super generic girl

the awesomely average life of a girl like all others

Visiting a kastom tribe on Tanna, Vanuatu


When I got on that small propeller plane from Port Vila to Tanna, my only purpose for the 26 hours I would be spending on that island was to go up to the top of Mt Yasur on New Years Eve. In fact, going up to the top of that volcano on New Years Eve was pretty much the main purpose of my entire trip to Vanuatu. Anything else, I thought, would be bonus. Standing on top of that volcano is still one of the best experiences I have ever had and certainly a highlight of my trip to Vanuatu. And then, on the morning of the first day of 2012, we asked Tom, the Ni-Vanuatu that built the bungalow we were staying at on Tanna, if he would help us get to a kastom village.

I had done a fair bit of reading on kastom villages in Vanuatu and on the previous day, taking the long way round to the volcano, we had stopped at the main John Frum village for a few brief minutes. We wanted to find out more about these tribes and their fascinating way of living. Tom got his 4wd truck and drove us to the highlands of Tanna. We went as far as the 4wd could go and then hiked a little over 1km into the jungle to get to this tribe, completely isolated in the highlands.

To say we were amazed by what we experienced with that tribe would be an understatement .As the only two white people visiting them at the time, we felt like we had made a great group of friends (who, apart from two girls, didn’t even speak our language).

Speaking of that, as an aside, one of the things that fascinated me the most about Tanna, being a bit of a linguistics nerd and all, was the fact that the whole island is only about 45km long (so, really, quite small) and yet there are apparently five different languages spoken by the different tribes. Languages so different that different tribes cannot understand each other. Our drivers on the previous day had to stop to ask for directions and had to use Bislama (the Pidgin English from Vanuatu) to communicate with the guy they were talking to (the guy was holding a machete but thankfully communication was successful and no one got hurt). It is quite amazing to think that some of those tribes, living so close to each other by our standards, never even cross paths, never communicate. That’s how isolated they are. Isolated from the western world, isolated from neighbouring tribes. That isolation leads to truly special things like the survival of those different languages – how amazing is that? But anyway, enough with the linguistics nerdgasm.

We were welcomed to their common area and, among other things, one of the women tied a grass skirt around my waist – I should have remembered that I’d read that above the knee shorts were not appropriate attire for a woman visting a kastom tribe. Oops.

We only spent a couple of hours with them but they were filled with special moments. They showed us their traditional dances, hitting their feet so hard on the ground it almost shook beneath us again like we were still on top of the volcano, they showed us how they attack other people with bow and arrows and darts(and I showed them I’m a total loser when it comes to handling all of those), we planted kava and taro with/for them…

At one point, C. was invited to drink Kava with the tribe chief and went away while I stayed with the women. Women aren’t allowed to drink kava with men. I thought I wouldn’t be allowed to try it at all (and I can’t say the thought of not trying a drink made from roots of a plant that a group of boys chewed and then spat out was bothering me). But a few minutes later, while one of the two girls of the tribe who could speak English was explaining me that she had to walk a full day each time she went to English lessons on another part of the island, a little boy came and handed me half a coconut shell full of kava. I took a sip, my mouth went numb to the point when I couldn’t tell whether it was open or closed, I remembered that I was drinking what the kids had been chewing and handed him back the shell. C. later told me that the kid took my shell back to the men group and the tribe chief drank the rest of it as well as the rest of C.’s shell in one go. Respect. To minimise the effects of the kava, the chief then offered us taro and coconut he had cooked on the fire. I committed another faux-pas by looking at the chief in the eye as he handed me the food. He didn’t seem to mind too much, which was lucky because I saw how good those guys are with the bows and arrows.

One of my favourite moments was when, probably influenced by Kava (I’m kind of a lightweight when it comes to that sort of stuff), I decided to join them for some of the dances. The kids immediately held my hands and guided me through the different moves. They looked up at me every now and then and smiled and I smiled back and the fact that we couldn’t communicate with each other verbally was not a problem. In the end, every single person in the tribe shook our hands. A couple of the girls decided to hug me and touch my face with theirs so I got some of their traditional pain on my face. It was a gesture of friendship, I didn’t need to speak their language to understand that. I replied with the only Bislama I knew and just said “tangkyu tumas”.

What we got in those two hours was a unique glimpse into a way of living so different than ours, it is hard for me to get my little western brain around it. It is a way of life that has not changed in centuries and, judging from how happy these people are, is not likely to change anytime soon. In fact, from what I read and could gather in Vanuatu, it’s not like these tribes are unaware of western civilisation or alternative ways of living. They know other ways of life exist, they know about TV and other western inventions. They want nothing to do with it. And when you look at the size of their smiles, you realise they don’t need any of that to be happy. And you leave wondering why you do.


12 thoughts on “Visiting a kastom tribe on Tanna, Vanuatu

  1. wow, what a fascinating experience!! is one of those little boys blonde?

    i can’t formulate this without it sounding wrong, but i’ll just ask…they look way more african than pacific islander – what do you make of that? and what other languages are their languages related to? i know nothing about the pacific island languages, but i imagine they’re far from indo-european. 🙂

    what a trip – i’m so envious!

    • Thanks, Julie. It definitely was an experience I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Yes, one of those boys is blonde! I noticed that there too – not really sure what explains it but it is definitely an unusual sight there. Apparently, Melanesian people are the only people with dark skin known to have blonde hair (but it is still rare, even for them).

      I agree with you that they look more African than other Pacific Islanders. Again, I don’t know the explanation for that. They are Melanesian and I think their roots go back to areas such as Papua New Guinea and that whole region. No links to Africa, it seems. The five languages are part of the South Vanuatu group of languages which is apparently part of an Austronesian language branch (which, up until now, I didn’t even know existed as such). It is actually quite fascinating because it seems to extend all the way to Madagascar and include languages such as those spoken in Borneo, Indonesia and also parts of Vietnam.

      • This sounds amazing Vera, I am very jealous! See you soon to hear all about it oxxo PS if I can interject some thoughts of my own, they are also very similar to Aboriginal Australians, which becomes more apparent in the islands the further north you go, so I think there is some sort of link there too.

    • the only little boy is you, idiot. go watch some tv you stupid sheep

  2. So do they always paint their faces or only for particular reasons? Basically, what’s up with the face paint? And also, does the tour guide make it a habit of bringing westerners to the village? Like, were they expecting you and C?

    • No, the face paint is only for ceremonies. The tour guide warned them he was taking us. They don’t get visited much but it’s not like we were the first people to go there. They have a sort of “welcoming ceremony” every time they know they are being visited by a foreigner (hence the face paint). From what I could tell, there are a number of these tribes on Tanna and they all receive the occasional tourist. It depends who you ask to take you there and who they know. Tom, who took us there, was born and raised on Tanna, in a village not terribly far from that tribe. He also told us his aunt owns a sandalwood plantation nearby so that is probably part of the reason he knows that particular tribe.

  3. WOW! That was amazing V! Thanks for sharing.That just blew my mind away. My linguistics-loving friend Cristina would LOVE that too! I’m very impressed at the effort that woman goes through to learn Englsh.
    You’re really lucky you knew someone who could get you there safely! Those bow and arrows are a big deal 🙂

  4. I’ve having nerdgasm envy here, big big time!

    It sounds like an amazing opportunity to have the chance to experience what you did. It does make one wonder why one needs so much (‘crap’ one could say) stuff these days, doesn’t it?

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    • i was there with the navy seabees in 1988.never felt safer anywhere else in the world.beautiful and happy people. very glad to see not much has changed for them.the only country i would return to is vanuatu.

  6. Pingback: The big 2012 highlights post everyone is writing too « super generic girl

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