Vila is quiet. The hospital gates are locked and guarded. There are about twenty officers lounging outside the police station. Most businesses are closed and the remainder are nearly deserted. Every passing group is scrutinised quietly.
Most of my family stayed with me last night, five of them in my house and about eight more in the storage shed across the yard. None of us wandered far, electing instead to fill up a plastic jug with kava and sit in my house watching movies.
To anyone not attuned to life in Vanuatu, things would appear perfectly normal, if a little cosy. Kids were being kids, the women prepared supper and chatted amongst themselves. A few of the men wandered off into the night, but most hid under the eaves, joking quietly and looking off into the rain.
The story goes like this: A Tannese woman died, apparently poisoned by her husband and his brother. The person who supplied the poison was a practitioner of nakaimas from Ambrym. Whether he was coerced or paid depends on who is telling the story.
Once the killing came to light, chiefs from the Tanna community in Vila ordered the execution of the two conspirators and the Ambrymese man who provided the ‘leaf’, as it’s called. Attempts to intervene and negotiate a settlement only led to further problems. It was claimed that the Ambrym chiefs were organising their men to forcefully oppose the Tannese, and the house of a chief in the Namburu neighbourhood in Vila was attacked.
Tannese men overran the grounds, killed the chief’s two sons and severely wounded the chief himself. His house was burnt to the ground, as were all the vehicles in the yard. Another house elsewhere in town was attacked and burned, leading to fears of widespread violence between the Tanna and Ambrym communities.
So far, two people have been killed and six more seriously wounded. They are being kept under guard at Vila Central Hospital. Political operatives and other so-called Big Men have been working around the clock to try to rein in the violence, but fear and distrust have so far prevailed.
The practice of Nakaimas is something for which the people of Ambrym are widely feared and mistrusted. There are, people say, certain men whose intimate knowledge of plants in Vanuatu allows them to kill quietly and without a trace. It’s told that they use shape-changing magic to get close to the victim, and the tiniest dose of one of their potions is invariably fatal.
As evidence of how seriously this is taken, I have been told on numerous occasions to be careful never to accept a kava shell passed to me by hand. What would seem a common courtesy anywhere else is viewed with the highest suspicion here in Vanuatu.
Is Nakaimas real? Without a doubt. There have been many cases of poisoning. But other afflictions also result in sudden death. For example, stroke caused by clots of bacterial infection is common. It can fell an otherwise healthy person in minutes. In Vanuatu as in many societies, there is a common belief that nobody dies without a reason. And the commonplace reasons are never as compelling as the suspicion that someone wanted someone dead.
Jacob’s mother was from West Ambrym, and the ground he and his extended family occupy is known as a place blong man Ambrym. To make matters worse, Jacob has been taken under the wing of a well-known healer, and tutored in the use of medicinal plants.
The danger is obvious and quite real. Tannese people have a well-deserved reputation for dealing with things decisively and thoroughly, which is not to say equitably or well. They are the least afraid of violence, and the most capable of organising themselves when they feel they are in danger. I tread carefully in all my dealings with the Tannese.
As far as I can tell, the only solution to this will come with the passage of time. The long weekend will pass, cooler heads will prevail, and eventually things will return to normal. We’ve got one more day to get through, because – ironically – tomorrow is Chief’s Day, a national holiday.
It’s also my birthday. So tonight I’m throwing a party. My standing in the community, as well as that of several of my friends, should be enough to keep anyone from interrupting the festivities, and it gives me an excuse to keep everyone close. My biggest fear is that it will rain, as it has done every day for the last two weeks.
Vila is quiet, and if all goes well, it will remain that way.