Becoming A Big Man on Ambrym Island in Vanuatu

Becoming A Big Man on Ambrym Island in Vanuatu

Scarcely touched by the world outside, Ambryn Island is one of those places where villagers live according to the ways of their ancestors, shunning the modern world.  Glen and I visited Ambrym on our sailboat in time to see how village men gain rank:  by giving away their most prized possessions.

Ceremonial Singing and Dancing

I stood on the bow as Glen dropped anchor in front of a village on Ambrym Island, in central Vanuatu.   Black coral sand lined the shore and small thatch huts stood in a clearing against jungle-covered hills. The only villagers in sight were small, naked children somberly studying our sailboat, shifting their gaze from the waterline to the top of the mast. Not much has changed since Captain Cook, I thought, waving and smiling at the children who looked down and scampered away.

“Maybe I’m the first redhead they’ve seen,” I told Glen, joining him at the stern to lower the dinghy.  “At least they’re not crying at the sight of me like the last village.” Ambrym was one of several remote islands in Vanuatu unaffected by modern life, where people lived according to kastom, or the old ways.  Homes are extensions of the jungle, built among sprawling banyan trees, their girth large enough to withstand fierce tropical cyclones strangely drawn to those islands over neighboring Fiji and New Caledonia.

The village looked deserted except for the children, now peeking out at us from behind a tree.  Then I spotted a tall, thin, ebony-black man watching us motor our dinghy to shore. For me, this is the most exciting time on a new island.  Those first moments when our words, actions and manner would either draw us in to the life of the village, or sideline us with civil, yet standoffish, welcome.

Things looked promising so far.  The villager met us on shore and in accented English introduced himself as Eli, recently returned from Australia where he had worked for decades as a laborer. He wore shorts secured by a rope around his waist and a cast-off T-shirt with the imprint of a 10K running race in Eugene, Oregon. Eli lived in Port Vila, the Vanuatu capital, and was on Ambrym to attend the chief grading ceremony of a cousin. “It is very interesting.  This is the kind of thing white people like to see and I will ask my cousin if you can stay.  Maybe 25 or more pigs will be killed—people are coming from other villages.”

“Thank you, Eli, we would love to see the ceremony. Please ask your cousin.”  Looking around, I asked, “Where is everyone?”

“They are gathering kava, cassava and yams for the feast,” said Eli, inclining his head toward bundles of gnarled, dirt-caked kava roots piled on the red earth.  Standing in the village I saw well-cleared trails heading off through the jungle.  Banyan trees lined the path, their limbs shading a clearing worn smooth from use and a large black bowl stood ready for kava.

Ah, kava.  Kava was an important part of the traditional culture of Vanuatu, but I cringed at drinking more of the foul-tasting brew made from a plant that grows wild in those islands. After a couple coconut shells of strong kava, villagers loosened up and talked freely about, well, everything.  But even the tiniest of sips affected me so greatly all I could do was smile stupidly and look up at the pretty stars.

Eli motioned for us to sit down in the shade of a banyan tree, sheltered from the sun but soon attracting mosquitos.  Preferring to be a moving target for the dengue variety of mosquitos that graze during the day, I asked Eli if we could take a walk to stretch our legs, nodding to a wide path leading into the jungle.  Eli jumped up, eager to guide us, cautioning us to only travel the paths with a native guide which must have been village protocol.  Our guide pointed out a half dozen tall, hollow, wooden logs he called tam-tams. “You call them drums. You will hear much drumming very soon!” he said, laughing.  “You may not be able to sleep.”

Along the path we passed men carrying loads wrapped in burlap cloth, one who stopped to speak to our guide in Bislama—the pidgin English spoken in Vanuatu, “Mo hu ya man?”

Which I took to mean “Who are they?”

Eli answered something like, “Blong America e mas visitem boat. E joen long seremoni ya.”

Trying to understand Bislama was like listening to a conversation in English from behind a closed door; a little garbled, but possible to get the meaning.  It sounded like Eli was explaining our presence.

Eli led us to an enclosure of medium sized pigs and one enormous, feisty-looking pig tied to a tree close to the rough wooden pen, snorting and eating a pile of yams.  Pigs on the out islands of Vanuatu hold a status difficult for westerners to conceive; somewhere between sacred and the equivalent of money in the bank. The three of us stood at a respectful distance from the enormous creature intent on its meal.  Eli spoke of the importance of that Porky in the upcoming chief grading ceremony, pointing out its fierce looking tusks.  Looking closer, I shrunk back at what I saw.  “Oh my, no wonder it looks mean,” I told Eli. “The tusk has made a complete circle and is going for another through the pig’s face.”

Chief Tusk

Eli told us that such fine specimens were created by knocking out the pigs’ upper teeth to let the tusks grow free.  Such tusks were family treasures. “This pig will be given to the head chief for sacrifice,” said Eli.  “Many men are coming to see this pig die,” and explained the chief grading ceremony as a way for village men to work their way toward becoming the overall chief.  But it took a lot of pigs to get there. During the ceremony his cousin Ati would be promoted to the 8th of 13 levels necessary to become a high chief.  Ati would be “giving pigs—many pigs—to the high chief” for the honor of being advanced to the new level.

“What happens to the pigs?” I asked.  Eli said that in a sacred ceremony, with a special club and knife, enough pigs would be killed to feed all the villagers who came to the celebration.  “You will see.”

Not wanting to see pigs clubbed to death, I squeezed Glen’s hand, who squeezed back in understanding.

“In Vanuatu, pig is both sacred and money.” Nodding toward the pig, “That pig is sacred because it exists for sacrifice and my cousin has to feed.  When the chief kills it for the people to eat, it has value.”

“Are you saying that a pig only has value to the owner when he gives it away?” I asked Eli.

“You can trade it for something valuable, but if you eat your own pig in secret, you are a small man. If you kill it for others to eat, you are a big man.  Worthy of becoming a chief.”  Eli explained that pigs are symbols of wealth and required for marriage.  If a man wishes to marry a girl, he must pay the father eight pigs—more if she is very beautiful or comes from a family with many pigs. “There are many unmarried men in Vanuatu,” said Eli shaking his head.

“Are you married?” I asked.

“No. I am maybe too old now but have money from working in Australia to buy many pigs.  But I live in Port Vila. Pigs are only money on the islands.  In Port Vila people use paper money. If I return here, my money will be gone very fast.”

The irony of Eli’s situation struck me as brutal.  He had ventured out to the larger world to make enough money to make his fortune and buy pigs for a wife, then came back with different values.  He was afraid to return to his village.  Looking around, I understood that he would be stripped of his nest egg by the equality-minded island code.  After all, each villager had access to the same coconuts in the trees, yams and kava in the jungle and fish in the water.  Why not share money with those in need?  Even their grade-taking ceremony seemed a way to redistribute the wealth of a villager who had more than others as pigs given in tribute would be consumed by all.  It seemed a brilliant way to keep harmony within a village.

Villagers arrived by the dozen over the next two days, carrying bundles in repurposed burlap rice bags, leading pigs, some with fierce tusks. The thatched huts and surrounding jungle absorbed the guests as numbers grew to the hundreds. The men gathered in groups, discussing what Eli described as “pig business”.  Eli’s attire had changed from his rope-tied shorts to a white grass skirt and he sported a modest, half-circle boar tusk on his chest.  He seemed to be known by all and passed freely among the clusters of men.

The scene was like back in grade school where the men and women stayed on their own sides of the playground.  The men discussed “pig business” while the women rehearsed a dance and song for the coming celebration.  The repetitive words and tune to the song were so catchy I could not get it out of my head.  Neither could Glen and we would burst out laughing when one of us started humming the tune with the chorale on shore. Even now, years later, I can easily recall the words and tune and only hope I can shake it.

Eli Chief Makng Ceremony

The morning of the ceremony Ati, Eli’s cousin, greeted us with, “You are welcome here but please do not take a movie.  Only a few photos.” This, of course, was a huge disappointment.  Glen slowly put our video camera in his backpack.  We would have to be content with his rule, but the sights and sounds begged for more than mere random photographs.

Swirling lines of women, painted and adorned with chicken feathers in their hair, drummed, sang and danced to the catchy song we had heard over and over again during practice. The rest of the dancing was performed by a group of about 30 men as Ati circled around them chanting something in a native language.  The men wore the cast-off attire common in the islands. Many men wore curly boar tusks, some that looped fully around.

Tribute Dance

The morning of the chief grade taking celebration we were unsure where to go, but of course no one paid us any mind.  Glen and I sat on a log and watched the scene unfold.

Hours of dancing slowly came to a stop and villagers lined the clearing, alerting us to some new phase of the ceremony.  The high chief stepped forward and men on their way to raising a grade towards chief led pigs of all sizes as offerings.  Everyone murmured in what sounded like appreciation when Ati led the biggest pig forward—the one with a circling tusk we had seen in the jungle.

Gifting A Pig

High Chief

The high chief was bare chested, wore a wrap around his waist and a long, green fern sticking up from a western ball cap.  A huge club lay at his feet and though the chief was lean with graying hair, he was muscular and looked perfectly capable of delivering a lethal blow to any pig or man.

I will spare you the dispatch of the pigs with the sacred club.  The sun was getting lower and as villagers prepared for the feast that would follow, it seemed a good time for Glen and me to return to the boat. Darkness came quickly, and the ceremony went on through the night with people dancing and laughing from one end of the well-trampled clearing to the other, calling some rhythmic cry.

Below decks, Glen and I went through our evening ritual of installing fabric screens on the hatches and portholes of It’s Enough. Cruising in malaria regions required precautions.  During the day we wore long sleeves and leg protection for protection against dengue mosquitos, and night was mealtime for the type carrying malaria.

For us, retreating behind screens was an easy choice.  The only antimalarial drug effective against the lethal type in Vanuatu had unfortunate side effects like paranoia and hallucination—an unwise option for two people on a small boat crossing oceans.

Processing the day, I wrote in my journal, growing thick with sights, sounds and experiences beyond our imagination.  Primitive Vanuatu kept me full of wonder that such cultures still existed and gratitude to glimpse a way of life that had nearly disappeared.

Thanks for joining me on this adventure.  Please come aboard for more stories of our around-the-world sailing adventures in Escape from the Ordinary and its sequel, Crossing Pirate Waters.