had "written" the tobacco on a piece of paper which he took to the gavman, who confirmed the "purchase". Lisa had of course seen me writing in my notebooks - no wonder he was worried.
Now that I know more about Santo transactions it is quite obvious that I was taken as buying something. Free gifts were only common between people who were close to each other in some respect - between kinsmen, neighbours or friends. They called this tuetueni: "helping", in Kiai, as opposed to volivoli: "buying", which was appropriate between more distant people - the purchaser usually initiating the transaction with the "payment" before asking for the thing he wanted, putting the other under obligation to reciprocate. They seemed to stick closely to these rules, even to the extent that when a man wanted to buy for example a pig for a feast, he had to travel to another valley to make his purchase. No neighbour would sell to him; it was strongly disapproved of and destructive of any close relationship. So in a way I was doing the right thing, being friendly the Santo way by giving things away for free, but it was perhaps a little abrupt as I was so obviously an outsider, which in its turn implied that I was "buying" something. Lisa's "rule" handled the discrepancy, as it turned my "helping" into "buying" - leaving no outstanding obligations - as befitted a stranger.
1.7 Disease and death
Though my clumsy "friendliness" with gifts no doubt had some effect in the local people's initially putting up with me - after all they were getting desirable goods on their non-monetary terms - I don't think this was the crucial factor in my eventually gaining acceptance in their community. Of overriding importance was medicine, and my activities as a reasonably successful healer.
This is perhaps best understood against the background of the severe decline in population in central Santo following the arrival of the Europeans. Though opinions vary about the size of the population during the early contact period (McArthur and Yaxley 1968: 17 - 18), it is clear that introduced firearms and diseases had drastically reduced their numbers. They described to me how the valley had been full of people in the past, pointing out numerous village sites that were now bush or gardens. All the inhabitants had died. Ever since contact they had been growing fewer and fewer in number. The various cults I had read about had all been aimed at reversing this trend, so that there would be fewer deaths and more survivors to "make the place grow" again, as they said.
Disease and death was not just a past issue. Even at Tombet they had talked about their newly imported cult - the mission - in these terms. In the past there had been a lot of sickness in the village, but now since skul had come there was none. In other villages there were only a few people, but in Tombet there were many, they said. If others did not want skul, this was their affair - eventually they would die out because of disease.
As it turned out I had arrived in Vorozenale just at the outset of a minor cough epidemic, slowly spreading inland from the coast and killing many children in its way. During that first month in Vorozenale I learned about no fewer than nine child deaths, four of which took place in our valley. There may well have been more - only the ones that people told me about would have come to my notice.
I heard about the first of these deaths when Lulu and I were on our way to the coast to fetch my equipment. We had covered about two thirds of the way to Namoro, the steep mountains of the central massif were well behind us, and we were following a gently sloping forested ridge on the east side of the Vailapa river. Suddenly Lulu stopped and motioned to me with his hand to be quiet. From somewhere on the next ridge to our left I could barely hear what sounded to me like singing: a strange, falling melody, repeated over and over again by many voices, but seemingly without coordination, which lent an eerie disharmony to the sound. Oli stap krai (B), whispered Lulu: "They are crying". Someone had died.
The next child death I heard about took place in Parisa, just across the Vailapa river from Namoro, also settled fairly recently from further inland. Lulu and I were on our way back to Namoro from Canal loaded with all my gear. The path took us through Parisa and we walked right into the burial feast. The child had died the day before, the interment was over, and there were lots of people present, eating and drinking kava. A cow had been killed to feed the mourners, and we were offered food. We stayed for a while, mingling with the kava crowd, many of whom I recognised from my night in Namoro three days previously.
We spent the following day in Namoro where I was continually pestered by sick people who had heard that I had medicine in my baggage. They seemed remarkably unhealthy. Half of my fresh supply of cough medicine disappeared in that one day. During that day a rumour reached us that still another child had died a bit further west along the coast.
A week later the repercussions of the coastal malady first started to make themselves felt in our mountain community. A Vunpati man, Pos Ee, brought his son to Kuvutana for treatment - both old man Popoi Trivu and his son Sulu had widespread reputations as expert healers. The boy had fallen ill during a recent visit to Namoro, and had been growing steadily worse ever since, until his father decided to take him to our specialists.
That night the discussion around the kava bowl in Maliu's house centered on sickness and deaths on the coast. It was bad that people should bring ailing children here from Namoro, as it meant carrying the diseases from the coast to the bush. They should not take their children to Namoro in the first place, as it was known to be an unhealthy place, they said.
Around ten o'clock we suddenly heard a rooster crow somewhere in the dark outside. Instantly the talking stopped, everybody listened attentively, while a few of my companions counted out aloud the number of cries: Mo ese...mo rua...mo tolu...mo vati...mo lima...limarave.... We all held still for another while, waiting for the seventh cry that never came. Nobody moved. Then the uncanny silence was broken by rapid discussion. Lisa told me that in six days' time someone would come, or someone would die. A rooster crowing at night was an omen - this one foretelling the death of Pos Ee's son.
In the morning I went to Kuvutana to see the child. Pos Ee carried him outside and stood him by the front entrance of Popoi`s house. The little boy was so weak that he could not stand up by himself and had to be supported by his father. He was really a sorry sight: four years old at the most, undernourished and grey with ashes from the "custom" treatment he had undergone - they put spells on leaves and heated them in a fire before pressing them against the body of the patient. The boy was feverish and his breath was a series of short, fast wheezes.
I gave Pos Ee a course of tetracycline for his son, helping him administer the first capsule. Then I gave him careful instructions in when the others should be given, stressing the importance of completing the course once it was started. But a few days later I learned that the course had been interrupted. Popoi thought his treatment and mine would "fight"; it was better to wait to see if the custom treatment was effective, and if not they would resort to the medicine I had provided. During those days I was often asked what "number" day it was. The villagers knew I had dates on my wristwatch and they were counting the days since the rooster had made its prediction.
The fowl turned out to be wrong - the boy lasted nearly two weeks before he died. But while he still clung to life in the gloom inside Popoi's house we got news that another child had died at Zaraparo, where I had spent the night during that exhausting trek back from the coast.
Finally his frail body gave in during the dark hours of night - Pos Ee's son was found dead one morning. As the sun rose in the sky that day I watched Lisa and Pos Ee silently file past Maliu's house with the body wrapped in a mat made into a package and slung from a pole between them. They crossed the Vorozenale village clearing and disappeared down the path to Vunpati, taking the boy on his final journey home. The next day Maliu and a few others went to mourn at the burial. I asked him if I could come along, but he thought it best I didn't, so I stayed behind.
We did not have to wait long for the cough to claim its next victim. It was after nightfall four days later and we were gathered around the kava bowl in Maliu's house as usual. Suddenly we heard someone shout Trabol! (B) "Trouble!" from the house just next to Maliu's. Moments later the sound of loud crying came through the wall. We all remained seated, talking in hushed voices until the wailing died down about an hour later.
The victim this time was the child of Krai Manuku from Moriulu - a once-flourishing settlement in the upper Vailapa basin, now reduced to only three houses after most of the inhabitants had moved down to Namoro. Again a child had been brought here to be treated by the Kuvutana healers, and again the medicine I had provided had not been used.
The crying resumed in the morning, taking on that chanting character that had halted me and Lulu in our tracks on the way to Namoro. The body was carried home to Moriulu later that day to be buried, but by then I had already left on my first healing expedition.
A man had come looking for Sulu, wanting to take him back to his village Ariau, about an hour's walk south of Vorozenale, where two of his children lay sick. On my suggestion they took me along - I had talked to Sulu and suggested that his and my healing technique would not "fight", but would reinforce each other, merging into something more powerful than each on its own. In the man's house in Ariau I found two timid little girls, both feverish and shaking with what I took to be acute malaria. I gave them anti-malarials and sat back watching Sulu at work.
He just squatted with a bunch of leaves held casually in his right hand, conversing freely with our host while occasionally spitting at the leaves - first two, then three, then three, then five times. Now I know that a healer supposedly runs through spells in his head and spits them out through his mouth - at the time it looked too simple to be of any significance. Next Sulu handed the leaves to the father, who held them in a fire for a short while before stroking one of his daughter all over her shivering body with the now withered foliage. The same procedure was repeated for the other girl, with a fresh bunch of leaves. Then the man offered us food, and later kava.
We spent the night in Ariau and proceeded to nearby Zaraitaviri the next morning, on another sick call. Then back to Ariau, where our host fed us on savisavi pudding, pleased that his daughters had not had another attack of fever that day. Sulu repeated his performance with the leaves, and after still another night at Ariau we returned home, a cooked taro each in our hands, and Sulu with an Australian dollar bill carefully folded up inside his box of matches.
As we arrived we found out that Pos Ee's infant daughter had died at Vunpati, leaving him childless. We also found more visitors. Piloi, the father of the child that had died at Parisa, had brought his only remaining offspring to Kuvutana for treatment - another infant, just two months old. Piloi was another Vorozenale man who had resettled on the coast, I was told. Popoi Trivu was his father's brother. The coastal resources had not cured his other child; now he set his hopes to the strength of the magic of his old home.
The next day I followed the villagers to Vunpati to kill a cow for the customary feast on the tenth day after a death - the death of Pos Ee's son. Inside his house at Vunpati I saw the graves: two clearly noticeable mounds, one extending from the centre post into the front part of the house - his son - and another, smaller, just inside the front door to the right - his infant daughter. The graves did not appear to be treated with any reverence; the mound in front of the centre post was conveniently used to put things on during the feast - plates of food and so on.
After two days and nights of feasting at Vunpati we returned again to Vorozenale, only to learn that Piloi's infant had died while we were away, leaving him childless like Pos Ee. They had buried the child in Lisa's house in Kuvutana the day before we came back. We were also told of a death at Zaraitaviri, and another infant was coughing badly - Maitui had brought his daughter from nearby Palakori to his brother-in-law Usa Pon at Vorozenale for treatment.
This time I thought things had gone too far. I determined not to let this little girl die like the others, so instead of giving medicine to her father I administered it personally, four times a day - morning, midday, evening and midnight. The tetracycline capsules contained too heavy a dose for her tiny body, so I had to break each capsule open, divide the contents and feed her only half at a time, mixed with water in a spoon. I doggedly kept at it for five days, ignoring the mortuary feast at Moriulu for Krai Manuku's child in favour of staying home and looking after the girl, watching her get better each day, until she was completely cured.
I think this was a breakthrough as far as my becoming accepted into the community was concerned. I had proven that I had something to contribute: my therapy worked where theirs failed; this was enough. As a healer I was an asset to everybody, and whatever else I did while I lived there was of minor importance, as long as I kept them and their children alive and in good health. And even though I do not believe they ever understood exactly why I wanted to live with them and learn their language and way of life, from then on none of them questioned my motives again. I finally seemed to have won their trust.
1.8 Making friends
Another factor of importance in my gaining acceptance at Truvos was my relationship with Lisa, who, as I had suspected turned out to be a man of more than average importance and influence.
The day after our initial confrontation I had given him medicine for his son Maritino. The following day he brought home taro from his gardens and fired the oven stones. In the evening he fetched me to Kuvutana where he presented me with a meal inside one of the houses: taro pudding with tinned meat and coconut milk, then hot taro with prawns and fish from the river. He served it all with flair, standing back and watching me eat and not starting a course himself before I had finished it. After the meal he chewed some kava and we both drank. Long ples ia yu kakae gud (B): "Here you eat well", he told me. Otherwise I would talk about them not feeding me well, after I left. Not feeding a visitor well would reflect badly on their reputation.
We finished the dish of kava and my host escorted me back up the path to Vorozenale, after first giving me a giant freshly cooked taro to take home. On the way across the grassy hill separating the two hamlets he told me his name was Lisa. Surprised at the coincidence I told him I had a daughter in New Zealand with the same name. He looked at me and laughed: Olsem yumitu fren! (B): "As if we two were friends!".
At the time his comment sounded mysterious - I had yet to learn about the "shoots" and "shells" naming practice, described below. In retrospect it seems noteworthy, as we did indeed become friends, gradually constructing our friendship out of mutual gifts and services, in true Melanesian fashion. I gave Lisa the last of my plug tobacco, a tin of pork and a piece of cloth for his wife in which to carry their infant daughter, born shortly after my arrival in Truvos. Lisa in turn gave me a locally made sleeping mat to use instead of the flimsy straw mat I had brought in a Chinese store at Canal.
Maritino got better and Lisa started taking me with him on his daytime excursions. We went to his in-laws at Vunpati to cut sago leaves for thatch for a new house that Lisa was about to build - his old one had been severely damaged by fire not long before I arrived, when his wife Vekrai fired the oven stones in the back of the house and the flames got out of control. I spent the day at Kuvutana joining a working bee preparing thatch for his house - a slow and tedious job, folding pairs of sago leaves over a bamboo strut and fastening them to each other in partial overlap with needle-thin sticks.
One evening at kava Lisa more or less spontaneously started teaching me Kiai. The night before, I had managed to elicit some Kiai vocabulary from Pos Ee, who was visiting from Vunpati. I had put it all on tape and now the kava gathering wanted to listen to the recording. As I played it back to them they laughed and said gyaman (B): "wrong", at many of my informant's Kiai translations of my Bislama. They told me he didn't speak proper Kiai - his dialect was different from theirs, and I would have to turn to them to get things right from the start. Lisa then went on to tell me the names of: things inside the house, birds, water creatures, animals, garden produce; plus some verbs for common actions, the Kiai numerals and words for "yes" and "no" - about one hundred words in all. He patiently repeated each item as I struggled to copy them down phonetically in one of my notebooks.
From then on Lisa often helped me with the language, sometimes on his initiative, sometimes on mine. And when I fixed a rate of pay for informants in order to encourage more people to spend time with me teaching me Kiai and answering questions, Lisa didn't want any money. "Pay the others, but not me", he said one day after spending a long time with me over his genealogy and Kiai kinship terms, refusing the dollar I had offered him. Yumitu fren, mi givim mata long yu, yu givem kakai, meresin long mi, yu givhan long mi long pem daeva. (B): "We two are friends, I give you a mat, you give me food and medicine, you help me buy diving glasses." The last bit I hadn't done yet, but he had asked me to. Now I felt committed.
It may seem strange that Lisa and I should become friends, as he didn't like white people coming to his village - witness the reception he gave me on the day of my arrival. In 1967 he had sent a government census team away from Kuvutana, saying that he couldn't go and count white people in their homes so why should they come to his home and count his people? The government team returned with police and Lisa only narrowly escaped prison. His comment, reeking of anarchy: Takun mo pos la zarana, takun mo pos la zarana. Komeu kome pos la zarameu. Na kai malena kome somai evekonau la zaramau! "Each and every man is master of his own place. You are masters of your place. I don't like you coming counting us on our place!"
Though Lisa held many grudges against Europeans owing to their stinginess, petty racism, land-grabbing and low wages, he explained to me that the root of his antipathy was that gavman had killed Avuavu. Avuavu was the prophet arrested by the British in 1937, because of rumours that a white man was to be killed in order to resurrect the dead. He had died in prison, allegedly of dysentery, but the local story was that he had been poisoned by the police, on order of gavman. This was inexcusable; gavman had forbidden the taking of human life but had broken the rule himself. Nowadays bush people took their disputes to the French authorities only, despising the British for arresting and, as they saw it, murdering an innocent man.
They held no grudges against the authorities for the arrest and execution of Ronovuro and some of his henchmen after the killing of Clapcott in 1923. Ronovuru had made trouble; gavman's response was fair. But Avuavu had done nothing wrong - he was a peace leader, still held in great esteem by the mountain people. He had instigated a number of reforms, all aimed at putting an end to rivalry and feuding - the main cause of death and depopulation in the area, as he saw it. But like many a social reformer before him he trod on the toes of the privileged and powerful, who in familiar style used the police to get rid of him.
It was Avuavu's attempt to stop the mele pig festivals that became his downfall. They were an integral part of the "graded society", an institution then found all over the Northern and North-Central New Hebrides (Layard 1942:687 ff). It consisted of a ranked series of Masonic-like grades, with accession based on the accumulation and killing of set numbers of pigs - up to as many as three hundred at a time in central Santo. The members of each grade ate food cooked on separate fires, taboo to all others, and the men who reached the highest grade were titled mol and were the leaders of the community.
The local people explained tome that the mele was a fairly recent institution, imported to Santo from other areas after the coming of the Europeans. The demand for large numbers of beasts led people to ask for pigs in bride price, which made marriage more complicated - before the mele became popular a gift of food was enough to secure a bride, they said.
All this required a large number of pigs. Avuavu saw this as a major cause of strife in the area: someone's pig getting into someone else's garden and damaging the crops, or an irate gardener killing his neighbour's ravaging tusker. Without the grades and the mele festivals there would be no need for large numbers of pigs anymore. Bride prices could be phased out again - Avuavu set a limit of three pigs at the most to be paid for a bride. And he told the people to abandon the mele.
A lot of them agreed - I imagine a shrinking population having to repeatedly provide a fixed number of pigs found each mele more and more of a burden. Not all of them were pleased though: some of the old men who were already mol saw their power and privilege threatened and decided to do something about it. They went to the British authorities and told them Avuavu was instigating the killing of a white man, as Ronovuro had done fourteen years previously. Police were then sent into the bush and Avuavu was arrested and taken to prison, never to return. But the people still stood by the words of their martyred hero. The mele had not been performed again in the Santo mountains, bride prices came down, and the peace movement was still very much alive today, supported by quotes from Avuavu whenever appropriate. And the role of gavman in the incident was neither forgotten nor forgive
1.10 Big man
In spite of these attitudes Lisa and I became friends. A cynic may read this as nothing but self-interest on his part: an obvious way for him to gain easy access to my apparent wealth for his own purposes. Whatever the case, I didn't see it that way at the time - indeed Lisa seemed less interested in getting his hands on my possessions than many of his neighbours. But it soon became clear to me that he was something of a leader - a budding "big man", well versed in the arts of social manipulation, skilled at turning every situation to his own advantage.
I had begun to suspect this already on the night of my arrival at Vorozenale, as Lisa so eloquently took the floor to size up their strange visitor. The day after he proclaimed his rule making counter gifts to me obligatory, I wrote in my notebook that "... Lisa often seems to act as leader /spokesman". But it was not until the day we demolished his old house to build the new one that I saw him put on a full display of his rhetorical skills.
Kuvutana was transformed: everywhere there were signs of activity. Lisa's old house was a shambles, all of the reusable building materials stripped off it, leaving only the blackened remains of those beams and rafters too damaged by fire to be of any use in the new construction. It barely resembled a house anymore. The remainder lay in front of the ruins, sorted into neat piles as Lisa and his helpers systematically demolished the house that morning.
Further in front, taking up part of the large central clearing, were the beginnings of the new dwelling. A shallow ditch surrounded a low ridge of clay, forming an almost square outline of the house. A few of the house posts had been set deep into the red clay, the short ones closest to the path from Vorozenale already supporting a longitudinal beam, all these things together barely suggesting the future shape of Lisa's new home.
Surrounding the new house-site were more building materials. Two long and sturdy beams lay close to the posts that were soon to support them. We had jointly dragged them up to the village from the bush-clad slope down towards the Ari early that morning, most of the men and boys of the two hamlets taking part, all of us chanting in unison a powerful charm to make the logs lighter. Dazzling near-white freshly cut and barked rafters stood in bunches leaning against trees on the fringe of the clearing, brought to the village during the last few hectic days of preparation. A pile of new sago thatch lay ready to be lashed to the wooden framework, once it was completed.
In the midst of all this were the builders: all the men of Kuvutana and Vorozenale, Lisa's in-laws from Vunpati, plus a couple of people from the other side of the river who had come to me for medicine and had stayed on to help. Leaning against a few pieces already in their place, standing or squatting among the posts and beams lying around the work-site, they were watching Usa Pon haul clay out of the post hole with a long piece of bamboo, ready to lift the centre post into position once the hole reached the right depth.
While the men had been busy pulling down one house and starting to erect the other, the Kuvutana women had devoted their time to preparing a festive meal. They had grated yam, wrapped the mash in leaves and cooked it on hot stones. They had shredded the white flesh of dry coconuts from the grove next to Lisa's garden house at Miremire, for coconut milk. Three fowls had been killed, plucked and cooked. Now, as the sun approached the zenith, they were bringing all the food out of Popoi's and Sulu's houses on to the central clearing and arranging it there on huge wooden plates and giant Heliconia leaves, placed in a line across the baked clay from Popoi's house towards today's worksite.
I picked up my camera and wandered over to where the food was being put in order. I knew what was to happen - Linsus, Lisa's father-in-law, had told me beforehand. Two people lay buried in Lisa's old house: Lisa's daughter, who had been killed by a falling tree during an earthquake some years ago, and Piloi's infant child, there for less than two months as yet. Now that the house was being pulled down there was to be a natu i aniani, a "small feast" honouring their memory.
I watched and took photos of the preparations. Eilili was cutting the fowl into pieces, one piece for each person present. Lisa and Mol Paroparo squatted with their hands in enamel bowls, working the sweet, creamy fluid out of the shredded coconut flesh, then grabbing both hands full of the soggy substance and squeezing them hard together, drenching the yam pudding, pieces of chicken and tinned mackerel on the leaves and plates with white coconut milk.
When all was ready Lisa called everybody to come and eat. As they crowded around to sample the delicacies, he told me one of the fowls was for me. It was still in one piece, sitting on a separate leaf, surrounded by pieces of yam pudding and soaked in lovely coconut milk. He loudly declared that he had killed this fowl for me as I was helping them and giving them medicine. I had been there a long time, he said, but no one had yet killed a fowl for me. Now he had done so. Kakai! "Eat!" he urged me. Kakae leg blong em! Sipos yu finis em, kakae wan leg bakegen! Ples ia i no Malekula! I Santo yet! "Eat a leg! If you finish it, eat another leg! This place isn't Malekula! It is still Santo!"
As his voice gradually rose and he turned towards the rest of the gathering it occurred to me that this was not merely a transaction between me and him. It was as if he was repaying me on everybody's behalf - now they owed him one. This was never explicit, but somehow he seemed to be putting everybody down by sheer innuendo, a forceful mixture of pride and annoyance in his rapid delivery - impressive, though looking slightly incongruous to me in his loincloth and my socks and track shoes, borrowed for the day owing to a cut on his foot.
The Malekula reference was directed at my Vorozenale host Maliu Kalus - or so it seemed to me. It too concerned hospitality and exchange. On our last visit to Canal we had stayed with Maliu's Malekulan brother-in-law, who worked as a cook at the Ecole Communale and had bought a small plot of land on the outskirts of town. After we left he sent word that he wanted me to pay him two dollars for accommodation. This was regarded by some of the local people as outrageous, as I had provided food not only for our company but also for our host and his family during our week in town: a sack of rice and large amounts of meat, tinned food, bread, and so on. Again Lisa seemed to be deliberately contrasting his own generosity with the acquisitive behaviour of others. The message was implicit, but nevertheless seemed quite transparent to me: I am better than all of you!
I was taken completely by surprise and felt a bit embarrassed. The food was delicious, but I was reluctant to eat a whole chicken in the face of all the others who only got a small piece each. I hadn't yet learned the proper way under the circumstances: to eat a little by yourself and then invite others to join you. Instead I ended up eating the two legs on my own - for once I didn't have to zimzim to make the meat last. Then I declared myself satisfied and withdrew to a less prominent position in the munching crowd. The encounter had given me a new kind of respect for Lisa. He knew what he was doing, all right.
Gradually I pieced Lisa's background together. He was born around 1940 in the old settlement at Truvos proper, only a stone's throw further along the ridge from Kuvutana. His father, Popoi Trivu, was a local man - like his father before him born and raised in more or less the same place, and a full-fledged member of the community. His mother Vepei came from Tonvara on the other side of the valley - Popoi Trivu had paid a rifle to the legendary Tonvara witch Mol Sahau for the right to take her home with him to live at Truvos. Lisa was their first-born.
He grew up in times of change. The movement known as the Naked Cult swept the mountains with its peculiar practices and promise of the millennium during his boyhood. He wouldn't talk to me about it though, always seeming to evade the topic by saying that he was only a child at the time and disclaiming all knowledge on that basis.
I can accept Lisa's being too young at the time to have understood the changes in lifestyle in the more elaborate terms of his parents and the people of their generation. They spoke about a return to the mythical customs of a past golden age of peace and simplicity, aimed at putting an end to sickness and death. They envisaged the return of the ancestors in the shape of merika - American troops -to instigate a new order, where black people would finally gain their rightful access to the multitude of goods jealously expropriated and hoarded by the white people on the coast. It may all have seemed to Lisa as just another of the complicated things that grown-ups talked about.
But I cannot see how he could have failed to notice the more practical aspects of Zek's programme, as told to me by others. Living without material possessions, they ate and drank straight off the dirt floor in the houses. Without livestock and forbidden to kill, they lived almost exclusively on taro and leaves. Naked and with sexual taboos suspended they made love promiscuously and in public.
Perhaps it was a painful memory to Lisa, best laid to rest in spite of inquisitive strangers: to see adult members of the community change their lifestyle in pursuit of peace, prosperity and immortality, only to look like fools a few years later, reverting to their old way of life with nothing gained, the laughing stock of their Christian rivals on the coast.
The Naked Cult died with its leader, Zek, and all over the mountains people returned to their old ways, also resuming work on coastal plantations, to get money to replace the bottles, lanterns, cloth, knives, pots and firearms that had been smashed, burned or thrown in the rivers. But not for long - less than two years had passed a new boycott was engineered by a chief from the Navaka valley in the western part of the mountains.
Two labourers had been beaten to death by a planter at Big Bay in a quarrel over a wild pig caught on land the latter claimed as his. Seeking strength in unity the chief, Mol Valivu, toured the bush with the traditional peace symbol - the rau mele, a cycad frond - organising backing for his cause. No one was to look for work on the coast anymore. If a planter wanted labourers, he would have to ask for them through local chiefs - and pay them higher wages too.
The people of Truvos declared their support, tabooed their track leading to the South Coast, and none of them went to work there until the blockade was called off - except Lisa. Fresh into his teens, perhaps fed up with the schemes of leaders and reformists, and looking for adventure, he traveled via an area further east where people had rejected the boycott, to work for three weeks for a French planter close to Canal.
A few years later, after the ban had been lifted, Lisa did another stint as a labourer on the coast, though not for a very lengthy period. Most young men from the area work for some years before they get married, but Lisa only worked for several months - just long enough to earn money to buy himself a shotgun.
Firearms were highly valued pieces of equipment, not just as tools for hunting birds and flying foxes, but also as protection against witchcraft. If you kill a roaming witch in animal form his human body will die - the only sure way to rid yourself of witches. Many is the time I have seen someone grab the aging musket from its resting place at the bottom of my medicine cupboard in Lisa's house and steal outside, after hearing the hush of the night pierced by the nearby scream of an owl - the favourite animal shape of a hunting witch.
A firearm was also something of a status symbol in central Santo. They were particularly rare in the fifties - the old ones had been destroyed during the Naked Cult - and were lent as a favour to others, much like steel knives in the olden days, before everybody had one.
The shotgun nearly became Lisa's undoing. Once, having brought it to a feast further down valley in the hope of shooting a bird for his hosts on the way there, he left a live cartridge in the bore and forgot about it, placing the firearm in a corner inside one of the houses. Later, as he was about to leave, he grabbed it by the barrel and pulled it towards him. The trigger snagged on something, the gun went off, and Lisa caught the blast in his forearm. Some friends helped him to the hospital at Canal, where they stitched his arm together again, leaving Lisa with a network of scars, impaired function of his thumb, and perhaps also a newfound respect for western medicine.
By the end of the fifties Lisa was old enough to marry, but there were complications. Bride prices had been abandoned during the Naked Cult and had not been reinstated. Instead Mol Valivu had advocated marriage by exchange. Fathers should simply swap daughters to give as wives to their respective sons, each woman "replacing" (zeni) the other. Poe mo sanavulu mo vanu, poe mo sanavulu mo somai: "Ten pigs going, ten pigs coming", to quote the local idiom - only, the pigs were left out of the deal, and with them the harrowing disputes over damaged gardens. The aim was the same as Avuavu's in the past: to simplify marriages and put and end to the strife and bad feelings seen to lie behind a lot of disease and death in the area. But, as is often the case with social reform, this one backfired. It may have solved one problem, but it certainly also created a new one: men who, like Popoi Trivu, had no surviving daughters were left without a simple way to obtain wives for their sons.
Lisa was not long in finding a solution. He had taken a liking to Vekrai Lintui, a Vunpati woman who lived there with her father. First she had been married to a man in the Tazia valley. He had given her two children: one survived only for a few months; the other for less than ten days. Then her husband died. One of his "brothers" was to be her new spouse, but only a few days after that marriage she had returned home to her father at Vunpati, and refused to go back to Tazia.
Lisa now took matters in his own hands. Na vanania, he explained to me: "I fed her". He had bought some mau, a love charm, from a man down in Big Bay. This he later managed to smuggle into her food.
The magic worked. Vekrai promptly fell for him and they simply eloped together, bypassing the complicated exchange negotiations and presenting their elders with a fait accompli.
In order to save the situation Popoi's younger brother Trivu Ru stepped in. He had more daughters than sons living with him at Matanzari. One of them, Pusa, was sent to Vunpati as a replacement for Vekrai and a wife for her oldest brother, Krai Tamata.
The matter now closed, Lisa and Vekrai settled down to married life at Kuvutana. I know little detail about this period of Lisa's life, but I imagine that it was much the same as that of any newly married man in the area. He now had in-laws, to be dealt with in the same spirit of cooperation and mutual assistance that reigned between the members of his home community. In particular, he had to garden regularly for Vekrai's parents at Vunpati - a customary burden carried by all married men in central Santo for as long as their parents-in-law remain alive.
Also a lot of his time at home was taken up by gardening. Ripe taro doesn't last for long; the only way to ensure an unbroken supply is by continuous planting, and with the advent of children there was an increasing number of mouths to feed.
With marriage also came recognition as an adult, and full participation in the affairs of men, debating whatever issues presented themselves around the kava bowl in the evenings and at feasts. As the oldest of the Kuvutana brothers and with his aging father slowly going blind, Lisa would have to represent their interests in the wider community more and more often as time went by. He must have distinguished himself in public affairs as, when the illustrious old chief of Truvos, Mol Santo, died at Vorozenale and was succeeded by his stepson, Mol Paroparo, Lisa was made a pos - a representative supposed to do much of a chief's debating for him, and to assist with settling disputes and keeping the peace.
There were still another few years before my arrival on the scene. In that time Lisa had acquired a reputation as an important man at Truvos. He had earned for himself the honorific Pos Zuzuru, bestowed on men who excelled at oratory, and was known to be kilan: "hard". Having Lisa as an ally at Truvos may well have settled the question of my long-term residence there in my favour. If he accepted my presence, the others would not object.
1.12 Living at Truvos
So I stayed at Truvos, living with the people there for sixteen months in all, split into four periods with visits back to New Zealand in between. The first period I stayed in Maliu Kalus' house at Vorozenale, but the rest of the time I lived with Lisa and his family in their new house at Kuvutana.
My living arrangements were simple. Like the rest of them I had a mat by a fire to sleep on. I had a bamboo cupboard just inside the door where I kept my medicines, and two small metal suitcases for my writing materials, tapes, camera and other equipment.
There was no privacy at all to be had indoors. The walls shielded us from the eyes of those outside, but inside we were completely each other. There were no barriers or partitions in the house - even the invisible line restricting women to the rear and men to the front of the one big room disappeared when there were just us residents there. If I wanted to work undisturbed, I had to commute to empty garden houses or secret clearings in the bush. When I tried to do my writing in the settlement during the days, while the local people were away tending their gardens, I usually ended up playing host to passers-through, or attending to the ailments of people from neighbouring areas who had come looking for medicine.
My diet was essentially the same as my hosts'. They grew the food in swidden clearings on the mountain sides, the gardens being left to revert to fallow after a year of cropping. The staple was taro, supplemented with yam when in season, and small amounts of sweet potato, plantain, manioc and Xanthosoma. This was eaten preferably with fish, eels, crabs or prawns from the river; bats, birds, eggs, rats or grubs from the forest; or poultry, beef or pork raised locally, but slaughtered only on rare occasions. There were also wild pigs and cattle to hunt in the flatlands further north between the mountains and Big Bay, but that required a special expedition. A lot of time we were restricted to eating the tubers with garden vegetables, as the frequent wet weather often made fishing and hunting impossible. Only when domestic beasts were killed at feasts was there a good supply of meat. The rest of the time it was scarce.
In addition to the above there were various tropical nuts and fruits to eat when in season, gathered from wild and planted trees growing all over the area.
This may sound like a rich and varied diet, but I found it hard to adjust to. It contained much more starch and less meat and raw greens than I was used to. Most frequently a meal consisted merely of cold taro and boiled leaves.
Still, there was no easy way for me to supplement this with for example, tinned food from the coast. To eat something in front of other people without sharing the food my hosts considered grossly impolite, so I would have had to bring enough for everybody, which was not practical.
I did manage to keep a small supply of tinned mackerel, hidden on top of my medicine cupboard, but only by giving a tin each to every household in Kuvutana, Vorozenale, Matanzari and Palakori whenever I brought new stocks from the coast.- much as they distributed meat to all their mera i zara mo ese: "people of one place", when they had a lot. But apart from two tins that I "stole" from my own stores and ate clandestinely - once when I was alone in the house at night and another time hiding in the bush - I rarely got more than a finger size piece out of each tin opened. Mostly I used them on occasions that demanded a gift of food, or else to feed visitors in times of shortage.
Local produce came into my hands in a number of ways. I received a normal adult share whenever food was distributed in the locality. When an oven was fired in one of the Kuvutana houses, some of the taro cooked was given to each of the other households. Meat obtained by anybody at Truvos was shared out among all the households in the four hamlets, if there was enough. If there was only a little it was distributed within the hamlet only.
In addition to this I often received susu tana food gifts from people who came to me for medicine from all over the neighbourhood, or food to take home after visiting other settlements to treat sick people. These gifts I distributed as appropriate: within Kuvutana only, or to all the people at Truvos, depending on the amount.
But in Lisa's house we shared all food, whether brought from his and Vekrai's gardens, or obtained from others. Not once did I need to buy food in the mountains. There was always some available, and to pay for it was incompatible with the relations of mutual help and sharing prescribed and predominant between close neighbours.
Living on local food meant that I laid myself open to the bacteria and parasites that accounted for all my medical work, only I was more vulnerable than the local people, not having the partial immunity that comes with long exposure. When I returned to New Zealand after my initial six and a half months on Santo, I was weak and emaciated from being ill. It was four months before my physician would let me go back there again, first having diagnosed and treated me for malaria, amoebic dysentery, hookworm and other worms, scabies, assorted skin fungi, and a few sores that proved reluctant to heal.
Unfortunately this set a pattern also for my remaining visits to the island. My diary can speak for itself. The excerpt is from the tenth of June 1975, eleven weeks into my second field trip.
Medical Report:- 10 days ago I developed a blister on my upper lip, and about the same time my mouth got tender inside, as if burned by hot drink. This lasted until today; the blister (which rapidly turned into a sore) is now almost completely healed, and my mouth only slightly tender.
For the last three days (since 7.6) I have had semi-diarrhoea like I had in NZ.
I also have red spots under my arms (armpits)- started in left armpit almost 3 weeks ago, appeared in right armpit about a week ago, possibly now also at scrotum. It has spread from my left armpit on to lower side of upper left arm. Spots turn into small sores, and remain.
I have been coughing a little and had a runny nose for almost two weeks - as I arrived back from the velu ("feast with dancing") it started getting really bad and I started Penbritin cure before yesterday, in the evening. I keep coughing up green mucus now, and have a pulse between 80-95.
I also suspect I have (still another round of) scabies, as I keep scratching what look like insect bites - but no biting insects around.
On top of this I have circa 10 days back a boil on my bum. It broke during the velu, and I put a plaster on it, but I don't really know its condition as it is awkwardly located. It hasn't healed yet, though.
I also have 4-5 smaller and larger cuts on each of my feet, acquired on my way to and from, and during, the velu. They keep me from longer excursions than to the latrine.
The initial response to my living according to local ways was interesting. I only found out about it much later. Not long after I first settled at Vorozenale, a rumour swept the bush that I was Maliu Kalus' dead father, Tavui Alo, reborn as a European and come back to Santo to live with my son.
It was the old familiar "cargo cult" theme, part of their mixed bag of old and new traditions since the days of Ronovuro, the prophet who was executed after the killing of Clapcott. He had taught that the ancestors were reincarnated as white men in merika, I was told, and they would return to Santo to share their wealth with their poor descendants.
Now, I was a white man, and I did things that they said no other white man would do. Other Europeans who had come through the area would not eat taro. They would not even eat with the local people, taking their meals separately without sharing any of the delicious-looking rice and tinned meat. Neither would they sleep in the local houses. They brought tents instead that were nice and clean inside, retaining even when asleep the segregation between "master" and "boy". I on the other hand slept and ate together with them. I even wore the sapsapele, the loincloth so much ridiculed by the Christians on the coast. And I gave things to them for free - highly unusual for a European - being particularly generous to my host Maliu Kalus. It was strange behaviour for a white man, but made perfect sense if indeed I were Tavui Alo returned from the land of the dead.
1.13 Resistance to enquiry
Though their reaction to my living like one of them was positive, I found that most of my attempts at systematic enquiry were met by the people with passive resistance. Maybe it was just that they were too busy with their own lives to have much time for an inquisitive and rather stupid foreigner. Maybe they were reluctant to let me know too much about themselves, not knowing how the information would be used, or not wanting it written down. In their world knowledge gave power over the known, and often rendered it powerless - a magical notion where influence depended on secrecy and waned with disclosure.
In any case this made gathering information about their affairs often seem like a continual uphill struggle, compounding my difficulties into the occasional bout of fieldwork blues. A diary entry from the twentieth of August 1975 tells the story:
It is now nearly 2 pm and I've finally brought myself to sit down and uliuli ("write") again. My stomach has been slightly better the last few days, but I have a cold/bronchitis/tonsillitis (?) coming on. Hitting it ferociously with quadrupled doses of vitamin C every morning for the last three days - the future will see who wins that battle, me or the bacteria.
I'm fed up and I want to go home. I'm not sure that "depressed" would describe my state of mind correctly - I'm just fed everything. With screaming kids, with taro urese ("gone bad", usually from being left in the ground for too long; it becomes gelatinous and unpleasant to eat) and no pi ("meat", or whatever is eaten with taro), with Eilili speaking Bislama to me, with a backlog of notes, with blisters and small sores on my prick and balls, with rain and slippery tracks, with the medicine business, with not understanding Tohsiki, with myself for not being forward about data gathering, but rather doing the "culturally appropriate" thing (to the best of my ability) at most times.
I've been searching for an excuse to flee Kuvutana and go to Canal again for most of last week. I'm dying for letters, esp. a letter from Jeune, and was extremely disappointed yesterday when kai Lahoi ("the Lahois", i.e. Lahoi and his family) returned from Namoro without letters - people had been going to Canal, but only to the stores, nobody had bothered to go to the P.O. This pissed me off.
Whenever (or at least sometimes) when I try to pry into something, people seem to act negatively, and though they are very friendly and helpful when it comes to me living here, it seems as if they prefer to restrict my data gathering to just that.
E.g. Usa Pon one day (only a few days ago) told me the names of their months; he must be the only person who knows them at this time. When I suggested that he'd repeat them some day so I could write them down, he asked Why? Te nomeu tauae ("You have yours") (!).
(I guess I am depressed after all.)
I am fairly certain that there was a conspiracy to keep me in ignorance about the cults, particularly the Naked Cult. On the day I first arrived in Vorozenale, they had asked me why Guiart had asked so many questions about bisnes blong Zek (B): "Zek's business", i.e. the Naked Cult. Why did white men want to know about those things?
From then on they never talked about Zek's cult in my presence, and they skillfully avoided my questions whenever I tried to bring it up. Matters were not helped by a French anthropologist’s visiting Kuvutana during one of my trips back to New Zealand, asking questions about that very topic, as they told me when I returned.
What I learned about the cult I learned from outsiders, particularly from the people resettled at Namoro. My suspicions about the conspiracy stem from one occasion when Zek's cult had been the main topic around the kava bowl on one of my stopovers there, on the way to or from the bush. Afterwards Krai Tamata from Vunpati said to me, pointedly: "They never talk to you about that up there at Truvos, do they?", or something to that effect - I cannot recall the exact words.
Again, perhaps this seeming resistance to systematic enquiry was partly a feature of their own knowledge, and the way they normally used to think and talk about things. They never seemed to mind answering questions about whatever subject was at hand at the time, explaining to me some practical task they were engaged in, or filling me in on the background to some issue being discussed at a kava-session. They taught me things when they were relevant to what was happening: warnings, admonishments, correcting my mistakes, and so on - much as they taught their own children. It was when I asked questions out of context, or questions that were not tied to a particular person or situation, that I got only cursory answers. It was as if they did not know their own way of life - or, better, did not know it as a "way" of life, but rather as this life; as a series of particular events involving particular people. So some of my difficulties may have been rooted in the fact that they simply did not know the answers to my questions. They were not used to talking about themselves in the abstract - it was irrelevant.
In any case it had the effect that most of what I learned about the mountain people I learned through my own involvement in their lives, helplessly caught in the mesh of transactions that seemed to be the stuff of Santo relationships. Living in the midst of them I learned how to relate to others through food - always sharing or exchanging, giving or receiving - and the subtle meanings of raw or cooked, meat or vegetable, or feeding or being fed, refusing food or not offering any, or of eating together or separately, in a multitude of different situations.
1.14 Participation: exchanges
Participation was the key to learning, however clumsy my early attempts to cope with the flow of food must have seemed to the local people: it was often only through flagrant breaches of exchange etiquette that I became aware of its rules.
At the beginning of my second period in Santo, towards the end of the rainy season, when flying foxes came in swarms up the valley every evening to drink nectar from the delicate white flowers of the Astronia trees, and men who knew the appropriate magic to ensure a successful hunt sat with nets high on the ridges through the nights and hauled the unsuspecting creatures out of the sky, I had a whole crowd of people visit me from the Tazia valley. By this time my reputation as a healer was firmly established, and as it was less than a week since I had returned to Kuvutana after four months in New Zealand, I had a large backlog of untreated sores to catch up on. There must have been about twenty visitors: I gave seventeen injections, applied countless plasters to revolting boils and handed out medicine of different kinds, not finishing until past four in the afternoon, having worked in one long stretch since mid-morning.
The visitors had brought me the usual susu tana. As there were so many of them, they had given me two baskets instead of just one, full of cooked taro with crabs and prawns from their river. It was dark by the time we got around to distributing the takings, but I had in my ignorance placed the taro the visitors had brought at the foot of the house post next to my mat, together with some taro that I had received from local people. Now I could not tell them apart. This was bad, said Lisa: now we ran the risk of returning somebody's taro. He went to explain to me that the taro brought from Tazia must not be eaten by the donors. They should eat taro from our place, while we should eat theirs. He made it seem like an exchange of taro between Tazia and Truvos: highways of food with me as a junction.
It was too late to do anything about it. I took taros at random from the pile. Lisa placed them on the floor in front of my mat, one for each family in Kuvutana and Vorozenale. Next he placed a small pile of shellfish on top of each taro, adjusting the size of each pile to the size of the family, removing a crab or prawn here and adding it there, correcting until he was satisfied. Then he called out to the receivers present to come and get their share, while the rest of the food was given to some children to carry off to the appropriate houses.
Varalapa got her own share, separate from her husband Kavten as they had split up during my stay in New Zealand. She came up to the edge of the men's part of the house and Lisa handed her the food. She returned to the place where she had been sitting in the rear of the house, but then turned around and came back again, handing me the taro she had been given and taking another one from the few left at the foot of the post by my mat. She had recognized the taro as one that she had given me earlier that day, and therefore wanted another one!
Every mistake became another lesson in local manners, and what had originally seemed fairly simple and straightforward grew more and more complex as I learned to discriminate more delicate points.
Though most of my participation in exchanges revolved around food and medicine, I was also drawn into transactions that involved other goods.
My initial experience as I brought my supplies to Vorozenale had been rather disconcerting - not because I could not hang on to my kerosene, but because the last thing I wanted to get involve in was the running of some sort of trade store in the village, even if only by default. Still, whenever I brought goods into the mountains, I was rapidly cleaned out by people who came and gave me food gifts and proceeded to ask for this, that or the other. There seemed to be no way that I could hold on the my own supplies.
When I finally found a solution to this problem it was an appropriately Melanesian one: I gave it all away. In this way I was able to give the only response in refusal that did not reflect on my relationship with the people who asked for something: Mo te iso: "It is finished." And when I needed to fill up my lamp I could always turn to somebody to whom I had given kerosene in the past.
This was very much their way of handling wealth. What they did not want to share they kept well hidden, and if they were caught red-handed with a full packet of .22 cartridges or tailor-made cigarettes, they would immediately give some of the contents away, explaining to me when I asked that they had become patepate: "embarrassed". Another lesson in Santo mores: you could not hoard wealth without appearing stingy and being called a takun tei: "bad man". You could only hoard "credit"; wealth was for sharing - which must make the store-keepers at Canal stingy to the point of immorality in the eyes of the mountain people.
Simple participation in exchanges turned out to be an excellent way of learning the game, and I doubt that I would ever have become aware of some of the finer points in any other way. For example, I would make mistakes that were not corrected, but rather acted upon, as people took what was involuntary and accidental on my part to be deliberate, leaving me to work out the meaning of what I had done from their surprising reactions.
Towards the end of my short third stay in Santo, at the beginning of the rainy season when pineapples were ripening fast in the hot weather and my fellow Kuvutanians were away gardening or building a house for the Matanzari women, leaving me alone in the village with my notebooks, I had a visit from Pune Tamaravu of Taskoro. He had been hunting wild pigs in the depopulated flatlands around the lower Peiorai, staying with a relative a bit further up the river. Now he brought some cooked pork preserved in a section of bamboo. He said it was ani pereku: "for my shoot", putting it in a basket hanging from the house-post next to Lisa's mat, across the house from where I slept and kept my food.
Maritino, Lisa's youngest son, was Pune's "shoot". When the boy was born, Lisa had named him Pune Tamaravu after the older man. The name Maritino had been given to him later on by Sulu, after he had treated the child for some illness. But Maritino remained Pune's "shoot", like the replanted shoot of a tree that remains after the older tree has withered and died.
Conversely, Pune was Maritino's ruru; his "shell", like the empty shells sometimes found in the rivers, shed by a prawn in a seemingly endless process of rejuvenation. And the shells gave gifts to their shoots, caring for the welfare of the children gave them a kind of immortality, as the shells themselves were living incarnations of long lines of dead shells stretching back into the past.
I offered Pune food and sat down on my mat to fiddle with a transistor radio that he had brought from his relative's village by the Peiorai river to see if I could fix it. Radios, torches, people, it was all the same. They seemed to think I could fix almost anything.
We conversed while he ate and I worked on the radio. I knew Pune quite well. Although he had moved across the Ari and joined the Tohsiki-speakers, he was originally a Vorozenale man and spoke Kiai. Apart from seeing him at various feasts and when he came for medicine a few times in the past, I had spent some days at Taskoro helping him make thatch and build two extra houses to house the guests at a feast that he gave earlier that year. The existing houses at Taskoro - Pune's and his eldest son's - were obviously not going to be enough. In the end he had 240 visitors staying for five days at his feast.
At the time I had just caught up with my backlog of notes for the first time in two months. I was tired of sitting home in Kuvutana writing, and wanted to do something different. As I had heard about the Taskoro house-building efforts I packed a susu tana with taro and a tin of mackerel for Pune, and left for his hamlet on my own. In return he gave me taro and a cooked fowl senai sala: "for the road", when I went home three days later.
This was only the beginning of our exchanges. When I went to his feast I also carried a susu tana for him, as is customary. Then, at the feast, I gave him a large amount of plug tobacco to distribute to his guests.
Tavaliu, a Tazia man resettled at Namoro, had brought a lot of goods to ve na stoa: "make a store", at the feast. This was fairly common practice at feasts in other parts of the bush, but it was frowned upon by my conservative friends - it was not kaston. A feast was a time for tuetueni, "helping", not for volivoli, "buying", they said. They also complained that Tavaliu charged more than he had paid for the things for sale - small knives, Eau de Cologne, soap, combs and other items, plus the much desired plug tobacco. Mo rap: "he steals", they said, referring to the fact that he was making a profit.
As eager as ever to demonstrate my commitment to kaston I then borrowed some money from Lisa and bought Tavaliu's entire supply of tobacco - fifty sticks - and gave them to Pune, who had them all cut in half and distributed to the people present. When I left Taskoro at the end of the feast he gave me not only the usual taro and meat, but also a live rooster, for me to take home to Kuvutana.
The next time I met Pune, at a feast in the Peolape valley, he asked me how my rooster was - was it still around, or had I perhaps killed and eaten it? Then he asked me if I had any of the leather belts left that I had brought to Santo after my first return trip to New Zealand. Pune had seen a few other people wear them.
There was indeed one belt left, carefully hidden among my things in Lisa's house so as not to invite attempts to wheedle it from me, but as Pune had always been generous to me I now promised it to him. Only a few days later I had to leave Santo in a hurry because of a family emergency in Auckland, cutting my second field trip short. I left the belt with Lisa, with instructions to give it to Pune. Since then I had not seen him, and I had forgotten about the belt.
Pune finished eating and I gave him a stick of plug tobacco - my standard gift to anybody from the valley who came to see me. He filled his pipe and came over to watch me doctoring the radio. Presently I got it going, with the aid of a new set of batteries. I handed it back to him, new batteries and all. Then I remembered the belt, and thinking that it might still be lying around somewhere in Lisa's house waiting to be handed over to its new owner, I asked Pune if he had got it yet. He told me yes, he had already fetched it while I was away.
Then, as he stood up to leave, he said something about my pork that he had brought. I was surprised and asked if it was not for Maritino. No, he protested, Maritino's pork he had left at Vunpati, with Lisa's parents-in-law - could I please tell Lisa? The bamboo of pork he had brought was for me, he said - in spite of the fact that he had put it in what he knew very well was Lisa's basket, across the room from my sleeping-place.
This incident had me puzzled for a while, but I think this is what happened: I embarrassed Pune by mentioning the leather belt - especially on top of giving him the tobacco and batteries. Since he had not yet made me any return gift, the mere mention of the belt must have sounded to him like my hinting that it was about time he did - much as he had mentioned the rooster before asking if the belts were all gone. What made it embarrassing was that he had flagrantly neglected me when distributing the wild pork. He only barely managed to save face by pretending that the pork had been intended for me all along!
From then on I was more aware of the import of talking about gifts, and kept a closer watch on my tongue.
1.15 Participation: everyday life
That was how I came to learn much of what I know about central Santo ways - not by having them described to me by some keen and subtle informant, but through my own experiences in dealing with the people on a day-to-day basis, the countless little encounters of the domestic landscape adding up, bit by bit, to an ever growing understanding of local concerns and conventions.
Much of my time in the mountains was spent coping with the never-ending requests for medicine. Initially I found myself traveling to other villages a lot as people came looking for me with stories about sickness in their homes, the demand for my services growing with my reputation. To begin with I was quite happy about this development, as I got too know the valley and the people in it, visiting most of the villages and building up credit with the residents. But people started coming from other valleys, until I found myself almost constantly afoot, sometimes for more than a week at a time. Though I kept learning new things every day, I had no time to write them down in my notebooks. All that I managed was cryptic mnemonic messages to myself, scribbled on a jotting-pad, to remember that there was this and that to enter into my notes when I got the time.
In the end I simply refused to travel anymore, unless it was a matter of life and death. Sick children could be carried to Truvos and I would treat them there.
This move kept my by then staggering backlog from growing any bigger, but I barely had time to keep pace with the influx of information, as I had visitors wanted treatment nearly every day, still taking up a large part of my time.
Next I started hiding, first in garden houses, and when my haunts became known and people just came and got me when prospective patients arrived, I made myself secret clearings in the bush around the settlement, finally getting enough time to reduce my backlog of note-taking.
Though continually having to spend so much time on medical work was a problem it was not without its rewards. It resulted in my quickly establishing personal relationships with a large number of people, both from the Ari valley and from further afield. Everywhere I went they knew me, and I was always a welcome guest at feasts and other larger gatherings of people, bag of miracle cures on my shoulder.
My medical work sometimes also provided the setting within which I became acquainted with the local interpretation of disease and death. And I can't but think that being involved in healing on a day-to-day basis helped me in understanding the kleva, as fellow healers faced with a similar onslaught of patients.
But of all that I learned by virtue of doing medical work among the mountain people, what moved me more than anything else was this: for the first time in my life I realised what it was like to live in constant contact with disease and death. It brought home to me the living reality of their very self-conscious struggle for survival as a people - depopulation very quickly stops being simply a matter of statistics in a setting where parents talk about the future of their children, saying not "when he grows up", but "if he grows up".
Although they took a large part of my time, my activities in central Santo were not limited to medical work and note-taking. I joined my hosts in most of their activities, including the everyday tasks of making a living from the land.
I had my own taro plot, which enabled me to follow the process of growing taro from its inception in choosing a suitable site, through all the intervening stages until harvest for a farewell feast. Apart from this I helped others in their gardens - that way also learning the customary ways of rewarding your extra labour, which enabled me to treat appropriately those who helped me with my patch.
I learned to shoot fish and prawns in the rivers and streams with a pronged arrow, a piece of elastic, and diving glasses, cautiously stalking the elusive water creatures among the boulders in the cold, clear water. Hunting birds and flying foxes, I learned in which flowering or fruiting trees to find my game as the seasons changed.
I could go on like this, describing the countless ways of learning about other people's lives that offer themselves to someone in my situation, gradually working my way through the multitude of activities that are part of life in central Santo, but this will do for now. The kleva material below will itself provide plenty of illustration. There is one more setting that deserves a mention, though, in that it became perhaps the most important teacher of them all: the nightly gathering around the kava bowl.
Its role as a source of information changed, going through a number of different stages during the course of my stay in the Santo mountains. Initially it was the setting where I got to know the men of Truvos, learned their names, their personal
characteristics and so on. The villages were usually empty during the days, with people away working in their gardens. Only at night were they all at home, usually converging on the house I was in - I guess they must have been as curious about me as I was about them.
The kava-sessions never completely lost this role as an occasion to get to know people. Visitors to the settlement were invariably treated to a kava pow-wow in the evening if they were staying overnight, which provided me with an excellent opportunity to observe their manners and listen to what they had to say. The kava-sessions also provided me with my main opportunities for learning Kiai. During my first few weeks in Vorozenale, Lisa a number of times on his own initiative pointed out items inside the house and told me what they were called, or - later - translated my Bislama words into Kiai, with me writing rapidly in my notebook. I guess he thought it as good a distraction as any between cups - there would be periods of silence sometimes, when we would just lie back on our mats, relaxing after the day's work.
When my companions conferred in Kiai, paying little attention to me while they discussed some matter of importance or whatever, I used to lie back and just listen to the flow of conversation, mentally tracking the unfamiliar successions of vowels and consonants, echoing in my mind the empty sounds of speech that meant nothing to me,
By and by I started recognising odd words in these torrents of pure sound. I would remember them and later ask their meaning. As time went by I recognised more and more, until I would be able to work out the topic of discussion, even though I did not know what was being said about it.
Prior to that I very rarely knew what they were talking about. Only occasionally would someone lean over and courteously inform me in sotto voce Bislama what the topic was. Some other times they would draw me into the conversation, switching to Bislama in order to ask my opinion on some matter or other. But with time I grew less and less dependent on their discretion to learn what they were so fervently debating.
The kava gatherings then took on a new teaching role: there I learned the local foci of interest. I found out what sort of news was news and worth passing on, and what sort of problems were problems and worth discussing. And with a growing command of the language these meetings provided me with an indispensable pipeline to my hosts' plans, fears, hobby-horses and grudges.
There was a wealth of information to be drawn from these sessions. From the news and gossip I learned what had happened in other villages and valleys; from the comments made I learned the significance of the events. Some events relevant to the local people would be discussed extensively, as they debated what action to take in response, which was also very educating. From criticism and praise I learned what actions they considered bad or good, and who was on who’s side in the network of often tense relations between individuals and groups.
Not only did I learn about events in the surrounding area. To a great extent these kava-sessions were themselves what was happening, as people showed theirstands on varying issues by their comments and suggestions. There were occasionally quite heated verbal clashes between the participants in these meetings, as the locals and visitors ve na kot: "made court", about some issue perhaps involving claims for compensation for some slight or injury.
Such, then, was my situation in central Santo; the circumstances under which through successive encounters and discussions I came to know the kleva and the alien world of meanings within which their lives and activities made sense to themselves, their neighbours, and increasingly also to me
In the account below I have tried to retain for the reader this sense of gradual development, as I show how, through a long string of incidents, often stemming from my everyday living in Santo rather than from any particular investigative undertaking, my picture of the kleva gradually grew in depth and complexity, paralleled by an ever-increasin familiarity with the idioms through which the local people expressed their own understanding of the kleva, and of their specialist spheres of operation - such as disease, dreaming, disembodied spirits, and magic of both beneficial and harmful kinds.
By presenting the material in this manner I hope to put across a picture of kleva not as a reality easily defined and described, but rather as something intrinsically multifaceted and puzzling, something that exists in different versions in different people's eyes - as something that resists simple definition, because no definition would do justice to that diversity short of describing it in full.