FIELD DATES: Aug/Sept. 2016
REGION: South Pacific
COUNTRY: Republic of Vanuatu
ISLAND: Maewo, Penama Province
In Vanuatu, I had my fare share of cultural hiccups in an attempt to be culturally sensitive…To find out what is and is not culturally appropriate in Ni-Vanuatu culture play the game of taboo or not taboo. And in a culture where many things are explained by magic, it isn’t always easy. So here are some of my favorite lessons in tabu* (taboo).
Pictured at right, the Summit Gardens in Port Vila, a disconcerting joke about a history of cannibalism... Colonist stew anyone?
MACHETES AND CHICKENS IN YOUR CARRYON...
Not Taboo! Bring ‘em on board. The only stipulation is, chickens must be held captive in a bag, purse, sack, etc. Apparently there have been some issues with loose chickens on Air Vanuatu flights, so no more free range chickens.
Chicken popping out of yellow sack.
Not Taboo! Face tattoos are a common tradition in much of the South Pacific just as ear piercings are in the USA. Face tattoo designs are simple: usually a small circle or a double line that looks like an equal sign. The tats are generally located between the eyebrows, on the forehead, or around the temples. Most are a traditional style, but some sacred tats will protect you in the afterlife.
WOMEN AT THE BAR
Taboo! The nakamal (bar) is a place for men, who have killed at least one pig, to drink and enjoy their kava. Women are not allowed to enter the nakamal or to drink kava. Some women do drink kava in private, but it is strictly taboo! As a western woman, I was permitted to partake in kava but exclusively outside of the nakamal.
KIDS PLAYING WITH KNIVES
Not Taboo! In the USA, adults freak out when a child comes close to holding a butter knife. Not in Vanuatu, where toddlers yield machetes with greater dexterity than most American men could dream of.
EATING CATS & DOGS
Not Taboo! Don’t get too attached to your fluffy cuddle buddy, they may end up in your neighbors next stew…
PANTS FOR WOMEN
Not only Taboo, but outlawed! Trousers, shorts, pants, knickers, whatever you want to call 'em, definitely forbidden. Better have a lava-lava (large piece of fabric wrapped around the hips to form a skirt) handy! This incredibly restrictive practice is a missionary introduced custom to promote western views on modesty. These views have taken a strong hold despite their oppressive inclinations. Imagine, hiking a mountain to collect water in a long skirt, killing a pig in a long skirt, climbing a papaya tree in a long skirt. All aforementioned activities prove to be much easier in trousers. However, in keeping with custom, I must learn to be the badass that all the ni-Vanuatu women are and master such tasks in a long skirt.