There's a real racial divide in Vanuatu over how people think about black magic. Expats (Peace Corps too) think it's superstition or some way to blame people for accidents/illnesses that weren't anyone's fault except for Papa God's or a poor health care system. But when I think of my family and friends here -- 100% they believe in black magic and it's not a laughing matter at all.
I actually believe in black magic much more now than I did when I first got here. (Is that a sign I've been here too long?) My view of what is and isn't true or real has developed at the same time that my knowledge of this place has deepened. So I thought it'd be good to give a small preview of what black magic is, what people mean when they talk about it, and just general context for understanding this country.
1. Black magic is real. By this, I mean -- magic is real here. Vanuatu is a country that has devils and spirits; it's a country in which prayer is strong; you could say that the spiritual world is much closer and much more present than in America. (But remember -- we also have people who believe in ghosts and aliens and UFOs, and most Americans believe in God, so let's not get confused here about what I'm saying. We do this in our own way). People practice good magic -- my host mother during training went to see a Christian healer to help her conceive a child -- but people also practice black magic. Meaning: there are people who go out into the bush and do dances/use other secret kastom knowledge in the hopes that something bad happens to someone else.
2. It's all about jealousy. There is a lot of envy and jealousy here, I think largely because there's a big disparity between people with good government jobs, people who own stores, and the like, and other people, who don't have the cash to do things that they want. The difference between being able to send your children to high school and having to tell them to stay at home is enormous. On Malekula in particular, there's a lot of arson that goes on out of jealousy. Stores get burned down, the airport building was burn down ten years ago ... It's a problem. A few years back, apparently a lot of horses were killed because of jealousy. This is my tingting nomo but I think the reason people do do black magic is out of anger and jealousy at other people.
3. Reminder: black magic is real. I mean that there are people who confess to doing it and there are people who believe other people are doing it, too.
4. I refuse to believe that sorcerors can take the form of animals, sorry. What I do believe is real: people do dances in the bush. These dances and other secret kastom knowledge are intended to lead to something bad happening to someone else. If or when something bad does happen, you know it's you. Also: I believe in poison. I think poison is real and that some people do have knowledge of herbs and plants that other people don't know about. Also, sweet mouth -- think island roofies. And also, I don't know a lot about this, but sometimes people say black magic is related to some objects you can make, and that they can give you power, but make other people sick. I don't want to be too explicit here because I'm talking about someone I know pretty well, and I think the sickness they attributed to black magic could have been cured with a knee brace.
That being said, here's time for some island-style information on avoiding black magic .
1. Don't get anyone really mad at you. That means say you're sorry, island-style if necessary. (Island style means you hold a sorry ceremony and come with your whole family to meet with their whole family, exchange gifts, and shake hands, vowing to never again be angry with each other.)
2. Don't eat food given by anyone you don't know or trust. Don't drink kava if you don't see where they're getting it from. Don't eat someone's leftovers because it could have been poison.
3. Look after where you put your hair and your toenail clippings. Don't give your hair to people.
4. (This is South Malekula): Don't throw rubbish from your food like banana peels or coconuts all around. Take them with you and bury them when you're alone.