People & Culture of Vanuatu
The people of Vanuatu, a name which means ‘Land Eternal’, are largely Melanesian and the people are called Ni-Vanuatu (meaning ‘of Vanuatu’). Ni-Vanuatu have lived in these islands for centuries and more than 110 distinctly different cultures and languages still thrive here. Vanuatu is recognised as one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. Dances, ceremonies, status and systems of authority, artistic styles, animal and crop husbandry can vary from island to island, and often from district to district. These cultural traditions are known as kastom (or custom).
In kastom-oriented areas, traditional ceremonies still form an integral part of village life. From the island of Epi northwards, status and power are earned by taking ‘grades’ through the nimangki system. Men show their wealth in elaborate ceremonies, accompanied by feasting and dancing, and ritual pig killings. On Pentecost Island, the famous land-diving ceremony celebrates the yam harvest from April to June. Men and boys dive from wooden towers with vines tied to their ankles, helping to guarantee a bountiful harvest the following year.
The island of Tanna is home to the Nekowiar, a spectacular three-day gift-exchanging ceremony where up to 2000 participants attempt to outdo each other with lavish gifts, dancing and ornate make-up. Ambrym’s Rom Dance is another impressive grade-taking ceremony. Dancers wear tall, conical masks and a cloak of banana leaves. On the island of Malakula, Big and Small Nambas villagers are famous for their traditional culture and ceremonies, which have remained largely untouched by outside influences.
Some 80% of people live in rural areas, mostly in small clan-based villages of less than 50 people and headed by a chief. The chief speaks on behalf of his village and his word is accepted as law. Most villages have a traditional nakamal (village clubhouse or clan hut) where men meet to talk, manage village affairs and drink kava. Visitors should always be respectful of places that are tabu (sacred, holy or forbidden). A tabu should be approached with the utmost respect.
- Stick to the road when passing through a village. If you want to enter, wait at the outskirts until approached.
- Most land is owned by islanders or their families. If you leave the road and walk on a bush path, ask permission from the first person you meet.
- Do not pick fruit from the roadside, as it usually belongs to someone under customary law.
- Bathing suits, shorts and skimpy clothes are considered disrespectful in villages. Visitors to villages should be fully dressed.
- Outside of Port Vila, kava is generally drunk only by men. Often, it is acceptable for women travellers to try, although it can cause offence to local women.
- Observe local tabu (eg nakamals are generally tabu to women), and if in doubt about protocol, ask your guide or a local first.
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