Black magic in the walls, and other things.

I’ve been thinking about the chief recently. The last time I saw him, I was sweating and cursing 10 kilos of mouldy plant specimens onto a small plane, taking off the island in Vanuatu after another long trip. He approached me as we were about to board, cuffed me on the side of the head (retribution for needing to be taken home in the island taxi – aka the wheelbarrow – after a kava session the previous night), and handed me a 4-liter plastic container. It was full murky of black liquid, and looked as though it had taken this trip a few times before.

‘There’ll be someone at the airport to collect it’, he said, and made sure I had a mobile number and address if the delivery fell through. ‘Tell him to wash the walls with this thoroughly, every wall, and to get out of the house for four days.’ Under no circumstances was the man to smell the liquid, and if the black magic wasn’t fixed when he got back? ‘Tell him to call me’, said the chief with a chuckle.

The chief was one of the most respected healers on the island, or indeed anywhere in Vanuatu. He’d grown up in the tangle of the island interior, moved with his parents to the mission on the coast, and had seen the first plane land on the rough airstrip (‘we got the hell out of there’, he told me of that day). He’d also become Christian, gone to school and raised a family. He became a healer early on, learning from his father and grandfather, and relying on the diverse medicine cupboard of the local flora. Independently, he had also developed his own techniques of stomach massage to treat all manner of complaints. He freely improvised – one of his best treatments for malaria was introduced by the Americans during the war – and was generous with his treatments. ‘It’s up to me’, he said of his patients, ‘there’s no one else here who can do what I do’.

The chief was also developing a thriving business. Given his position, this isn’t necessarily much of a surprise. The construction of mobile phone towers the year before, however, had been a boon, and he was now getting requests from far and wide. Although most islanders I met could find a bunch of plants to treat simple illnesses, traditional healers like my friend are important. On the one hand, access to hospital care is limited, and aid posts are typically missing basic medicines. On the other, there are a whole host of illnesses recognized on the island that can’t be treated with waetman medicine (as it’s known in the local pidgin) at all. Black magic, curses and witchcraft are all still around and still important, and can only be treated with traditional, kastom medicine. As far as I could tell the status, skill, and connections of the chief gave him a unique niche, and he appeared to be filling it with aplomb.

Despite the success of the enterprise, my friend sometimes appeared worried. The issue was the continuity of his skills, and the problem was finding find anyone to teach them to. He’d often say that formal education has had such an impact in his community that the kids had ‘no space in their heads’ any more. In any case, the values and ethics that the kids picked up in schools meant they didn’t care for communal village living in the first place.

It’s true that old folks railing against the ‘youth these days’ is hardly restricted to Vanuatu. But I think he had a point. Schools on the island are still taught in English and French, and local languages still banned within their walls. This is pretty incongruous – Vanuatu is per capita the most linguistically diverse place on earth, with over 100 languages in a population the size of Hamilton. Local history and social studies are still not taught, and kids typically miss out on all opportunities for learning traditional ways of doing things. The chief reckoned that this was causing the loss of a whole range of culture, knowledge and practice. In a country where land ownership is based on oral histories, where ceremonies mark every important stage of life, and hundreds of different plants are relied on for medicine, this is a pretty big concern.

In reply, the chief and his peers had had come up with a strategy. One of the most interesting things I saw during my time there was a grassroots education movement that aimed to corral the youth into schools of the community’s devising. These schools, kastom schools to the locals, were small and community-based places where the teachers were the elders and the curriculum was local language, medicines and food. They were to be compulsory education for the under 10’s, and in some places they were aiming to enlist everyone in the community under the age of 20 – everyone who they thought had been deprived of their kastom by the ways things had been done recently.

There is much more to say about these – after all, not everyone will share the elders’ vision about the way forward. But I think it’s hard to overstate their importance. For one, the chief and co. were placing their customs on the same level as the formal school, and promoting the importance of the local over the generic and western. The kastom schools are interesting too when you consider they’re a revolutionary way of ‘doing custom’. Teaching culture in a classroom setting is a completely new way of doing things, and is a complete update of what tradition is and where it should exist.

In short, I think the chief and others like him had designed an open, homegrown challenge to centralised education systems. They’d done this in response to a system that they felt to be profoundly damaging the knowledge and attitudes of the young. ‘We’ve got our own science here’, he told me once, and went on to say each language (there are no less than 17 on this one island) had different ways of doing things, each adapted to the local place. He was also adamant that this science not only shaped the way that things are used, but the way that those speakers see the world.

I got to thinking about all this as I was reading about the Idle No More movement the other day. A surging global protest that took off in the wake of more pig-headed policy from the Canadian government, Idle No More looks like something of an Occupy moment for global indigenous groups. It also seems to inherently reject centralised power and authority over traditional lands and peoples. In this context, the gentle, smart, and effective ways that my friend on Malekula was updating the role of tradition through medicine, education, and business seem especially valuable.

More broadly, I think his projects also promoted a model of development that stresses local solutions for local problems. Diversity of thought, healing, and learning are important threads in the fabric of society in the Pacific, and development and education policy would do well to remember the value of local solutions. This is especially true, I’m sure, if you need the right stuff to scrub black magic out of the walls.