When you’re on a cultural escape to Vanuatu’s Outer Islands, dance and sing when invited, raise your hands and stomp your feet and laugh along with everyone.
The villages, tribes, and clans spread across Vanuatu’s 83 islands speak over 100 unique languages, and are woven in an intricate web. They’re led and guided by Chiefs and all dance different dances and participate in kava ceremonies in different ways.
‘There’s no colour here’ said one young man as he jumped into the ute tray to hitch a ride. ‘We are all one’.
From afar it’s possible to assume that maybe these remote villages don’t want tourists, don’t want foreigners coming in and disrupting their homes, commodifying their culture. This was something I was wary of. In fact, it was something that seriously worried me.
However, after speaking with each Chief, each of our guides and the Vanuatu Tourism Office directly, I was informed that for a lot of these islands, tourism is one of the only sources of income, and that they need more tourists in order to survive.
A feast is prepared at Maewo Hanare kastom village
Of course, commodifying a culture, disrespecting people and carrying on like a lunatic is never appropriate, no matter who and where you are, but your presence on these islands, according to the people that I spoke to, is welcomed.
While life on these remote islands has many upsides, in order to pay for school fees and life’s necessities, people often have to say goodbye to their spouses and children for six months at a time as they board planes and fly to New Zealand and Australia to pick asparagus, apples, grapes, or kiwifruit, to earn much-needed cash.
On these remote Outer Islands, where everyone lives a subsistence lifestyle eating vegetables they’ve planted and tending to pigs, relying on solar for electricity and a handful of utes to get around, it’s difficult to make money. There’s a little bit of trade between the islands, but not enough to sustain formal employment for everyone or pay for school fees for all the pikinini (children).
The men tell me that they want to be able to earn money and stay home with their families. They don’t want to leave. So supporting tourism-based activities in the villages is a way you can help and learn heaps about the culture at the same time. The guides appreciate feedback and are always looking to improve the tourist experiences, so don’t be shy with your comments.
Fanla Rom Dance
Water Music Ladies
Tips to Enhance your Cultural Experience and Show Respect
– Before any cultural experience in Vanuatu, be sure to ask your guide what the most appropriate behaviour and attire may be. Sometimes women aren’t allowed too close during a dance performed by men. Sometimes you should cover your shoulders and your knees. Be sure to ask the locals how they feel about you visiting them.
– Always say goodnight and greet everyone you see. This is a matter of respect, and the Vanuatu people will always be sure to say goodnight to you!
– Everything belongs to someone. Expect to pay a little something when you reach a new beach, farm or even a tree.
– Don’t assume the practice of drinking kava is the same across islands, or even across villages on the same islands. Ask about the differences. Ask why.
– Locals love to chat and have many great stories to tell – so break the ice and start a storian session (local slang for having a chat or telling a yarn – from ‘story-yarn’).
– Learn a few words of Bislama, it’s a charming language with many adorable sayings – starting with ‘I stret nomo’ (It’s all good!)
– Many communities are deeply devout and it can be common for a meeting, discussion or meal to start with a prayer. Lower your eyes and enjoy the blessings.
If you want to do some more research yourself on the Vanuatu culture this is a good place to start.
Here are three of my favourite cultural dances across some of Vanuatu’s islands. If you’re visiting these places, be sure to book in a cultural tour that involves any of the following:
Water Music Ladies, Gaua Island
Exclusive to the culture on Gaua Island, the mystical water music ladies dance in knee-deep ocean with a backdrop of islands behind them.
They don their traditional dress (99% flowers and foliage) and, using a rhythmic pattern, sing and beat the water to make music – splashing and slapping the water this way and that.
The Water Music Ladies have been dancing for centuries, and this practice is passed down from grandmother, to mother, to daughter. Delly Roy, who manages TEKS, a grassroots Indigenous organisation for young Vanuatu people, says:
‘We know that there is a warrior element to our heritage. But sometimes we forget that the fundamental elements of our kastom are based on peace and respect. Maybe this is because men have dominated the process of telling our stories in recent times? Now that women are standing up and singing and dancing and telling their own stories, we can connect with the part of our heritage that has been hidden from the men: our women’s stories. And with these stories comes a woman’s way of telling the stories, singing the songs, and dancing the dances.’
You can arrange to see the Water Music Ladies with the host of your accommodation provider on Gaua. Find out more about the water music or make a donation.
Small Nambas, Malekula
A namba is a traditional sheath worn to cover the penis of the wearer. The tribes of the Big Nambas and Small Nambas on Malekula Island are therefore pretty self-explanatory.
You can visit both the Big Nambas and the Small Nambas on Malekula Island. From the provincial headquarters of Lakatoro in the north, it’s a significantly more arduous journey, requiring a four-hour cross-island off-road drive, which, I must say, is a significant contributor to my love of this experience.
At the Small Nambas, I was welcomed by the Chief, who walked us through the property and shared stories of his village. He welcomed us into his home, and served us lunch – a traditional spread of yam, nuts, and fruit.
The Small Nambas cultural dance never leaves this geographical region – so you won’t find them in Vanuatu festivals or on stages on other islands. The Small Nambas say that if you want to see their dance and experience their culture, you have to go to them. Rightly so.
Hot Tip! The guys at Crooked Compass are leading an 8-day tour of Malekula and the remote Maskelynes Islands during the epic Canoe Race Festival July 2021. Join them for a celebration of fascinating kastom dance, traditional canoe making, and the freshest seafood you’ve possibly ever tasted, followed of course, by the ultimate outrigger canoe race… Oh! And the trip offers a chance to swim with dugongs. Check it out.
Fanla Rom Dance, Ambrym
The Fanla Rom Dance and Black Magic Tour on Ambrym Island is a sacred dance, with magic performed by special sorcerers. The ‘Rom’, or ‘Masked’ dance is known for its masks, costumes and music.
Each cultural experience has a unique energy to it, but the Fanla Rom Dance captivated me in a different way. I couldn’t help but smile and cheer with the men as they danced, shooting me grins right before the singing went up an octave.
This was also the only cultural experience I had where I could buy hand-carved goods from the locals. This is a great way to support local communities and ensure your money goes directly to the producers and rural communities.