Where leaves make the sun shine

In some corners of the world, people have yet to lose their belief in magic...

In Vanuatu, people seldom ascribe anything to chance. When good things happen, it is because God is listening to the islanders' prayers. When bad things happen, it is because of sorcery.

If a person falls ill suddenly, men with magic leaves are invariably blamed. The only cure to the illness is to find another magic leaf that will heal the curse; modern medicine is tried only as a last resort. If the victim dies, the grieving family will seek revenge on the person believed to be responsible. An exchange of tit-for-tat sorcery is often the result. Occasionally these magical feuds end up in the courts, where the accusations are treated with complete seriousness. More commonly, they descend into earthly violence. In Port Vila, the capital of the Pacific archipelago, the accusation that a woman had been murdered by sorcercy recently sparked a riot between rival groups of islanders, and led to the killing of two more people.

When they are not busy cursing their enemies, sorcerers control the islands' weather, using magic leaves to make it rain when their water supplies run low. Other leaves can make the sun shine.

Desperate young men in Vanuatu use magic in the pursuit of women. If the bulb of a torch light is rubbed in the ash from a particular leaf that has been burned, a desirable girl at whom the torch is pointed will be drawn to the person holding it. This modified torch can also be used for stealing. Point the light at your neighbour's pig, and it will follow you away to a place where you can roast and eat it without being seen.

An alternative way of stealing is to find a leaf that will make you invisible. One thief used this form of magic to sneak past an unseeing storekeeper and take a bundle of cash; he then used another spell to turn himself into a fruit bat and escape out of the window. The story had a tragic ending when the fruit bat fell into the sea and drowned. Perhaps the magic had worn off.

Not all forms of sorcery are sinister. Playful children in parts of Vanuatu use magic to help them fly. After spreading special leaves on the ground, lying down and closing their eyes, they can feel their bodies soaring through the air. They might open their eyes to find themselves in a completely different place from where they began.

Adult sorcerers who wish to travel without the effort of walking prefer to transform themselves into fruit bats instead, or to turn into dolphins and swim along the coast. You can see these shape-shifting magicians for yourself, people told me, but only if you rub your eyes with a rare kind of leaf.

I don't believe in magic, I insisted.

The islanders were surprised. After all, they have seen plenty of evidence that their magic works. A man casts a rain-making spell and the sky clouds over; clearly the leaves have done their job. A person with many enemies dies suddenly; what could be responsible other than a malevolent curse? And if a piece of magic happens to fail, there are plenty of excuses. The ritual was wrongly performed, the would-be sorcerer lacked sufficient faith in the spirits, or somebody was performing a counter-curse. It is not in human nature to believe that the world is random.

My friends in Vanuatu were saddened by the fact that I had no sense of magic. To them I was a Muggle, naïve about the terrible dangers posed by sorcery, whilst tragically blinded to the wonderful things that could be done by those who still knew how.

Poor white man, they said to themselves. He cannot be expected to understand our world.



Full diaries of my travels in the Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2007