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Growing up on the beach I learned to spell by practicing in the sand. My mama would say a word and I would use my finger to spell out the word in the sand...Little did I know, young girls in the South Pacific were learning their traditional stories in a similar manner…

Sand drawings are not merely beautiful pictures but rather a sacred compilation of stories, knowledge, and songs. The tradition of sand drawing in Vanuatu developed as a method of communication between tribes in a country with approximately 115 language groups.

Photo by Huang+Menders Photography

Drawings are made on the ground in either sand, volcanic ash or clay. The artist uses one finger and to trace a continuous line on an imaginary grid, producing an intricate and whimsical pattern. Once the sand drawer places a finger in the sand, they do not lift the finger until the the story or pattern has been traced through the entire narrative.

Sand drawings transmit mythological lore, farming techniques, kastom dance choreographic patterns, kinship lineage, and weaving designs. Sand drawings can also be used much like a text message or note. Say you go to visit someone and they are not home, so you crank out a little sand drawing by their front hut entry to say hey, stopped by to say hi, hope all is well….

With Digicel and TVL continually expanding their telephone network to Vanuatu’s remote outer islands many youngsters are more interested in learning how to text in Bislama (the official language of Vanuatu) than learning the sand drawings of their island language. It is important to ensure the significance of sand drawing is passed to the next generation. We constantly hear about threats to biodiversity in conservation, that threat extends not only to the natural ecosystems but to the biodiversity of cultures. Besides, how boring would the world be if we were one homogeneous culture glued to our iPhones.

Wander Wisely,


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