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Thursday, 10 March 2011

the Small Nambas of Malakula



small nambas header


Size doesn’t matter, or so we are told. On the island of Malakula (or Malekula depending on which way you swing) in the island archipelago nation of Vanuatu, in the south pacific, two tribal groupings dominate. These two main tribal groupings take the names “Big Nambas” and “Small Nambas”. Now in Vanuatu Bislama, the pidgin English-come-lingua franca of the area, namba is essentially translated as “number”. But in the context of the Big and Small Nambas of Malakula the “namba” is essentially the penis! Or at least the covering that covers the penis and gives the impression of “it’s” size. Malakula was named by Lt. James Cook, who in turn attributed the name to the French, which with some liberal translating, literally means “pain in the arse”! This name came about from the fact that the tribes of Malakula seemed to be permanently on a war like footing and  then throw in some active volcanoes, and neither the British nor the French were keen to hang around this place.


Small Nambas A chief of South West Malakula, quite proud of his Small Namba


Now on Malakula, the Big Nambas have the need to increase their “size” with clay and other products so that when wrapped in a banana leaf, the “namba” definitely gives any casual observer the impression it is larger than it really is. Whilst on the other side of the island, the Small Nambas are quite happy with their natural size and use no enhancements but a simple banana leaf to cover their “namba”. Anthropologists have been flocking to Malakula for decades to study these ancient yet living cultures as they are today. Lapita pottery dating back to early migrations can be found and fascinating legends and cultural practices abound. Yet I would love to see the results of a psychologists study of the region into why half the island finds the need to enhance there “namba” whilst the other half are quite happy being known to the world as the Small Nambas!


Small Nambas of Tsiri Lagoon Small Nambas of Lembinwen Village, Malakula with their Spirit figure


small nambas lembinwen Small Nambas of South West Bay, Malakula


Life today in Malakula has not changed much since Captain Cook first turned up. Christianity quelled the head hunting and cannibalism around a hundred years ago, but other wise life goes on similar to how it always has. Life revolves around a typical village subsistence existence which outside of gardening includes hunting. The Malakulan tradition of “hunting” fish is unusual, where men perch themselves amongst the branches of mangrove trees, and using their keen eye sight and a bow and arrow, hunt fish amongst the mangrove roots.


fish hunting tsiri lagoon Malakulan style fish “hunting” in Tsiri Lagoon


A source of protein hunted in a slightly more modern style, that is with a rifle, is the Flying Fox. Anyone who has been close to a Flying Fox colony would know the smell that is associated with these animals, so you can imagine the taste is not that far removed from that smell. The classic cliché “tastes like chicken” does not apply to the strong flavour of the Flying Fox I can assure you.


wintua hunting flying fox George Thompson of Wintua Village prepares for a Flying Fox hunt


wintua flying fox hunt A successful hunt


prepare flying fox Preparing the Flying Fox for dinner


flying fox curry Wintua Village Guest House’s famous Flying Fox Curry


The high ridge lines of the southern end of Malakula are the traditional lands of the Small Nambas. In the hills behind Lawa Village one can find evidence of this ancient culture in many forms. A giant funerary pile, filled with literally hundreds of bones marks the pre-Christian burial site for basically every Small Namba of the South West region. Once Christianity reached these shores people were buried in more “traditional western style” cemeteries. Not far from the giant funerary pile lies a sacred altar where animals were sacrificed prior to hunting, to ensure a bountiful hunt. Also nearby a giant tree emerging high above the canopy of the surrounding rainforest is known as the “keeper of souls”. It is believed the tree houses every soul not currently being used by an earthly body, and pregnant woman must visit the tree to be granted a soul for their yet unborn baby. Not visiting the tree will cause the baby to be born soul-less! Still nearby the traditional dancing ground, with a giant split log “tam” drum in the centre, in turn the centre of all cultural and spiritual events for the Small Nambas of this area. Despite the overwhelming success of Christianity many of the animistic traditions and beliefs remain in one form or another today.


lawa funerary pile The giant ancient funerary pile behind Lawa Village Malakula


lawa tam tam drum Decaying away in the rainforest is this giant split log “Tam” drum of Lawa Village


Yet amongst this ancient culture, this subsistence life, their animistic spirit figures and traditions, it is their Small Nambas that set them apart. How many other global tribal groups would proudly and happily identify themselves as the people with the small ones……..



Me and a Small Namba Me and a Small Namba……

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