After spending a few months traveling through the islands of Vanuatu I don’t profess to understanding the psyche of the NiVanuatuan any more than when I arrived. But I do confess to having gained an unadulterated love of the beauty and traditions of the islands.
For the casual observer Vanuatu may be the embodiment of poverty, a “poor country” as a resident of nearby Noumea put it. But for deep thinkers, Vanuatu is a gold mine of beauty and culture.
For Port Vila’s annual horse race to the daily rumbling of Tanna Island’s, Yasur volcano the nation is full of diverse cultures.
This diversity stems in part from the early 1900s when the New Hebrides Condominium was established. Sometimes called the “Pandemonium”, the chain of islands was ruled jointly by the French and British.
The Condominium gave rise to a dual society – There were two hospitals, two currencies, two postal stamps, two school systems and two languages (other than the indigenous languages). Vestiges of this dualism still remain today with two school systems, one taught in English, the other in French and a newspaper with three sections in three different languages.
Sailing through the islands I found it peculiar to stop at one village and be able to speak English and yet at another village on the same island, French.
As a result, the Melanesians typically speak several languages in addition to their native tongue. There are 115 languages throughout the archipelago but the national language; “Bislama” is the most widely understood.
A form of Pidgin English, which developed during the famous black birding era in the 19th century, it is a delightful blend of adulterated English, Spanish, French and I assume, a Melanesian tongue. Bislama has become the one language understood by all. With only about 500 words, it is easy to learn. Newcomers to the island need only a few days to be able to utter at least a phrase in the language.
Seeing it written is even more enlightening and on my first day in the islands I was able to decipher a sign posted at the immigration office on the island of Espirito Santo.
In addition to the Europeans, Vietnamese were brought from Tonkin to work on the coconut plantations during this time. Many families of these early laborers remain today and have grown from mere workers to proprietors of island businesses.
Vanuatu also has a significant Chinese population. Mainly situated in the larger towns of Port Vila and Luganville, they, like their Asian brothers, also deal in commerce.
With all these outside influences one would think that the local culture suffered but actually, these outsiders add to the islands’ allure.
Port Vila, being a popular stop for visiting yachts and cruise ships, gets it fair share of visitors and tourists. As a result, a tourist-oriented town has sprung up around the nation’s capital. One can find items such as designer fashions (Australian taking the place of French fashions since independence) and quality restaurants and international hotels. Since Vanuatu has no television station, the TVs sold in the local department stores keep the video rental shop buzzing.
In addition to being the major tourist stop in Vanuatu it is also the seat of government. Governmental agencies are well within walking distance of the main street.
Luganville on the island of Espirito Santo is similar to Port Vila but on a smaller scale. I’m told it is hard to believe that the town was ever more than it is now, a sleepy little village with one hotel and a few coffee shops and restaurants.
Once outside of these centers you begin to see the Vanuatu that has changed little over the years. The people continue to garden and raise their pigs and cows and subsist much as they did before independence. Of course with independence some things did change, the quality and availability of education and medical care being the most evident change.
But the general lifestyle of the tribes in the bush is relatively unchanged. I’m told that on some islands tribal warfare has intensified since independence. I tend to think that that should have been expected with the transfer of power in islands where tribes has traditionally vied for power and position.
In general though, the Melanesians are silent, gentle people, very different from their gregarious Polynesian neighbors. Somewhat shy, they appear indifferent. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Most Melanesians are proud of their heritage and continue to practice cultural traditions. While some tribes have adapted and allow tourists to witness ceremonial events for a few, others discourage outsiders and try to keep event dates secret.
“Kustom” also plays a large role in politics in the islands. The government makes the laws but “Kustom” really rules.
This is where some think the problem lies. For it’s 80 some islands, Vanuatu holds a diverse combination of cultures. For not only the difference between European, Asian and Melanesian exists but within the Melanesian population there exists great difference in their customs and traditions. Although a general “Kustom” exists, the chiefs of the different tribes are responsible for keeping “Kustom” law and interpretations vary. In addition, tribes that have very little contact with neighbors have evolved with their own set of “Kustom” laws that are sometimes in conflict with their neighbors.
Tribal warfare has never been eliminated even under the Condominium. That goes to show the great differences. The national government has attempted to unify the islands but in this area of diverse cultures it may be a long time coming.
Jon Frum Cargo Cult
An example of a belief held in one section of Vanuatu and not in another is on the island of Tanna where you have the Jon Frum cargo cult. One theory of its origins holds that an American pilot name Jon Frum off-loaded huge quantities of war material near Sulphur Bay in 1942. The goods were never used for the war effort and consequently were given to the people of Sulfur Bay.
The people, confused by an influx of new religions, believed that he was a god bringing wealth in abundance from the sky. A couple of years later another American came, this time a medical officer. The people of Sculpture Bay connected him with Jon Frum and took his Red Cross Medical insignia for the symbol of their new religion. Red Cross insignias on the island do not stand for the international relief agency but are in honor of Jon Frum.
The followers of the Jon Frum cargo cult believe that Jon Frum was the reincarnation of an ancient deity and will bring great wealth to their islands. The group believes that money must be thrown away, pigs killed and gardens left uncared for because Jon Frum will provide for all.
I met a group of Jon Frum followers on their way to Yasur volcano where some groups hold their services. I found it hard to believe that in this day and age that a religion like this could survive. I was informed that the group believes the Christian missionaries and governmental agencies had interfered with Jon Frum’s second coming and have taken a stance of non-cooperation.
Then there is the island of Pentecost and the “Saut du Gol” or the Pentecost Jump. Every year, during the months of April and May, men f from the southern part of the island tie liana vines around their ankles and jump from platforms sometimes 75 feet high.
The object is to tie the vines so that the only the jumpers hair brushes the ground after a leap thereby fertilizing the ground for next year’s harvest. Boys as young as seven jump from lower sections of the tower built from the branches of trees.
The jump is associated with the rites of manhood. In the weeks before the “Saut du Gol” the jumper referred to as land diver must undergo rituals to purify himself to ward off evil spirits during his dive. If these are insufficient, the diver may be injured or killed. Injuries are frequent during the event and deaths have occurred but the jump continues.
These are only two examples of the cultural diversity of the islands. Beliefs and customs vary from island to island and sometimes even village to village. One Catholic priest on the island of Espirito Santo said of this dilemma, “After two years I knew everything about Vanuatu, but after 15 years I knew nothing.”
I am inclined to agree. For in Vanuatu there is much to see and understand, but I’m afraid it will take a lifetime.
A Perspective on Vanuatu
While Vanuatu lies only 150 miles northeast of New Caledonia, few have much knowledge about the young independent island nation.
Those that do no possess some knowledge may know that the nation has turned to governments such as the Soviet Union and Libya in search of aide. Others may know that the current Prime Minister Walter Lini, suffered a debilitating stroke in February two days before Cyclone Uma devastated many of the nation’s islands.
Others may know of the islands as the New Hebrides of Michener fame.
But few know the real Vanuatu, the people and the culture struggling under the status of a new independent island nation. Foreign residents and observer in the islands also seem to be left in the dark concerning matters of government in Vanuatu.
Many residents complain of the seemingly contradictory actions of those in power. But if one looks further back into the history of the islands it appears that this is a characteristic of the Melanesian people; being able to accept or reject new ideas while continuing to hold onto sometimes conflicting “Kustom” practice.
While many would applaud this action it appears to be cumbersome for the island nation as it vies for an independent and secure place in the 20th Century Pacific. While most are proud of their status as an independent nation many agree that the quality of life in the towns has dropped since independence in 1980.
Education and medical care are of prime concern, before independence, these services were provided by the government. Now, with the economic situation of the islands, the quality of such services is wanting. And as if to add insult to injury, residents must now pay for these services.
Islanders living on the outer islands and in the bus live basically at subsistence level. Most of the islands have a central “town” or business district but few have much more than a few buildings, and an elementary school. They make their living selling copra and growing their own vegetables that they sometimes sell in island markets. Although coffee and cocoa plantations are being developed, the average islander still only deals in copra.
The islands are lush and fertile and make living easy. The islanders grow enough food to live comfortably, but what about the future of the nation? Where will the young leaders come from if the average islander cannot afford to educate his children beyond the 6th grade?
Some have voiced the opinion that it is intentional, that the current leaders want to ensure that their heirs will inherit the leadership of the nation. The elite of Vanuatu, about 20% of the population, currently send their children elsewhere for their education. That certainly doesn’t express confidence in the system. Intentional or not, it is still a problem for the fledging nation, a problem if not remedied, with dire consequences.