Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Toka-Time on Tanna

By Dianne Hambrook:  “If you get a chance to go to Toka, “ my friend Emily tells me, “grab it! Tourists usually only visit Tanna for the volcano, but this is the best cultural festival you’ll ever see in Vanuatu”. So now it’s Toka-time again and rumours abound. The Nekowiar Ceremony, to give it its official title, is held once every three or four years but nobody seems to know exactly when it’s going to happen. Dates and times change, are confirmed, change again. In the end we take a leap of faith, book our air tickets and go. Fortunately we have inside information. We’re staying at Iwaru Beach Bungalows, the accommodation closest to the village where the event will be held, and Philip, the owner of the bungalows, is the son of the chief. We’re lucky enough to get to see the preparatory stages of the festival; the temporary stalls and shelters being built, dancers practising, neighbouring villagers arriving with their gifts of live pigs and kava. There’s huge anticipation. Something very special is about to happen…
Fortunately too, Iwaru Beach Bungalows is set on a beautiful black sand beach, a destination in its own right. In the excitement it appears the fact that Tafea Day falls in the middle of the proceedings has been overlooked, so the program gets pushed out by a day. We take advantage of the extra time to do a tour across to Port Resolution on the much-improved jungle road, picnicking and snorkelling at the white sand beach and topping off our day with a feisty fireworks display from Mt Yasur.

Finally the festival begins, and it’s worth every minute of the wait. The Napen-Napen is a visual feast, a vibrant exuberance of mamas and young girls dancing up a dust storm. The moves are repetitive but I never tire of the watching and photographing them, luckily, because the dance goes on for ages. Afterwards we’re lead up to a shady food stall run by our bungalow hosts and sustained with huge serves of island kaekae.

The men’s Toka dance starts early the next day, with groups moving from nakamal to nakamal through the jungle. While waiting for them to arrive at the main village my husband agrees to let the girls paint his face, man-Tanna style. Before he knows what’s happening a sarong is wrapped around his waist and he’s marched off by “security” to join the men. That’s the last I see of him for several hours. When he eventually reappears it’s as the only white man in a vast group of dancers, stomping and chanting, trying to work out where to go next while disentangling his wild cane staff from his feathered headdress. His participation is greatly appreciated by the locals and it’s a standout experience for him.

We’re woken in the early hours of the following morning and taken to the village in the dark to see the finale. It seems that almost everyone, including children, has been dancing all night. The moon shines through the nabangas and the atmosphere is electric. We watch from a viewing platform built into the trees until dawn breaks and two Kweriya appear, 3 metre high poles covered in feathers, carried in by the crowd. 

The climax of the festival is the pig killing ceremony. As vegetarians already a day late for work, we elect to head off to the airport instead to catch our flight back to Port Vila. But we have it on good authority from those who stayed, that copious of amounts of pork and kava were shared and consumed. 

It’s rumoured that there will only be one more Toka - ever. If you get a chance to go, grab it!