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Vanuatu - Efate

The Island of Tanna, in Vanuatu

Welkam long blog blong witeyman.

“Welcome to our bungalows on Tanna. Unfortunately we have to warn you that for the past 2 nights someone has been burning down our buildings. The fires were put out very fast but we realise that you may not want to stay here” 

This was our introduction speech on arrival. Most buildings on Tanna have a leaf roof with leaf/bamboo walls. Fortunately our room had a tin roof. The bungalow owner was involved in a land dispute, which was being solved in a typical Ni-Vanuatu way – by burning down your dissenter’s house. During our first day here the security guard’s house was burnt down. Our daughter Fiona, who is teaching at the local school in Lenakel, had first hand experience of this a couple of months ago when her nearest building was torched. This introduction to Tanna gave an immediate wrong impression of the Ni-Vans, as from there on, everyone we met was most hospitable and welcoming.


We are now in Vanuatu. Vanuatu is a collection of 80 odd islands about 1500 miles north of New Zealand. Its latitude is 18 degrees South of the equator, so is within the tropics. Our youngest daughter is teaching here for 6 months before going to university, as a gap 'year'. The main capital island Efate is very poor and backward by Western standards, and the other islands even more so. She is at Lenakel on Tanna, about a 1 hour flight by small plane from Efate.

The island of Tanna has now been imortalised by the UK TV channel "Meet the Natives".

Probably the best way to describe Tanna is via our personal experiences:

Roger was asked to re-align a satellite dish at the local school. So … turn on receiver and go to ‘set-up’ menu. No batteries in the remote. School kid sent to buy batteries. Comes back 1 hour later. Need some equipment to align dish. No alignment meter so need compass and inclinometer. No inclinometer so find protractor and string for plumb line.  Need to look up angle of satellite from Tanna. Go to school’s one computer with dial-up internet access – the only internet access in the area. Today is Monday (market day) when all the external telephone lines are engaged. Wait until Tuesday for Internet access. Cannot use mobile phone to find information – no mobile network here.

Tuesday – internet now working, but infuriatingly slow. Found the information (took approximately 1 hour on this slow connection) and tried to align dish. Unable to do so, believe a faulty LNB. Will send one from the UK on return.

Helen needed to make a phone call Monday to cancel a booked bungalow. All phones (private or public) need a phone card. For some reason, the only shop that sells the cards was closed, so waited until Tuesday to make call. During Monday, the Catholic Bishop of Vanuatu died, so Tuesday declared an impromptu public holiday (approx 15 public holidays per year). No one we met knew who this Bishop was – few Catholics on Tanna. Phone card shop now closed Tuesday, so will wait until Wednesday.  Purchased card on Wednesday. Waited 30 mins for a line. Made call, which failed half way through. Cost of a local call is around 11p/min ($0.22/min). We would hate to be making an international call. The phone card credit would not be big enough. In rural areas, often the whole village will share one public (very public) telephone, as the following 2 picture show.  Several villagers will often sit in a group listening to a personal call. This is top entertainment. The telephone is inside the covered hut, and the solar panels etc are for powering the radio equipment for the telephone link.



Had our cheapest meal ever. It cost 20p each ($0.38). Purchased from the local mama’s market. Consisted of nuts, pumpkin leaves, yam, symburo and lap-lap. Lap-lap is a staple here. It is like eating glue. Went back to our accommodation and spent ten times the cost of the meal on a beer. Beer worth every cent.

Note - not the following meal. This is one of the islands speciality. Stones are heated in a fire, and the meal is cooked on the hot stones

Thursday – Roger installed a computer network at the school, having bought the parts in New Zealand. One network cable short. This will have to come from Efate (main island) as none on Tanna. The school’s 4 computers are all full of viruses – will need to try and clean them next week.

Thursday evening, had a meal at some Ni-Van friends of daughter. He had a motorcycle accident 5 weeks ago and broke his collar bone. As it was not healing very well, he had some kastom (local) medicine. This consisted of cutting the skin down to the bone on the shoulder using the sharp glass of a broken beer bottle. Medicinal leaves are then stuffed into these cuts and bound up for a few days. There is great belief here in traditional medicine. His follow-up treatment is to have new leaves rubbed into the wound every couple of days.  

A local showed us one of his treasured possessions, a post card of Prince Phillip. The prince is worshiped as a God on Tanna, as it is believed that he originated from Tanna. I guess that the Prince’s skin had the Michael Jackson colour lightening treatment on the way. The following picture is of a group of PP worshipers on their way to market in Lenakel


Friday we took a truck to the other side of the island to stay there a few days. Four wheel drive trucks are the usual form of transport around Tanna, either by arrangement or by hailing any truck as it passes in a huge cloud of dust. Roads here are either dirt or stones, so the 30 mile trip took over 2 hours. The trucks last an average of 5 years before the roads kill them off. Only one capable mechanic on the whole island of 10,000 people.

There are three main religious groups on Tanna – Christian (mainly Presbyterian) Kastom (the original beliefs before the European missionaries) and Jon Frum. Into these religions is woven belief in sorcery, spirits and the spirits of your ancestors.   This blog is too short to go into the belief structure of Jon Frum but it can be summarised as saying that they believe that refrigerators, cars etc were made by God and given to westerners. If they behave like westerners, particularly like Americans, then God will give them goods also. Their villages are built around a central square, which is used for dancing, marching and hoisting the American and Vanuatu flag. Friday night is their song and dance night which was when we visited.

Food is plentiful. Only seasonal food is available, but everything grows easily, particularly root vegetables. The islands are surrounded by good fishing waters. The only times of hunger is after a cyclone. Most houses are built from local materials -  wood, leaf thatch roof and woven matting for the walls. After a cyclone, the roof and walls may be blown away, but can be quickly rebuilt from local materials. For many people, particularly the Kastom villages, nature provides everything – food, housing and clothing. There is no need for anything else, and no need for money. Pigs are often used as a form of currency, as well as for ceremonies, status symbol and occasionally even food! The crop on the floor wasting is pamplemousse (grapefruit)

Tanna is famous for its volcano, which is one of the most accessible active volcanoes in the world. Many westerners come to Tanna for a one day trip, just to see the volcano. It erupts every 5 minutes or so from one or all of its 3 vents. The night time show is the best. Only 20 years ago, any truck venturing up the volcano would be stoned as it was the local belief that the souls of the dead reside in the volcano. Now they are happy to let tourists visit, as long as about 13 is paid.

We mentioned that Ni-Vans are most hospitable and welcoming. Most are happy to chat in their best broken inglis. One guy we met was Willy. We passed a few minutes chatting one day then bumped into him again the next day. He had formed a bag out of his shirt to carry manioc (a root vegetable). This time he invited us back to his wife’s village, a collection of about 10 houses with a nakamal (meeting place). We had noticed previously the number of pigs roaming around, so asked him how they caught them. He took us to a clearing and banged two pieces of wood together. Immediately, about 20 pigs came charging into the clearing expecting food of coconut. At the big Toka ceremony, which is held every 2-3 years, about 300 pigs are killed. Coconut trees are everywhere. We had been concerned about our safety every time we heard a coconut crashing to the ground from about 100’, so we asked Willy if coconuts ever killed people. His reply was that coconuts have a soul, and therefore always miss people when falling. We felt much safer after that! Watching Willy split open a coconut with an axe for feeding to the pigs, we thought that humans had the better side of this agreement.

His sister-in-law, Mary, although only about 20, had three children. Even though her father was the village chief, he was not able to afford the cost of the school fees after the age of 11 – the age when parents have to start paying for their children’s education. Her 5 years education must have been good as her spoken English was excellent though she couldn’t write. Only about 10% of children attend school past 11 yrs. On leaving, she gave us two necklaces plus a woven bag as it is a custom to give a gift to a person who visits the village.

No-one on Tanna wears a watch. If setting a time for a meeting, it is usually given as morning or afternoon – that as precise as it gets!

The Reith lectures were mentioned previously. One of the Sach’s suggestions was that the rich countries should donate anti malaria bed nets to all the poorer malaria infested countries – about 300 million nets. The cost of such a donation is about 1 day of the USA’s defence budget expenditure. Malaria is a big problem in Vanuatu, so we were interested to understand how many bed nets were in use. It is almost impossible to obtain any reliable statistics in Vanuatu, so self collection is often the best way. In our daughter’s residential school (residential as the villages are so far from the school) only about half the children use nets, and these are often so ripped to be useless. Other village houses we visited also did not have nets. The local hospital used to freely give bed nets, but stopped after it found that they were being used for fishing. So, we visited the Canadian doctors on the island to understand the problem a little better. They said that about half their hospital intake is for malaria, but fortunately the type of malaria on Tanna is the mild type, from which people rarely die.

On Tanna, village people believe that you only die of old age. If you die younger than around 60, it is due to sorcery. We can see it being a big education task to convince people to use nets, as in their eyes, malaria will not be spread by the mosquito, but by bad thoughts and sorcery.

I mentioned earlier about the land dispute at our previous accommodation. We visited there again on return to Lenakal to find that one of the bungalows (the one in the picture above – before the problem) had been burnt during the previous night with 4 Australian Rotarians inside. Fortunately they were not hurt. Vanuatu desperately needs the tourist dollars, and attempted murder on tourists will not help. It also relies on donor aid and the Australian Rotary Club is a big aid provider to Vanuatu. Trying to burn 4 of it subjects will not help the cause. The police know who is doing this but are not prepared to arrest them without catching them in the act.

Vanuatu was granted independence in 1980. Previously it had been ruled by a joint French English administration. Each tribe has its own language. When the French / English arrived, they brought with them Bislama – a form of pigeon English with many French words. All people will speak at least 2 languages, their local tribal language plus Bislama. Bislama is the national language. Many will speak English or French in addition. The following is a poster in Bislama

People live in tribes, the tribal group being one extended family living in several villages on land always bordered by two rivers. Each village has a chief, a hereditary position. If you ask anyone their name they will say “I’m X, the son/daughter of the chief.”  Work is split 70% women and 30% men. Employers prefer women because they will turn up for work. Men will agree to work but will arrive days late and often not at all. Women provide the food from the tribal garden which will often be a mile away from their village. If it were closer the vegetables on which they depend for their entire diet would be eaten by their un-penned pigs and cattle. They wash clothes by hand and leave them laid on grass or the beach to dry. They may have up to ten children to care for. It is rare to see men doing anything. When we ask what men do, their job is to chop wood and build houses.  The following picture is of the market in Lenekel, which occurs twice per week where women will sell their vegetables and fruit and small animals. Note the live chicken in the bag.


Women have very low status. The order of importance is men, pigs, women. Women are required to shut up and obey. They are sometimes pressed into extra work by their fathers and husbands. A French bungalow owner said such conscripts would typically break glasses or take food to show their resentment. Other women who work of their own free will are happier. There is a high suicide rate here – all of whom are women. They see the lives of their mothers and grandmothers and decide that life has nothing to offer them. This information is anecdotal as no records are kept of births and deaths.  

In our parents’ generation, people were told that smoking was good for you as it clears the lungs. In our generation, alcohol is promoted as the drug with few health issues, even though we have personally lost 2 friends/relatives by alcoholism. On Vanuatu, and most of the South Pacific islands, the intoxicant of choice is Kava. Kava is made from the roots of the kava plant. Traditionally, the roots are chewed by young boys to make them soft before water is added and the liquid is strained through muslin (or a bed net!). In the Kava bars, around towns like Lenakel, a food mincer is now used instead. When in Rome……………….

Drinking Kava is a male domain, so in the interests of science Roger asked a local to take him to a Kava bar, one which sells unchewed root due to the high incidence of TB here. Kava is served in coconut shells, in half shell size (25p / $0.50) or full size (50p / $1). The routine is to take your shell and drink the contents as fast as possible. The taste is like nothing on earth – absolutely horrible. The locals will then wash their mouth in dirty water and spit a lot to try to get rid of the taste. You then sit around for 15 minutes or so as the kava takes effect. This cycle is repeated as many times as necessary.

Mi ting se hemi bin dring tumas kava hemi stap wokbaot dakdak

(I think I’ve drunk too much kava, I’m walking like a duck)

The effects last about 12 hours with a similar feeling to being drunk, but with a happiness and well being toward your fellow man. The next day there is  little desire to work. This is why the men drink kava whilst the women work!

Next week we move to Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu on a different island, Efate.