Second only to Santo in size, Malekula is a wild island famed for its tribal groups, cannibal sites, highland trekking and protected marine areas.
Shaped like a sitting dog, Malekula has two highland areas connected by ‘the dog’s neck’. The uplands are extremely rugged and inhospitable, rising to over 800m and criss-crossed by narrow valleys.
Two of Malekula’s major cultural groups are the Big Nambas and Small Nambas, named because of the size of the men’s namba (penis sheath). Small Nambas men wear one leaf of dried fibre wound around the penis and tucked into a bark belt. Their semi-kastom communities are built around tamtam, ready to beat a rhythm, and a dance area.
Big Nambas men wind large purple pandanus fibres around their penis, securing the loose ends in a thick bark belt and leaving the testicles exposed. They had such an awesome warlike reputation that no foreigner dared venture into their territory. Even police expeditions, which came to punish them for killing traders, were ambushed and dispersed. They kept a stone fireplace where unwelcome outsiders were ritually cooked and eaten.
Big Nambas' erpnavet (grade-taking) ceremonies are preceded by lengthy rehearsals. The men cover themselves in charcoal and coconut oil, tie nut rattles around their ankles and wear feathers in their hair. At the highest level, a man has the powerful characteristics of a hawk, and a hawk dance is performed by a spirit man.