Vanuatu is 83 islands on top of the Pacific Ring of Fire, it is on the edge of the Pacific tectonic plate. The islands are beautiful; dramatic lush green and black rocks, white beaches or maybe golden or black. Vanuatu is being pushed up on the Indo-Australian plate with frequent volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Some islands are still rising and others are sinking. The volcanoes that helped building up the islands can be seen almost everywhere. Many are still active. All is surrounded by the bluest ocean with fish, turtles and dugongs. The ocean is really deep between the islands, so finally no reefs to worry about when sailing.
Vanuatu is a country with 240 000 inhabitants, 98% of them are ni-Vans and 2% have a background from another country. And the way of living in Vanuatu is like living in two very different countries, with different cultures and economies. There are the two main islands Efate and Santo with roads, electricity and infrastructure; with supermarkets, restaurants and shops with everything from the cool surf clothes to designed solar lights. They also have with big local markets for fruit, vegetables, flowers or handicraft.
And then there are 65 other inhabited islands with still a very traditional life; with farming, hunting and fishing; with trading and sharing. Where the forests are a major resource that supplies food and medicine, and gives material for building houses and boats.The sea and the boats are still the main way of transporting when not being in one of the two towns. The canoes are used the whole time; for sailing to school, for fishing, for transporting anything or everything. They are paddled for heading to meetings or church service, for going to the road and wait for the bus. They are the way of transport to one’s plantations elsewhere than the own island, or sailing out to friends in another village. They are used as a platform for playing after school, or paddling to us sailors.
Almost every time we dropped the anchor we got a visit from a canoe or two. The polite questions where then followed by a quiet question or two if we would like some fruit, and if we maybe had a rope for the cow that had run away, or some medicine. And then they all lead to the question of help with electricity in the house. Electricity needed for lights at night, and for watching films. Almost everywhere we went Per went in, with tools and spares, and helped them with their electricity.
Vanuatu is also the country of languages. They have three official languages; English, French and Bislama (pronounced more like Bishlama), and then 105(!) indigenous ones. That makes Vanuatu the country with the world’s highest density of languages per capita.
When we were on the east coast of the island Malekula, in a small village by Banam Bay, the people explained to us that they have five different languages, besides the three official, in the same bay and peninsula, all within sight or walking distance. They always spoke their own in the village and could only understand two of the others, so usually Bislama with the others. And when we were anchored by little Awai Island where two brothers live with families, Sofram told us that his island used to have its own language, but it disappeared when his grandfather died. It really can’t be easy to keep a language when it´s only spoken in the family. Just think about it: When getting married, the women always move to the husband’s village, with what probably for her has a new language. She needs to learn her husband’s language or they share a third one, she only speaks her own old language with their children. So the children grow up with at least two languages, via mother and father, and maybe an extra via grandmother. Then when starting preschool and school they need to learn Bislama and English, French… Bislama is the main common language, but is quite new in the country, it was developed as a traders’ tongue in the 19:th century and got its name from what the early traders took from the country; the beche-de-mere, or the sea cucumber.
The history of Vanuatu begins with the Lapita people. They sailed to the islands, about 3500 years ago in longboats, and are famous for their pottery. They brought pigs and chicken on their boats, and yams and tarot-root.
They lived in small autonomous clans, separated by ravines, jungles and sea. And they lived in the shadow of their ancestors who could be controlled by magic. It was important to get the ghosts to the good (your) side or they could be hostile and ready to haunt with disasters, famines and military defeat. Even today many ni-Vans believe their ancestral spirits and demons populate the world. The ghosts of the recently dead are especially potent, and can also be potentially malicious even to their own family. Practice of magic can help and most adult men (magic is generally taboo for women) in the traditional parts of Vanuatu know some useful spells. These can be used for getting the ghosts to your side, or to produce good crops. Or maybe for future love affairs. For more special missions, like calming storms, healing the sick or controlling the volcanoes, a true magician is needed.
Vanuatu is also a country where the old believes still live by the side of the Christian church. Wherever we were and whoever we asked the ni-Vans always answered that the spirits still live by them. When we were on Wala we were invited to a walk to the old, inner part of the island, where the ni-Vans lived before the missionaries influenced and changed their believes. This is where the spirits of the old powerful chiefs still are. Here are areas where you are not allowed to walk, the sacred planted Namele palm shows where the taboo is. And this is where Loren introduced us to his grandfather’s grandfather.
Loren’s grandfather´s grandfather was once the chief of the village. When he reigned the island was known for their fierce fighters. Other chiefs could sometimes ask for help from the men in Wala, it was politics that decided if and what side they would support. If they got in to fights they always showed how many they had killed by bringing their penises back. Some of their victims, fighting victims were only men, were eaten by the men who had killed them. Women could be taken from the conquered and be given to men who wanted them as their wives, or really as slaves, as Loren said.
When Lorens ancestor died he was buried by a Namele palm since he was the chief. Body down in a deep hole and his head above the ground. After seven days his head was taken off and taken to the sacred place where other chiefs in the family were buried before him. This is where Loren took us.
At a sacred
place you must be quiet, Loren prayed and talked to him entirely quiet, he told
him we would support with a pig and made a dance around the burial ground. His
great great-grandfather gave permission for us to walk and being told the
history, but he also said that we must not talk to anyone on the island or in
Vanuatu about it. Then we were introduced to the skull of his ancestor. After
that Loren could show us around on the taboo area.
We walked by some Nakamal trees. Loren told us this is where the spirits stay. The spirits are the same size as us, or they can be small as dwarfs. When there are people on the island the spirits climb up the trees where they can keep an eye on what is happening, they only walk the ground if the island is empty or at night. Loren had met two of them one night, one lady spirit with long hair all the way down to her waist and one small spirit, walking on the trail across the island back to their Nakamal tree.
We also walked by the old place where the chiefs used to be crowned, and where men who want to earn statues through grade-taking ceremonies could, and still can, bring and slaughter pigs. If this is happening they need a thousand pigs. Five hundred tied on one side of the trail and five hundred on the other. One side is for the men, the other for the women. The men and the women may not be together, or talk to each other, during the ten days of ceremony. They must kill and cook the pigs on different sides of the trail. This is the only time men do any cooking, otherwise that is always a woman´s job. Once the boys get into puberty they are on the men’s side.
It was a long time since this was used for ceremony, almost a hundred years, in his grandfather’s time. But Loren was hoping it would be once again in not a too far away future so that he would experience it.
The men in the early history earned their statues through grade-taking ceremonies, each grade closer to becoming a chief. The more grades a man had earned the more powerful his defence of black magic would be, and the more potent his spirit would be after death. One way to show a man’s wealth in life was the number of his pigs. The tusks from the pigs provided currency (now they are a symbol on the flag), and the pigs were the second most important in the family. But who was then responsible for the pigs well-being and the man’s statues? Their wives…who came as number three. Loren told, with a smile on his face, that thanks to Christ and church women have upgraded and are nowadays considered more important than the pigs.
To come to Vanuatu and visit the islands and villages gives you a perspective of how to live. Life here is very close to nature and, at least for us visitors, seems to be very easy, happy and relaxed. No one has very much, materialistic, if you look at it from a European perspective. It is a life when the days follow the sun, and what you have mostly comes from the nature. In Ambrym we were shown how to find and dig for the eggs from the Meya bird. The Meya bird, an endemic Megapode, lives in hill forests where it nests in volcanically heated areas where it buries its eggs deep in the ground. We were shown where to find them and how to dig for them.
We read that egg collecting is now restricted by a local system of taboos, but we also saw all the exhumed big nests. Digging for the eggs is only one threat to this endemic bird. The bird itself is also hunted by rural communities and is killed by feral dogs. Its nesting areas are logged and cleared for agriculture. Then comes mother nature’s answer with fires and cyclones degrading nesting grounds and shortage of feedstuff. No one really knows how many birds there still are, somewhere between 2500 and 10 000. For us it is easy to wonder; is it worth it? Digging a whole day for a handful of eggs when there are fowls and chicken walking everywhere? Aren’t their eggs easier to collect for a lesser environmental cost? But it is easy for us to wonder and wish. The ni-Vans told us these eggs are so much better with its extra big yolk…
Vanuatu is beautiful. One thing we really wanted to experience in Vanuatu was the volcanoes. One of the reasons we went to Ambrym was hiking up on one in the middle of the island. We hiked up to Mt Marum.
We went to the village Ranvetlam for asking for permission and hire a guide and a carrier. The weather turned out good in a couple of days and we could start the hike on a Sunday. We had been told to dress with variety, covering both for hot and cold, to have good strong shoes and lots of water, and food to cover two days. By eight in the morning we left the village and started walking up, up.
The first hours we walked the green rainforest, with good sun cover from the dense vegetation and well-walked trails leading to someone’s plantation up in the forest. Halfway up, the trail got into a trickier one. Steeper, narrower, densely green. The whole time we were surrounded by the sound of the crickets, almost ear-splitting, and birds.After a couple of breaks with water, bananas and bars we finally came up to the ash plain. Before entering we were cut a spear each from the wild bamboo. Since this was our first time walking up to the volcano we should throw the spear out on the ash plain and our guide asked the spirit of the volcano for a good walk up and a for calm volcano.
A completely different walk started. All open for the sun, all on flat black lava that is a river bead when the rain is truly rich, surrounded by the green, wild bamboo and orchids. We could see footprints from the wild cows but the only animal we saw was the little birds. By midday we reached our camp. This would be our house for the night, our outdoor dining room for dinner and breakfast, our shared bedroom. (You could say the hut had its own way of air-conditioning, via walls, floor and door opening. When night came and we should sleep it was freezing cold.) After a rest and some extra lunch, we started walking further up.
Mt Marum is 1270 m high, and has a sister, Benbow, only a kilometre away. They are both two very active vents from the same volcano. It is not only one of the most active volcanoes of Vanuatu, but also in the world. Eruptions occur almost yearly. Up! Ash plain, moonlike landscape. We walked to the leeward side, where it was easier to breathe.
The lava boiling, changing shape and structure every second, sending up smoke covering the view, spreading heat to your frozen fingers, making your throat dry and your eyes filled with tears It gave you dizziness, almost pulled you down. It was hypnotizing.
We started the hike with a wish to stay up on the volcanic ridge till sunset. We had a wish to stay close to the crater and the coloured smoke clouds in the dark and gave it a try for a couple of hours. But it was too cold. Fingers felt like when walking outside in a snowy winter without gloves. We hiked back to our base camp for heating up both dinner and ourselves by the fire. And listening to the crickets and looking at the star covered sky and red clouds coming up from inner of the world.
Marum and Benbow spread their light at night and ashes and smoke the whole time.
After a long night in the hut, trying to get some warmth from blankets and Chico, listening to the wind, always wondering if the light coming in through the gaps in the wall was the sun rising; but no only the light from Marum and Benbow. Then finally sunrise and time to go up. Time for breakfast and then to start walking down to our homes in village or boat.