In the archipelago country of Vanuatu, just below the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, an indigenous tribe inhabits the northern hills on the Island of Malakula. The tribe is known as the “Big Nambas,” which translates to—as strange as it might seem—the “Big Numbers.” But that’s hardly the strangest part. The tribe’s name, you see, is in reference to the size of the men’s penis sheathes.
The Big Nambas are famous (or infamous) as former cannibals who, back in the 1980s, still lived as they did thousands of years ago, far from civilization. While they’ve since been exposed to Western culture and religion, they held on to their ancient beliefs, although they had apparently ceased practicing cannibalism. At least that’s what we heard. The world’s last cannibals? We decided we had to find the Big Nambas.
Doing so proved to be a challenge. After we landed on Malakula, we had to navigate through the island’s other natives—the Small Nambas, who apparently suffer from penis sheath envy. Half of them spoke “pidgin English” and the other half spoke “Français de pigeon.” We eventually discovered that the Big Nambas’ village was a solid nine-hour hike up into the mountains.
Two hours into the journey, we met a Westernized (some would say corrupted) islander with a pickup truck who agreed to drive us the rest of the way, for a price. A short negotiation followed, in which we persuaded him, for a slightly larger fee, to rendezvous with us for the return trip as well.
When we arrived at the village, Virhembat the Chief greeted us with his seven wives and 23 children. He showed us each wife’s hut in turn, from the most ornate (which belonged to his first and most honored wife) to the most humble (which belonged to his youngest wife). It was a time-consuming custom we feared might end in a more intimate one.
That night they honored us with a feast. Wild boar, they told us, but it could have been anything . . . or anyone, since their word for all meat was “boar.” We decided not to risk offense. Never anger a cannibal, even a former one. With exaggerated delight, we ate. It tasted suspiciously like chicken.
Virhembat turned out to be quite charming in his own way. Since he only spoke his own language, we had to communicate with gestures and the occasional word. Somehow it worked. He “told” us (miming an airplane) that his eldest son was in France. We learned later that France to him meant Tahiti.
That’s how the world works; your concept of distance all depends on your perspective. While driving across Texas, for instance, doesn’t it seem that you’ll never again see the ocean? Or Chinese food?
When it came time to leave the Big Nambas, we learned some valuable lessons, like how kind and generous these “primitives” were, how much we really liked their simple ways, and how much we wished we hadn’t paid the full amount for the return trip in advance, because the driver never appeared at the rendezvous point. Maybe we had him for dinner.
At least the nine-hour walk back was all downhill.
Little Known Fact: On another island in the same archipelago live the Cargo Cults. During World War II, the Red Cross dropped supplies on the island, and the natives thought it was manna from heaven. They even adopted the US military medic symbol. Ironically, they’ve come to despise Americans, who they believe don’t share their material goods readily enough.
Lessons Learned: Adventure—whether cultural, culinary, or both—always involves some risk. When you’re out in the Great Unknown, trust your instincts and remember what drove you there in the first place (not the pickup truck, but the desire for new and exciting experiences).
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 5
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 4
Grunge Factor: 3
Inactivity Guide: 2
Spontaneous Consumption: 3
Fun Fraction: 3/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Norsup, Lamap, and Southwest Bay Airports, all on the Island of Malakula
Native Population: 30,000
Normal Attractions: Malakula has a rich cultural diversity (European and indigenous), but the real reason to visit is that it’s a remote tropical island, far from the maddening crowds.
Final Point of Interest: Pigs, particularly those with rounded tusks, are considered a symbol of wealth throughout Vanuatu.