National Geographic : 1972 Jan
Taboos and Magic Rule Namba Lives ARTICLE AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY KAL MULLER " fAL, KAL, YOU COME! Ee got one some Sting taboo little bit you savvy look!" A flashlight's gleam jarred me out of Sleep. Three villagers, each gripping a burning torch of dried wild cane and one wielding the flashlight as well, stood by my bed of banana leaves. "You come, you come," they pleaded, re peating their promise to show me something "taboo little bit." I glanced at my wristwatch. Shortly after midnight. Groggy, I grabbed two cameras and stumbled out of the hut. Hurrying to keep pace with my three guides, while the cool air cleared my head, I tried to learn where we were going and why. "You me go long what em place?" I asked in pidgin. "All same what em?" "You wait," the lead guide replied. "By and by you savvy look." We raced along a seldom used trail wind ing out of the New Hebrides village of Len dombwey. Branches stung my face and thick roots threatened to trip me. I managed to mount a wide-angle lens and flash unit on one camera, and then purposely slipped with a cry of pain that stopped my impatient guides long enough for me to set the aperture. Now I was ready for the unexpected. If a taboo was about to be broken on my behalf, at least I could photograph the event. I had arrived in south-central Malekula about two weeks earlier to visit a Melanesian people who are perhaps the most traditional ist in the New Hebrides, the archipelago jointly governed by France and Britain (maps, page 59). The island's European copra plant ers call them "Small Nambas," in acknowl edgment of the men's most distinctive adorn ment, a sort of fig leaf made from strips of banana foliage. Namba means "penis wrap per" in the local variety of pidgin English. The men of a related tribe living in north central Malekula, whom I visited several times, wear a purple-dyed mass of woven pandanus leaves-attire that has earned them the name "Big Nambas." Fashion requires false tresses for this Big Namba woman of Malekula Is land in the New Hebrides. Should she inadvertently come within sight of one of her husband's brothers, a taboo demands that she crouch and hide her face behind the purple-dyed "hair" of shredded pandanus leaves. The Big Nambas and the Small Nambas-two tiny groups numbering perhaps 250 in all-pre serve a vanishing way of life in the mountainous interior. Now tourists have begun to visit the Big Nambas, but Small Namba villages remain remote.