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For forty years the Mbwotegot of south central Malekula in Vanuatu emphatically resisted missionary intrusion and retained ancestral cosmological beliefs. Finally, after long standing and continuing depopulation they invited the Presbyterian Church into their communities in the mid-1980s. This doctoral research project explores how contemporary Mbwotegot contextualise traditional ceremonial practice with Christian theology and ‘modern’ norms.
One of these ceremonial practices is the initiation of young men into the secret nalawan, embodying community and ‘place’. As Mbwotegot are now blessed with many children, the nalawan is reinvigorated. But knowledge is constructed at different levels and the most secret nalawan knowledge; that which underpins the cosmology of place, is demonstrated publicly only during the funerary nemasien. The nemasien are irregular but spectacular intergenerational re-affirmations of knowledge. As the practices of higher nalawan and nemasien wane, prominent Mbwotegot seek to maintain their relevance by interpreting a continuity between Mbwotegot and Christian cosmology.
However, it is unclear whether traditional Mbwotegot nalawan knowledge will remain robust enough to hold authority when future population pressures again create the need for authoritative public claims to contested places. How then will the story be retold?
Image:A firm hand on tradition guides Mbwotgot futures. Metak Lemap at his clan nasara (ceremonial ground), 2015. Photo by Paul Mitchell