Diversity & Customs

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Vanuatu boasts 113 distinct languages and innumerable dialects making it one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth. This amazing diversity is a result of 3,000 years of sporadic immigration from many Pacific countries. As with all nations and peoples, over millennia different groups came into both peaceful and violent contact, some intermarrying and some losing their cultural identity to a more dominant group.

Each successive wave of immigrants carried with them all the tools needed to live. Food crops, tree seedlings and their most important animal - the pig. This animal is probably the most significant aspect of life in Vanuatu, for it symbolises not simply a source of protein, it is the cornerstone of their ritual life, a token of wealth and power upon which entire societies are founded.

Over the millennia, natural boundaries; large open stretches of water, dense jungle and mountainous terrain, isolated many groups, even from the same ethnic origins, from each other.

Isolation bred not just warfare, but quite different, sophisticated societies and political systems. Unfortunately, when Europeans began trading in Vanuatu, they often used such warfare to their own advantage.

Northern Areas

In the northern areas, there are two variations of a social and political society where men and women can 'purchase' positions of status. Wealth, in the form of mats and pigs - particularly pigs with rounded tusks - is not defined so much by how much an individual owns, but by demonstrating how much he can give away.

Grade taking ceremonies, where large numbers of pigs are ritually killed and gifts given to members of an extended family, are elaborate affairs. Although the status of a person may be publicly displayed with, for example, certain body decorations, and a respect for their status, there is no real authority attached.

Central Areas

Diversity and customIn the central areas, Polynesian type systems have predominated. Here, a hereditary chief is a powerful authority figure reigning over an entire class system, complete with nobles and commoners.

Southern Areas

In the southern islands, particularly Tanna, titles or names are bestowed on certain men, which designate them as chiefs. This status can give rights over land and even possessions of entire social groups. Women hold a very low status, whereas in places like Ambae and the Shepherds, women can achieve the rank of Chief.

The situation is complicated even further by the introduction of more recent 'religions' such as the John Frumm's (cargo cult), the Half Half’s and various men's secret societies, predominately located on Tanna.

Rituals, Beliefs and Traditions

However, throughout all the islands one thing remains constant, life is characterised by a constant cycle of ritual events. Every aspect of a person's life is celebrated by extended families that number in the hundreds, filial relationships being remembered back in time through countless generations. Birth, circumcision and initiation, the achievement of status, marriage and death are a paramount feature of a community's social life. With so many relatives, there seems always to be a significant ritual of some sort happening, or about to happen, somewhere.

Similar to Australian Aboriginal stories of the dreamtime, and Maori legends of the past, ni-Vanuatu culture is also abundant in mythic legends. Natural formations, the presence and causes of volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters, are all imbibed with legends of significant cultural importance.

Even today, natural events are considered not to be the result of, say, plate tectonics or a chance passing of a cyclone, but events brought about by the actions of individuals who may have offended certain spirits. In the past, such beliefs caused animosity between villages and islands, to the extent that warfare often resulted.

Diversity and custom on PentecostOne of the most well-known Vanuatu traditions is the Naghol. Legend has it that the first jumper was a woman. She was trying to escape from her abusive husband, climbed a tree and jumped. He followed her, leapt and died, unaware that his wife had secured liana vines to her ankles. For some time, only women participated in the dive until the male elders decided that they should dive to address their shame and prove their courage.

This awe inspiring ancient tradition, also known as land diving, is the role model for the modern bungee jumping. Each year around the time of yam harvest (April/May), tall wooden towers (up to 70 feet) are constructed on Pentecost Island. The tower is hold together by local vines with no piece of manmade building material used. Young men, dressed in traditional mats wrapped around their bodies, jump from a platform on the tower, only secured by vines tied around their ankles.

Rituals, the obligations of kinship and traditional ceremonies is an integral part of modern life and one that can be appreciated more fully by a visit to one of Vanuatu's many islands.

Traditional Economy

Naturally, traditional societies' economies are based on produce from the land. Staple foods are mostly root crops; yam, taro and manioc. Seasonal fruits like breadfruit are important mainstays. In most areas a portion of the jungle is simply cleared to plant crops.

However in places where there is plenty of water, taro is grown in complex terraces hand built from earth and rocks. Pigs are a mainstay of the economy not just as food but as a form of money and prestige.

A village's economy plays a significant role not just in simple survival, but as part of the complex rituals. One of the simplest examples are circumcision ceremonies. On some islands, mothers 'pay' the uncles of boys to be circumcised.

The boys are taken into the bush for weeks, sometimes months, where they are introduced to the ways of manhood - as well as having their foreskins removed. From that point on they no longer run naked, but wear a penis sheath. The price paid to the uncles is in pigs, mats, dances and food crops. And that price cannot be paid unless the mothers have accumulated sufficient wealth.

In years following natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions or cyclones, young boys can reach almost adult age without being circumcised. The boys are therefore still treated as babies until the mothers can accumulate sufficient food crops and pigs to pay the circumcisions price.

Kava

Malekula island custom danceAlthough Kava is not just a food crop; it is a significant part of Vanuatu cultural society. Kava is a derivative of the pepper tree family. Traditionally it is cut and chewed into a pulp, then spat into a bowl. The mushy pulp is squeezed and the resultant liquid drunk in.

On some islands, both men and women may drink kava after a hard day’s work. On Tanna however, it has become more ritualised as a 'men only' pastime; so much so that women dare not pass near nakamal's (men's houses) at the time kava is being drunk, lest they accidentally see the ritual and be punished with a beating.

Language

Since the arrival of Europeans, a lingua franca evolved. Its name, Bislama, is derived from the Beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) traders. Essentially a phonetic form of English, with much simplified grammar, if it is listened to closely and spoken slowly, it can be understood by most English speaking people. Because of a long history of inter-island and inter-village trading, many ni-Vanutau speak numerous languages.

Despite the introduction of European ideologies, the impacts of missionaries and blackbirders and the development of Bislama as a universal language Vanuatu's richness and diversity of culture is one of many attractions to visitors.

Vanuatu National Flag

The designer of the National Flag of the Republic of Vanuatu was Malon Kalontas. At school Malon had learned that Vanuatu was shaped as a ‘Y’ and wondered what colours might have a symbolic significance for his compatriots, as citizens of a newly independent country.

The Vanuatu flagMalon drew a ‘Y’ and experimented with different colours. He selected the following colours as having a special meaning for Vanuatu;

  • Black for Melanesia and the Melanesian race
  • Red for unity through blood
  • Green for agriculture, the basis of Vanuatu's economy
  • Yellow for Christianity.

The Vanuatu emblem is also incorporated into the flag - the pig's tusk and the Namele leaf represent prosperity and peace respectively.

The Coat Of Arms

The coat of arms depicts Hon. Walter Lini in the foreground. Lini fought for the country to become independent and became the country’s first Prime Minister. He declared on Independence Day that ‘Long God Yumi Stanap’ (In God we stand) would be Vanuatu's motto, meaning from July 30th, 1980, (Independence Day), all people of Vanuatu must stand together as one nation.

The Vanuatu emblem is incorporated into the background of the coat of arms.