Vele Men and Black Magic in the Solomons
05 June 2017 | Shaw Point, Dnende
One afternoon just before we left Nendo, Moses was sitting in the cockpit having a cup of tea with us. He had been giving us a hand with cleaning the hull. We talked about the water clarity and the streams of fresh water we swam through that came from underwater springs near the blue waterhole just inshore from us. I mentioned that it looked like nice walking along the track beside the bay. He agreed but said you must always go with someone because of the vele men (pronounced "well men"). He explained that a person walking on their own may be attacked by a man who renders them unconscious and poisons them with leaves. The person will wake and be unaware of what has happened but a few days later he/she will fall ill and die.
Later that afternoon I was sitting near Hilda as she prepared hot stones to make cassava pudding and asked had she heard of the vele men. Yes, she said, they are very bad and they can be anyone. No-one knows who they are. You might be sitting across the table from a vele man and never know. They will attack a lone person and put leaves in their body cavities but the person does not know. Only if someone notices a mark on the body will they know they have been attacked by a vele man. Titus also acknowledged the existence of vele men but said they only attack their enemies. And, yes, they live among everyone as normal people.
I was intrigued by these stories and did a little research. In the Solomons there are two main types of black magic, vele which is practised by the vele man and mostly associated with Guadalcanal, and Arua, which is practised mainly in Malaita. Arua is a practice where the food or clothing of a person is taken and fed to a frog, snake or rat (see Philip Kanairara and Derek Futaiasi). The vele man makes use of a small bag woven from fibre and that contains objects like pieces of bone, vegetable matter, something sharp, such as a tooth, or a sharp piece of shell money (local versions of the magic vary). The bag is called a vasa or vele bag. The vele man's method "is to hide by the side of a road and, as the victim approaches, to make a sharp noise, thus attracting attention. The man turns and sees the vasa suspended from a finger. He collapses, usually in an unconscious condition.' 'Later he would get up, return home, sicken and die within a few days' (Wright 1940).
Another more graphic version of the vele man's method, and closer to Hilda's description, is given in a study of sorcery in Malekula and Ambrym in Vanuatu. In this instance the vele man is said to use body-draining, "When body-draining, the sorcerer attracts his victim, kills them in one way or another (usually through poisoning or strangulation), empties the body and fills it up with plants. He then sews it back together and sends the victim home to die, alive but with no memory of what has happened" (Lurent Dousett).
I knew that magic had been part of the past in the Solomons and in Vanuatu but thought that with the introduction of Christianity it was past its height and more about being a bit superstitious and having fun. I was wrong. There are many examples of sorcery being practised in The Solomons and it is a genuine concern for Solomon Islanders. Jim and Margaret Tedder reported in the early 60s that there was so much concern over the open carrying of vele baskets in parts of central Guadalcanal that the leader of the Nativisitc movement was called to come and collect them and render them harmless by wrapping pig entrails around the outside and throwing them in the river. Shortly afterward the Penal Code was amended to make it an offence to keep items of black magic. In 2009/2010 The Solomon Islands Law Reform Commission started a review of the Penal Code and found that many people still considered sorcery to be a serious concern in society and needed to be addressed by the government. And, as recently as 2012 a provincial police commander in Isabel province reported an increase in unlawful activities related to sorcery (Kakai 2012).
Suffice to say, after this I was not the least interested in hiking alone in Nendo. The prospect of being knocked off by a witch doctor as well as dealing with the minefield of Taboo areas convinced me that some local company would be very welcome.