Thursday, February 5, 2015

Vanuatu – Discovering the Diversity of Ancient Cultures

The Documented Word of the Colonisers.

Archaeological evidence indicates that, by 1300 B.C, islands in northern Vanuatu had been settled by people of the Lapita culture from the Melanesian islands to the west. Since then, there have been successive waves of migrants, including people of Polynesian origins on the southern islands of Aniwa and Futuna. The region was part of the Tongan Empire into the 14th century and by the 17th Century many European sailors had visited briefly and some stayed at longer intervals. The name ‘New Hebrides’ was given to the islands by Captain James Cook on his visit in 1774 and in 1789 the islands were called at by rescuers seeking Captain Bligh and his officers, who had been turned loose with provisions in an open boat after the mutiny on the Bounty. During the 19th century French and English Christian missionaries and some traders and planters settled on some of the islands which became an Anglo–French condominium by 1906. 
The New Hebrides was ruled by separate British and French administrations for almost 75 years. A government of national unity was formed in 1978 and, with advisory help from France and the UK, a new constitution was adopted in October 1979. Elections in November 1979 gave victory to the Vanua’aku Pati, and an indigenous man by the name of Walter Lini became Prime Minister. The archipelago gained independence on 30 July 1980 as Vanuatu and joined the Commonwealth.

The Oral History of the People of the Place.

According to legend, life on the island began with the marriage of two plants – the Kava and the Coconut Tree – the kava is used for many important ceremonies and the coconut tree represents the ‘tree of life’. Vanuatu has a rich culture of origin stories and oral histories that have been told and retold from generation to generation. Ancestors used origin stories to explain how and why things happened the way that they did. Often these stories link physical occurrences, such as volcanoes, to spiritual beliefs. It is widely acknowledged that they are very fortunate to have these oral histories, as there are many places in the world that have lost this rich component of their cultures.

Unearthing History through Art and Stories.

Custom stories combine both spiritual and physical explanations for occurrences in the island environment. Scientific explanations for island origins enhance custom stories by empirically showing that events in some stories actually occurred. Science therefore also shows the value of retaining knowledge of custom stories, which offer a way to explain a fascinating world using the knowledge of the ancestors.

In 1926 and 1927, English anthropologist Bernard Deacon collected information on different customs and ways of life throughout the islands. He came across complex designs drawn in the sand and in the dust of the volcanic ash plains. He decided to record the drawings and their meanings as he travelled through Malekula, Ambrym and Ambae. He considered these geometrical figures one of his most significant cultural ‘findings.’ In a letter to a fellow anthropologist he wrote, “I’ve certainly never seen or heard of anything like it; Some of these drawings describe the strength and personalities of mythic heroes. Others tell of the world of spirits. There are some sand drawings that are images of plants or animals. Others are used for purposes of communication and take the place of numbers or phrases. In other sand drawings an important theme is the natural world that surrounds us.”


The 83 islands that make up the ‘Y’ shaped archipelago of Vanuatu; across a distance stretching over 800 kilometres from tiny Aneityum in the south to Torres Island in the north, are far from homogeneous. Unlike today, interisland travel would have been difficult due to the use of predominantly small outrigger canoes coupled with rough sea conditions beyond the reefs. Travel within islands has also been limited to the geography and geology; large rivers, thick jungle, steep volcanic terrain and indeed active volcanoes. Land near the coast was rich and people were expert gardeners, leaving little reason to venture further afield to plunder resources and to adapt to other cultures. The result has been that much kastom; languages, stories, celebrations, dress, dance, music, art, carving, food and festivals have developed in relative isolation.

A Cultural Feat.

Ni-Vanuatu - as the people of Vanuatu are called, are immensely proud of their diversity and continued connection with their origins. Despite their more recent western interventions through Western colonisation, Christianity, ‘Black-Birding’ in Australia, foreign governance and modern technology; Kastom is strong and celebrated. Cultural (revival) schools have opened up to teach pikinini (children) of the old ways, kastom language is being documented and spoken within communities, people are learning traditional crafts of timber and black fern carving, clay mask and pottery making, weaving, house construction, and sand drawing. Festivals and ceremonies involving food, magic, music dance and costumes marking traditional crop harvests, births, deaths, marriages, chieftainships, circumcision, and deaths are being recreated and remembered while those who remember can share their knowledge.

Kastom; Uniquely Accessible to Visitors.

Vanuatu is unique in that it is one of the only places in the world to have so closely retained so much of its ‘flavour’. Approximately 80% of the 250,000 strong population still lives rurally and this is where visitors must go to experience authentic custom and cultural practices. Two islands in particular are well worth venturing to to experience the diversity of kastom. The first is Malekula, Vanuatu’s second largest island located south of Espiritu Santo Island in northern/central Vanuatu and the second is Ambrym – the ‘black’ island.

Malekula Island of Cannibalism and Fearsome Warriors

Malekula boasts an estimated 28 distinct languages (not dialects) and is said to be one of the most linguistically diverse places for its size (about 100kms long by 40kms wide) in the world. It is home to two main tribal groups – named the Big and Small Nambas. Nambas refers to a woven penis sheaths the men wear. Once fiercely warring and cannibalistic, dances and ceremonies are raw and earthy, and the art and carving as unique between villages as it is between countries in Europe. Places today to see these tribes are around Walarano, Vao, Tenmaru, Unmet, Unua, South West Bay and the Maskelynes – to mention just some. Visits are not organised on a regular basis and therefore when guests arrive each performance is intimate and special. They are a sharing of a lifestyle and beliefs not forgotten or forsaken.

Visitors will see ancient cannibal sites and the vertical graves of decapitated chiefs, nearby Nasaras (spiritual places of ceremony) denoted by numerous massive stone plaques – mysteriously placed despite being too heavy for any group of men to carry. Also on offer is mesmerising dancing, intricate kastom jewellery and headdresses, body paint as black as coal, ceremonial weapons, and outrigger bow carvings of birds and other animals. The preparation of laplap sorsor (meaning unity laplap) is an intricate process ending in the sharing of steaming banana leaf baked grated root vegetable with a well of hot coconut milk with visitors and host. The people of South West Bay dance in a kaleidoscope of feathered colour and have unique clay masks made of a base of spider web and earth and decorative fired pottery. 

Ambrym Island of Spirits and Craftsmanship

Ambrym Island is another cultural gem. Often referred to the ‘black island’ due to the presence of its two very active volcanoes Mt Marum and Mt Benbow and their tendency to spew out black ash and lava on regular intervals, but also perhaps because of its strong kastom and the power of ‘Man blong Majik’ the sorcerers who protect and speak to the volcanoes. Even without the opportunity to hike to some of the most accessible active volcanoes in the world Ambrym is worth the visit simply for its truly fantastic kastom. Ambrym carvers are said to be the most accomplished in Vanuatu. Most of the huge tam tams (vertical slit gongs) carved black palm, volcanic stone carvings, flutes, decorative pig clubbers, and more originate from Ambrym – so is the skill of theirs craftsmen.

Beyond their craftsmanship the other kastom experience that should not be missed is that of the Rom (or ‘masked’) Dance. These dances are performed around the harvest of the yam – once the only root crop on the island therefore crucial to survival – so is the seriousness of this dance. The Rom are 9 foot tall spirit-like ‘creatures’ fully cloaked in a costume of pandanus and banana leaf with faces covered by intricately carved, colourfully painted, woven and feathered masks. One hand is covered with a long staff, again delicately woven at the top to obscure any sign of the man beneath. The rhythm is drummed out on the encroaching tam tam carvings that surround the dancing ground and the men stomp, yell and thump out the traditional ceremonial songs. To be present is an out of body experience and following this each costume must be entirely burnt as not to haunt the dancers. The best places to see this is in north Ambrym near Fanla or Olal, or near Craig Cove at Hawor.

Festivals and Cultural Tours

Arguably the best way to experience the vibrancy and nuances of authentic Ni-Vanuatu culture is to visit during the festival season – roughly from June – September when most kastom festivals take place celebrating harvests and other significant identity events. Visits can be organised directly with the organisers. Coincidentally it is dry season, meaning the weather is usually sunny, settled and pleasant. Alternately, if travel can’t coordinate with festival dates then kastom tours can be arranged on an individual basis with various communities via the local Travel Call Centres – often meaning that you may be the sole participants of an authentic and meaningful sharing of tradition with plenty of opportunities to ask questions and be involved. 

Festivals in Malekula and Ambrym in 2015

Yam & Magic Festival, Olal, North Ambrym. 9-10 July, Contact Chief Sekor 5907659
Fanla Festival, Fanla Village, North Ambrym. 16-17 July, Contact John 7793369
Maskelyne Canoe Race, Sakao Island, Malekula 28-29 July, Contact Kalo 7783524
Port Sandwich Festival, South Malekula, 2-3 August, Contact Tito 5436814
Black Island Identity Festival, Magam, North Ambrym 6-7 August. 
Nalawan Festival, South West Bay, Malekula, August Exact Dates TBA. 
Back To My Roots, Olal, North Ambrym 19-21 August, Contact Chief Sekor 5907659

Cultural Tours in Malekula and Ambrym

Small Nambas Tour at Rano, Central Malekula
Hone Vaghal Small Nambas Tour at Vao, North Malekula
Big Nambas Tour at Mae, Central Malekula
Big Nambas Amokh Tribal Tour, Unmet, West Malekula
Endu Cultural Tour, Endu, East Ambrym
Hawor Cultural Tour, Craig Cove, West Ambrym
Fanla Rom Dance and Black Magic Tour, Fanla, North Ambrym

All of the above cultural tours are best booked in advance via Call Centre. The not-for-profit regional booking service.
Phone: (+678) 48888

Text References: