June 9, 2014 9:50 pm
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Black magic is an integral part of the culture in Vanuatu and is practiced widely by witch doctors across all of the islands, we are told. It can be used for all sorts of things, ranging from creating love potions to cursing an enemy to an untimely death. “People have been killed using black magic,” Vores tells us solemnly before explaining that often the witch doctor who is found responsible for a death using black magic can face severe punishment.

“Just last year someone had their arm chopped off for using black magic,” Vores adds. When asked how a witch doctor can be spotted, he replies that he’s witnessed people morph into cats, flying foxes and other animals during the night and this reveals that they are sure to be practitioners of black magic. He also casually tells us that these witches have even been accused of digging up graves to use babies’ bones for potions. All of this of course sounds highly implausible to me but he speaks as if it is a perfectly common occurrence. Traditionally, women are not allowed in the chief’s area where the magic takes place, but the rules have been relaxed to cater for tourists.

As I take my seat on a wooden bench I eagerly await the casting of voodoo spells or the spectacle of a man disappearing into thin air. However the so called custom magic is of a slightly different kind. Vores appears sans T-shirt and shorts, dressed in a traditional outfit of a small waist cloth with strategically placed palm leaves. He spits on the ground in front of him. “Spitting is very good. It’s very important for Vanuatu superstition,” he says matter of factly.

Two assisting men crush coconuts with their bare hands and start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. A branch is planted in a hole in the ground and everyone takes a turn of tugging on the branch, although none are successful in pulling it out. Despite these magic tricks that Vores seems rather proud of, I must admit I feel slightly underwhelmed by the performance. Vores then leads us toward a thatched hut with a sign above the door featuring a skull image and bearing the words “Cannibal House”. The little dark hut has walls lined with articles describing cannibalism horror stories.

Various fact sheets and images explained the way island communities once practiced cannibalism. Before I knew it I was staring into an old, rusted, cauldron-like pot the size of a small bathtub that was apparently once used to boil the bones of unfortunate individuals. The victims were often women and on some occasions when a man died his wife was buried alive beside him. Vores explains this in a relaxed manner as he must have done a thousand times before. “You know, these men are very jealous, they don’t want someone to have an affair with the wife so they just bury her alive.” If this wasn’t bad enough, we soon learn that cannibalism is still practiced today in some areas. Vores attempts to reassure us. “They have a specific reason for that. They don’t attack innocent people. They only attack their enemies,” he says. This does little to ease my now queasy stomach. It isn’t the best note to end the tour on, especially since it is followed shortly thereafter by a buffet style lunch.

We are provided with a few local dishes that are cooked in an underground oven. Fried bananas and fresh fruit were on offer but I couldn’t help but feel sceptical when the meat dish arrived. From this point onward cannibalism would come up in conversation frequently with the locals and they appear to have a unique sense of humour when it comes to the subject. “People from different villages were once scared of each other because of all the fighting. You never know, next minute you could be in the pudding,” laughed Brenda Andre, senior information officer at the Vanuatu Tourism Office. A tour of Lelapa Island (costing about $95) proves just the way to unwind after my skin-crawling experience in the Cannibal House. With no electricity or even fresh water, village life is quite primitive. Although, apparently the locals find ways to keep themselves occupied. “We don’t have access to TV on Lelapa so that’s why there are so many babies on the island,” says Albert Soloman Peter, founder of the tour. On our way to Lelapa the cannibal references continued at a rapid fire rate however.

“You will meet my grandfather on the island today. He is a good man and loves white people because their flesh is so tender. He told me to keep bringing tourists because the last bunch we had was so delicious,” he says with a smile. I laugh nervously as the boat chugs its way toward the island.

A dark past aside, Vanuatu reveals itself to be the perfect summer holiday destination thanks to its beaches, lush scenery and friendly people. There is so much to learn from their traditions and culture that will amaze and surprise you. The islands feel very welcoming and particularly safe… at least now that cannibalism appears to be a thing of the past.

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This post was written by Nadia Vella