In The Beginning
Year 1
New Caledonia
South Africa

Ceremony of the Namangue
Ambrym Island, Vanuatu
11 August 2001

By 7AM we had landed the dinghy on a black,  volcanic-sand beach and started the two-hour walk from our anchorage to the northern village of Olal. The path led along the coast - sometimes following a beach, sometimes climbing several hundred meters up ridges -  through small villages, coconut groves, local gardens, and untamed jungle. Overhead, puffy clouds skated across a bright blue sky as the sun crested the mountainous ridge and turned  our morning from cool to hot in the space of 10 paces.

At each village we'd ask 'Road blong Olal?' pointing down the path. And invariably we were met with a wave and 'Oh yes. Hemi long way.'

Closer to Olal we fell in with Jeffrey and another man who were also going to the ceremony. We talked with them as we walked until we came to a stream of people leaving the main 'road'  and walking through a coconut grove up into the bush. Here we met Timothy who is from Olal and who spoke to us in rapid-fire French about the ceremony. Many people would be  coming to see this custom grade-taking by a new chief; there would be a lot of dancing, feasting, and magic. All of the important chiefs of the area would be there. Four men would be  taking a grade of some rank today, and two others a lower or perhaps first grade. One man, Joachin Teter, would be advancing two high levels of the chiefly system- this was primarily his ceremony.

As tourists, we were charged 2000 vatu (about $15)  apiece for entrance and front-row coconuts. A clearing about 100-feet square had been made in the midst of the jungle. In the center stood two tamtams - slit-drums carved from a single piece of a breadfruit  tree and decorated with a human-like face on top - one about 9-feet tall, the other 6-feet. To the side of the clearing a 10-foot 'black palm' (tree fern) carving of a lizard topped by a ceremonial mask stood in front  of a bamboo 'wall' 30 or 40 feet high, and beneath a canopy or stage set about 15 feet off the ground. There were about 40 (pale) tourists and several hundred local villagers in all ages from infant to elder.

An elderly chief dressed in ceremonial costume entered the clearing. He was wearing a decorative woven belt which held in place his banana-leaf penis sheath. A few green leaves and a bright-red ginger  flower tucked in the belt completed his outfit. His face was marked with red color and he wore a necklass with two nearly-circular boars' tusks and carried a long stick with an ornately carved top.  Kneeling by the tamtams, he proceded to beat a signal - several hollow booms on the large one followed by the rat-a-tat sound of the small.

About twenty more men now entered the clearing and stood in a  huddle before the tamtams. All were wearing the same basic uniform, although class distinctions were evident. The number of boars' tusks varied from none to nearly a dozen on the highest chief. Some men  had the same ginger flower as the first chief, others simply had fern leaves or nothing. In their hair many of the men had long bird feathers, white or brown, and a few men had a red flower. It was clear  that each piece of costume held meaning and there was nothing casual about the material or the placement on each man. The greatest chief was also the most decorated - several red flowers in his white  hair, palm fronds tucked in his belt, boars tusks around each wrist and one huge tusk in a perfect circle on a necklass. He was a 'taboo fire' chief - meaning he gathered his own food and cooked his own  meals at a private fire. It would be too much risk for him to allow others - who might want to poison him - to prepare his food.

Someone started chanting. Two men started a rhythm on the tamtams. Four others beat the ground with long poles. Everyone joined the singing and started stamping their feet. One song was  followed by another - the words meaningless to us, but the importance evident in the emotion and energy of the song. The youngest men - perhaps twenty-years old - danced in rhythm, lifting  their feet knee-high with each step and bringing their large feet down hard in a way that sounded with the drums and shook the ground where we sat, their strong, black bodies running with sweat. Every  man participated; one elderly chief with long, thin, frail-looking legs and buttocks long lost from a life of walking leaned on his staff and added what he could to the stamping and singing. Four women in  pandanus-leaf skirts stood outside the circle of men and added to the percussive music with a rhythmic sliding/slapping step.

After several songs the primary initiate was led from the group by an older chief. The women left the  clearing and the men gathered tightly at the tamtams and started the loudest of the singing yet. At the peak of their song, two men appeared over the black palm carving. They danced and jumped on the shaking bamboo  stage while they yelled to the crowd and seemed to taunt the other chiefs who by now were moving in a circle around the clearing. Half-a-dozen of these were armed with  coconuts, breadfruit, soursop, custard apples -- any sort of fruit or vegetable that they could throw at the men above them. In earlier times stones would have been thrown, but with the  strength of the arms it would make little difference what they were. Frenzied shouting now, and for several minutes the men on the stage jumped and dodged the hard-thrown projectiles  that cracked against the bamboo and palms behind them. A call sounded and the throwing stopped. The men regathered at the tamtams and the initiates climbed down having proven  their agility, fearlessness, and strength. This test was performed several times - once for each of the rising chiefs, and twice by the primary grade-taker.

The dances were now finished and while the other chiefs looked on, Chief Teter led a pig  of some 80 pounds into the clearing. The pig clearly understood its fate as it squealed its protest and pulled against the rope. It was led to the middle of the clearing where two men  stood and pinned the pig to the ground with their feet. Teter approached carrying a large, decoratively carved club, stood over the pig, looked at the crowd and - shouting the name  of his new rank - repeatedly clubbed the pig's head. This was not to be a quick dispatch however; with six men climing rank, each had to participate. One after the other they  stood over the screaming and shaking pig, shouted their new prestige and clubbed the animal's head. At the end, the pig was left bleeding and twitching on the ground as the high chiefs  approvingly accepted the sacrificial display of wealth.

Now all of the initiates came into the clearing leading ten more pigs by tethers. As with the men of rank, there was a clear  distinction among the pigs. Three were much larger than the others - at least two-hundred pounds - and with large curving or nearly circular tusks. These animals are of greatest value  because of their age and the value placed on the tusks after their deaths. The grandest display of wealth a chief can make is to kill a pig with tusks. But today, these wouldn't be killed.  They would be passed from their current owners to the chiefs of higher rank from whom the initiates are purchasing the new grade. These large animals, experienced in the ways of  ceremonies, passed the dying pig without caring. But the other animals, smaller and less valuable, could sense the danger.

The scene was chaotic - smaller pigs sqealing and running on  tethers while men kicked at them for submission. The large boars were oblivious, sniffing the ground and rooting. Meanwhile one by one the pigs were given by the grade-takers  to the chiefs of rank with accompanying small speeches of suplication and acceptance. With the passing of each tusked pig, a ceremonial conch was blown for a minute to announce  the significance of the moment. One more pig was killed as a sign of the second rank taken by Teter, and again the dispatch was long and drawn-out as he again and again repeated his  new rank, each time with a ceremonial strike. In the end, the two not-quite-dead pigs were very un-ceremoniously dragged from the clearing as the men chatted and smoked. Finally the  highest chief spoke at length to the others while he paced the ceremonial circle. The crowd was silent with respect as they listened to this great man's speech.

The official ceremony was complete. Teter was now recognized as a man of greater importance and wealth. With this new prestige came the right to make the same black palm  carving that we had seen. He could also bestow this new grade on lesser chiefs who chose to buy it from him.

Some moments of entertainment followed for the tourists in the crowd, after which all of the participating villagers would enjoy a feast, heavy in pork no doubt. First we witnessed a  demonstration of 'black magic', as a powerful chief proceded to cut a green coconut from a stalk of several and peel it. With magic he emptied the coconut of its water through no visible  means. When he finally cracked open the nut, it was dry. To demonstrate the veracity of his magic he performed it twice. Dry again. He then cracked open a third nut taken from the same  stalk without performing the stunt. At least a liter of water poured from the nut onto the ground.

Another chief demonstrated sand drawing, an artform in which an elaborate design of circles  and lines is drawn in sand. Once the basic frame is sketched, the interior design is completed without lifting the finger from the dirt. The chief drew three or four examples each taking about 5 minutes to complete.

Around the clearing several cooking fires were burning. Local women were preparing yams, breadfruit, and taro. Coconuts and kava could be drunk, and fresh fruits sampled.

We tasted a few things, spoke with a couple of the local villagers, thanked our hosts and started the two-hour trek home.

It had been a fascinating event lasting several hours. That it held significance not only to the chiefs involved, but to the local onlookers as well, was evident. People spoke with respect of  the high chiefs present, in part in fear of the various forms of magic which they, the chiefs, could invoke. And while the crowd laughed and shouted during 'stoning' ceremony, this had  been a serious moment of advancement for certain men of the village. Their worthiness and wealth had been demonstrated for all to witness in the same manner and through the same  traditions that had been used for generations.

Copyright 2001 by Jeff Williams