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Vanuatu: a Study on Diversity

The archipelago in the Pacific accomodates 266,000 people and 133 languages 


Geographical, June 2015

Marco Magrini

NO MAN IS AN ISLAND. Still, a multitude of human beings can be an archipelago.

Vanuatu, a 35 year-old Republic in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, accommodates 266,000 people in 65 small islands of recent volcanic origin (17 more are uninhabited). After three millennia of sporadic immigration from other Pacific islands, mostly from Melanesia and Polinesia, the archipelago has evolved into a monumental display of anthropological diversity.


That quarter of a million of ni-Vanuatu (the proper way to call Vanuatuans) speak a staggering 113 different non-written languages, many of which, being spoken by few remaining people, are endangered. This makes Vanuatu the one place in the world with the highest density of mother tongues per capita. But there is something more.

After over three centuries of persistent immigration from colonizing European countries, first Spain (the explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, thought the islands were Australia), than Britain and France, something was left here. English and French are spoken in different parts of such a scattered land. But there is also an official vanuatuan language: Bislama, which is basically raw English with a dash of French, all wrapped around a simple Polinesian grammar.


For an English-speaking person, Bislama is relatively easy to learn. Especially if you’re first advised that the prefix ol (“all”) makes plurals, that long stands for every possible place (“at”, “in”, “to”, “by”, “beside”) and blong merely means “of”. “I want some glasses of beer on the table is mi wantem ol glas blong bia long tebol. As easy as that”, explains Peter Uhi, a young lad who earns a living selling copies of the only newspaper on the archipelago, the English-speaking Vanuatu Daily Post.


A beach in Efate, one of the two biggest islands of the archipelago

IN VANUATU, WHERE NOT EVERYONE can speak and read Bislama, the range of human diversity doesn’t stop with language. 

Hiu, the northernmost island, is 530 miles afar from the southernmost one, Aneityum. The only two cities, the capital Port-Vila and Luganville on the Espiritu Santo island (the name comes from Fernandes de Queiros, who discovered the island under Spanish patronage, but was a Portuguese), draw no more than 21% of the population. No wonder different cultures are spread throughout the dispersed nation, where recovered tools and artifacts date the first human settlements at least three thousand years ago. But they could be, some anthropologists argue, twice as old.

As a nation, Vanuatu is among the youngest in the world. Before captain James Cook baptized the islands New Hebrides after the faraway Scottish archipelago, they didn’t even exist as a concept, let alone a collective noun. The weird Condominium the British and the French shared since 1906, in a rare form of colonial partnership, didn’t help to cement a national identity. So the rather abrupt transition to independence in 1980 was to build a State from scratch: the Republic of Vanuatu’s Constitution combines – as it happens with spoken languages – English common law, French civil law and indigenous customary law.

Apart from such a mishmash, though, the local ol kastom (“customs” in Bislama) largely prevail in everyday life, especially in the farthest isles, barely connected to Port Vila by a weekly ferry service.

The country could be divided at least in four cultural areas, very diverse from one another. Up in the North, there are two types of societies where men and women can purchase positions of status. Pigs are the local currency. And wealth is not really defined by how many hogs you own, rather by how many you can give away. 

In the central islands, a hereditary chief is the “Big man” reigning over a convoluted class system, complete with nobles and commoners. In the southern areas, the chief status can grant rights over land and even possessions of entire social groups. Women generally hold a low  position but, in a couple of islands, they can climb to the chief’s post.

War (and remote stories of cannibalism) are long forgotten. Modern Vanuatu has a seat at the UN.

A large majority of the population uphold Christianity, in its many different denominations. Still, several “cargo cults” are present. The John Frum movement, that seeks to obtain consumer goods through magic, is both a religion and a political party with a seat in the Parliament. Not to mention, on the southern island of Tanna, the bizarre Prince Philip Movement named after the Duke of Edinburgh, who is believed to be “the son of a mountain spirit”. The idea that extreme natural events happen because somebody has irked some spirit somewhere, is widespread enough to have caused tribal warfare in the past.

War (and more remote episodes of cannibalism) are long forgotten. Modern Vanuatu has a seat at the UN and a wide array of foreign relations, mostly devoted to obtaining international aid. The lowest point in its diplomatic efforts dates back to 2004, when the young and juvenile Republic suddenly recognized Taiwan (who was willing to give the Port-Vila government 30 million dollars, three times China). The People’s Republic didn’t appreciate the manoeuvre  and, after a few feathers ruffled and a cabinet reshuffle, Taiwan disappeared from the radar and Beijing was again a big friend of ni-Vanuatu people.

“Nowadays – says Edward Williams, a New Zealand farmer who has been living here for a decade –  nearly every store is owned by the Chinese”. In downtown Luganville, a giant painted poster serves as the landline phone directory of the whole of Espiritu Santo. Just a few tens of listings are displayed; 17 of them are retail outlets. Their names: Da Ming, Kwon Sing, Wong Sze. 

Here is where diversity ends. On the islands, there are also many shared customs and traditions, like the local knack for parties. Birth, initiation (often with circumcision), marriage and death are celebrated by extended families that may number in the hundreds. With such a multitude of relatives, there is always some ritual about to happen. Every single party will end up with men (and them only), happily drinking kava, a sedative drink made from the roots of Piper methysticum, a kind of pepper. In villages, kava is consumed at home or at nakamal, a sort of a public venue. Nowadays, kava bars have opened in Port Vila and  Luganville, where male urban ni-Vanuatu can enjoy the same experience as their rural kin at nakamal. And, to tell the truth, the taste of such an experience is terrible.


As any visitor will quickly discover, ni-Vanuatu have a hospitable attitude. «Neither tipping nor bargaining is culturally acceptable in Vanuatu», reads a visitor’s guidebook. It doesn’t take much to discover that tips are cheerfully accepted, especially if kindly offered. «Truth is, the government doesn’t want people to develop a tendency to rely on tourists’ gratuities», Williams argues. «And rightly so».

Along the pristine paved roads in Efate and Espiritu Santo, built a few years ago thanks to international financial aid, cars are scarcer than dogs. As a result, a few miles drive may require a constant stream of greetings, in response to dozens of walkers smiling and waving you hello. For them, it must be a touch of kindness, not just a boredom-breaking opportunity. “Two years ago, I moved to Australia to reunite with my cousins and to find a job”, Patrick Bani, a Port-Vila taxi driver, recounts. “But I hated it and ran back. In Sydney, nobody down the road says you hello”. 


Children in northern Espiritu Santo island

THE YOUNG REPUBLIC OF VANUATU emerged from the sea just a few million years ago, as the result of the subduction of the Australian plate beneath the Pacific plate. It sits right along the Ring of Fire (which basically coincides with the Pacific tectonic plate, plus the Nazca plate off South America’s coast), where more than 90% of the world’s earthquakes happen. There are several active volcanoes, both over and beneath the sea. Tremors above the magnitude of 7 Richter are frequent, and the population are well aware of a constant tsunami threat. Not to mention the event of a devastating cyclone, striking on average every other year, during the November-April wet season. Even everyday life could be much diverse here, so to speak.

As in any remote isle – as in Charles Darwin’s Galapagos – diversity is a spontaneous trait of both fauna and flora. The Vanuatu rain forests are classified as a separate terrestrial ecoregion, because of their peculiar endowment. Of the seventy-nine bird species residing here, an amazing thirty species are endemic. Thanks to its geographical seclusion, local mammals account to a few bat species. 


There are no poisonous snakes, spiders, or insects on these islands. The only exception may lie off-shore, in the sea, where it is advised not to walk over a deadly stonefish. Which is quite a feat, since not-so-far-away Australia is notoriously home of the world’s nastiest living creatures. 


In Vanuatu, though not so keen on poisoning,  evolution has had enough time to paint its own rainbow of living diversities. On the white shores of Lonnock Beach, in northern Espiritu Santo, you can get lost watching at the tiny, transparent, whitish little crabs, running sideways in their busy, city-like traffic. So, when you reach the black sands of Black Bay, after a two-dozen mile drive into a lush and steep pluvial forest, spotting the same crabs – yet blackish – can be a moving experience. As the captivating Richard Dawkins book suggests, evolution truly is “The Greatest Show on Earth”.

Still, the evolution of human culture, happening on a much much smaller timescale, can be as astonishing.


The Espiritu Santo island shape shows off two “horns” on top. The longer left-hand horn is covered with forests and only reachable by boat. The eastern one, is served by the luxurious and semi-deserted road halfway to the top, until the little village of Port Olry where, regardless of the French name, everybody speaks some English.

The only way to head north is to take a road that goes deep into the pluvial forest. After a ten-mile drive, the track gets narrower and narrower, to the point of being a bit scary. All of a sudden, two figures appear from behind the trees: a rather undressed young lady and a young tribesman holding a machete. Maybe not the best choice to ask for directions.

'Good morning. Where do we end up, driving along this road?'.

Hush. They don’t appear scared, nor aggressive. Their jaws are just dropped.

'Je ne parle pas anglais', the forest man utters after a while. 'Parlez vous français?'. 


Sunset over Eretoka, also known as 'Hat Island'

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