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Tales of the South Seas 5 - Among the Cannibals

Back on Efate, I do some of the more conventional tours which include dancing and traditional Melanesian feasts. I am particularly taken with the one whose brochure promises that "Our friendly warriors will attack you on arrival."

They do. At the sound of a giant conch shell being blown in a forest clearing lit by torches and bedecked with flowers, scantily clad men with spears and clubs, leap out from bushes and trees. There is a bit of dancing based on events in daily life - planting crops, fishing - then a firewalk, another stringband, a taste of kava and quite a lot of cultural information - such as which plants to use to poison fish in a rock pool and which ones to use to render the poison harmless, how to make simple traps for wild pigs or chickens, how Nivans used to use spider webs to catch big fish and how to preserve food after a cyclone.

The feast though, proves a little disappointing since it includes potato salad, beetroot and orange juice as well as the usual lap lap. I would rather have had the fine prickly juice of a green coconut that I often enjoyed in the villages. I also have some misgivings about prostituting culture for tourist dollars, but as the chief explains, it is a way of keeping it alive.

His tribe which has relocated from Futuna, had practically forgotten many of the old ways - firewalking for example, had almost died out and none of the young people of the previous generation were interested in keeping it going. However, now that it's uniqueness is beginning to be appreciated by others, they are keen to do it and take a lot more pride in their heritage.
At the end I am delighted to be asked to dance - one of the first on the floor, by a very young warrior aged about twelve.

By now, time and money are running out and I've only seen five out eighty-four of Vanuatu's islands. There's no hope at all of getting to Banks and Torres, where ships only call every six weeks, it's too late for the spectacular land diving on Pentecost, as the vines are no longer suitable after June, but I do try for a little bonding with Bondas the friendly Dugong on Epi.
After waiting for four days for the arrival of the Fresh Cargo, the newest and the fastest in the fleet of cargo ships to service these islands, I learn that it has broken down in Santo and no one knows when it will be back, I end up flying again instead. Looking out I can see a circular rainbow over the middle of the island.

The whole village waits with leis to greet the returning workers

There's a homecoming in progress when I arrive. About a dozen men are returning from six months of fruit picking on farms in New Zealand. This is part of the Rural Assistance Schemes running in both Australia and New Zealand. In those countries, it provides farmers with labour when they need it most and for the participants it's a chance to earn money, travel and experience other cultures. At least that's the way it's supposed to work.

Men returning from farm work in New Zealand

Many people have only positive things to say about the scheme and have enjoyed a variety of cultural experiences including trips to the snow. Elizabeth in Santo was able to earn enough to start her own small business. Others claim it is the new ''Blackbirding." Blackbirding was a practice earlier last century whereby unscrupulous whites captured Nivans and others to work as slaves on the sugar plantations of Queensland.
At least two companies are currently being investigated for exploiting the workers and deducting unnecessary fees and charges. Some did not have enough work to enable the workers to earn anything after paying for food, accommodation and warm clothing and one supposedly non- profit organisation expected the workers to make a hefty donation to the recruiter's preferred charity. Six months is also a long time for workers to be away from their families. This has caused some problems elsewhere where married women were also sent away without the protection of husbands or the community.

Although more oversight is obviously needed - most schemes are administered by private operators - these men are for the most part happy with their experience and they are greeted like heroes. Everyone comes forward to cover them in leis and the entire village lines up to shake hands. Afterwards there are speeches and an exchange of gifts and these are followed by a feast.

The mamas sprinkle the men with baby powder.
I have no idea of the origin of this custom

The next day I walk to the east to catch a glimpse of Lopevi, another volcano. Though it doesn't do much except smoke, all the inhabitants of the island of Lopevi have been evacuated as its ashfield grows.

Another day, another volcano. This is Lopevi off the northeast coast of Epi

Despite much swimming in Epi's beautiful blue waters, there is still no sign of Bondas, but I do encounter a magnificent turtle while snorkelling.
With only a few days left, I decide to take another look at Malekula the second largest and the most culturally diverse island. Although much of it is jungle clad, it is also home to numerous cocoa plantations.

This time I head for the north where the land is rising and where the small Nambas - The wearers of small penis -sheaths, live. The last reported case of cannibalism occurred here in 1969. Chief Stephen takes me to a site where every stone represents a fallen man. When one side in a tribal conflict had had enough, they would send one of their own over to be eaten in order to end the bloodshed.
Before missionaries came, infanticide was also common. Rarely did a family have more than three children. However brutal these practices may seem to westerners, they were a form of population control that enabled people to remain within the ecological limits of their environment.

Chief Stephen who takes me to the cannibal site at Sanwiri

Each stone here - and there are hundreds- represents a dead warrior

Another ancient custom was the removal of incisors from young women who have reached puberty. I didn't see any females with gaps in their teeth, so I assume that this practice has died out. Tooth decay, once unknown on the islands, is a far greater problem as people embrace western food.
Circumcision though, is still practised on all the islands. It is an important manhood rite and part of the grading system for males, who achieve honour and higher rank in the tribe according to the number of pigs they have killed. On Pentecost the land diving ritual, where young men leap from high towers with vines tied around their feet - the Inspiration for A.J. Hackett's Bungy Jumping, serves a similar purpose as well as ensuring a good harvest of yams. Pigs, once the major currency of the islands, still play an important role in ceremonies and weddings. They are also used as fines in the event of transgressions such as sleeping with another man's wife or to smooth over a dispute with a neighbour.

Chiefly stones. The bodies of chiefs lie buried here. Chief Stephen says he still comes here to consult with their spirits if he has important decisions to make on behalf of the community

My namesake Veroniqua takes me to the village of Rano where many of the traditional customs are still preserved. The women demonstrate their remarkable weaving skills - quickly making mats out of pandani and baskets and bowls out of coconut fronds, how lap lap is made using coral as a grater and how the leaves of a special kind of plantain (a member of the banana family) can be used like gladwrap and to hold liquids.

This little boy leads us to the ceremonial site

The women are very skilled weavers, making a mat for sitting and sleeping in only a few minutes

Not to be outdone, the men demonstrate firemaking and sand drawing. Sand drawing is an ancient art that is used in a number of ways- for illustrating a story, leaving a message, for ritual purposes or simply as a work of art. A good artist can make very complex designs without lifting his finger off the work.

Firemaking using a twirled stick. It really does work

The ancient art of sand -drawing. From memory though this says, "Gone to the garden."

Then there is some of the most spectacular dancing I have seen. First the men dance alone, then the women and then there are dances where the whole tribe joins together. For some dances the men wear the head dresses associated with Rom dancing. They wear bracelets of pods on their feet and move to the rythm of tamtams.

History Lesson. Dances are used to tell stories. This one is about how three men of Malekula go to Ambrym to exchange piglets for a pig. They are murdered when they get there, so all the men go to Ambrym in their canoes and kill thirty men of Ambrym and bring them back to eat.

Thanks Veroniqua, for showing me around.

We finish off with an authentic feast - the Lap Lap put on the fire earlier, and lots of fruit. I'm glad cannibalism is no longer popular and I am not on the menu for these are among the happiest and friendliest people I have met in Vanuatu, and they are all friendly. While they might like a few more wheeled toys, a few solar panels, less corruption, more accessible healthcare and free education, they have not lost their capacity to be self sufficient if they are prepared to live traditionally.In many ways they have more choices than we do, and no mortgages and much less stress. If a person can't get a job or doesn't want to work, the tribe, the jungle and the sea ensure that that they don't starve or become homeless.

"Next time don't be a stranger," they say. "You don't stay in a rest house. You stay with us."
"Straight!" I reply in my best Bislama and "Thank You too mus."

Although I also try to visit the Big Nambas, further south, it's a public holiday and no one is travelling anywhere. I can't afford to wait and can't afford to get stuck, because the next day I fly back to Australia, knowing only too well that I have only scratched the surface here. I have a good excuse to come back, there are still seventy eight islands to go, each one of them culturally and geographically distinct.