Academic journal article Oceania

Handling Sorcery in a State System of Law: Magic, Violence and Kastom in Vanuatu

Academic journal article Oceania

Handling Sorcery in a State System of Law: Magic, Violence and Kastom in Vanuatu

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION (1)

In this paper I draw attention to a domain of cultural heritage in Vanuatu that people often do not want to preserve or protect, but that they often cannot get rid of--namely sorcery or what is known as posen or nakaimas in Vanuatu Pidgin. Like much other cultural heritage, its power resides in its intangible form. Sorcery involves the transferral of secret knowledge and is articulated through relations marked by fear, anger or jealousy. Like other cultural heritage practices, sorcery is also being articulated and transformed through its participation in historical processes of social change.

Occult forces have always played an unwanted and upsetting part in social history. When the colonists imported African slaves to America, they later discovered that they had also unknowingly imported voodoo and zombies. Likewise, in Europe, when the big cities like London began to emerge in the 18th century and, as people were thinking that they had emancipated themselves from the fetters of old beliefs and the evil forces that governed the life of farmers in the rural areas, such as the diseases of humans or livestock, they had sadly to realize that the old magic was still with them. It was now money and investment that suddenly became prey to magic, and homicidal sorcery due to jealousy was rampant in the new urban circumstances (see Davies 1997). Likewise, today, there are reports of widespread witchcraft beliefs and accusations in Africa bound up with situations of great change in relations of production and ideology. In South Africa (Ashforth 2005, Comaroff and Comaroff 1993, Niehaus 2001), Cameroon (Geshiere 1997) and Ghana (Meyer 1999), witchcraft has been shown to articulate itself at the level of the state, entangled in politics, law, government contracts and bureaucratic power. In such contexts, government officials are often suspected to be witches--their demonic magical power closely tied to their economic and political power. Likewise, in contemporary Melanesia, witchcraft and sorcery are perceived as important factors shaping people's living conditions. In Vanuatu nakaimas is something that affects people's life on a daily basis, forming an invisible background to social life and giving new impetus to the energetic activities of churches, healing rituals, relations of gift-giving and sharing, and people's patterns of socialization on the whole.

A number of anthropologists have argued that during the colonial era, with the coming of money and the market place, sorcery was 'democratized.' It was perceived as having become available to anyone and anybody--especially in the streets of towns, around plantations and administrative centres, and in markets where it could be transacted freely without being related to chiefly authority or kinship ties (see Lipuma 1994; Rio 2002; Tonkinson 1981). These new social settings were the new spaces of control, power and exchange. Andrew Lattas (1993) reports from New Britain that new, more powerful forms of sorcery involve supposed sites of civilisation and pacification, such as government stations, schools and churches. Here magistrates, patrol officers and priests are both suffering from sorcery as well as being its new, suspected source. Lattas argues that the state can be experienced as a vehicle of sorcery because of its selective incorporation of certain ethnic groups into its administrative structures. New Britain villagers in the Kaliait and Kove area suspect that the travels of police have provided them with access to new forms of sorcery. The ability of police and magistrates to travel from area to area to extract fines is related to fears of their sorcery. Jean Mitchell has also noted the sorcerer-like status of Vanuatu's national police (see Mitchell 2002).

In these cases sorcery is a form of cultural heritage that belongs to Significant Others-with its power being a new de-territorialised form of national cultural heritage. …

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