National Geographic : 1972 Jan
Taboos and Magic Rule Namba Lives others, wasn't convinced that the helicopter - I had taught them that word-wouldn't crash upon us. "Boss belong helicopter [pilot] ee savvy good road long business belong him," I as sured him of the pilot's competence, experi ence, and our longevity. The craft didn't arrive on schedule, and two more days passed without word. As each day went by with no helicopter, the Big Nambas began to relax. Bad weather had prevented the takeoff, I learned later, but at the time I worried about the party's fate. At last one morning, a throbbing hum filled the air. I recognized the sound immediately, and rushed outside to light the fire. Some Big Nambas, shouting and yelling, dashed for the bush. A few paused momentarily to glance over their shoulders at the huge machine descending on them with a frightful noise and stirring up little tornadoes of dried grass. Only Nisai, the chief's 17-year-old eldest son, and another man lingered, torn between panic and fascination. The helicopter landed and its engine sput tered into silence. Slowly the tribesmen trickled back from the bush, ready to dart into the foliage if the blades started again. Jacques and Charlene emerged from the craft, and I hurried to greet them. Chief's Son Tries Helicopter Ride Perhaps reassured by the sight of humans, the Nambas cautiously approached the ma chine. A few braver ones entered the heli copter and gingerly tried the soft seats. I asked Nisai if he wanted to join me on a heli copter flight. He didn't seem overly enthu siastic, but his pride wouldn't let him refuse. As we lifted off the ground, I glanced at Nisai, seated beside the pilot. His face was impassive, but he had one arm tightly wrapped around the pilot's leg. We gained altitude and flew over Virham bat's compound. The women workers scurried out of the open areas and into the forest, their long wigs trailing them. After a quick flight around the village, the helicopter re turned to the ceremonial ground and landed. The tribesmen rushed up to greet Nisai, who grinned with pride. "All same what em?" I shouted above the excited chatter. "You like em helicopter?" "My word!" he exclaimed. "Someting here him ee strong too muss!-This thing is most extraordinary!" Narcotic Bolsters Nambas' Courage That night several men volunteered to board the helicopter-now that it had re turned to Santo. Their newfound bravery, I suspected, could be credited partly to kava, a narcotic the Nambas drink. Bowls of the liquid, made from the root of a bush, Piper methysticum, are served on a large bark tray before which each man kneels and drinks with as much noise as possible. Men and boys often gathered in the nakamal, the men's hut, to talk and drink kava until morning. At one gathering, I raised the sub ject of their former cannibalistic practices a topic they're usually reluctant to discuss. "All same what em time you kaikai man? -What about the times you ate human flesh?" I asked. To my surprise, a tribesman responded readily. "Time ee got man belong kaikai small no more by and by man ee full up When there was man to eat, only a little bit would fill you up." "You like em kaikai white man?" I asked. "Meat belong im stink too muss," he replied. Human flesh was roasted over a fire or cooked into a laplap, a bland baked paste, the tribesmen recalled. But they never killed simply to satisfy hunger. Cannibalism was a ritual, they emphasized, performed to avenge a death or to settle a quarrel. As they discussed their years as Malekula's fearsome warriors, I detected nostalgia in their tone. If the government had not banned the practice, I suspected they would remain cannibals today. The thought gave me a few moments of concern until I remembered what one of the tribesmen had said about taste preferences. If they were still cannibals, I decided, they would eat me last. Q Heir to a dying culture, a Big Namba girl affectionately clutches her father's hand. She faces an uncertain future. Like many other Big Nambas, her parents may move from their isolated domain to the coast of Malekula in hope of a better life and schooling for their children. As contact with civilization increases, the tribe's old way of life inevitably fades.