Vanuatu Customs & the Diversity
In a 2006 report, the Vanuatu Statistics Bureau described a total population of approximately 221,000 residents who speak a combined total of 113 distinct languages and numerous localized dialects. An amazingly diverse group of people form the population of Vanuatu as a result of 3,000 years of immigration as people from many surrounding Pacific countries made their way into the area. Vanuatu’s primary settlers were Melanesian but the chain of islands which form this country also has a large population of fair skinned people with a Polynesian ethnicity. Like other nations and people the world over, these different ethnic and social groups have interacted both peacefully and violently over their history. These contacts have included inter-tribal marriages or blending of separate cultural identities as more dominant groups moved into the area. The result has brought us the current day Vanuatu population with four main cultural groups and numerous sub-groupings , divided into three areas of the country.
As the various people immigrated to Vanuatu over its history, they have brought remnants of their heritage with them, including a variety of food crops, tree seedlings and animals. The most notable of these animals is the pig because this animal has become a symbol for the ritual filled life of the local people, as well as method of measuring the economic balance between wealth and power for the various cultures who call Vanuatu home.
While swine are highly prized among all the various cultures of Vanuatu, there are some areas where this reverence is even more notable, such as the northern islands where two of the dominant social groups allow both men and women to “buy’” social status and rank in exchange for monetary gifts, such as woven mats and pigs with rounded tusks. It is important to note that there is a unique system behind this purchase however; The individuals worth is not based on how much they own but is demonstrated by their willingness and ability to give their wealth to others as gifts. In addition, while public display of status is acceptable, the purchased status is to earn the respect of one’s peers and does not generally grant any position of authority.
This exchange of wealth is very ceremonious and involves specific rituals, such as large numbers of pigs being killed and gifts being bestowed upon members of the individual’s extended family, which can often include hundreds of distant relatives. Extremely complex systems are used to keep track of the relatives of tribal members for many generations and this creates a nearly perpetual cycle of gift-giving ceremonies and ritual celebrations in northern Vanuatu, which has been one of the prime attractions for visitors to this area for many years.
The central islands of Vanuatu offer a far different social system. The Polynesian settlers who immigrated here brought their own form of society and culture, including a class system. At the top of this class system is a hereditary chief who rules over a group which includes both nobility and common people. This chief is considered to be a final authority on all matters in this society.
Far to the south, especially on the island of Tanna, certain men are given the title of chief, which grants them rights over the land and all belongings of the people who live there. In some southern island, women are not allowed to achieve any high rank or status while in other places, such as Ambae and the Shepherds, women can, and often do, attain the rank of Chief. To add more complexity, religious orders, such as the John Frumm’s, the Half Halfs and male-dominated secret societies, have shifted the balance of power towards males on Tanna and other islands.
While Vanuatu is known for its cultural and social diversity, the fact is life in Vanuatu has one common thread. This common ground is the reverence and honour placed in following custom and ceremony. Each and every portion of an individual’s life is cause for celebration in Vanuatu. With almost clockwork regularity, extended families numbering into the hundreds gather to celebrate the magic of life. Every life event is celebrated, including birth, circumcision and rites of initiation, attaining new status, celebration of marriage and, even, death.
No Written Language
Due to the fact that the Ni-Vanuatu people have no written language, these life events are recorded through art forms, including ceremonial masks, carvings, storytelling, dances and songs. Individual achievements may also call for tattoos or other body markings and decorations to help the person display their status and retell their story for future generations. This amazing view on life and its magical qualities that inspire celebration has led many visitors to call the Ni-Vanuatu people the happiest people on earth.
Like other primitive people, the Ni-Vanuatu culture offers a rich legacy of myth and legend. Natural formations and natural disasters are significant to the Ni-Vanuatu culture and are often explained using legends and myths, rather than accepting scientific explanations. This tradition has continued into modern Vanuatu culture and natural disasters, such as severe storms or volcanic activity are often blamed on villagers who may have angered some spirit by an act of irreverence or conjured a disaster through means of black magic. In some cases, such as the Ambrym Volcano eruption in 1913, these superstitious beliefs have incited inter-tribal violence.
The main food sources of the Ni-Vanuatu people include root crops, like Yam, Taro and Manioc. Seasonal fare, such as the Breadfruit provide additional food and Pork is the main source of protein. Farming is accomplished by clearing a jungle area to make way for food crops or by creating terrace systems from earth and rock to grow Taro in areas with sufficient water resources.
Other crops are not used for food but are no less important to the Ni-Vanuatu people. The Kava plant, a member of the pepper tree family, is another important part of Vanuatu culture. Cut and chewed into a pulp, the Kava is squeezed to produce a potent liquid. This liquid is a natural drug which causes the user to feel relaxed and sleepy. On a few islands, both men and women are allowed to partake of Kava while in other places, such as the island of Tanna, Kava use is a ritual that is allowed only for the men. In some cases, women have been beaten for walking too close to the nakamal’s (men’s houses) and accidentally witnessing the ritual Kava drinking.
With the economy being tied so closely to the land and the survival of its people, it is no wonder that it also plays a large role in the ceremony and ritual of the Ni-Vanuatu culture. On a few Vanuatu islands, the mothers of male children must provide gifts the boys’ uncles to purchase their passage into manhood through a circumcision ceremony. Until this price is paid, the boys are not allowed to be initiated into the village as men and are treated as children by the villagers. In cases where a natural disaster has created a hardship, it sometimes happens that these young men are nearly adult age before their mothers can afford to purchase their rites of passage.
The ceremony itself is complex. Until the child has been initiated and circumcised, they continue naked and are not allowed to wear the traditional penis sheath of the men. When the mother has arranged the price, usually a presentation of pigs, woven mats, food stuffs and ceremonial dances, the boys and their uncles retire to the bush for several weeks and the grown men instruct the boys in the ways of manhood and perform the circumcision. Upon their return, the young men are accepted into the village and are allowed to wear the traditional penis sheaths as an outward display of their new status as adult men of the village.
Diversity and Customs
The majority of Ni-Vanuatu people speak more than one language due to the necessity of trade between villages and islands. This should not be off-putting to English speaking visitors however because European influences brought a lingua franca to the country called Bislama (derived from the term, Bech-der-mer, or sea cucumber, traders.), which has now become a universal language. This language is a grammatically simplified, phonetic form of English which can be easily understood by most English speaking people if they listen carefully.
While many things could have destroyed Vanuatu’s rich diversity of culture, including the adoption of European ideas, the intrusion of missionaries, the damage caused by slave traders, called black-birders, and adoption of Bislama as a universal language, Vanuatu has retained its diversity and its draw for visitors seeking a holiday in a place untouched by modern times. Ceremonies and rituals, the deep regard for kinship, the overwhelming sense that life and the world itself is a magical thing is an integral part of the cultures found on Vanuatu’s many islands. To truly understand this country and her people, visitors are encouraged to take in the National Museum & Cultural Center while visiting Vanuatu. While exploring the Museum & Cultural Center, take your time and enjoy the amazing collection of ancient ceremonial pieces, historical photographs and unique artifacts that are on permanent display and then feel free to take a piece of this magical place home with you by purchasing audio or video recordings of cultural events or traditional masks and carvings from the gift shop.