LANGUAGE: English; French; Bislama
RELIGION: Christianity; traditional native religions
The Ni-Vanuatu are the Melanesian people that make up the population of the Republic of Vanuatu. This Y-shaped chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean was previously called the New Hebrides. It gained independence from Britain and France in 1980. Vanuatu is probably best known to Americans as the setting for James Michener's novel Tales of the South Pacific. The book was made into a popular musical movie, South Pacific.
A total of eighty-three islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean make up the Republic of Vanuatu. Twelve of the islands are considered the main islands of the group. Some of the islands were formed by volcanoes, and others by the buildup of coral. Thus there is a wide range of landscape features within the country.
The capital city of Vanuatu is Port Vila, located on Efate. The total population of Vanuatu is approximately 170,000.
Over one hundred distinct languages are spoken in the Republic of Vanuatu. There are three official languages: English, French, and Bislama. Bislama developed from South Pacific English, a simplified language that spread throughout the region during the nineteenth century. Traders and other foreigners used it to communicate with speakers of the many local languages.
Yams are the Ni-Vanuatu's main source of food after the taro root. They are important in the group's mythology. On South Pentecost Island, the following myth recounts the origin of yams:
In the beginning, there was no food. There was an old man who stayed alone in his hut, lying down and never going out. One day, he was cutting his fingernails and toenails. He threw the pieces out the door. The nails sprouted a plant that grew out of the ground. He tried the plant and it tasted good.
The main religion of the Ni-Vanuatu is Christianity. However, many Ni-Vanuatu still practice traditional native religions. These include cargo cults, which believe that wealth can be obtained through religious ceremonies. Best known among these is the John Frum movement. This group holds on to some traditional practices that are considered pagan by church authorities. These include ritual dancing and the drinking of kava. Kava is a drink made from a plant that contains a mildly intoxicating drug.
The major national holiday in Vanuatu is Independence Day, celebrated on July 30, marks the day in 1980 when the islands achieved autonomy from England and France.
In a community on the island of Tanna, John Frum Day is celebrated in February.
Some Ni-Vanuatu practice male initiation, which usually involves circumcision. A boy who refuses to undergo circumcision may not be considered an adult man. Following the ritual, a young man wears a cover of braided fibers over his genitals.
People of the northern islands of Vanuatu pass through a series of status levels during adulthood. A person gains entry to each stage by purchasing the symbols associated with it and by making a large sacrifice of animals, usually pigs. Men mainly pass through the status levels, but women may also participate.
Family ties traditionally rule interpersonal relations among the Ni-Vanuatu. For example, in some communities, there is a strict rule that brothers and sisters must avoid each other. After reaching adolescence, they are not permitted to speak to each other, or even to be in the same place. In these communities, brothers and sisters must communicate through a young girl who acts as a go-between.
Housing styles vary by region. In the cities, Ni-Vanuatu live in buildings like those found in industrialized nations. Modern houses, apartments, and condominiums are found in the cities. On their outskirts, however, houses are built from scrap materials.
Rural housing includes both traditional houses and those of mixed construction, which combines traditional elements, such as woven bamboo walls and dirt floors, with roofs of galvanized sheet metal.
The role of women varies among the Ni-Vanuatu. In some areas, men are in charge. In others, especially parts of Espiritu Santo and Efate, women have more power. In these societies, descent is traced through the female side of the family.
For the rural Ni-Vanuatu, the choice of a marriage partner is determined by family and descent. The marriage itself is usually accompanied by an exchange of gifts, including woven mats and pigs.
A wide range of clothing is found among the Ni-Vanuatu. In the cities, Ni-Vanuatu wear modern, Western-style clothing. Those living in villages often combine Western clothes with local forms of dress. Women often wear fiber skirts without a blouse or top. Men may wear a traditional loincloth or a pair of shorts and a T-shirt.
Traditional food crops include taro root and yams. Food is prepared in rural areas without the use of electricity or gas. City dwellers have a wide selection of food. Shops sell imported food products. A large market in Port Vila brings in traditional produce from rural areas.
Many Ni-Vanuatans do not have an opportunity to participate in any form of public, institutionalized education. Education has often been provided by mission schools run by various Christian groups.
Dancing is an important part of Ni-Vanuatan culture. Many villages have family dancing grounds called nasara . The slit gong is a musical instrument made from a hollowed-out tree trunk. It is used to represent the voices of the spirits.
In Port Vila, there are office jobs in the government and in international development agencies.
Traditional forms of work have been different for men and for women. Women are often the main food producers.
People living in the cities play tennis and golf.
Adult Ni-Vanuatu men drink an intoxicating beverage called kava. Typically, adult men drink kava at night. The drinking session is a quiet occasion that usually lasts a couple of hours.
Commercial kava bars have sprung up in villages, towns, and cities. These local gathering places are called nakamals. Departing from traditional patterns of kava drinking, nakamals permit women to drink. However, a woman must not be from the same village as the owner of the bar.
A lack of electricity has limited the availability of television for most Ni-Vanuatu.
Tapa cloth was a traditional product of many groups in Vanuatu. It is now produced for sale to tourists and collectors.
One of the greatest problems facing the Ni-Vanuatu is maintaining their traditional culture in the face of Western influences.
The economy is not thoroughly developed and stable. Unlike other South Pacific nations, Vanuatu receives only a small number of tourists, about 35,000 per year.
Aldrich, Robert. France and the South Pacific Since 1940. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.
Allen, Michael, ed. Vanuatu: Politics, Economics and Ritual in Island Melanesia. New York: Academic Press, 1981.
Bonnemaison, Jokl, ed. Arts of Vanuatu . Honolulu:University of Hawaii Press, 1996.
Douglas, Norman. Vanuatu: A Guide. Sydney, Australia: Pacific Publications, 1987.
Lini, Walter. Beyond Pandemonium: From the New Hebrides to Vanuatu. Wellington, New Zealand: Asia Pacific Books, 1981.
MacClancy, Jeremy. To Kill a Bird with Two Stones: A Short History of Vanuatu. Port-Vila, Vanuatu: Vanuatu Cultural Center, 1981.