Looking down on the neon signs and snaking traffic, from my condo, 13 floors up in the heart of Bangkok, some of the places in Southeast Asia I have visited recently seem not only geographically distant but separated in time also. This is, of course merely an illusion, but a powerful one. Dugout canoes, tribal dances and weaving pandas leaves to make hut roofs does not fit easily into a world where people commute by skytrain, discuss cryptocurrencies and every second video display promotes the latest smartphone model as the perfect ‘selfie’ solution. Probably the greatest change that has occurred in communication with the developed world over the past three decades is the growth of the internet, which for many of us now drives our work and leisure activities and much of our interaction with other people. In much of Melanesia, internet access is still slow, expensive and in many areas unavailable. There are numerous factors behind this; probably the most significant is the lack of large population centres, making the laying of cables and associated infrastructure uneconomic for telecommunication companies. However; almost everyone has a mobile ‘phone; by and large, landline networks have been bypassed for similar reasons to limiting internet. In some areas things are changing rapidly, in others little changes. Like elsewhere in the World there is a shift to urban living. This means that some cities are growing rapidly, equally on small remote islands populations decline. Simply put, there are few job opportunities there. As a teenager your dream is to study or work in in Fiji, or New Zealand, or Australia. Of those that are successful few will return.
Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides) is a sprawling chain of islands, 82 in total, lying in the South Pacific a little over 1700 kilometres East of Australia. The archipelago is volcanic in origin; the islands forming a line, roughly north -south, The islands are exposed tips of three converging seabed ridges rising up from the surrounding seabed, several thousand metres deep. The most famous volcano in the region is Mount Yasur on Tanna, but there are in fact nine active volcanos in the chain (two are submarine volcanos). At the time of my visit to Vanuatu (September 2017) increased volcanic activity on Ambae could be seen from our ship as we passed at night. This lead, shortly after, to a full scale evacuation of all 8,000 inhabitants of the island. Over a thousand kilometres separates the northernmost islands (Torres Islands) from the uninhabited islands of Mathew and Hunter, the southernmost tip of the chain. Fairly rapid development is occurring in and around Port Vila, the capital. Luxury apartments and hotels are springing up through foreign investment (mostly Chinese) aided no doubt by Vanuatu’s reputation as a tax haven (it has zero corporate tax). I spent a little time discussing this with a Chinese developer and some Ni-Vanuatu (the term for inhabitants of Vanuatu). The developer was agreed that zero tax was a bad thing, limiting Vanuatu’s ability to develop services and infrastructure but, perhaps understandably, was prepared to exploit it.
Malekula Island is the second largest island in the Vanuatu chain. With a population of only 23,00 (2009) there are said to be nearly 30 local languages spoken on the island. In Vanuatu as a whole, over one hundred languages are spoken (138 according to a 2015 study by Francios et al) however an English-based creole, Bislama, is the common language uniting villages and islands. The interior of Malekula is mountainous and heavily forested, with a scattering of villages. Of the various cultural divisions on the island, the main (and best known) are the Small Nambas and Big Nambas. Nambas are penis sheaths made from fibre and banana or pandanus leaves, and these two groups are differentiated by the shape and size of their penis sheaths (seriously!). Given they’re all fairly big, muscular guys I wouldn’t risk making jokes about it. Dancing is a big part of the culture (or kastom as it’s known) in Vanuatu, and especially in the more remote villages. each village has its dancing ground. Custom dances are performed for such events as the grading of men and the circumcision of boys. This is very much a grade-based hierarchical society. It has been reported than the Nimangki societies of southern Malekula have 17 distinct grades (Reisenfield, 1950).
It would be wrong to assume that these are villages untouched by western culture. Nowadays traditional nambas are worn only during dance ceremonies. Villagers are as likely to be seen in jeans and t shirts when going about their daily business. Many of the local languages are also considered under threat (on Malekula and throughout Vanuatu). Interestingly, this does not appear to be from the spears of English (or French) but from Bislama, the creole that developed out of English colonisation. This, presumably, is due to increased communication between villages. As tourism grows, and the internet becomes more accessible, things will undoubtedly start to change more quickly. Vanuatus reputation as a tax haven also fuel this. But for now it remains a strange mix of the old and the new. It is a country where most people still live in forest villages, have no formal ‘job’ but live off the land, where there is no income tax, yet it is one of the very few countries in the World where one can buy citizenship using bitcoin.
The megalith culture of Melanesia. Alphonse Reisenfield. E.J.Brill, 1950.
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