Saturday, December 13, 2008

Kastom and religion

Kastom is something I don't know if I'll ever fully understand here in Vanuatu. From what I think I do get so far, it seems to be the way of life, the way of thinking, the culture, the default. It would seem to be that although most in Vanuatu would call themselves Christians, a true understanding of the Gospel is not held and a strange mixture of the religiosity of Christianity, animism and kastom exists. Below are some examples of how this manifests and believe me, there are hundreds of other examples like these out there, these are just some I've heard first-hand from ni-Van friends and think I am portraying accurately from what I've learned just in the short 4 months I've been here. (Keep in mind too that all of these examples are things that were shared with me in Bislama so I may not have understood fully but these are as accurate as I know how to make them.)

Magreth and her family mainly attend the New Covenant church branch on the same grounds as all their homes. The service time is set to be the same time as "the morning dew" because one can "feel God more" at that time. A crudely built box sits on the family property. This box has the purpose of containing bad behaviors and thoughts. When a person goes to a certain church, they decide to change. They must then build a box and place all their "rubbish" thoughts and behaviors into it. From that time on then, they can do what is good. The box is behind Wini (holding Addy) in these pictures. I wasn't taking pictures of the box specifically so sorry, it's a bit hard to see.

Mary sat on the bus holding branches filled out with leaves. She explained that the leaves were from a gum tree and were for making medicine (as a remedy for swallowing too much salt from the ocean and then having a sore belly). However, the leaves alone are nothing, it's the prayer over the leaves that make them able to heal. Water is boiled over the fire and a leaf or two is added. The resulting liquid is prayed over and the sick person drinks it and then recovers. Man, woman, and child can drink this liquid. In the past with kastom, the leaf was believed to be enough, but Mary goes to a church here in town in which she and others feel they have gifts of prayer and healing. Now she believes it to be the prayer over the leaf that actually makes the sick person well. Mary's children are all grown and all living and have children of their own. She reports that neither she nor they have any problems now because she is a Christian. She feels that because she is a Christian, so are they. Evidently everyone in Vanuatu is a Christian now, including me because I live here now. The strong evidence she gave as supporting this claim is that everyone is always happy in Vanuatu and always smiling and people share everything with each other.

Evelyn's daughter's father headed out and hasn't been in the picture since; a common occurrence in Vanuatu. She married the father of her 2nd child, Joe (here with her). Once they were married, they decided they wanted kids together. They knew she couldn't get pregnant however, because they knew him to be sterile (he knew from past experience so I understand, and they had it verified with a doctor at the local hospital). In order for Evelyn to become pregnant, they decided to go to a medicine man (kleva). He boiled a leaf and had Evelyn drink the resulting water. Shortly after, she became pregnant and later gave birth to Joe.

I visited my friend Claudia at the hospital where she was staying with her husband, Ronnie. Ronnie went to the hospital complaining of weakness and stomach pain. He was fatally low on blood so over the course of several days, received multiple blood transfusions. The majority of this blood came from family members who were expected to come in and be tested (for blood type and HIV) to donate to him. After a few days of transfusions, he is able to walk around again and has gained back most of his color and energy. There was no real explanation or testing for the cause of the stomach pain, but mainly because Ronnie and his relatives feel the stomach issue is a spiritual one. They believe that an enemy or kleva (someone with knowledge of kastom spells) of some kind mixed up a poison and got it into his food at some point. The reason given for why someone might do this is that they might be jealous of his nice house (keep in mind that their house is a two bedroom the size of my office at Willow Creek Elementary with no running water and one lightbulb.) Now that poison (possibly a demon, they felt) is in his belly causing pain. Two options have been discussed within the family for how to remedy this. One is to pay a woman who works at a local ("evangelical") church here who "works on the side of prayer" (or is considered to be a woman with a gifting of healing and prayer). She has offered to pray over a water bottle and gave directions that Ronnie should pour some of the water over his hands, rub them together, and then rub his hands on his belly. Finally, he would drink the remaining water from the bottle. Within the day, the poison/demon would pass out of his body. The second option is to pay for a flight to Tanna island to visit a very powerful medicine man/kleva. This man would pray over his belly, boil a leaf in water, have Ronnie drink the water, and again, this would make the poison/demon pass from his stomach. The family hasn't yet decided which option to choose but everyone is giving their input and when the doctors have fixed his blood issue, one or the other will be followed.

In Port Vila, there may be a church around every bend (read my post on "church"), and many in the villages around Vanuatu, but dependence remains on kastom and animism. Pray for understanding of the gospel here in Vanuatu and for freedom from fear. Pray for discernment for me and our team, as well as other Christian workers here - that we may be able to share the Gospel clearly and not introduce further syncretism (mixing of beliefs) or confusion. Also that we may be able to discern what is simply herbal medicine or remedies and what is spiritism.

1 comment:

Barb said...

Hi Laura,
I met you over a year ago at Frontier Bible in Wyoming at the Missions conference in Nov 2007. You had written your name and email and blogspot down for me and it was misplaced until just today. I had forgotten your name and so I went in and began reading your blog....then I remembered you. It has been interesting to read through some of your experiences in Vanuatu. I will continue to check in on your blog once in a while and please know I will be praying for you.How much longer will you be in Vanuatu? My husband Larry and I are still serving with TWR-Asia and are in Singapore. We do travel to many of the countries in Asia as Larry is project manager as well as many other "hats". We are so thankful for the ministry opportunity the Lord has given us and as we are able we plan to continue here. Have a great day. I will try and keep in touch with you.
Barb Petersen