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Tom's Tambu House: Spacing, Status and Sacredness in South Malakula, Vanuatu.


This paper is based on video footage I filmed in South Malakula in April 1996. It explores the case of Tom Moses, a man who claims to speak with God. He has constructed a house on the outskirts of Milip village which he has declared tambu, or taboo/sacred. Around it he envisions a new living space, following directions given to him from God. I argue that Tom's enterprise can be understood in terms of a spacing-status--sacredness nexus. This nexus is grounded in a pre-Christian Malakulan sociality revolving around men's houses, ancestral worship and grade-taking rituals. This takes place with a lived Christianity which in many contexts is expressed as a departure from kastom. As such, I argue that this 'spatial' analysis can help us understand dimensions of local human relationships which purely discursive analyses sometimes eclipse.


This House belongs to God Men who get drunk, men who chase women, men who steal, men who make magic, men who do business, who smoke or rich men are not allowed to go inside. It is Taboo. It belongs to God. God with us. Emannuel (ROM 6.6.) [1]

These are the words written on the door of a hut situated on the outskirts of Milip village, south Malakula (see map 1). The hut is surrounded by a fence in front of which stand two eye-catching objects: a flagpole embellished with a horizontal plank representing a Christian cross, and a slit-drum painted bright yellow. Rather than being decorated with the usual motif of a face, the top of the slit-drum is crafted in the form of a stone tablet, inscribed with the ten commandments. [2]

I first saw this place in September 1995. I was on my way to a cocoa plantation with Estel Aili Rahn, a man from Tomman Island, where I lived. The sign on the door and the flagpole in the form of a cross were the only indications of the purpose of these structures (the slit-drum was absent), as the area was deserted. In April 1996 I returned with Longdal Nobel Masingyau, the Vanuatu Cultural Centre fleidworker for the Na'hai-speaking area of southern Malakula, to attend a ceremonial event: Tom Moses, the owner of the hut, was unveiling a new slit-drum he had made. Longdal, who had told me about the occasion, suggested I bring my video camcorder. After my first visit to this place I had mentioned to Longdal that I was interested in it, and in the man who constructed it. He had told me about what Tom was doing and promised he would arrange for us to meet in the future. On this second visit I interviewed Tom on film, and then captured segments of the speeches he gave that day. Tom seemed happy with my presence, or perhaps with the presence of the camera, to which he started performing and displaying some of his oratorical talents. He explained to me why he made this house, recounted parts of his own life history, and shared some of his ideas on Christianity, churches and kastom. [3]

This paper explores the conversations, objects and events I filmed that day, and contextualises them within a broader cultural and historical frame. Following Allen (1981) I argue that innovation is 'nothing new' in North Vanuatu, and seek to position Tom as a contemporary example of some of the forms that religio-political innovations take. Tom is not easily situated within the broad literature on 'cargo-cults' or 'messianic/millenarian' movements, for several reasons. First, much of the earlier interest in cargo-cults (Guiart 1951 and 1956, Worsley 1957) focused on the colonial contexts against which these movements emerged, which does not seem pertinent here. Tom symbolically embraces the state by raising a Vanuatu flag every day, and does not promise material goods to his followers. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Tom is neither messianic nor millennial per se: he claims neither to 'save the world' nor 'bring about its end', but simply to communicate with God and give practical assistance to thos e who ask him of it. [4] Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I hesitate to label Tom as the leader of a 'movement'. His innovations do not seek to radically overturn social norms, nor does he have a large following. It is more fruitful to see him as one of many who have created new forms of spirituality and ritual practice with effective, if not always explicit, political dimensions to their enterprises. The point, as Allen has made for West Ambae, is precisely that rather than being 'radical', these kinds of innovations are a relatively common way for men to negotiate politico-spiritual authority in the region.

Michael Allen's discussion of 'innovation, inversion and revolution' in Nduindui in the 1960s argues that '...non-conformist tactics are an integral, widespread and much ignored feature of Melanesian politics...' (1981:109). It is within this perspective that I wish to present Tom. However unlike Allen's interpretation of the relationship between 'conformity and nonconformity' in which he states that they '... constitute alternate though related tactics for those who aspire to social eminence and leadership' (ibid.), I stress that Tom demonstrates how innovative tactics still 'conform' on certain levels. Furthermore even the most 'conforming' leaders (be it through Church or grade-taking) must distinguish themselves from others in one way or another, and this often involves a strategy of innovation, albeit of limited kind. The difference is subtle but important: rather than being alternate but related, conformity and nonconformity are both crucial dimensions to Tom's project of 'being a prophet'. Tom is inno vative, or even revolutionary (from the perspective of 'mainstream' church leaders), whilst at the same time he reproduces important Christian and other older indigenous symbolic arrangements. Tom's case shows that it is not a simple issue of either innovating or conforming, but rather that every 'act' of acquiring authority needs to embody both, even if the discursive emphasis is usually on one or the other.

I had met Tom a few times prior to the unveiling of his slit-drum. A few months earlier I heard him speak at the funeral of a Tomman Island elder, during which he discussed the role the dead man had played in bringing Christianity to Tomman. He spoke of pre-Christian Tomman as a place ruled by sorcery, which he called taem blong lion (the time of the Lion). Tom stressed the common fear of sorcery and thus of travelling, so that as a child he had never been to the other side of the small island. He then discussed how 'the Light' (Christianity) had freed him and the other islanders from 'the Lion', how people could now visit each other much more freely, and are able to travel around Tomman and to places on the mainland without fear of harm. Thus, he acknowledged the man's role in bringing Christianity to Tomman. [5]

Tom said that the dead man visited him the night before dying, and he had told him that God was pleased with his life and that it was right for him to go. This was my first glimpse of Tom's public assertions of supernatural powers, and more particularly of his claim to a 'privileged' relationship with God. I knew that the dying man had been bedridden for some time and had canoed over to the mainland, where Tom lives, to ask for permission to die. Not only would it have been physically taxing, but the man in question was an established elder in his own right, and belonged neither to Tom's 'clan' nor to the Seventh Day Adventist denomination to which Tom still was affiliated at that stage. [6]

I slowly realised that Tom was not talking of a corporeal visitation. Rather he spoke in terms either of the world of dreams, or of the naa'hap. This is a vernacular term for what might best be described as an intersecting, yet parallel world: the world of spirits and magic, which exists within the same space occupied by people. The naa'hap is neither distant from the everyday world nor separate from it, although it is invisible. It is possible for people to 'enter' or see within the naa'hap, and when a person does so he or she can not only see spirits but also simultaneously influence and interact with the world of everyday existence. Tom was referring to an encounter that assumed his capacity to 'know' beyond the physical senses, a form of knowledge and power which his audience seemed to recognise.

Tom was not a conventional church leader. Such leaders tend to reiterate received denominational doctrine, often emphasising extrinsic rather than familiar concepts in sermons. [7] Thus, when Longdal suggested several months later that I film an event orchestrated by Tom -- the unveiling or 'opening' of his slit-drum -- I was excited by the chance to meet someone who embodied indigenous, or local, forms of Christianity in very graphic ways.


My name is Tom ... Moses. I live by prayer. That is why I moved here. Because I heard the Bible say that one should move out, leave one's family and wife and stay in a place alone. So I came here and made this house. Because I am tambu and I pray in it. Not anyone can go in this house. Men who are drunk, or who smoke or who play with women. Married men and married women are not allowed to go inside ... Because I am tambu. I've made it tambu so that I can pray in it.

Tom is man Vanhah, a descendant of a group of inhabitants claiming ancestry on Tomman Island. Vanhah refers to his nasara, a term that designates both his closest group of kin, as well as a place on Tomman island. Known as Ur in the vernacular, Tomman is a small offshore island at the south-western tip of Vanuatu's second largest land mass: Malakula. With a population of 236, it has the demographic or political status of an average mainland village. [8] Malakula is one of Vanuatu's most linguistically diverse islands. Twenty-four different languages have been identified in the southern part of the island alone (Charpentier 1982a; 1982b).

The people of Tomman speak Na'hai, a language also spoken in the adjacent mainland villages of Milip and Bwad-Bang, and with a notably different accent in Malfakhal and Mbonvor. [9] Tomman Islanders many, trade, work and communicate (and argue) with people of other language groups on a regular basis. In many respects they have stronger links with some of the nearby Nahava-speaking villages than with the more distant Na'hai ones. [10] As elsewhere in the world, people's identities, affiliations and loyalties are contextual, fluid and negotiable. What is characteristic of this region, however, is the way people use the concept of ples (place) as a key metaphor through which their identities and associations are expressed and negotiated. If shared language does not necessarily create political and economic solidarity, ples is not just a locale or a physical situation, but a powerful idiom and a moral value that validates group affiliation, with all the corresponding duties and rights, including those of land, t hat ensue (Rodman 1992). People in Malakula are always of a pies, although it is not necessarily where they reside. Through this pies, certain norms of social interaction, centring around respect, status, exchange, and rights of land usage, are enacted and upheld.

One of the most enduring and politically important aspects of a person's identity, especially for men, is the nasara. A nasara is many things. In its most concrete form it is a dancing ground, situated in front of the amel, the Malakulan variety of a men's house. Entry into the nasara is forbidden to women and children, and entry into the amel to women and uninitiated men as well. The nasara and amel are usually slightly elevated in relation to the village. The amel is built at the end of the nasara which is separated from the rest of the village by the naai sisive, usually a bamboo or stone fence lined with plants and small trees. Another fence or barrier separates the amel from the nasara. The latter is normally made of particular plants, which carry symbolic connotations related to grade-taking, among other things. A collection of plants and small trees surrounds the slit-drums within the nasara (figure 1).

The slit-drums are said to sleep in the nasara, and are awoken when ritual requires. These are most commonly those rituals termed grade-taking (Layard 1928; Deacon 1934; Bonnemaison 1996). They are for increasing one's public status and prestige as well as one's spiritual power or sacredness, a concept expressed in the vernacular by the word loh.

Nasara is also a term used to designate a village of origin for Christians living on the coast. Any Christian village centred around a church instead of a nasara is called a stesen, irrespective of whether there is any mission or administrative presence." [11] Conversion to Christianity, which happened in the early 1950s for most Tomman Islanders, almost always involved abandoning the inland villages founded around the nasara, and moving into these new settlements near the coast. People, however, retain their affiliation with their original nasara, which they also refer to as their pies. This association is (usually) validated through patrilineal ancestral affiliation to this pies, which establishes rights of land usage. [12] Genealogical and mythical connections to one's nasara are powerful economic and political tools that are often kept secret, only to be publicly disclosed if one is challenged over land use. Knowing specific details of one's origin myth is a means of establishing one's identity as manple s: a descendant of the founding spirit/ancestor of a particular nasara.

Nasara is thus a term used to refer to one's lineage or closest kin group, and unless specified otherwise it is in this sense that I use the term. A nasara is like a 'clan', in that it is an exogamous social unit -- or kin group -- claiming a common ancestral founder, but it is important to stress the spatial dimension of the term. It is also very much a pies, where the founding ancestral spirit resides. Throughout Vanuatu, the term manples is used to refer to ties of both locale and of kin, to delineate groups and consign rights and obligations. Although most of the genealogies I collected were relatively short (usually only three generations), people acknowledge ties of pies when unable to trace a common human ancestor. Pies is, therefore, much more than 'place': it is simultaneously a locale, a group of people and a key value for indigenous social organisation.


Tom: I used to pray in open places, but he [God] told me 'From now on don't pray in open places, if you want to pray go inside that room. I have blocked it. And the places of high men as well, you don't pray in them.' You see in church I don't pray; I sing, and I read, but I don't pray.

By briefly exploring aspects of the graded society in the Na'hai-speaking area of Malakula I hope to provide a backdrop from which we may later illuminate some of the meanings, motivations and aspirations connected with Tom's project. While grade-taking rituals are not currently performed on Tomman, it is not impossible that individuals may decide to perform them again. In 1997 two different families were rebuilding their amel on the island and were talking of re-instigating grade-taking ceremonies. The last nimingi to be performed on the small island was in 1984, but given the history of the island, and notably the several shifts between 'being kastom' and 'being skul' it would be presumptuous to relegate these rituals to the historical past. In shifting between a past tense and the ethnographic present, on the other hand, I do wish to acknowledge the historical contingencies of meaning that they can entail. [13] Grade-taking today (as happens in other south Malakulan communities) does not necessarily carry all the political and spiritual implications it did in the pre-Christian context. [14]

On Tomman, the two main sets of male grade-taking rituals are known in the vernacular as nimingi and niluan. The nimingi grades differ from those called niluan in several respects. Firstly, they comprise a series of 'steps' which generally have to be completed in sequential order. More importantly perhaps, they are the public side of the men's societies, and are primarily related to obtaining status and prestige within the community. Niluan rituals are more secretive. They are closely connected with circumcision (especially niluan vinbamp) and have ramifications for the afterlife and the kind of spirit that the individual will become. Deacon describes niluan as 'intimately connected with funeral ceremonial' (1934:385). It is for niluan that the secret masks were produced, and it is during niluan rituals that they were taken out of the amel for public display. [15] Here, however, I am mainly concerned with the nimingi grade-taking sequence, and its role in establishing status and increasing a man's loh or sac redness/sacred power.

With each 'step' taken in the nimingi society, men gained new names and rights, and sited themselves at different places in the amel, or men's house, as well as increased their loh. The nimingi grade-taking rituals determined, among other things, where within the area of the amel men were allowed to sit and which fire they could cook and eat from. Payments in pigs and the correct ritual and grade had to be made before a man could enter the amel. As he took successive nimingi grades so he ate and positioned himself further and further back in the amel. The first nimingi grade is called naamb loh, meaning 'the sacred/taboo fire'. At this stage a man entered the amel and cooked and ate over the first of the sacred fires. As the fires were situated toward the back of the amel, so the grade-taker and the ground on which he stood were considered more and more loh or 'sacred/powerful' [16]

Women also took titles in a series of grades known as neleng-pas. According to Deacon, women accumulated a spiritual power called igah. He described the relationship of the female igah to the male loh as 'something like the relation of positive and negative electrical potentials' (Deacon 1934:478). High ranking women were said to have much igah, which could negate the loh a man had. Neleng-pas did not take place in designated women's areas, but usually on the outskirts of the village. The fact that the women's rituals are not partitioned off in a gender specific 'sacred area' is often referred to by the men in their claims that 'men's kastom is stronger' [17]. I focus here on men's grades, but wish nevertheless to alert the reader to the existence of neleng pas (and to the masculine appropriation of 'strong kastom', partly through the control of spaces).

After a certain number of grades a man attains the status of meleun. The first grade in which a man may be called meleun is called nevelvel: 'we'll talk', or 'let's talk now', indicating the right to access higher-order secret knowledge and, I suspect, the keys to reveal certain hidden meanings encoded in more commonly known myths. [18] Meleun were men who had obtained the highest name possible; they were feared and respected by others not only for the political legitimacy their title gave them, but for the spiritual potency with which they were imbued. From a local perspective, these two aspects (the political and the spiritual) are one. Some of the names for grades also stress the positioning of either people or objects in the nasara/amel area. The following grades all come after a man has obtained the title of meleun:
Meleun sumb'ran Meleun sits down
Navat itoh bo'on amel The stone is at the door of the amel
Navat itoh van siseve The stone is at the sisive (fence)
Navat ilong vayum itoh bo'on yum The stone goes in the house and stays
 at the door.

Meleun also had their own areas at the back of the amel; they did not tend to mix with women or low-ranking men in daily activities, and were exempt from many of the more tedious chores of day-to-day life, such as washing and sweeping (implied in the 'meleun sits down' grade). They did, however, cook their own food on their own 'sacred fire'. Indeed, people often commented that certain meleun of the past would not eat canned food as they did not know on which fire, or by whom, it had been cooked. A man eating from a lower-ranked fire than that to which he had rights could lose some, or all, of his loh. On the other hand, a woman or low-ranking man who ate from a high-ranking fire was in danger of falling prey to disease and misfortune. Loh is a spiritual power considered dangerous to those who are not ritually prepared to encounter it (Jolly 1984:93).

The highest of the meleun grades, and the final one for the whole of the nimingi sequence is called ni'at i wan ohr: the sago palm has borne fruit. The metaphor refers to the completion of the worldly tasks of a man. The sago palm has the peculiarity of bearing fruit only once, after which it usually dies. Obtaining this rank therefore implies a completion in life, of having achieved all that there is to achieve. The nimingi rituals can be seen as core activities in the life of men. They motivated exchanges, mobilised alliances, inspired production, created and upheld status and prestige, as well as provided means for accumulating spiritual power.

The rituals connected a man's public prestige, his sacredness (loh), and secret knowledge, with mundane daily activities, such as cooking and eating, as well as his physical position -- where he would spend most of his time when in the village. These prescriptions of social spacing derived their meaning from symbolic associations reflecting the man's public status and his sacredness. At the same time they reinforced the validity, or actuality, of his status and sacredness.


This house which covers the slit-drum we, from Vanhah, we call it an amel. You see this amel, well in the amel there were plenty of things. The spirits lived there and they talked in it. When you beat a slit-drum you heard the spirits talk. They sung out: mmmmmm -- mmmmmm -- mmmmmm.

But now, you see, when you beat the slit-drum the spirits don't talk in the amel, God talks in it now. That is it, the commandments are there.

Tom entered the early stages of the nimingi as a child before his parents converted to Christianity. As an adult he gained his prestige and status through other means that accompanied colonialism and conversion. He was a plantation labourer, a 'ship worker', an Assessor for the Condominium, a 'chief' in the sense of a colonially created category, not a meleun, and after Independence he briefly became an elder of the Presbyterian church. Today he claims to be none of these, seeing himself instead as doing 'the work of a prophet', citing Enoch as his biblical role-model. He no longer lives with his wife; he has moved outside the village settlement and is establishing a new stesen around the tambu house in which he communicates with God.

Yet Tom is not acting in a cultural and historical vacuum, and it is impossible to make sense of him as he appears on the video footage I shot that day without having a deeper historical and cultural understanding of the area. For example, his idea of moving away from the village of Milip can be seen as reinscribing the move Malakulan Christians first made away from their nasara to the new villages abutting the coast.

Conversion, and the consequent involvement in the cash economy, almost always involved creating new villages close to the coast (and ships), often surrounding or near a church. The move to Christianity also involved a number of significant changes in social organisation, with marked repercussions in everyday life. Most notable, perhaps, was the reorganisation of living space and gender segregation. Men raised in kastom often describe the point of conversion by the act of 'going to eat with the women'. An act that annulled most of the prestige and sacredness, or loh, that would have been accumulated in nimingi. Converted men abandoned the amel or men's house, and joined the women and children in the village. Women's domestic roles were changed as they began to cook for the men as well as themselves, and wash the clothes everyone began wearing. Children started attending school, separating them from the adults on a daily basis. When they went to boarding schools, this separation could last for months at a time (Jolly 1989).

In all of these ways the daily activities and living spaces of people were transformed. Christianity brought not merely a change in cosmological precepts and religious practices, but permeated everyday life. The political transformations instigated under colonialism and the shift in daily economic activity toward a partial cash economy was, perhaps, internalised with a corresponding shift in religion and cosmology. This shift was also expressed in more tacit realms of everyday behaviour, such as the spacing of people in the village and at work. The move from the nasara to the stesen was not only a shift of locale, but a new way, and a novel vision, of life.

It is difficult to pin-point a precise date of conversion for the people of Tomman Island, as it was an uneven, protracted and debated process. While most of the mainland coastal villages had converted early this century, Tomman Islanders had consciously resisted attempts to establish a church. It appears that the first internal push for Christianity was in the early 1940s, but it was a decade before the Presbyterian church was established in a permanent way. The oral testimonies I gathered stressed the factional disputes between a core group of powerful male elders who refused any church on Tomman, and those who wanted to join most of the other mainland villages in embracing the new religion. Documents in the Residence de France Archives substantiate this. [19] Those who wanted to establish a church discussed and debated whether they should become Presbyterian, aligning themselves with the British administration, or Catholic, affiliating themselves with the French.

Eventually a church was established and, apart from a handful of men who refused to convert, Tomman Islanders became practising Presbyterians. The last recalcitrant 'heathen' died in 1986 -- still living in his amel. People told me about earlier, unsuccessful attempts to build churches. Either the structures themselves had been destroyed by anti-Christians, or else the church elders had been poisoned. [20] What struck me in these accounts was the importance placed on the actual construction and endurance of a church house as an indicator of a Christian community. Rather than being merely a question of people's belief, Christianity became 'real' with its physical manifestation in the village: a church house.

In the late 1960s many Tomman Islanders, along with people of Caroline Bay and Whitesands/Witava village, joined the Santo-based social movement called Nagriamel. Nagriamel promoted kastom as a positive symbol, particularly its role in providing a basis for land tenure and socio-political organisation, and on Tomman this led to some re-evaluation of Presbyterian doctrine, particularly that which regarded Malakulan ritual and artefacts as heathen or satanic objects. Dances were revived, more people took nimingi and niluan grades, and Tomman itself became locally known as a 'place of kastom'.

During the 1980s, when the Nagriamel leaders were imprisoned by the newly independent government of Vanuatu, a number of new denominations started to spread in the area. Most of the ex-Nagriamel people on Tomman embraced a charismatic Christian denomination and abandoned kastom (that is, dances and artefacts as well as magic and poison). [21] This affiliation, however, ended on Tomman in 1988 when Longdal Nobel Masingyau encouraged the community to organise a two-week Na'hai arts festival, during which traditional dances, songs, and games were performed. Longdal had previously lived for two years in Papua New Guinea (in the Tolai area) where he trained as a pastor. Having completed his training, he returned to Malakula relatively disillusioned with the prospect of such a role. His interest in kastom had been reinforced by his experience in PNG. Soon after being spotted at the Malakulan arts festival in 1985 by Kirk Huffman, then director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, Longdal was employed as a fieldworker f or the Na'hai-speaking area. While remaining an active Christian, he questioned and recorded elders on the topic of kastom and encouraged cultural revival for the young.

One of the main purposes of the Na'hai Arts Festival was to familiarise the young people with these activities. But perhaps the major effect of the arts festival was that it brought about the end of the charismatic church to which the community was affiliated. Practising in the charismatic tradition and performing kastom were considered incompatible by the Tomman leaders. In fact it had taken Longdal three years to persuade the leaders to hold the arts festival. I was told by these leaders that one of Longdal's statements that finally convinced them to go ahead with the project was his claim that should there be any sin in kastom (that is, in making the artefacts and performing the dances) then he himself would 'carry it'.

In the decade between the Na'hai Arts Festival and today, there has been a proliferation of denominations in the south-western area of Malakula. On Tomman alone there are three established churches, (Presbyterian, United Pentecostal and Seventh Day Adventist), and a few members of a fourth denomination based in another Na' hai-speaking village on the mainland (Holiness Fellowship from Malfakhal). That diversity and differentiation have flourished within the context of a common Christianity is perhaps to be expected given the pre-existing mosaic of rituals and beliefs found in Malakula. It is difficult to separate the political and religious aspirations of many men, and this accounts in part for such diversity. Denominational diversity stems as much, if not more, from competing discourses emerging within communities than from the divergent approaches to Christianity introduced by foreigners.

It is within this context of shifting denominational affiliation, or of religious and political experimentation, that we need to situate Tom. Innovation and change pervade the Malakulan Christian cultural landscape. Again this echoes pre-Christian sociality, when vast ritual diversity and creative complexity prevailed. Rituals and their paraphernalia could be exchanged and 'purchased', so that there was always a shifting repertoire from which to draw power or prestige (Huffman 1996).

Christianity may have traditionally been obscured, or sidelined, by anthropologists working in Melanesia. There are of course a few exceptions, most of them from insular Melanesia (Boutilier, Daniel, and Tiffany 1978; Tonkinson 1981). Yet more recently several authors have developed a substantial critique of this omission (Barker 1990; Douglas 1998 and n.d.a; Young 1997). In reaction to a previous perspective on Christianity as foreign and inauthentic, the move toward exploring Christianity as a legitimate form of Melanesian cultural expression and according it a recognised and accepted centrality in contemporary ethnographies of the region, has highlighted the 'Melanesian-ness' of Melanesian Christianity. For Barker, this is concentrated in an understanding of discourse so that 'Melanesian religion combines indigenous and Christian elements at all levels of discourse' (1992:163).

While I do not dispute the validity of this perspective in general terms, it is perhaps more helpful in this case to understand conversion as a grounded move from nasara to stesen, rather than in terms of abstract levels of discourse. By looking at how conversion is expressed in lived space, rather than how it operates as a conceptual terrain, it is possible to avoid the pitfalls of designating certain practices as indigenous or local, and others as Christian or introduced. An analysis of Tom's project that focuses exclusively on what he says would most likely lead to the conclusion that Tom is somehow lost between two worlds: caught somewhere between kastom and Christianity, or the local and the global. By looking at how he expresses himself in terms of creating and controlling spaces, however, it is possible to discern interesting expressions of status and sacred power. These are interesting not only because of their manifestation in both the pre-Christian and the Christian context, but also because of the richness of local symbolic associations through which sacredness and prestige both model and are modelled by living spaces and the objects they comprise.


When I came I made this place first. But it wasn't my idea. Through prayer he [God] told me to go and make a house. He said to go live there and make a house. He said 'make a house for me! But make a yard around it. And make two rooms in it. One for you to sleep in, and one for me. For praying. But don't put anything in there. Only a light with a white cloth on a table. And this room is not for anyone. If single men want to go inside they can only go in the first room'. Because I am like a single man now. But if a married man comes, he is only allowed in the yard. He can't go in because it is tambu.

Tom's claim to spiritual authority is partly based in his professed ability to talk with God. This is achieved through several restrictions he observes: living away from his family, sexual abstinence and not eating meat. Yet his spiritual authority is expressed and reinforced by the uses he makes of space. He built a house away from the village and surrounded it with a fence. He made the house taboo to married men and women, while allowing single men and women to enter the first room, but not the second, where he goes to talk with God. He draws both on his communications with God and on the symbolic associations of pre-Christian social spacing to assert himself as a tambu man.

Tom told me that when he first officially 'opened' the tambu house an angel visited him. He said that the angel came and spoke to him in a language that was neither Bislama, English nor French. He spoke his own language, which Tom could understand. He told Tom to follow the ten commandments, and that people who were 'proud' of the commandments would come to him and his new place. Tom insisted that it was neither a dream nor a vision, but that the angel was real. When the angel spoke, it had the effect of spinning the house around 'like a hurricane'.

The fact that only Tom could understand the angel suggests that the angel came specifically to him. That the angel was 'real' and Tom understood his language can be seen as a supernatural vindication of Tom's enterprise. Although speaking with God took place 'inside his head' (Tom claims that he didn't hear God with his ears or thoughts, but heard him nevertheless), the angel was definitely outside him, neither a dream nor vision. Thus, through the angel's visit Tom gained 'external' endorsement for his project. Tom's spiritual power has tangible ramifications, allowing him to heal through prayer. The angel can be seen as a sign of this tangibility, an affirmation of his work.

Tom also imparts his sacred power to God, while deriving it from Him. He regularly refers to things that 'God told him to do' rather than these being his own ideas. For example, he insists that God told him not to help build a church for the Christians (opposite his tambu house). He claims God told him not to participate, as this would make the church 'as tambu' as the other house, thereby making it inaccessible to drunk, married or otherwise profane people. They would not be able to 'stand up to read or pray' in it. Tom's sacredness would 'rub off' into the building, putting the same restrictions on it that exist for his tambu house. He considers his sacredness to be contagious; it is situated in and emanates from himself It is potentially debilitating to people not meeting certain criteria, such as sobriety or sexual abstinence. Furthermore, it extends from within himself to the objects he builds and the spaces he constructs. Here again, the similarities with the effects of accumulating loh for a high-rank ing man in nimingi are evident. It is not that contact with 'lesser sacredness' is dangerous to Tom, but that Tom's sacredness could debilitate others.

If we consider the outline of a south Malakulan amel/nasara (figure 1), certain similarities with the way in which Tom created his new stesen are striking. His tambu house is surrounded by a fence, and inside the house the back room is more tambu than the front room. He has positioned the slit-drum at the front on the left side and the flagpole on the right. He also plans to build a church opposite. He says that the church will not be as tambu as the tambu house he sleeps in. One is for God and the other for Christians. Finally, he plans to designate a space for more profane activities such as kava drinking and dancing. This is to lie to the left of the complex, away from both the tambu house and the prospective church house. A map of his envisioned stesen is depicted in figure 2.

While I draw a comparison between Tom's stesen and a Malakulan nasara, I must also point out that certain elements are closely related to Old Testament prescriptions for building a temple. The inner sanctum, or 'holiest of holiest' is mentioned in Exodus 25, in which God instructs Moses to build a sanctuary for him to dwell in. A table and lamp-stand, among other things, were to be placed inside.

Tom is delineating spaces according to what he considers their sacredness/loh. Here ideas of sexual activity, rather than gender and rank per se (as in the nasara), seem to define sacredness. His plan accommodates the reorganisation of gendered space that accompanied conversion, while maintaining a hierarchy of people according to their sacredness; a hierarchy which moves from the young men who drink kava and so on to Tom, who talks to God. This hierarchy is translated directly into physical living space, not unlike the organisation of a pre-Christian village. While I need not infer that these are all deliberately created associations, it does seem that Tom has, consciously or not, mapped pre-Christian social space (with all that implies concerning prohibitions, status, access, etc.) onto a new religious space of his own devising. He talks about how he has changed kastom (a slit-drum with ten commandments or a pole with flag rather than a flower), rather than how he has changed Christian ritual. His own comp arative associations seem to be with kastom rather than with other Christian denominations.

It would be wrong to see all this as a kind of perpetually imposed reproduction of 'traditional' forms or structures through differing historical circumstances. Rather, I wish to stress the constructed nature of such reproductions. In other words, Tom is not bound to make a slit-drum because such is Malakulan tradition, but is deliberately reproducing traditional Malakulan symbolism within a Christian context. One effect is to allow him to distinguish himself from others, and to draw on local symbols in meaningful ways. This is an important analytical difference, particularly in the post-colonial context where church leadership, even for mainstream denominations, has been removed from the hands of foreign institutions and individuals and put more and more into local control.

The number of denominations in Vanuatu has increased dramatically since Independence, and 'one-man churches' such as Tom's have sprung up (and disappeared) a number of times in this part of Malakula. The elaboration of Tom's prayer house, with its designated spaces and paraphernalia (slit-drum, flagpole), sets him apart from other less flamboyant individuals who claim to speak to God and heal people through prayer.

Ultimately, Tom's attempts to attract converts have not been altogether successful. He has deliberately refused to affiliate himself with any of the other churches. Although he maintained close relations with the Seventh Day Adventists at the time of the filming -- joining them in their Saturday worship and singing -- on a return trip I made in October-December 1997 he told me that he had severed these links completely, going fully independent. My general impression was that Tom was considered not quite the prophet figure he claims for himself, yet nor was he shunned as an eccentric. While no-one I know actually left a church to join him, nor moved to live in his stesen, many people did go and see him when afflicted by disease or other ailments. He attends most village events such as marriages, fundraisings and so on. His relationship with other people is the usual one of that of an older man; he commands a certain amount of respect, and I saw no-one publicly challenge even his more provocative declarations -- such as his claim that his next miracle would be to raise a dead person to life. That Tom tried to use my presence with a camera to boost his credibility on the day of his launching of the slit-drum was clear to both me and others, yet in the longer term it seems quite insignificant. He is not the only person in the area to 'speak to God', but what is distinctive about him is the ingenious and elaborate way in which he has drawn on local symbolic constructs, particularly the use of space, in part to negotiate a position of authority within a Christian context.


I don't belong to a church I am in the middle. I work for the angels, every church. Because I love all people. I pray for people whose faces I have not seen, I pray for people whose faces I have seen. I pray for people who are chased away, and my prayers can bring them back. But if I just prayed people wouldn't know, so that is why I made this place: to 'pull' people here.

Tom is not content just to talk with God, he wants to attract, convert and lead others as well. Tom made what seemed to me to be a perceptive statement: he made the place to 'pull' people to him. Prayer alone will not suffice to gather followers; what he recognises as crucial is that people know about his abilities. With this in mind I would argue that it is his relation with other people, as much as with God, that motivated the construction of this new place. From this perspective he can be seen to be partaking in a common enterprise for Malakulan men, that of 'playing politics' and gathering supporters.

Within his new place, Tom tries to influence the movement of people by appropriating and referring to concepts of sacredness. In doing so his actions, discourse and motives echo pre-Christian notions of the relationship between a man's power, his sacredness, and the use of social spacing as an index of these aspects of his public self. The symbolism he uses and the discourse he produces are anchored in his vision of himself as a Christian, and not only a Christian but a tambu man with whom God has chosen to converse.

There are two aspects of the 'sacredness' that Tom draws upon. One uses space as well as the importance of pies, while the other is grounded in his talk, and more particularly in his ability to talk with God. Just as conversion to Christianity involved moving from older villages, centred around the nasara, to new villages, centred around a church, Tom is also physically and symbolically reinforcing his differentiation from the more mainstream forms of Christianity by trying to set up a new living space -- this time centred around his tambu house. At the same time he redefines the partitioning, significance and uses of space within the new village.

Here I have explored the undertakings of a specific person, based on our interactions on a particular day -- the unveiling of the slit-drum. Yet the lens I use seeks also to contextualise this within a wider sphere: the local production of meaning and its relation to forms of authority and/or power. This relation is not binary but multiplex. Notions of sacredness merge with ideas of power or authority and prescriptions of physical spacing so that it is difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle each from the other to identify a primary or causal factor. A diagram of this relation would have to be in the form of an equilateral triangle, so that no point or angle dominates the others. This relation can be referred to as a nexus: a nexus of spacing, status and sacredness.

This nexus has its foundations in an older Malakulan sociality. Tom is 'innovating' insofar that he draws on powerful pre-Christian symbolic associations while trying to establish status through his interpretation of Christianity. His innovation is consistent with preexisting Malakulan political practice, rather than the result of trying to reconcile supposedly differing ways of being and/or knowing.

I have tried to contextualise Tom within a Malakulan sociality; as an example of a local rendering of Christianity rather than in terms of Christian and indigenous discourse or practice. He claims to be Christian, but also draws on kastom. Here, the labels of Christian, traditional, or syncretic religion seem misleading. Tom's 'innovation' seems consistent with pre-Christian practice, both in the way he uses constructed spaces, and in the practice of innovation itself, even though he at times proposes an historical and cultural rupture between being Christian and being kastom. By examining his project in terms of his physical manipulations of space and the local meanings associated with it, rather than exclusively by what he says, we can make sense of a character who, on the surface level, seems to be jumping between presumed antithetical religious expressions. While not wishing to refute purely discursive analysis itself, such analysis can eclipse crucial and illuminating dimensions of (non-verbal) symbolic communication. This seems particularly pertinent in cases where historically divergent, or even supposedly oppositional, discourses merge in the complexities of lived religious expression and experience. In the present case, an examination of the embodied nexus of spacing, status and sacredness provides a more coherent understanding of Tom than situating him in different discourses, labelled 'Christian' or 'indigenous'.


In March 1999 I received a letter from Longdal Nobel Masingyau. I had passed a copy of the paper to Longdal during a return visit in October 1998. I offer a section of the letter in which Longdal comments on the paper and on Tom.

... I have just been reading your paper on Prophet Tom Moses of Milip village this morning. I must tell you that it seems to me that his power and influence has decreased a lot now. I do not know anything about these processes. Nobody is fob lowing his ideas.

There is another Prophet in Boonvor village who claims that God speaks to him, so now he has moved to go and live at Matlelamb River between Varun and Boonvor villages (South, South Coast Malakula)

His whole idea is the same as Prophet Tom of Milip village.

He can't eat food cooked by another family, and his ideas are all totally over the top.

I have already asked him if I could come and record him about his thoughts.

If you think this is worth it could you tell me in your next letter.

Yes brother, I think that is all I have to tell you and I hope that I will hear from you soon. Thanks a lot. [22]

Yours Sincerely,

Longdal Nobel Masingyau.


My first debt of acknowledgment is to the Na'hai speakers of South Malakula. I must mention Longdal Nobel Masingyau and of course Tom Moses, who inspired this paper. I would also like to thank the participants at the 'Current Research in Vanuatu' conference for feedback and commentary. Lissant Bolton has discussed and commented on this paper from the beginning, and her input has been invaluable. Margaret Jolly, Michael Young and Bronwen Douglas, James Weiner and Bob Tonkinson have also read and commented on drafts. Their contributions have also been extremely helpful. Others who have pointed out issues of style or ethnographic detail include Hilary Ericksen, Derek Elias, Kirk Huffman and David Luders. Finally the anonymous reader for Oceania pointed out some important omissions which I have attempted to address. Of course, any shortcomings in the paper are solely my responsibility.


(1.) This quote, and those prefacing each section of the article, are taken from the video footage on which this paper is based. They have all been translated from Bislama.

(2.) With an arch shaped top, it resembles popular biblical illustrations of the tablet on which the ten commandments were delivered to Moses.

(3.) Italics indicate Bislama words; those both italicised and underlined are words from the vernacular: Na'hai.

(4.) Although Tom does embody aspects of the moral/new man a la Burridge (1960)

(5.) Christian representations of the past in Santa Isabel, Solomon Islands, have been discussed by Geoffrey White (1991). Here, I do not go into these issues but White's analysis effectively questions the idea that representations of 'heathens' or of the 'time of darkness' are uniformly negative. This is also the case in Malakula.

(6.) At this stage I use the word clan in quotes, as I have not yet discussed the concept of nasara. It differs slightly to the classic notion of a clan, notably in its emphasis on place, or ples in Bislama.

(7.) I am aware of the 'artificiality' of dichotomising between inside/outside, or local/foreign, concepts or practices. Even though a critique of this is one of the leitmotifs of this paper, I maintain it in this context insomuch as it is a dichotomy also held by many local church leaders. I have heard several sermons in which fasin blong waetman -- ways of the white man -- are valorised at the expense of fasin blong yumi -- our ways. Of course, the same church leaders may on other occasions, and in other contexts, stringently criticise foreign or introduced practices.

(8.) This is my own figure. The census was carried out from the 13-16 April 1996.

(9.) Mbonvor is not entirely Na'hai speaking, in fact six languages (excluding Bislama) are spoken in the village (of, at most 200 people) with the two dominant being Na'hai and (language of) Akhamb.

(10.) However relatively recently (1994) a Na'hai council was created by Longdal Nobel Masingyau, partly to promote a sense of community based on shared language.

(11.) As opposed to PNG where a station supposes some kind of administrative or mission presence.

(12.) When there are no more male members of a lineage, matrilineal or matrilateral cognates can claim rights to the nasara and the land associated with it.

(13.) Thus, when referring to the structure of the grade-taking ceremonies I use the present tense, while I use the past tense when referring to their practice.

(14.) Several people indicated that it was the economic rather than religious constraints that kept them from performing the ceremonies. While the Presbyterian Church initially banned these rituals on grounds of their spiritual 'heathenness', I was told by several Presbyterians that they were not 'sinful' but rather involved too much labour in terms of the pigs required. Without the strong political advantages of taking grades that existed in the past, the economic burden becomes disproportionably large.

(15.) Masks are still manufactured today, but with various other purposes in mind. Usually they are manufactured for either performances or for sale, but in both cases they are still kept hidden from women and children, although not in an amel. Furthermore, payments still have to be made for the rights to manufacture them, and they are always made in the bush: away from women and from men who do not have rights to them. Women still refuse to carry them, for fear of misfortune or disease, even when produced for sale to art dealers and tourists. They have also been quite recently (1991, 1994) produced for people of other places who wanted to 'make niluan', but who no longer possessed the knowledge of how to make the masks -- so that they purchased this knowledge from Tomman elders.

(16.) Deacon notes that: 'In passing from the naai [sisive] towards the amel the ground becomes more and more [loh] until the most [loh] spot is reached-the patch of dense bush lying a little distance behind the amel ... In accordance with the principle that the further from the naai [sisive] the more [loh] the place, we find that ... the compartment belonging to the highest grade is situated at the back, while that of the lowest lies nearest the door.' (Deacon, 1934:24)

Where Deacon uses words from the neighbouring Nahava language (area of Seniang or Sinesip) I have replaced them with the Na'hai (Hurtes area) equivalents.

(17.) I do not go into more detail here on women's grades. For more on the relationship between men's and women's grades see Jolly 1994 (for South Pentecost), and Bolson n.d. (for Central Maewo).

(18.) I was not able to confirm this, but Longdal first pointed me towards the idea of 'coded talk' or 'secret language' (which he did not know) and later discussions with him and other fleidworkers, as well as expatriate researchers David Luders and Annie Walter, have given reason to suspect that some of these 'translated words' also unlock hidden meanings to commonly known myths.

(19.) The British district agent on Malakula reported as follows to his Resident Commissioner in Vila on a visit to Tomman in September 1941:


I have the honour to acknowledge receipt of your letter No 371/442/38 dated 9th August and to report having, in the company of my Colleague visited Toman [sic] on the 22nd of September.

ii. The figures as given by Mr Stallan are correct as far as the anti-mission are concerned. I have counted 36 natives who have actually joined the School, these are at Milip, various villages of the South side of S.W. Bay and 13 at Toman. Others are said to be scattered elsewhere and I did not see them.

iii. There is no doubt that the majority is pro mission and have in fact joined the Mission at various villages.

iv. The opposition and indifferents number 11 of which the chief Tom is definately [sic] against the Mission. I believe he fears he would lose his powers of Chief and be supplanted by a teacher.

v. Most of the pro mission natives having left Toman the island is sadly depopulated. The granting of a school would I think remedy this. (Adam to Blandy, 2 October 1941; RFNH 3/10/38).

(20.) The Bislama word was poisen, which can refer either to poisoning by contaminating food or drink with a lethal substance, or to the practice of sorcery.

(21.) I could not get specific details on the denomination of this church, as it was always referred to as simply 'charismatic'. But I suspect it was actually instigated by, or a spin-off of, the Christian Life Centre which is currently active in Lembinwin village, South West Bay.

(22.) The original in Bislama is as follows: Long moning ia nomo mi stap readim pepa blong yu long Prophet Tom Mosis blong Milip Vilij, ml mas talem macut long yu bakagen se mi luk olsem power mo influwen blong hem i stap lus big wan tis taem. Mi no save nating long processes ia. I no kat noting wan man i follem ol tinkink blong hem.

Nara man Prophet bakegen i bin kat long Boonvor Village we hem to i klem se God i bin tok long hem so naoia hemi move ma go stap long Matlelamb River between Varun mo Boonvor Vilij (South, South Coast Malekula.)

Whole idea blong hem i semmak long Prophet Tom blong Milip Vilij

Hemi no save kakae ol kakae we ol narafala family oli kukum mo completely ol tinktink blong hem oli ova mak.

Mi step askem hem finis blong kam samtaem blong mi save recordem hem long ol tinktink blong hem ia.

Sapos yu tink se hemi gud plis yu mas talem maout long mi long next leta blong yu.

Yes brata ating hemia nomo blong talem maout long yu mi hop blong harem long yu i no long taem. Tankyu tumas.

Yours Sincerely,

Longdal Nobel Masingyau.
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Author:Curtis, Tim
Geographic Code:8VANU
Date:Sep 1, 1999
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