Sorcery Meets the World Cup in Ambrym

The Vanuatu Series > FM 107 > Vanuatu Beef > Coconut Crabs > Ambrym > Casino

Our hero will freely admit that he doesn't know the first thing about soccer. About the only type of bouncing ball that he finds appealing is steel and falls through a series of nails and gates. His appreciation for the subtleties of witchcraft might be even less.

But in Vanuatu this week the Captain visits the island of Ambrym, one of the world's most reputed areas for black magic. Here, at the base of the island's volcano, he finds a village in love with the World Cup. Why not join him for some corner kicks and a few tales of sorcery? The kava has already been prepared.

The band starts playing.

"Senegal is playing a great match. They are so aggressive," says one man in his fifties, his maroon baseball cap planted firmly on his head. The match between Senegal and Denmark is in the second half.

He stands, occasionally rubbing the stubble of his chin, and watches from behind a crowd of about 60 men fanning out in front of one of the village's few televisions. Most sit on the ground while others occupy space on three short benches. The eldest of the group gets the only chair. His cane rests on his lap.

Outside of this compound the rest of the village of Craig Cove, the largest on this island of 7,500 people, sits in darkness. The few operating generators are shut down after mid evening. This compound is an exception. This is the World Cup.

A jungle of breadfruit trees, papaya trees, and other greenery spread out from behind, all the way up to the island's volcano, the last eruption of which in 1913 introduced the people of Ambrym to the earth's underworld. Earthquakes shook and explosions thundered. The Pacific steamed as the volcano's vents blew out steam. Lava flowed and ash rained down in all directions, resulting in the black sand beaches and the darkened volcanic rock shorelines seen today.

The band playing is a trio with a guitar, synthesizer, and male singer. They are cramped onto a small wood stage to the left of the soccer crowd. In front of the stage, women and children, clad in sandals and dresses, dance in a circle as the band pumps out the reggae rhythms.

If this weren't the World Cup, these revelers might be spending their time regaling each other in tales of sorcery and witchcraft over shells of the root-derived drink kava. After all, Ambrym is one of the world's centers for such activities. Whether due to the influence of the volcano, darkened jungle, tempestuous Pacific, or a combination of the three is not certain. What is certain is that this is serious business with potentially serious consequences all throughout Vanuatu. Think it's not?

Rewind ten years and change locations to Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital city. The ruling party is suffering from a rapid division within its ranks. The Prime Minister is positive that it is the result of black magic. He orders sorcerers from Ambrym to come to the capital. They visit the residences of various government officials and ministers and unearth a number of small black stones resembling human faces from their yards. A warning is issued that anyone practicing black magic against the government in such a way would be arrested. The stones are then quickly neutralized by the sorcerers.

The stones in this case were a part of a nakaemas, or a form of black magic. A nakaemas is usually performed against a particular person with the intent to kill him, destroy him economically through the loss of a job or theft of belongings, divide his family by divorce, or all three.

This is just the beginning.

Su is similar to nakaemas in its ability to amaze, but its outcome is totally different. It is the power of a person to transform himself into an animal, maybe a dog, gecko, owl, or mouse. It can also be the ability for a person to become a spirit that can travel freely through space without suspicion. The main purpose of both variations is for spying, though there are stories of women waking in the morning without their underwear and a feeling of having been touched.

Skeptics abound. Foreigners in Vanuatu often scoff at the black magic of Vanuatu like they might the tooth fairy. Allan Palmer, a 48-year old resident of Port Vila, provides one such example from 10 years ago of one such doubter, a French sea captain that had married a local Melanesian lady.

"One day, he became sick and began to lose weight quickly. Doctors in Vanuatu were perplexed as to the cause. But his wife's family mentioned that it might be the power of nakaemas at work."

The family recommended a sorceress, an idea that he completely rejected at first because he thought he'd be the subject of ridicule and derision from his acquaintances. But as time went on, his wife forced him into it.

Allan continues, "The sorceress told him that one of her friendly spirits had told her that someone had buried a nakaemas somewhere around his house to kill him."

The means of preparation of a nakaemas or a su varies throughout Vanuatu. But only a sorcerer can properly go through the preparation procedure. For some areas of Vanuatu it involves the collecting of certain jungle plants or the illegal unearthing of children's bones from graves.

In Ambrym, the elements used are stones with features that resemble faces. The stones are not bigger than a bottle of eye drops. A sorcerer will hang the stones above a special fire where the smoke and flames darken them from their original light gray color. Depending on the use (whether for a nakaemasu or a su), spells using special wording are cast and the goal of the magic is said. For a nakaemas, the stones are buried somewhere near the victim's residence under the direction of the sorcerer's client.

In the captain's case, the sorceress suggested that she come to his house as soon as possible to unearth this evil spell and destroy it. Although the captain felt this was crazy, he said to himself, "What have I got to lose?"

Still a bit skeptical, the captain went home and made sure the yard gates were closed. He released his dogs so that they could roam free and ensure that no one could enter his property and hide something, allowing the sorceress to later find it and impress him.

When the sorceress appeared they walked around his house. At his bedroom window, the sorceress said she could feel something evil buried there. She then picked up four dry twigs and poked them into the ground in the shape of the corners of an imaginary square. She then poured a special, dark mud-like liquid into the center of the square. Another twig was used to rub the surface of the ground where she had poured the liquid.

Allan goes on, "Not long after you could see a little black stone with the face of a human coming out of the ground, all by itself. The stone popped out, rolled, and hit one of the twigs, where it stopped."

The captain was astonished. The sorceress put some more of the same liquid on the stone and claimed that the evil had been finally vanquished. As time went by the captain put on weight again.

The telling of these stories is a large part of the interest in nakaemas or su. Throughout Vanuatu, the locals sit around exchanging tales in much the same way that ghost stories are passed around an evening campfire in the Western world.

At the soccer and dance party, the mention of Ambrym stones and sorcerers to the man in the baseball cap is immediately greeted by a cool stare.

There is then a time for everything. Now it seems is the time for soccer.

The Vanuatu Series > FM 107 > Vanuatu Beef > Coconut Crabs > Ambrym > Casino

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