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Vanuatu Islands: Festivals and Traditional Custom Ceremonies

By Val Ellis last modified May 20, 2009 03:18 PM

Published: 2009-05-20 15:18:52
Countries: Vanuatu

Of all the islands we have visited in our 9 years in the South Pacific, the Vanuatu Islands are the most unique for having fiercely guarded their ancient traditions and cultures despite missionaries, explorers, traders, US soldiers, and real estate developers. Each island, or even regions within an island evolved unique and sometimes bizarre ritual practices, taboos, and magic. Circumcision, yam planting or harvest, and rising up through hierarchies within the tribe are some occasions for ceremony that to this day, are celebrated as a normal part of village life.

Ironically, the key to preserving tribal traditional knowledge may be foreign visitors and tourists. As one of the last easily accessible locations on earth where one can still find an authentic "National Geographic" experience, Vanuatu is a true treasure, especially to cruising yachts that can access hard-to-visit locations. The natives have found that our fascination for their ancient rituals and ceremonies can provide a way to attract goods and money to their "moneyless" society that increasingly is forced, coerced, or lured into the "material world" by school fees, imported food, transportation and communication costs.

It is not easy to find out when events will happen because of the lack of communications. Very few areas have electricity, phone, or post office. Or, when events will happen is not determined by calendar, but by abundance of pigs or resiliency of vines, or many factors determined by the paramount chief or his spirit counselor. Fortunately for us, many festivals have now become annual events. Some have evolved more toward a performance or show than others, but are still captivating and worth experiencing.

The Land Diving on Pentecost Island is a rite-of-passage ceremony during the yam harvest season (Apr-June), and was the inspiration for today's "Bungee Jumping". Initiates dive off tall elaborate stick towers with only vines tied to their ankles, and must barely touch the soil first with the chest or head at the moment the vine "catches" the fall and springs them back into the air.

The Nalawan (Malekula Is) and Rom (Ambrym Is) Dances are performed by men who have paid pigs and other payments to be initiated to the secrets of the dance and construction of "patented" mask designs by "custom owners" of these secrets, and who will move up the hierarchy of "grades".

Magic and Sand Drawing are attributed to Ambrym, though they also exist elsewhere. Magic is strongly believed in and the "tricks" are "real" magic according to those initiated as magic men. Sand drawing is another fascinating and totally unique form of art and communication, where the drawer must, with a single continuous flowing line, touch all intersections of a straight-line tic-tac-toe type framework resulting in complex geometric designs of intersecting circles.

In the far north region in the Banks group on the island of Gaua, women make "music" using only the still water of river pools as their instrument! Men dance the Snake Dance and paint themselves in black and white bands like the poisonous sea snake and try to evoke its spiritual power.

To the south, the Toka Festival of Tanna is a solidarity-building event that takes place only every few years when the paramount chief deems conditions favorable. Tribes from all over Tanna meet to feast and dance. Women paint their faces with brilliant designs and hundreds of them dance an entire day of the 3-day festival.

During the month of Aug this year, a series of events and festivals will take place at locations and on dates that will allow us cruisers to attend all of them if we so wish. Some ask a fee(s), some are free, some provide options like a big local feed for a fee. Almost always they are willing to negotiate for trade items in lieu of money.

If you have the luck to visit and attend a festival or custom ceremony, you will be experiencing the true heart of Vanuatu; something you won't forget.

Dates and Events that we know of for 2009 season are as follows:
Pentecost Is. Land Diving Homo Bay and Wali Bay (Ask Chiefs for details) Every Sat in April, May& June Cost: 8000-8500 vatu
Lamen Bay, Epi Island Outrigger Canoe Races First week in Aug No fees, Reasonable cost lunch and dinner

SW Bay, Malekula South West Bay 3-Day Festival and Nalawan dance 12-14 August

Day 1: Cultural events, music and meal by SW Malekula Yacht Club. Gifts or small fee asked
Day 2: Snorkeling and Diving and village visit @ 10-Stick Island. Gift or small fee 500Vt-1000Vt
Day 3: Nalawan Dance and Labo Village activities. 2500-3000 for day and lunch North Ambrym, (Rodd's Anchorage).
Back to My Roots 3-Day Festival and Rom Dance 26-28 August 7000 vt/or 3000/day
Maskelyne Islands Festival October 2,3,4th