Malekula, Vanuatu

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August 22nd 2008
Published: August 23rd 2008
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Vanuatu, formerly the New Hebrides under British and French joint rule until independence in 1980, is a small Pacific island country about 2000km east of Northern Australia. My interest in it lay in the fact that it has a very large number of tribal groups and the highest concentration of languages of any country in the world - 120, spoken by a population of 175,000. The national language is Bislama, a form of Pidgin English that developed as a means of communication between different tribal groups and their white masters when they were working on the British sugar plantations. Some of these groups now live in towns, their members becoming politicians, businessmen or engineers. Others live in villages where life continues much as it always has, with the exception that they have converted to Christianity, wear Western clothes and have a few more modern conveniences. Still others, in the remote interiors of the larger, jungle-covered, mountainous islands, live a very traditional existence, isolated from the outside world, practicing their ancient religions and clad only in the leaves of the jungle. Information on them was scarce, but my goal in Vanuatu was to seek out these people.

I was also searching for an understanding of Custom. What is Custom? The truth is that I did not know before I set out. It was mentioned all the time in almost any text about Vanuatu but I could find no explanation of what it actually was that really led to my understanding of it. All I could gather was that it was associated with with pre-Christian practices and religion and the traditional land rights of chiefs.

I decided to start on the island of Malekula, 17 hours by boat north of the capital, Port Vila. I spent most of the time sat on the front of the vessel chatting to people who were all very interested in the only white man on the boat. I met one man, Paul, from a village called Unua on the east coast, which was exactly where I wanted to go. He invited me to come with him and said that he would help me with my plan to cross Malekula on foot East-West.

Everyone on the boat was very friendly and constantly smiled and laughed, always punctuating their laughs with high pitched screams and whoops of delight. No wonder these people are thought to be the happiest nation in the world. Everyone was so genuine and friendly. We shared our food, we shared our stories and jokes, and what could have been a slightly unpleasant 17 hours at sea was transformed into a highly entertaining experience.

Their happiness and openness also exposed a certain innocence, however; they were so trusting, saying whatever was on their mind, and it was not hard to sea how the English Blackbirders of the 19th Century had time and time again been able to trick whole villages to come and work as slaves on their Pacific sugar plantations.

"I hope one day that we will see each other in England, friend," one of my companions I had met five minutes previously said to me, looking me happily in the eye. I looked down and replied, truthfully, that this would be nice, neglecting to express my doubts on the likelihood of this ever happening. This particular young man was on his way back home after studying science at university in Port Vila. When I asked him if he was going to use his education to become a scientist, he replied, "I think I'd rather be a tour guide, because every time you take a tourist somewhere you make a new friend." The world would be a better place if everyone was more like these people.

We arrived at Malekula at 11pm. It was too dark for anyone to drive to Unua so Paul and I hopped in a truck with about 15 other people that took us 10 minutes down a dirt track to a village where his friend lived. Despite being just 10 minutes outside Lakatoro, the main village on the island, it was a very rustic place with only wooden and thatch houses, jungle all around and cockrels crowing throughout the night.

The next day we set off down the east coast in the back of a truck. The road was really just a rather bumpy track that crossed several rivers. This, combined with the fact that we gave a lift to 16 women who we passed, meant that it took about 45 minutes to drive what was probably only about 20km. At Unua we got out and Paul took me and introduced me to the chief. He was a middle-aged but healthy-looking if slightly chubby man wearing only a pair of shorts. He had a huge grey beard and a smile that made it impossible to resist smiling back at him. I sat with him on a bench for an hour talking, each of us asking questions about the other's homeland, a crowd of village youths standing around us and listening. They gave me a delicious fresh grapefruit which they insisted I ate all of, despite my attempts to offer it to others.

He told me that a priest was walking to the next village into the jungle, Melkin, to give a sermon the next day, and that I could walk with him if I wanted. This was exactly the way I had wanted to go so I agreed. The priest, Tion Fred, was a kindly old man clad in shorts and a T-shirt. He kept apologising that he didn't have enough time to accompany me all the way to the west coast, saying that he would love to do so and that next time I came back he would come with me. We walked at a fairly slow pace with plenty of rests for about 6 hours. When we were thirsty, a group of boys who had come with us would cut down some coconuts for us to drink the juice, or find some fruit.

At Melkin, quite a large village of perhaps 200 people, I tried kava, Vanuatu's answer to beer, for the first time. Soeone cuts a quantity of roots from the kava plant, washes them, cuts them up small, puts them inside the hollowed-out trunk or branch of a small tree and uses a stick to mash it up. When it's thoroughly mashed, they put it into a bowl of water and knead it with their hands for about ten minutes, causing some extract from the plants to seep into the water until it's mud-coloured. This process is repeated several times. It is then drunk, producing an intoxifying effect which is far more relaxing than alcohol and does not have the bad side effects of making people behave stupidly. The problem is that it looks and tastes like muddy water, with the added twang of plant roots and the effect of making your lips go numb.

The next day, after I had showered in a waterfall, we walked for a hour to a village called Nambor where the chief offered to show me the local dancing grounds on which ceremonies are performed. These include circumcisions and grade-taking, which is when the chief holds a feast, dancing and becomes a higher-level chief. They had some quite scary-looking masks, a tam tam (type of drum) with carvings on it and a totem pole, also with carvings. A different totem pole is made for every level that the chief moves up. While usually people here all wear western clothes, at grade-taking and circumcision ceremonies they all dress in Nambas, small leaves wrapped around their genitals.

At Nambor someone else offered to carry my bag to Lambongbong, the next village. This was a really hard climb that I can only describe as 10 hours of muscle-burning agony. The fist five hours were the worst; uphill at a horrific angle with very few level sections, all the while on a path that had been turned to slippery mud by recent rains. At the top of the first mountain we rested, me already exhausted and my clothes soaked through with sweat. We got caught in a tropical downpour which I barely noticed. John, the man carrying my bag, cut down the leaves of a giant plant that grows everywhere here and we sheltered under them. They can be up to 3m long and 1m wide.

"Don't worry Eddy, it's all level from here onwards," John told me.

Thank God. Pictures of wonderful flat fields stretching away to the horizon, grass swaying gently in the breeze, filled my mind. They were quickly dispelled however when we faced another excruciatingly steep and slippy climb and I realised that John had only meant that the path would be level in comparison to the mountain we had just ascended.

My leg muscles were on fire now and would occasionally seize up, even when I was walking downhill. I kept having to stretch and ask for long rests. Even before we had got halfway I seriously doubted the ability of my muscles to go much further without sustaining some serious injury. Only my determination to see Lambongbong and the awful thought of retracing my steps down that mountain slope kept me going.

I hadn't bought any bottled water with me but John's knowledge of the jungle was sufficient: when we came to a stream he disappeared for a moment and came back holding four huge, hollow plant stems which we filled up with water and carried with us until the next water source, using leaves to block the top and prevent water from spilling. As for food, people from Melkin had very kindly provided us with plenty of Lap Lap, a strange mixture of mashed banana, coconut and potato which I found pretty tough to eat.

I slept as soon as I arrived at Lambongbong. The next day I met the villagers properly and they were very happy to show me round. In the afternoon they went out hunting for crayfish. They use a long, multi-pronged stick to spear the fish and were able to catch a surprising number. They also hunt animals, using bows and arrows that they make themselves, and they showed me all the different types of arrow that they use to hunt different animals.

Although their food was not bad, it was really flavourless and filling for the most part, not prompting me to eat an awful lot despite the plates stacked high with food I was always given. One young man, Kaltore, would always finish everything I left, no matter how much. He was not massive but had huge well-defined muscles with very little body fat, as in fact did most of the men here. The women on the other hand were different, most of them being somewhat overweight, presumably due to a less active lifestyle. Still, they are surprisingly strong. When I asked Winny, a young woman whose mother was from Melkin and father from Lambongbong, how she found the walk from one to the other, she replied, "It's very hard, but I try my best."

"How long does it take you?" I asked.

"One full day." Exactly the same as me. That awful walk, which for me had been a truly terrible, excruciating experience and had almost led me to question why I had ever come here in the first place, was a normal part of this young woman's life which she had had no choice but to accept. My own struggle along that narrow, muddy, overgrown trail that snaked its way back and forth, up and down through the jungle now seemed less of a cause for pride in my own accomplishment and more of a reason to worry about the state of my health compared to these people.

Some of the young men made me a meal using the crayfish they had caught. They also produced a container of bright red liquid made from coconut flesh, water and coloured red using the root of some jungle plant. It tasted delicious but due to the vast quantity they had produced me couldn't finish it. Kaltore did the honours, downing what must have been at least a litre in one go.

I slept another two nights in Lambongbong, drinking lots of kava with the men and experimenting with my basic level of Bislama. Afterwards I moved on to Venengebawas, meaning "Big Nut" in the local language and situated five hours west of Lambongbong. In the evening we drank kava and ate wild boar and flying fox. The day after was the final day of my trek. We descended from the mountains into a valley, before going up again over some small mountains and back down into Wintua, a large village in South West Bay. It had some power provided by generators and plenty of concrete houses, which I had not seen for several days. Indeed, back in the jungle, aside from their clothes and the fact that they are now Christians, the lives of the villagers remain very traditional in almost every other way and they are entirely self-sufficient.

I felt privileged to have seen such a remote place that so few outsiders had ever seen. I also felt a sense of guilt at having uprooted the lives of the people who I had traveled with. They had given up working in their gardens and hunting, the means by which they feed themselves and their families, to help me complete my trip which was only for pleasure, a whim or a luxury if you will, several days spent only on a non-essential activity for my own satisfaction. No one had asked me for any money for food, accommodation or carrying my bag and guiding me, but I felt I had to give them something to repay their kindness. Whether they were expecting monetary gifts or were really just helping me with no thought of reimbursement I will never know for sure, but I strongly suspect it was the latter. Either way, there happiness at having a guest and eagerness to help me with everything was absolutely clear and had nothing to do with either social convention or desired monetary reward.

As for Custom, I was not that much closer to understanding what it meant. On the boat, Paul had told me that Unua was a Custom village but that Custom was stronger in Melkin and Lambongbong where people still wore Nambas every day. I had found this latter part to be incorrect, although the lifestyle of the people was of course more traditional in Lambongbong than in Unua, due to its isolation. But if all of these villages I had passed through were Custom, it leads to the assummption religion is not an important part of Custom, because they had all been Christian. Perhaps the fact of having a traditional chief-centred society is what Custom was mainly about.

Wintua has one of the only secondary school's in the area. Children from all over Vanuatu come and sleep at the school, only going home during the holidays. Luckily, I had arrived just before the beginning of one of those holidays and there was a boat going up the coast to take a group of children to a village connected to the outside by road. I managed to hitch a ride on the boat and for 4 hours, 25 of us were crammed like sardines into a small motorboat that barely crawled through the water. Every time a large wave came by the boat would roll on its side, letting in water that then had to be bailed out. Eventually we arrived and a truck came to pick up the children, in fact the same one that I had got tdown the east coast to Unua the week before. I traveled with them until it reached Lakatoro, where I jumped out.

Back in Lakatoro I found that the boat was not going to Espiritu Santo today as I had previously thought. It's engine had failed and it was not moving. There was a cargo boat going in 3 days' time, but I didn't want to wait that long and there was no guarantee it would actually go on that date anyway. I went to the airport, which turned out to be a few ruins of a building that had been destroyed by fire. I waited about 4 hours, lying on the grass, until the small 12 seater plane to Espiritu Santo arrived. The flight there took 15 minutes.

Click here for advice on independent travel in Vanuatu in general

Click here for advice on independent travel on Malekula


31st October 2008

I have really enjoyed reading this. I like the way you have interwoven information about the history and geography of Vanuatu with descriptions of what you saw and how people live and behaved towards you and your thoughts on everything. It makes compulsive reading. The tiny details that you describe are fascinating. What kindness the people showed. How did you acquire your knowledge of the history of the area and the customs, and know where the traditional tribes you were seeking were likely to be found?
2nd November 2008

lots and lots of research, a bit at a time, over a period of a year!
22nd March 2009

Ed, you mentioned the priest who was traveling from one village to other during that time that you were here. Does it mean that Western countries still send missionaries? Or he acts on behalf of some local Church that is nearby that place?
29th March 2009

The people in that area had been Christians for about 20 years. Missionaries had converted them and then ordained some local tribal people to act as priests after the missionaries left. He was one of them
14th July 2009

Great story, I hope one day I can do something similar. I may be moving to Port Vila soon.
6th June 2010

Too True, great read!
Such a good read that I have placed a link to it in my website: . Hope everybody that uses my site reads it. Please send me any other great insights on Vanuatu, and happy to link them. Tropical regards from Port Vila. John Nicholls Vanuatu Hotels

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