Kastom in Vanuatu

By Ali MC
Sand drawing is a unique art form in Vanuatu, by which intricate stories are told.
Ali MC

Feet stamp. Voices chant. Bright masks move with the rhythm, followed by long-leaved costumes.

This is the Rom dance, the cultural heartbeat of Ambrym Island, one of the 83 islands that make up the nation of Vanuatu.

This is the annual Yam and Magic Ceremony, which showcases Ambrym’s culture; a display of exciting dances followed by demonstrations of sand drawing, the beating of tam tams (wooden log drums), the call of a conch shell, stories, song and a display of magic.

Held every year around the same time, the three-day festival celebrates the Yam harvest season, a staple of the Vanuatuan diet.

“In our culture, yam is very important. How we use yam, how we plant yam,” says Shem Lowonbu, who is translating for the event.

“Yam is our way of life.”

Ambrym is known as the ‘black island’, for both the dramatic volcanic landscape and the practice of magic.

Craggy volcanic rocks tumble down into the sea, the remnants of past eruptions, and the spectre of volcanoes Marum and Benbow looms in low slung grey cloud.

Every morning, the men change from their everyday working clothes into the traditional nambas (penis sheaths) while the women prepare yam.

Central to the festival is the Rom dance, a highly significant aspect of Ambrym culture, combining complex moves, singing, costume, and of course, the masks.

Each mask has a particular pattern, which signifies the wearer’s status in the village.

Not everyone can simply create and wear a mask – the story and ceremony behind each mask must be learnt and a ‘grade taking’ ceremony must be performed, in order to achieve the next level of status.

Masks can also be bought from another person or village chief. In this case, the buyer becomes the owner’s apprentice, in order to learn the ceremony and story of the mask, as well as paying the owner in pigs and produce.

Given each mask’s deep magical significance, essentially, one is purchasing the power of the mask.

This power is seen in the dances, which are fervent, serious and meticulously rehearsed.

Yet as well as being an important cultural festival for the village, the Rom Dance is also a well-considered commercial venture bringing much needed capital to the community.

Masks can also be bought from another person or village chief. In this case, the buyer becomes the owner’s apprentice, in order to learn the ceremony and story of the mask, as well as paying the owner in pigs and produce.

Shem explains that Chief Sekor, head of Olal village where the festival is held, started the tourism venture in order to “promote the culture” and invite tourists into the area.

“This modern generation have seen that these are important things for our ancestors. It is not only to perform for the tourists, it is a way of life. While we demonstrate it for tourism, we [still] have to live it.”

He says it’s important to pay attention to “how the commercial world is running today” and take advantage of the increase in tourism to boost their economy.

“When we live that way in the modern world and with tourism in particular, that’s becoming important. When we show how we live, and how we preserve [our culture] it is so valuable, to us and to everybody.”

On the southern island of Tanna, tourism is also fast encroaching fast, threatening local culture.

Home to the world’s most accessible active volcano – Mount Yasur – tourists flock to the island to stay in expensive resorts and climb the volcano on guided tours at US$100 a visit.

Yet amid this commercial hubbub, the kastom way of life steadfastly continues in villages such as Ireupuow, where traditions are still strongly maintained.

Like most of Vanuatu, the land in Ireupuow is divided up between the families, and gardens are planted growing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables: bananas, coconuts, island cabbage, yam and manioc.

Pigs are farmed for the purpose of ceremony, such as marriage or funerals, and while there is some solar power and mobile phone reception, village life here remains relatively unchanged since ancestral times.

Baskets are woven to carry produce and homes are built from the natural environment of the jungle. As such, villages such as Ireupuow remain highly sustainable, yet are ironically, likely to be first to suffer from the impact of climate change.

Central to their culture, explains Sasairo Narua, Chief of Ireupuow, is the importance of land ownership.

…villages such as Ireupuow remain highly sustainable, yet are ironically, likely to be first to suffer from the impact of climate change.

Plots of land have been passed down for generations, and equal distribution of land for gardens and animal farming means that every family in the village has the means to live comfortably, and ensures relative harmony amongst the village.

“If we don’t have land, we will be homeless,” he says.

Yet big business is on its way to Ireupuow, with investors reportedly offering large sums of money to buy land in the village, which sits adjacent to three exquisite beaches and access to the volcano.

Sasairo explains how they quickly turned down the offer, saying gruffly: “We are not interested in money.”

However, whether the kastom way of life can hold out against offers of incredible monetary wealth remains to be seen, especially with a younger, tech-savvy and well-educated population.

…equal distribution of land for gardens and animal farming means that every family in the village has the means to live comfortably, and ensures relative harmony among the village.

While villages all over Vanuatu are responding to tourism and outside influences in their own way, it is clear that kastom is still central to Vanuatuan life.

As Shem says, “The culture and the way of life is important. That’s our life, that’s how I live.”

 

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