For most Westerners, Vanuatu is probably one of the best-known island cultures in the South Pacific, partly because of the country’s active promotion of Vanuatu culture and tourism, including its national beverage, kava. Vanuatu’s tourism industry does a brisk business catering to travelers who want to get a taste of Vanuatu culture, its lush jungle geography, and the urban scene in the country’s two biggest cities, Port Vila and Luganville, both of which are growing apace due to rural immigration.
The country of Vanuatu is a Y-shaped archipelago made up of over 80 distinct islands, 65 of which are inhabited by humans. Its nearest neighbors are Fiji to the east, the Solomon Islands to the north, New Caledonia to the south, and the Australian continent to the west. Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, is located on the southeastern island of Efate. With a north-south axis 560 miles long and a total area of 5700 square miles, Vanuatu’s archipelago covers a huge area that is home to dozens of distinct cultures and over 105 native languages.
Despite its diversity, Vanuatu culture currently displays a high degree of national solidarity. The name “Vanuatu” itself signifies an overarching national identity: the word “vanua” means “land” in many of the archipelago’s 105 native languages, and “Vanuatu” translates to something like “Our Land”, or “Abiding Land”. Vanuatu also has three official spoken languages, one of which is English; the other two are French and Bislama, a kind of English pidgin used on Vanuatu since the first contact with Europeans in the 1700s.
As we noted above, Vanuatu is comprised of many widely scattered islands, so it’s a bit of a fiction to talk about “Vanuatu culture”: some islands have patrilineal descent of property and title while others are matrilineal, for instance. Status may be calculated by heredity, or through advancement (for men) through a hierarchical, achievement-based society. We discuss Vanuatu’s social structure and history more extensively in our piece on historical Vanuatu. However, despite their differences, modern Vanuatan societies do share certain hallmarks of culture we can talk about generally.
For instance, large parts of Vanuatu are rural: farming, fishing and other subsistence activities still form the basis Vanuatu’s economy and provide a way of life for many Vanuatans. Some staple foods of Vanuatu include taro, yam, tropical fruits and greens, fish and other seafood, pigs, and fowl. Also, though not a food crop, kava kava is widely grown across Vanuatu, where it is enjoyed as the national beverage for both recreational and medicinal purposes. Kava has also become a cash crop for many Vanuatan farmers, who grow kava alongside crops like copra (dried coconut), cocoa and squash for export.
Although attitudes have loosened somewhat with the influence of Western contact and television, men and women often still keep apart from each other in Vanuatan society. Members of older generations might sit on separate sides of the pews during church, and women will frequently sleep apart from men during their menstrual cycle in order to guard them against contamination. While both men and women participate in activities like farming and fishing, some of the heavy-labor jobs, such as clearing brush for new plots and deep-sea fishing, are relegated to men. Women usually run the roadside and town marketplaces that are a common sight on many islands in Vanuatu.
Traditionally, the leaders of two kin groups arrange marriages; complicated rules revolving around status and kinship regulate who can marry into which kin group. In the south of Vanuatu, marriage may be articulated as a kind of “sister exchange”: when a man marries a woman, he becomes obligated to provide a “sister” from his kin group in a future marriage. This may be his actual sister, or another female relative who assumes the categorical role of sister— even a future daughter in some cases. Of course, today many younger Vanuatans, especially those living in the urban settings of Port Vila and Luganville, are choosing love-based marriages along the Western model, with or without their families’ approval.
No review of Vanuatu culture would be complete without a nod to the rich and ancient traditions surrounding kava in the Vanuatan archipelago. Kava drinking is a popular pastime throughout Vanuatu’s islands, and there is some genetic evidence to suggest that kava may have originated there (another candidate is Papua New Guinea, just north of Australia). Regardless of where kava is originally from, many Vanuatans claim that their kava is the strongest and best for inducing relaxation and relieving anxiety. Vanuatan kava tends to have a somewhat bitter and astringent taste compared to “softer” kavas from Tonga or Hawaii, and the prepared brew may be dark brown to black where other kava strains produce a light tan to brownish brew. As such, Vanuatu kava is probably best for experienced kava drinkers who are prepared for both a strong taste and strong effects.
Traditionally, kava was prepared by young boys on Vanuatu, who were responsible for harvesting and processing the root into a potent brew for the evening nakamal, or social kava session. Today, Vanuatu’s modern kava industry has expanded to include plantations where kava is grown and processed for export, and modern urban kava bars (also called nakamal) where both locals and tourists can gather to partake of Vanuatu’s most popular and ancient drink while absorbing the good vibrations of this laid back island nation.