15 Feb 2023
We have just spent 2 days in the country of Vanuatu, which is comprised of 13 principal islands and many smaller ones. It is approximately 500 miles west of Fiji and 1100 miles east of Australia. Vanuatu’s was subjected to colonial rule by England and by France, after which England and France set up a joint administration.
Vanuatu achieved independence in 1980. Its history is one of Vanuatu many local tribes (separated by mountains and forests), as well as explorers and conquerors from Europe, Christian missionaries, and eventual democracy.
Vanuatu is part of Melanasia; the island region of dark-skinned peoples, which together with Micronesia (the many small islands north of Melanesia) and Polynesia (the island groups from the Hawaiian Islands to Easter Island, off the coast of Chile) comprise what is often referred to as the Pacific Islands. The Pacific Islands are neighbored by Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, and the islands and archipelagos that project seaward from Japan.
These islands constitute the “ring of fire” that sits beneath the Pacific Ocean where earthquakes are relatively common. We experienced one the other day, about 25 miles away, measuring 5.4 on the Richter scale – the ship shuddered for several seconds.
Due to the large number of indigenous tribes, there are over 100 local languages and dialects spoken in Vanuatu, as well as English and French and “pidgin” English. Large billboards in the city of Port Vila (the capital city) promote soft drinks as the “numbawan” favorite (number one).
One of the most interesting visits for us in Vanuatu was a visit to a cultural village a few miles outside of the capital city. The Ekasup tribe of 300 people still live in this village, and allow tours by visitors. When our small group arrived at the village (by van), we were led to the Chief of the Village by a young man blowing a conch horn. The Chief welcomed us and demonstrated the use of palm fronds to designate an area as “tabu” until other palm fronds were used to signal that a peaceful entry was acceptable.
The Chief provided a fascinating presentation of life in the village, how land passes from father to son, the role of women, crops and cooking, clothing (woven from plants), hunting for pigs, chickens and fish (done largely with traps), medicine and medicinal plants, music, dance, burial practices, cannibalism (no longer practiced but previously practiced when hunger threatened the lives of the tribe members), and dealing with cyclones (which includes seeking shelter in the enormous space within the roots of a giant Banyon tree).
Young men and women must qualify to be married in the Ekasup tribe; the women must know how to weave clothing, prepare food and care for children; the men must know how to fish and hunt for food. When these skills have been mastered (and currently, after the participants reach age 18), there are gatherings in the village so that parents can ascertain the wealth of future sons-in-law (feathers of various colors and sizes are worn to indicate how many pigs the young men own), and dowry negotiations take place, often framed to achieve marriages to increase family land holdings.
Thankfully, wedding bands are used now, instead of the former method for identifying that a woman in this tribe was married. In the old days, one of her front teeth was knocked out to show that she was “taken”. In cases where the parents’ choice of a mate did not meet with the approval of the bride or groom, a love potion was administered with, it is alleged, a quick positive result.
It was fascinating to see this small village just a few miles from the center of a large modern city, and to learn that there are many other tribal villages throughout Vanuatu. The governance of Vanuatu is based on elections to a national Parliament, and the constitution provides as well for a national council of chiefs, to advise the government on matter of custom and tradition.
For more information about Vanuatu and its current state, including education systems, commercial and cultural matters, lots of information is available on the Britannica website.
Some photos of the village, the tribal chief and others are below.
JB and MA