Kastom and Sorcery 

Kastom runs deep in Vanuatu society, alongside religion and the law brought by the missionaries, colonialists and the subsequent order of self-government. Custom law is still recognised by the courts while sorcery is not talked about openly and faces a lot of resistance from the religious circles. Every now and then cases about sorcery end up in the courts.

Igbo medicine man Nigeria 1921The tribal roots of Vanuatu, like many old societies still linger in terms of the power of the chiefs and the myriad of customary practices that have survived the introduction of western religion and law. Kastom generally refers to the code of behaviour at the village level to maintain order and respect.

Within Kastom there has always been a branch of ‘white’ (good, healing) sorcery and ‘black’ (evil, destructive) sorcery. A contemporary example of Kastom is the significance of the namele leaf, which incidentally is used by Vanuatu Red Cross as a secondary emblem.

Namele leaves, which are seen on the Vanuatu flag as a sign of peace, along with the pig tusks, a symbol of wealth, are also used as a very strong emblem of taboo. If a senior person or family feels they have the right to the fruit of a particular tree, all they have to do is tie a namele leaf on the trunk. Anyone breaking the taboo is liable to a fine that will be reinforced by the chief of the village. The leaves are also used frequently to convey ‘no passage’ when crossed before a roadway or path.

Vanuatu flag with namele leavesIn some ways, Kastom and even sorcery represent ways by which many ni-Vanuatu maintain links with their heritage and culture. For example, Ambrym Island is still renowned for sorcery. At the same time, the churches discourage elements of Kastom, particularly sorcery and often exaggerate the extent of the practice. 

The reader can research to form their own views and below are some interesting links on the subject.

The sorcerer as an absented third person: formations of fear and anger in Vanuatu - Knut Rio 2002

Witchcraft casts dark shadow in Vanuatu  - Ben Bohane 2007

And this delightful article: Sorcery meets World Cup in Ambrym 2002