The Republic of Vanuatu is a state of Melanesia located in the south-west of the Pacific Ocean, in the Coral Sea. The archipelago is located 1,750 km east from Australia, 540 km north-west from New Caledonia, to the west of Fidji Islands and to the south of Solomon Islands.
Vanuatu is composed of 83 islands. The only two towns of the country are Port-Vila, the capital with 44,039 inhabitants (2009 census), located on Efate Island, and Luganville, with 13,156 inhabitants (2009 census), and located on the island of Espiritu Santo.
The total population of Vanuatu is 286,429 inhabitants (2016).
Some volcanic islands are still active, like the islands of Tanna with the Yasur volcano, Ambrym with the Marum and Benbow volcanos, and Aoba (Ambae) and Lopevi with the eponymous volcanos. Other volcanos are sleeping like the Garet Mount on Gaua Island, or the Karua, a submarine volcano located in the caldera of Kuwae between Epi and Tongoa islands.
Vanuatu is rich of an exceptional nature: volcanos, coral seafloors, dream beaches, virgin forests… and all this under a tropical climate.
Named «New Hebrides» after James Cook, the archipelago has had a slow and discontinued colonization since its exploration by Europeans at the end of the 17th century until the end of the 19th century.
In 1906, French and British together established a Franco-British condominium, the condominium of New Hebrides. During the Sixties, the people of New Hebrides tried to gain more autonomy, and the independence was finally granted to them by the two colonizing nations, on the 30th of July 1980. The New Hebrides are now called Vanuatu (that could be translated as the « standing » country).
Vanuatu has three official languages: Bislama, English and French. The great wealth of Vanuatu lies in its impressive linguistic density, the most important on earth. For a population of more than 286,000 inhabitants, you can find at the very least 110 different languages, not counting the dialects.
The nakamal is an essential element of the culture of Vanuatu. Traditionally, it is a place where men meet together after work; they drink kava (a plant native to Western Pacific, related to pepper) and talk about local affairs, politics and other issues. Depending on villages and custom, women and children stay away. Men can meet under a tree or in a dedicated building. The village’s chief performs his mediation skills and renders his judgment. Thus the nakamal strongly helps the Vanuatu to be much more peaceful than its Melanesian neighbors. In an urban context, the word nakamal is now used to designate a kava bar; many of them can be found in Port-Vila.
This original, ephemeral and complex tradition consists in drawings made in the sand. It is typical of the Vanuatu archipelago. These harmonious and geometric drawings are made by insiders. They are used as writings: it is a mean of communication between members of almost 110 linguistic groups and a mnemotechnic way to pass on rituals, mythological knowledge, and oral information about local history, agricultural techniques, craft or choreography. In 2008 sand drawings of Vanuatu have been placed on the UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list (originally proclaimed in 2003).
On the Pentecost Island, during the yams season, a spectacular customary event is held: the Gol Jump. After having built a 20-meter tower with branches, men and boys jump from the top and leap into the void. Their sole bindings are two lianas fixed around their ankles. The lianas are just a bit shorter than the tower height, meaning that the jumpers come very close to the ground. Once they have jumped, young men become adults.
On Mallicolo Island (Malekula), men dance while wearing masks made with molded earth put on a tree-fern roots framework. With the sound of bells made with nuts that they tie to their ankles, they celebrate the main customary events: births, circumcisions, graduations and funeral rituals.
On Gaua Island, women perform the «water music»; it is a percussion music played with movements and hand flapping on the water surface, in a pond, a river or the sea.
The Bislama word kastom refer to everything that is customary, mainly Melanesian tradition. The custom rules social life, enhances respect, and maintains law and order in the community. Disputes can be settled peacefully, while trading pigs and mats. The force of the custom can be witnessed at every important event: wedding, funerals, circumcision, graduation. Songs and dances are inevitable. Inhabitants seek to perpetuate the traditions in order for the next generations to live in peace and harmony; nevertheless, these traditions have evolved with time (http://www.vanuatuparadise.com/en/island-by-island/discover-a-timeless-archipelago). Some villages-tribes, who are more respectful of traditions, limit the access to places, people, and objects. Other villages-tribes offer kastom shows for tourists, claiming the practices, techniques, stories and values of their ancestors: fire, cooking (grate, peel, wash, slice, cook...), lacing, music, dance, drawing on the sand, hunting...
Artistic production for rituals is not free; just a few insiders are allowed to carve, lace and/or create patterns. Different from an island to another, craft is very rich in Vanuatu. To a large extent, it translates ancestral life with objects of everyday usage or used during customary ceremonies. Craftsmen make wooden dishes, with the shape of stylized turtles, birds or fishes, which are dedicated for food preparation. They also make objects for ceremonial houses including kava dishes, and ceremonial axes. They make pestles, knives, puzzles, spears or bows. They also make masks, hairdressing, hats, body ornaments, and tattoos. Most sculptures represent human faces. You can find statues made in tree-fern roots, hard wood or stone, hard wood drums with slots (Tam-Tam), placed horizontally or vertically.Once present everywhere, pottery now can only be found in the west part of Santo. Women use their knees to mold and round the terracotta, to give it a bowl shape.Basketry is still very prevalent; women make mats, bags, belts or baskets with pandanus or coconut leaves.