Religion and healing practices in New Caledonia

Photo JH

Photo JH

“What religions are practiced in New Caledonia?” I am sometimes asked. And traditional healing practices, how prevalent are these in modern New Caledonia? How do people combine traditional beliefs with mainstream religion?

Well. You may or may not know that almost two-thirds of the population in New Caledonia today is Catholic. Some 150 years ago, missionaries brought the “Word of God” and the concept of heaven and hell to a Kanak world whose belief system took the form of ancestor and spirit worship. Initial resistance, rivalry and ultimately, religious wars, ensued to the point that military protection was required. This being said, the traditional missionary dresses remained and are worn by Kanak women today (as pictured above).

Today, it appears that traditional and mainstream religions exist side by side in New Caledonia. Of the two-thirds Catholics, just over half are Europeans and the remainder are Kanaks, and some Wallisians. Protestants make up one quarter of the population; Kanaks form the majority of followers, far outweighing the Tahitians and Europeans who also follow this faith. Other religious groups include about 4,000 Muslims, generally of Indonesian descent, Mormons from Tahiti, and Buddhists, Baha’ists, Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The role of religion is important among the older Kanak population, and, on any given Sunday, the cathedral in Nouméa and little churches all over the country (including on the Loyalty Islands) are filled with an elderly Kanak congregation. We also found that churches were filled with Melanesians of all ages for Christmas eve in Lifou this last December.

With regard to the Kanak religion, ancestors are the spirits of humans who receive  power after death. Other spirits, which had never been living creatures, are the guardians of the fields and forests, or simply a source of tribal strength. Offerings are given to the invisible world, as a healthy life depends on its support. Certain places are the domain of the spirits and thus considered sacred and taboo. Burial grounds are on example – bodes were buried in caves or in a tumulus (burial mound) while the skull was left at the cave entrance or above ground.

Photo JH

Photo JH

Taboos are normally, although not always, related to a totem. Totemism is the belief in a special relationship between a certain animal, plant or thing and the clan or person. This belief has a mythical character, the unity of which creates rites and taboos. If broken, illness and even death are believed to follow. It is forbidden to kill or eat your own totem. Things directly related to the totem are affected by it, so the bank of a river, for example, may be taboo because the eel totem is sleeping there.

With regard to traditional medicine, the Kanaks are very close to the land and use plants to heal common ailments, such as headaches, stomach upset, and nausea. Recently in Lifou, Joseph at one of the local vanilla plantations, walked us through many of the healing qualities of the plants on his plantation. By the end of our 2-hour tour we were fully versed in the healing potential of the most common plant (and less common as well; as an example, did you know that papaya can cure Hepatitis B? Joseph assured us that the male papaya plant can indeed do so).

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Source for much of this post:  Logan, Leanne and Geert Cole (2001), New Caledonia, Lonely Planet Publications.

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