Vanuatu, a 35-year-old republic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, made headlines back in March when Tropical Cyclone Pam smashed into the island chain with Category 5 winds blowing at 210 miles an hour. It brought widespread devastation, particularly to the southern provinces.
Experts said the storm was comparable in strength to Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013 and killed more than 6,000 people. In the aftermath of Pam, officials mentioned 24 victims and more than 40 people unaccounted for. At the time of writing, the final death toll stands, miraculously, at 11.
This was probably due to a combination of communications technology (mobile phone-carrying tribal chiefs received a cyclone advisory text message from the government), an ancestral inclination to preparedness, and the light material – mostly bamboo and pandanus – that most of the local homes are built with.
The superstorm severely hit ni-Vanuatu’s (the the correct term for Vanuatuans) housing, subsistence farming and tourism infrastructure. Still, not every island was shattered – Espiritu Santo, the biggest in the chain, was somewhat spared – and the process of rebuilding has begun with the tourist flow quickly restarted and international aid pouring in.
Vanuatu is home to 266,000 people across 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 Polynesia, the archipelago has evolved into a monumental display of anthropological diversity.
This quarter of a million of islanders speak a staggering 113 different non-written languages, many of which, being spoken by few remaining people, are endangered. This makes Vanuatu the place in the world with the highest density of mother tongues per capita.
Three centuries of persistent immigration from colonising European countries, first Spain (the explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós thought the islands were Australia), then Britain and France, has left a confusing mix of language. English and French are commonly spoken – villages only a few miles apart will speak one or another. There is also an official Vanuatuan language: Bislama, which is a rough and ready English with a dash of French, all wrapped around a simple Polynesian grammar.
For an English-speaking person, Bislama is relatively easy to learn. The prefix ol (‘all’) makes plurals; 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,’ 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.
In Vanuatu the range of human diversity doesn’t stop with language.
Hiu, the northernmost island, is 530 miles from the southernmost one, Aneityum. The only two cities, the capital Port-Vila and Luganville on the Espiritu Santo island (the name of which comes from the aforementioned Fernandes de Queiros, who discovered the island under Spanish patronage, but who himself was Portuguese), hold no more than 21 per cent of the population.
Different cultures are spread throughout the dispersed nation, where recovered tools and artefacts date the first human settlements to at least 3,000 years ago. But, some anthropologists argue, they could be twice as old as that.
As a nation, Vanuatu is among the youngest in the world. Before Captain James Cook baptised the islands New Hebrides after the faraway Scottish archipelago, they didn’t even exist as a concept, let alone a collective noun. In the 20th Century the British and the French shared responsibility for the islands in what was called a Condominium – a rare form of colonial partnership. This did little to help cement a national identity. The rather abrupt transition to independence in 1980 meant building a state from scratch. The Republic of Vanuatu’s constitution combines – as with its spoken languages – English common law, French civil law and indigenous customary law.
The country could be divided into four distinct cultural areas, each very different from the others. In the north, there are two distinct 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, but rather by how many you can afford to 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 can grant rights over land and possessions of the various social groups. Women generally hold a relatively lowly position in the pecking order but, in a couple of islands, they can climb to the chief’s post.
A large majority of ni-Vanuatu are Christians, following many different denominations. There are also several ‘cargo cults’. The John Frum Movement, that seeks to obtain material goods through magic, is both a religion and a political party with a seat in the parliament. And 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’, continues to flourish.
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. That said, such wars (and even more remote episodes of cannibalism) are long forgotten. Modern Vanuatu is relatively peaceable and politically stable. Today, it even has a seat at the UN.
The lowest point in its diplomatic efforts dates back to 2004, when the young republic suddenly recognised Taiwan (who was willing to give the Port Vila government $30million, three times what the Chinese were offering). The People’s Republic didn’t appreciate the manoeuvre and, after a few ruffled feathers and a cabinet reshuffle, Taiwan disappeared from the radar and Beijing was again a big friend of the 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…
Across the islands, there are many shared customs and traditions, such as the local knack for parties. Birth, initiation, marriage and death are celebrated by extended families that may number into the hundreds. With such a multitude of relatives, there is always some celebratory ritual or another about to happen.
Every party will end up with men (and only the men) drinking kava, a sedative drink made from the roots of Piper methysticum, a kind of pepper. In the villages kava is consumed at home or at a nakamal, a sort of a public venue. Kava bars have opened in Port Vila and Luganville, where male, urban ni-Vanuatu can enjoy the same experience as their rural kin.
As any traveller to the archipelago will quickly discover, ni-Vanuatu have a hospitable attitude. ‘Neither tipping nor bargaining is culturally acceptable in Vanuatu,’ reads a guidebook, although it doesn’t take long 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.
Along the 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 drive of a few miles requires a constant stream of roadside greetings in response to the dozens of walkers smiling and waving hello. ‘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 came running back. In Sydney, nobody along the road says hello.’
Geologically, 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’ where more than 90 per cent of the world’s earthquakes happen. There are seven active volcanoes, and 15 that are dormant, both above and below the sea.
Tremors above the magnitude of seven on the Richter scale are frequent and the population is well aware of a constant tsunami threat. Not to mention the devastating cyclones – of which Pam was a particularly strong example – striking on average every other year during the November to April wet season.
As in any remote isle, both fauna and flora is distinct. The Vanuatu rainforests are classified as a separate terrestrial eco-region. Of the seventy-nine bird species residing here, an amazing thirty species are endemic. Thanks to its geographical seclusion, local mammals account to just a few varieties of bat. There are no poisonous snakes, spiders, or insects. The only exception is the deadly stonefish lurking in the crevices of the submerged reefs offshore.
In Vanuatu, evolution has had enough time to paint its own rainbow of diversity. On the white shores of Lonnock Beach, in northern Espiritu Santo, you can spend hours watching the tiny, transparent crabs running sideways - the nearest to bustling traffic you will find anywhere on the islands. When you reach the black sands of Black Bay, after a 20-mile drive into lush and steep pluvial forest, the first thing you spot is a similar but different species of crab, this time black, but equally busy. As Dawkins said evolution truly is the greatest show on earth.
The evolution of human culture, happening on a much smaller timescale, can be just as astonishing. The Espiritu Santo island boasts two ‘horns’ on its northern edge. The longer left-hand horn is covered with forests and is only reachable by boat. The eastern one is served by the semi-deserted road halfway to the top, until the little village of Port Olry where, regardless of the French name, everybody speaks English.
The only way to head further north is to take a road that goes deep into the forest. After a ten-mile drive, the track gets narrower and narrower. All of a sudden, two figures appear from behind the trees: a rather undressed young woman and an imposing 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?’. Silence. 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?’
Diversity is at the core of these islands – in its language and other cultural traditions, and in the natural world. Diversity borne from isolation has created a resilient and practical society that has long had to deal with the vagaries nature can throw at it from earthquakes to tropical cyclones.
But the frequency and ferocity of such assaults increasing due to global warming might well pose problems even the diverse ni-Vanuatu are going to struggle to meet.
This article was published in the June 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.