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Sorcery and Negotiating Economic Agency: A Critical Observation from Solomon Islands.


There is a widespread belief in sorcery throughout contemporary Melanesia with illness, death and other misfortunes like bankrupt businesses, less than productive food gardens and failure at school or university blamed on practices of sorcery (Forsyth and Eves 2015). Throughout Melanesia, sorcery is also a topic of conversation in everyday life, generating gossip and conjecture (Taylor and Araujo 2016:197). The pervasive influence of sorcery was brought home to me when discussing where to build a small garden nursery with donated materials by a grassroots agricultural development organization in Central Kwara'ae, Malaita, Solomon Islands. (1) As the materials were already near one of the member's houses who had one of the group's most prominent demonstration gardens, it had been chosen as the place to build the nursery rather than carry the materials in searing heat and humidity half an hour further 'up bush' to where the organization had a small training centre. However, some members disagreed and believed the nursery should be built 'up bush' and away from the villages and the main path that carried a lot of foot traffic as people walked to catch transport to the provincial capital of Auki. The reason for this discussion was that some members were concerned about nafa (pronounced naha), a type of sorcery. Nafa is said to spoil things for other people and the main reason given for this wanting to spoil are feelings of envy and jealously. The connections to gardens are pertinent as most Malaitans still rely on a subsistence or semi-subsistence lifestyle and gardens are a common target for nafa. Thus, if there is jealousy in a community or between family members, the garden may be attacked with nafa. As Dio explained,
When someone comes into your garden and starts complimenting you on
it, then he might be jealous and also have a hikyea (spell) which he
can transfer to you or to the garden. The garden might get sick and
you may also get lazy and not work as hard in your garden, so it
spoils (Interview, Dio, Malaita 11 January 2016)

One of Dio's sons who also worked teaching business management and marketing at a local vocational college added,
When businesses fail, nafa is also used as a reason why the business
has been spoiled. Sometimes the hikyea is put onto a coin that is
given to the shop and the shop will then go out of business. I hear
nafa being the excuse why businesses fail a lot in my business
classes. (Interview, Austin, Malaita 11 January 2016).

Dio chopped some safu safu (local tobacco) with a bush knife to make a cigarette and explained further,
Nafa is common now because when people see new things, sometimes they
get jealous and want to spoil them for you. They think you are getting
ahead. That is nafa [...] Nowadays, people want to live and eat with
money and when they do not have it, it makes them jealous. They think
other people are getting something and getting ahead and stopping them
from getting it [...] Before things like nafa had a kastom purpose,
now anyone can use it to spoil things. Even though we are all
Christians you still have to be careful, as anyone can use it against
you (Interview, Dio, Malaita 11 January 2016).

These comments hint at underlying issues that are pertinent to discussing balancing economic agencies so as to not engender envy and jealously that may then be manifest as acts of sorcery. The first point is nafa is linked to development concerns such as how to get more of the benefits that are seen to come from access to the 'modern' cash economy. Linked to this are feelings of jealousy and envy when some of the expected spoils of development have not materialized-except for some- and where inequalities have become more visible and recognized. Such visibility is enhanced in areas like the villages in Central Kwara'ae where this research was undertaken and where rapid social change has occurred. One reason for this social change is the villages are in easy walking distance to the large village of Kilusikwalo, from which there is regular transport to the provincial capital, Auki, 5 km away. Auki has been at the forefront of development activity on Malaita as it is where the post office, daily market, banks, health services, access to education are, as well as the departure point for femes and cargo ships going to the nation's capital, Honiara. As such, people are in easy access to Honiara and Auki and the social and economic aspirations offered by these urban spaces. Some of the implications to such access and resulting social changes have been expressed by some elders in the location of Central Kwara'ae in terms of valuable cultural knowledge being lost at a rapid pace as well as an appreciation of who people are, culturally speaking, and where they came from (Spann 2018:39) as they continue to turn towards a tua malafaka'anga life (meaning a life or living in imitation of the white man) (Welchman-Gegeo 1998:292, 300, 306). These reflections by some locals are also situated within wider concerns over loss of traditional values, practices and social relations from forces of modernization such as development and Christianity in Kwara'ae culture (Burt 2001:269) although these traditional values, practices and social relations still play a role in varying degrees for many people. The importance of these traditional values, practices and social relations are thus highlighted through critical engagements with alleged acts of sorcery as these engagements can help to illuminate deeper tensions between 'modern' developmentalist individualism and 'traditional' dividual obligations of reciprocity and sharing.

Such tensions can also lead to a sense of nostalgia from some local people for when 'traditional' structures of authority and kinship (and their associated values) were more prominent in organizing society. Thus, as per Dio's comment, sorcery, although recognized as being detrimental to the harmony of communities (both then and now), is associated by some with traditional practices or perhaps more associated with wider political structures in society that kept it in check during times of social, political and economic flux to limit 'anyone using it against you'. There are historical precedents for such feelings in Malaita as well. For instance, in the 1930s, after the island had been largely 'pacified', some Malaitans called for colonial authorities to criminalize sorcery as attacks had allegedly increased because of pacification. This increase was put down to the colonial authorities stamping out other more physical ways of attacking enemies, leaving sorcery as an available option. These other prohibited means of attack as well as the now weakened political structures of 'traditional' Malaitan society had kept sorcery under control (Akin 2013:91). I suggest this because in Kwara'ae traditional culture, sorcery was used without the justification and authority of the established political and religious authorities in order to avoid retaliation. In short, an individual used it secretly without the support of the community (Burt 2001:79) and hence it placed the user outside of accepted social norms both then and now. Despite this, there has been a perceived increase in sorcery related incidents by some locals--like Dio--in recent times in Central Kwara'ae (Foana'ota 2015). (2) This perceived increase thus makes it pertinent to open up discussions on some of the underlying causes. In doing so, I advance that one important cause of the perceived increase in sorcery is that idealized capitalist social relations that privilege possessive individualism to enable a possessive market society (Macpherson 1962) often run counter to distribution based cultural and social relations premised on networks of obligation and reciprocity that are common in Melanesia. I highlight this cause in order to illustrate how some locals recognize the necessity of balancing both the possessive and distributive categories as this often-difficult balance limits opportunities for attacks of sorcery to be directed against them. In short, I argue that some Kwara'ae seek to balance possessive and distributive economic agency as sorcery is one manifestation for failing to do so.

I develop my argument through the three following broad steps. I begin by historicizing some of the specific challenges of economic development that Malaita faces and how these challenges of economic development intersect with accusations of sorcery. This also helps to situate accusations of sorcery into wider historical complexities of socio-economic and political life and changing economic and social circumstances.

Next, I map out the analytical framework for the article. This is drawn from Taylor's (2015) analytical categories of 'distributive' and 'possessive' economic agency. These two analytical categories and the relationship between them helps to explicate why many Melanesians equate possessive agency with individual aspects of personhood, capital accumulation and selfishness and contrast it to positive cultural values of reciprocity and distribution.

Following this, I provide an extended critical discussion on a case example of a Kwara'ae entrepreneur and how he negotiates distributive and possessive economic agency in order to curtail opportunities of sorcery against himself and his businesses. I do so not only to highlight how Taylor's critical analytical framework 'travels' across Melanesian spaces but also to illustrate that accusations of sorcery are often embedded in land disputes and wider clan politics concerning what pathways of development should be taken.


Solomon Islands' place in the wider world economy began with whaling ships and trade between Europeans and Islanders. However, even at this early stage, trade was not equally spread throughout the islands and the levels of material affluence amongst groups within the archipelago began to grow with the increased trade and more contact (Bennett 1987:44). Whilst Solomon Islanders were being increasingly drawn into the transnational capitalist system, both Moore (2007) and Bennett (1987, 2002) highlight Malaita was not an important 'node' in the trade of the commodities wanted by the foreign traders but Malaitans still desired the trade goods offered by them that were circulating through the islands (Moore 2007:215). In short, the items that were a mainstay of the 'traditional' Malaitan political economy, that is, shell money and porpoise teeth wealth were not of interest to the whalers or the traders (Moore 2007:216). Thus, for the Malaitans other methods had to be sought to obtain trade goods that now included much-prized firearms to be used in local disputes (Akin 2013:15-6). Of course, this could be done through trading with other islands, which unlike Malaita, had more access to contact and trade goods but a new opportunity presented itself; labour ships in the early 1870s seeking recruits to work on the newly established plantations of Samoa, Fiji, Queensland or on the mines and farms of New Caledonia (Bennett 2002:3). In short, due to their lack of desirable trade goods, 'Malaitans had little to offer, but their labour' (Bennett 2002:3). Consequently, Malaitans formed the bulk of the labour force for the plantations in Queensland and Fiji (Moore 2007:217). For some Malaitans, this leaving the island to work overseas is the beginning of a deeper micronationalist narrative of Malaitan inequality compared to other provinces. This narrative continued throughout the colonial period where Malaita was left out of the pacification strategy for economic development which centred around establishing domestic coconut plantations to raise revenue. One of the main reasons for this was in the hunt for 'wasteland' or uninhabited land, Malaita was unsuitable as it was (and still is) the most populated island. Thus, Malaita's place in the colonial economic system was that it was seen 'as a labour pool rather than a site of plantations' (Akin 2013:20). Malaitans as the 'labour pool' for the nation was sedimented after World War Two and Independence in 1978 as the province continued to supply the labour for resource development enclaves such as the palm oil plantations on Guadalcanal, which, like nearby and rapidly expanding Honiara, acted as a magnet (Moore 2007:226). One province being seen (and seeing itself) as a labour pool is of course a symptom of spatial inequalities of economic development and an uneven penetration of capitalism in Solomon Islands (Allen 2013:188) but for some Malaitans, there has been wilful and deliberate neglect by both colonial and national governments of Malaita's own economic development as long promised development projects for the province continually fail to materialize.' In short, these historical conditions as well as the alleged neglect from various governments since independence have created and sedimented feelings of relative deprivation when Malaitans compare themselves to other provinces but also increasingly to each other within the province as material inequalities become more visible within their communities.

These material inequalities become more heightened near centres of development such as Auki as many of the benefits that have come from capitalist development are concentrated, visible and available in such spaces. As stated before, the villages where the research for this paper was undertaken are relatively close to Malaita's small provincial capital, Auki. In recent times, Auki has experienced an 11.6% annual urban growth rate and now over 5000 people are classed as 'urban dwellers' in Malaita (SIG 2013:xxi, 16, 17). In short, Auki and its surrounds are rapidly expanding as people move to be closer to the employment, education, health and transport services that it offers. Despite such ongoing urbanization, however, less than 15% percent of Malaitan households rely on income through the formal sector (SIG 2013:113) and are economically (cash) poor. In essence, the majority of Malaitans are 'subsistence farmers relying on traditional agriculture [swidden/shifting cultivation] for both livelihoods and cash income' (MPG 2013:12). This agriculture takes place on customary managed land; approximately 90 per cent of land on Malaita is designated as being under customary land management (MPG 2013:14) or where access to land and control over this land is dependent upon 'social norms, hierarchies and kinship systems' (Allen et al. 2013:vii). Despite their location near the provincial capital, this reliance on access to gardens and little insertion into the formal economy is still the norm for most of the villagers around Auki, and thus the rural/urban divide is becoming increasingly blurred with locations reflecting characteristics of both. This blurring of characteristics in relation to sorcery is important as Taylor (2015) and McDonnell (2015) both assert that in urban areas a heavier reliance on cash and commodity exchange lends itself to differing levels of economic growth amongst individuals that begets sorcery allegations whereas in rural areas, sorcery is commonly linked to land disputes.

However, in places where the urban and rural is blurred, accusations of sorcery stemming from envy and jealously over unequal social and economic advancement are often entangled with land disputes surrounding customary managed land (Kanairara and Futaiasi 2015:281). One reason for such entanglement is unequal social and economic advancement and tensions over land in Solomon Islands has often been connected to capitalist transformation and the associated changes in social relations that come with such a transformation (Burt 1994; Welchman-Gegeo 1991). The commodification of land for sale or lease for the purpose of 'development' can also reveal simmering (and often long-term) disputes over what land should be used by whom and for what purpose. These disputes and the subsequent accusations of sorcery associated with them can therefore help uncover epistemological differences concerning development and different ideas about how place based cultural and economic goals can be achieved through land-based livelihoods (Allen 2013:172-177; Curry 2003; McDonnell et al. 2017:8-10; McDougall 2005; Welchman-Gegeo 1998:297-300). The connection between these issues is certainly apparent in the case example that will be fleshed out later in the article as well as how people negotiate to try and balance the possessive and distributive economic agencies in local complex socio-political landscapes. The following section will outline Taylor's (2015) analytical categories of 'possessive' and 'distributive' agencies in order to provide the critical framework to investigate negotiations between them.


There is a perception amongst some scholars that sorcery is on the increase across Melanesia because of unequal access to the envisaged spoils of development and the cash economy (Dousset 2015; Foana'ota 2015; Forsyth and Eves 2015). In some cases, this increase in sorcery can be interpreted as a response to widening inequalities caused by a shift from a largely 'moral economy' underpinned by forms of gift exchange that emphasize sharing, obligation and reciprocity along extended networks of kinship groupings (McDonald 2014:35). The shift to more market oriented economic practices also highlights moral tensions that arise as some people in communities embrace these market-oriented practices to varying degrees whilst others hold onto 'thick' values and relations that continue to 'generate significant value in terms of emotional well-being and satisfaction for individuals and communities' (Curry and Koczberski 2012:379). These tensions illustrate whilst individual economic self-interest and possessive individualism increasingly influence people's lives throughout both rural and urban Melanesia, non-market relations are still central to identity and value formation (Martin 2007; Sykes 2007).

Taylor (2015) critically investigates these moral tensions because of this shift specifically through accounts of sorcery and witchcraft in Luganville, Vanuatu. In doing so, he introduces two categories of economic agency: possessive and distributive. These build on the 'individual' and 'dividual' categories of personhood. 'Individual' and 'dividual' categories speak to the distinction between individualist practices commonly associated with 'western' framings of development, modernity and personhood and 'dividual' 'indigenous patterns of partible personhood and society' (Mosko 2013:168). The latter indicates personhood is constitutive of connections to culture, land, language, and importantly exchanges of material goods, knowledge and labor. In other words, the extended web of relations that constitutes a person in a dividual society is very different when compared to the idea of the 'individual'; that is a self-enclosed and self-maximizing agent whose identity and motivations are ostensibly independent of relationships (Dumont 1977:4). Robbins (2004) believes relationality is the paramount value in Melanesian society as people are composed through the social relations within which they are a part and this transfers to how the proceeds from engaging the 'cash economy' are used to bolster dividual relations. However, there have been tensions around these dividual and individual relations on Malaita since the days of the overseas labour trade as some returning labourers had begun to covet Western notions of individualism and private property that clashed with local ethical systems on how to live (Akin 2013:33). This tension is something that is played out to this very day in Solomon Islands and Melanesia more generally as the importance attached to dividual relations persists (LiPuma 2000).

Although individualism (and dividualism) is an extremely useful heuristic that has gained much traction, it can also be utilized to indicate a problematic non-relational distinction between 'gift-exchange' societies (i.e. distributive Melanesian societies) and 'commodity exchange' societies (i.e. possessive individual capitalist societies) (Carrier 1992; Gregory 1982; Mauss 1969 [1923]). However, Taylor argues that acting in a possessive or distributive way is a 'relational practice [that] entails interlinked processes of dividuation and individuation at all turns' (2015:49). The relational nature of distributive and possessive agency and, crucially the need to balance such relations to keep harmony in communities is brought to the fore, according to Taylor, through analysis of why acts of sorcery take place. To further explain, in Bislama, the local lingua franca in Vanuatu, there are the terms 'man wan' (possessive individualism/ agency or man one) and 'man pies' (man place) which denotes a person who distributes resources such as cash, food and labour opportunities through his 'place' (clan, family) networks. The latter has more positive social value placed on it. In short, if a person is too biased towards 'man-wan' and personal success then they leave themselves open to sorcery (Taylor 2015:43). However, 'man-wan' activities can be mediated and balanced through exchange links to kin and family and this mediation through distributive agency illustrates the entangled and relational nature of possessive and distributive agency. This mediation is by no means straightforward as where one sits in the relation between 'man wan' (possessive) and 'man pies' (distributive) is due to the interpretation and evaluation of others and this moral interpretation and evaluation dictates whether people are denoted as moving towards fulfilling obligations of distribution or need to be 'humbled' by sorcery as they are a selfish 'man-wan' (Taylor 2015:44). Furthermore, this inteipretation and evaluation of selfishness characterizes someone tilted more towards possessive economic agency as not abiding by culturally set rules of sociality, which in the Melanesian setting, means they are not fully human as personhood is partible and made up of exchanges through networks (Eves and Forsyth 2015:7). This 'less than human' aspect means that some Melanesians view acts of sorcery as morally justified acts of levelling that are intended to keep harmony in societies. In the Malaitan sense, historically speaking, the fear of sorcery acted as something that could limit the exploitation of resources and ensure co-operation in communities (Moore 2017:8). This levelling flows through to the contemporary setting where it can be argued, achieving such levelling (and harmony) is even more difficult and therefore the complex negotiations between possessive and distributive agencies become more central to everyday contemporary social life across Melanesia (Eves and Forsyth 2015:7; Rio 2010:186; Taylor 2015:44).

I am not suggesting, however, this balance through possessive and distributive negotiations is straightforward and easy to achieve. To further exemplify the fluidity of these negotiations to achieve balance is also to consider possessive agency is not merely restricted to capital accumulation and material wealth but can also encompass cultural and social capital. Thus, acts which from one perspective- say an aspiring entrepreneur who had already accumulated more materially than others- setting up a 'community development' project as an act of community minded generosity and distributive agency may be interpreted as using this project as a form of self-promotion to try and grow both their social and material capital to get further ahead (see e.g. Taylor 2015). In other words, an act, which on one level may be seen as trying to balance possessive and distributive agencies and thus curtail chances of sorcery being directed at them may, through the interpretive framework of others, actually expose people even more to morally justified acts of sorcery as Taylor argues (2015:40,8). This will be explicated further in the next section when critically investigating a case example.

Working through Taylor's categories of possessive and distributive agencies, this section established an interpretative and relational analytical framework that sorcery sits within in wider Melanesia. This framework reveals the entanglement of contemporary economic and social life in Melanesia and the difficult negotiations stemming from trying to balance the possessive and distributive in a manner that aligns with cultural values in times of economic and social change. The next section will focus on a contemporary example from Central Kwara'ae in Solomon Islands. This section will highlight how sorcery, rather than being seen as a 'one off action is actually embedded in wider cultural and political constellations thus making the negotiations between possessive and distributive economic agency more challenging.


Burt (2001) suggests 'the basic techniques of sorcery are common knowledge' (2001:79) on Malaita and Allen et al. (2013) found that 'sorcery was regularly raised as a cause of disputation and disharmony at the local level' particularly on Malaita (2013:33).
There is crazy kelema everywhere now. Houses getting burned down in
revenge for attacks. It has always been there, but there is more now'
(Interview, Sale, Brisbane 12 May 2017)

The above was part of a strange conversation to be having in suburban Brisbane, Australia, which although only a two-and-a-half-hour flight from the capital of Solomon Islands, was a world removed and where such talk of sorcery would elicit raised eyebrows if overheard. Sale is a young businessman who lives in Central Kwara'ae and has a small printing shop in Auki as well as owning a mini-van that ferries people to Auki and back. As the printing shop also sells laptops, flash drives and other computer and stationary items, Sale makes irregular visits to Brisbane, Australia to source some of the items as well as supplies for his photocopiers as it is easier and cheaper (even with the flight) to get these items from Brisbane rather than from suppliers in Honiara. These businesses have allowed him to construct a large permanent house on customary managed land (a permanent house with an 'iron' (tin) roof as opposed to a thatched roof is seen as a marker of modernization and development in rural Solomon Islands) as well as buying a second hand 4WD. He is also part of the Faibusia, one of the smallest clans that make up the Kwara'ae (which is the largest linguistic group in Solomon Islands). His business, house, vehicle and trips to Brisbane make him one of the most visible members of the Faibusia clan living in Central Kwara'ae, the majority of whom still live in thatched roof leaf houses and subsist solely off their gardens. He is also seen as one of the community leaders for organizing church missions and other community minded events.

We were on the topic of sorcery after I had asked Sale about how one of his young wantoks had recovered after an alleged sorcery attack that I had become aware of during a research trip to Malaita in January 2016. Like many Kwara'ae, he uses kelema as a catchall phrase for all different types of sorcery even though kelema is traditionally associated with killing people through sorcery. Thus, kelema is different from arua which is associated with woman. It is thought that an arua gets a snake in her belly, gives birth to it and keeps it safe in the bush as she treats it like a child. The snake is fed on the food and waste from the person you want to afflict and that is how the transfer of sickness takes place. Rats and frogs are also associated with arua. Kelema is said to originate from Fataleka in East Kwara'ae whilst arua is from North Malaita. This attribution is because the Kwara'ae 'credit people of other languages with special sorcery powers which Kwara'ae may obtain from them' (Burt 2001:79). This attack, which was said to have taken place in a small village in Central Kwara'ae could be said to exemplify the dark underbelly of kinship, as a teenager had allegedly been possessed by a dead spirit as his father had signed up to a seasonal work program in New Zealand as he wanted to earn money to build a permanent house. (4) Another clan member, who was like a brother to the father, felt jealous as he had been left out of the plan and allegedly had commanded the spirit of a dead elder of the clan to possess the teenager and give instructions for the family to leave their house and the village. This attack was said to have been quite violent with much screaming and yelling and the teenager had been held down. However, the teenager had broken free and fled up into the mountains with those that chased him claiming at one stage he had flown like a bird to get away and they were in fact chasing the fleeing spirit. He was eventually found a couple of days later and taken to hospital. During the attack, identification of the perpetrator (i.e. who commanded the dead spirit) had become known as the afflicted teenager was said to have displayed the same mannerisms during the attack as the alleged perpetrator. The alleged perpetrator acting strangely around the village also compounded this evidence. For instance, the alleged perpetrator had been seen alone and acting strangely at night and when people said hello to him they went home and became ill. Whilst the search for the teenage boy was still happening up bush, an angry mob formed around the alleged perpetrator's house threatening retribution and violence, but he managed to escape and flee into the bush. Further trouble was averted, however, as a reconciliation ceremony was arranged in the village and compensation offered. However, later the alleged perpetrator moved to Western Province and the victim of the alleged attack is now seen to have learning difficulties stemming from the incident. A couple of aspects can be considered here. First, the alleged possession of the teenager brings in the important aspect of the akalo (ghost). In traditional Kwara'ae religion akalo may have been animals such as crocodiles, sharks, snakes and eagles but as Burt states, 'most of the akalo which people had dealings with were derived from particular dead persons, and it was these more than any others who dominated human affairs under traditional religion' (2001:52). Whilst Christianity has been a mainstay of the Kwara'ae for many decades, the influence of ghosts is still felt in communities, particularly through dreams and revelations and people becoming mediums for ghosts to speak through another person (Burt 2001:33). Moreover, 'as the ancestors are ever present' (Keesing 1978:245) in most Malaitan cultures, possessions or ravings are not merely explained away as mental disturbances but are often 'defined as spirit possession of some kind (unless they come from the very young, the senile, or the imbecile' (Keesing 1978:247). Whilst, much like sorcery, the importance people attach to these alleged possessions varies but as Sale told me, 'Even though I am a Christian, I can't deny these things. It is part of who we are' (Interview, Sale, Brisbane 12 May, 2017).

On the surface, the sorcery attack that was said to have taken place was the result of jealousy and envy and had nothing to do with a land dispute or tribal politics, but closer inspection does reveal issues surrounding land and questions of tribal politics. These other layers also help to illustrate how people insert themselves into these discussions and how this complicates balancing distributive and possessive economic agencies. The mob that formed around the alleged perpetrator's house was made up of a group who were all part of a clan faction involved in a long running land dispute about Faibusia customary managed land that had been the subject of numerous court cases dating back to the 1960s. Like other places in Melanesia, some members of the Faibusia clan want to commodify land in order to sell or lease it to take advantage of its proximity to Auki whilst others want to keep the customary managed land for gardens and timber for the clan. Added to this are declining yields and increasing population density pressure in the area that have heightened the tensions around the long simmering land dispute (see Spann 2018). The alleged perpetrator of the sorcery attack that was said to have taken place was a part of the latter group who were against the commodification of land. The first group when surrounding the alleged perpetrators house took the opportunity to further stake their wider claims by associating his whole group with acts of sorcery that undermined community harmony. This association was therefore part of local political power plays about who should be leading the clan in terms of making decisions about future directions of development in changing socio-economic circumstances.

In short, the sorcery attack that was said to have taken place on the teenager was emplotted into a simmering dispute over land and power and hence became embedded into complex local political and socio-economic landscapes. As Burt makes clear, sorcery (whether attacks or allegations) has sometimes been used to further political disputes amongst the Kwara'ae and this can add tension to long running quarrels that ebb and flow depending on economic and political circumstances (2001:80). Keesing also suggests, when using the Kwaio (a language group that borders Kwara'ae) as an example, that there may sometimes be deliberate economic or political manipulations in messages received in possessions and these are sometimes used for political and economic gain (1978:247). Such critical reflection illustrates that sorcery allegations 'must be inteipreted in the context of social relationships and as a response to tensions within social groups. [Sorcery] accusations cannot be interpreted in and of themselves but are more properly viewed as an ongoing process of circumspection that takes place around specific sources of tension' as McDonnell explains in the context of Vanuatu and land disputes (2015:149). A wider analytic that takes social relationships and tensions into substantive consideration also allows another layer to be added to the current example from Central Kwara'ae. This added layer is about how people manoeuvre in or around these sources of tension in order to balance possessive and distributive forms of economic agency to limit chances of sorcery being used against them.

This is especially the case with Sale, who, as was explained before, is one of the only successful entrepreneurs in the Faibusia clan and is regularly sought for advice and help in the community. As a leading member of the clan it may be assumed that Sale would be heavily involved in local political debates over land and clan leadership, however, he has purposefully chosen not to insert himself and remain neutral as a deliberate tactic. This is somewhat of a suiprise as he is also a member of a local grassroots development group that promotes more sustainable agriculture and small reforestry projects and the core of this group, which includes the alleged perpetrator of the alleged sorcery attack on the teenage boy, is part of one of the factions involved in the intra-clan land dispute. As Sale explains, 'when both groups come and see me and ask me for money for the latest court case or to support them with money, I tell both groups that I cannot give on this occasion' (Interview, Sale, Brisbane 12 May 2017). One of the reasons Sale has chosen to remain neutral is that he is mindful of sorcery and the effect this can have on himself and his business. Thus, if he does insert himself into the debates through support or money then he can make himself a target of sorcery as claims could be made that he was trying to further his business or political interests through his distributive agency (cf. Taylor 2015). As he explains it, if he sided with one group or the other then people may get the idea that he is trying to claim control of the clan in order to improve his businesses. This would mean his business interests, instead of being seen as helping the community as it is the source of his distributive agency could be viewed as being only for himself. Hence, to use Taylor's (2015) analytical framework, the balance between the possessive and distributive would be upset and this lean more towards the possessive may engender malice towards him and this may be manifest as sorcery. With these concerns in mind, Sale's neutrality has become even more pronounced as accusations of sorcery between both groups have intensified. For instance, the son of the leader of the group that wants to commodity land fell sick and this sickness was said to be blamed on bua (personal communication 18 June 2017) a type of sorcery that is said to be transferred by chewing on a poisoned betel nut and originates from Langa Langa, a saltwater cultural group of Malaita. As Sale explains,
Something always occurs when there is a height of tension between
people ... to do with land politics and development, what the two
parties are doing now there will be ... bua and nafa; that sort of
thing might happen, who knows? Between both parties, they can buy
somebody to do whatever they can do, sure (Interview, Sale, Malaita
14 December 2017).

Whilst selling the knowledge to access the power of sorcery is not a new phenomenon (Akin 1996:158) accessing this knowledge from other languages outside is said by some locals to be becoming more common. This increased prevalence of individuals acquiring such knowledge is explained by some as being in close proximity to Auki. One reason proffered in relation to this proximity for this is the continued mixing of language groups, especially in large 'mission' villages that were set up in the 1950s near Auki but in the last decade have seen increased population growth (Field Notes, Malaita, 10 December 2017). The location of Auki in itself has been identified as a factor in sorcery as a growing enterprise as it is usually in urban areas where sorcery can be bought more anonymously (McDonnell 2015) then used in disputes over land. There is a perception amongst some people that commodification of sorcery is increasing with 'false nafa' spreading as people sell fake or only part of spells for beer and kwaso (home brewed alcohol). This increasing commodification has also influenced how sorcery is allegedly passed on. Whilst placing a spell on a coin and passing it on to a store you want to see fail has been common, nowadays torches are also seen to be able to be utilized with sorcery. For instance, a torch can be shone on someone at night and they will be 'shot' and become afflicted. Mobile phone calls are also seen as a vehicle to transfer sorcery in Malaita (Hobbis 2017). Mindful of this supposed intensification of sorcery and how he may become embroiled in it, Sale's neutrality and other manoeuvres help to illustrate the complexity of the negotiations taking place between the possessive and distributive agencies in order to balance them and create barriers between himself and sorcery. Highlighting this is that, concurrent with his neutrality in the land dispute, he is strengthening his distributive network and also trying to situate his business interests into indigenous registers of value. Sale does this by trying to make sure that his business interests generate feelings of kwaiofi'anga. Doing so, negates chances of sorcery as people understand that his business interests are one of the sources that generate kwaiofi'anga. As he explains,
How you share your food, your garden, your pigs and money from your
businesses is about making everyone feel embraced; this practice of
kwaiofi'anga makes everyone feel part of what you are doing and gives
them a sense of belonging to the clan ... making the networks stronger
like this reduces chances of nafa and sorcery, it's kind of like
managing, taking the chances of sorcery under control (Interview,
Sale, Brisbane 12 May 2017).

To do this though requires both economic agencies to be intricately managed for balance to be achieved. Two examples illustrate this.

The first is the mini-bus service that carries people from a rural village to Auki to the market. Whilst this is a paid service, it is the first-time people have been able to get transport from the village to Auki and this saves them a walk (generally carrying produce to be sold at the market) to another nearby village where transport can usually be found. Furthermore, the mini-bus picks people up from the daily market (not from the usual bus-stop) when it is shutting to take them home and this is the first time this has been instituted. The mini-bus is also available to take people to the hospital at night when there is an emergency. These aspects obviously cut down the profits that can be made on the venture (as does travelling daily along a very degraded dirt road that adds service costs to the vehicle) but importantly helps to make people feel part of the operation. By doing such things, the bus service, whilst ostensibly looking like a purely commercial venture to outsiders is seen as also helping the community and importantly helps to indicate the motivation and attitude of the entrepreneur. This is important in the relational and interpretative framework of the possessive and distributive as in Kwara'ae culture, an operation where individual capital accumulation is meaningfully balanced by social goals means any business operation can be viewed by others like a 'garden serving the basic needs of the community and family' (Welchman-Gegeo 1998:306). (5) In short, through the analytical lens drawn from Taylor (2015), the agencies are balanced and hence jealousy and envy manifested as sorcery are less likely to be directed to the businesses and their owner.

The second example of balancing revolves around two of the biggest occasions in the community, weddings and funerals. Generally speaking, the importance of such events in the Malaitan cultural landscape are described as,
They are what brings together reciprocity. They are what joins
together the people who look after each other. If there were no
mortuary feasts, we would cease to be. If people are not kept together
by mortuary feasts, then it will be every man for himself. Who will
help us when there are problems? (Fifi'i cited in Akin 1999:112)

At such events then, Sale always makes an effort to exercise his distributive agency with more largesse, as it is these events that animate social and cultural values. This being the case, at the extensive mortuary feasts that accompany funerals, Sale is always sure to give produce from his gardens, 20-kg bags of rice or even a pig in order to help balance the distributive and possessive sides of his economic personhood and help 'manage' the networks that allow him and his possessive agencies to function in the community in ways that do not leave himself open to being 'humbled' through sorcery.

However, the efforts to negotiate between the possessive and distributive and generate feelings of kwaiofi'anga through his business, Sale admits, are difficult. First, it is a big drain on his resources especially in times of low cash-flow through his businesses or when he has higher than usual expenditures such as repairing the mini-bus, fixing machines at his printing shop or even helping out clan members with school fees. The intricate managing and balancing too is also exhausting in the mental sense as not only are there the constant concerns about money but also worries about alienating himself from the community when he does not give money for transport to Honiara or other short-term consumption and everyday reciprocity requests. This is because he is one of the most visible members of the clan in terms of being part of the formal economy and is seen by some clan members to have disposable income. Thus, whilst in the negotiation between the possessive and distributive agencies there is an attempt by Sale, like others in contemporary Melanesia, to put barriers around the contexts where claims are made on his economic agencies, he still understands the importance of the Melanesian relational model of personhood, especially in places where this model has not been displaced by possessive individualism (Martin 2007:289). As he explains about the consequences of disavowing distributive agency in Malaita.
He [a local businessman] became more individual, for example, he had a
lot of cars, but he did not put his resources into his network [the
distributive network of kin relations]. He is a like a standalone
island with himself and the business break down from sorcery; so, with
this network you have to be creative; it chews up your resources and
takes up a lot of your time to think but at the same time if you don't
then you will be a lonely island. I know it is confusing from the
araikwao [white person] view but you have to share for your business
to continue (Interview, Sale, Brisbane 11 May 2017).

However, even with the time, effort and resources that Sale puts into his distributive network to balance his economic agencies, the interpretative framework and perspective of others that sorcery works through is, Sale admits, difficult to manage when material inequalities are becoming more visible and some villagers in Central Kwara'ae are requiring more cash to 'live and eat with money'; money they do not have. This is a fertile breeding ground for feelings of envy and jealously and thus can be a trigger for sorcery. As Sale admits,
Someone in another village might have a different look at what I am
doing and might be tempted because of jealously and what they do not
have but my network gives me security, people will stand with me
because of this (Interview, Sale, Brisbane 12 May 2017).

However, despite this confidence the balancing and negotiation is ongoing, especially when distributive networks are entangled with long-running political disputes. Thus, even though, Sale has steadfastly remained neutral in the ongoing land-dispute, he was put on an alleged sorcery 'death list' emanating from Gilbert Camp, a settlement comprised mostly of Kwara'ae in the peri-urban areas of Honiara. This list was connected to the land dispute and the sister of one of the leading members of one of the factions involved in the dispute told Sale that an ex-monk from the Anglican Melanesian Brotherhood had not only revealed the existence of the list but also that he should come over to Malaita to bless the people on the list to keep them safe (Field Notes, Malaita 14 December 2017). The Anglican Melanesian Brotherhood are thought to be able to identify those who use sorcery and intervene in sorcery cases (Hall 2017) but are in Solomon Islands, like in Vanuatu, also credited with the power to effect sorcery as well (Taylor 2010). Sale was asked to pay for the ex-Anglican monk to come to Malaita to bless people and keep them safe. However, he refused for a couple of different reasons. First, he wants to remain outside of the land dispute and this may have been a manoeuvre orchestrated from Guadalcanal based connections to the disputing parties to drag him into it. Second, as it was in the run up to Christmas it was also a time of year when he had a lot of expenses, some of the which were directly related to shoring up his distributive network. Thus, he was going to give to church programs and 'missions', but Christmas is also the 'wedding season', and as explained previously, giving to weddings and accompanying feasts is one of the important cultural aspects of balancing his economic agencies that he believes enables protection from sorcery. This, Sale reasoned, was a far better bet than the 'blessing' from the ex-monk. As he said succinctly, 'Because of our network, we [Sale and his wife] don't feel scared of the increase in sorcery in the village or being put on a sorcery death list' (Interview, Sale, Malaita 14 December 2017).


Acknowledging that this article is based on just a handful of interviews and that further research is needed in this area, it is however hoped that it will add to the discussion of sorcery and sorcery-related beliefs and practices in Solomon Islands and the broader region of Melanesia. In using Taylor's (2015) analytical framework of possessive and distributive agencies as a critical departure point, the present article focusses on the complex negotiations over economic agency when critically analysing why acts of sorcery allegedly occur and how people try to create barriers against such perceived attacks. As the article shows, one method to create barriers is through seeking to balance the possessive and distributive agencies as sorcery can be a manifestation of failing to achieve this often-difficult balance. Furthermore, a contemporary local case example from Central Kwara'ae, Malaita illustrated these negotiations are difficult as they are intricate, multi-faceted and ongoing. This is because these negotiations are a relational practice that cuts across fluid social, political and economic spheres. As such, this relationality highlights that sorcery allegations are connected to new, more visible inequalities stemming from a political economy incorporating more capitalist social relations. Associated with this are questions over local political authority that are often connected to land disputes over customary managed land. Thus, perceived increases in sorcery in Melanesia have often coincided with intensifications and deeper penetrations of capitalist social relations in the process of 'progress' and 'development'. These perceived increases when viewed through the analytical framework of trying to balance possessive and distributive economic agencies thus emphasizes the importance of lived responsibilities to kin and community (i.e. obligations to reciprocate and exchange) as they are something that undeipins many social relations throughout Melanesia (Lawrence 2015:65). These factors thus show that allegations of sorcery often intersect with questions over what social relations are deemed valid from the local perspective as people try to navigate contemporary transformations in their economic, political and social lives. In other words, distributive and possessive agency must be balanced appropriately not only to curtail manifestations of sorcery but also for positive, socially accepted economic outcomes to occur.


I would like to thank the reviewers whose insightful comments led to significant improvements. I would also like to thank Heloise Weber for critical comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


(1.) Data for this paper were refined through semi-structured, open ended interviews with individuals and small groups in Central Kwara'ae. Malaita in January 2016: through semi-structured interviews with a visiting research participant in Brisbane in May 2017. and also follow up interviews in December 2017 in Central Kwara'ae, Malaita. These interviews have been augmented with further personal communication via text messages and emails. In accordance with the research participants wishes, pseudonyms have been used.

(2.) Some examples from Central Kwara'ae have been reported in the largest daily newspaper Solomon Star (see Foana'ota 2015:80-4).

(3.) For example, the Aluta Basin oil palm project in East Malaita, the Bina Harbour project and Economic Growth Centres (EGC) which have been slated to bring investment and economic development to Malaita.

(4.) This dark underside in relation to sorcery is described as 'where jealously and aggression between kin replaces solidarity and trust' (Geschiere 1997:11).

(5.) For a full rendering on how the Kwara'ae conceptualize business see (Welchman-Gegeo 1994).


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Michael Spann

University of Queensland

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