Ever since Commander Cook named this island Mallicollo, people have invented colourful stories about why the name means ‘bad bottom’. Most stories involve mischievous villagers, plants that contain a strong skin irritant, kava, and French sailors clutching their rear ends, shouting ‘Mal à cul!’.
Shaped like a sitting dog, Malekula has two highland areas connected by the ‘dog’s neck’. The uplands, intersected by narrow valleys, rise to over 800m in the southern centre. This area, and the southwest coast, are extremely rugged and inhospitable.
Malekula is linguistically and culturally diverse: there are 28 languages spoken, and it’s a favoured stamping ground for anthropologists. Two of its major cultural groups are the Big Nambas and Small Nambas, originating from the size of the men’s nambas (penis sheath). A southern kastom group, traditionally called ManBush, have also been named Small Nambas of late.
In the southwest, male babies’ heads were wrapped tightly, so the soft skull bone was moulded high, in a shape that later made the man look more distinguished. You may still see a few old men with elongated heads.
There’s no malaria in Malekula’s mountainous central region, whereas the coast is infested with it. ManBush Small Nambas people used to refuse to even look at the ocean for fear of catching the disease. However, when the chief of a local kastom village died recently, his wives moved down to the coastal region and turned to Christianity so they could send their children to school in the east.