Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Vanuatu Sunday - Nguna Welcome

Four boats, thirty people, luggage, workshop materials and a windy afternoon. The Emua wharf is a length of concrete pushing beyond remnant coral reef. Last time I was here I was staying in a thatched bungalow with Missus A. We had a great four days, each morning waking to see the sun sparkling on the strait of water between us and the island of Nguna. At times Nguna disappeared behind a gossamer of mist and rain. At others it jumped up from the surrounding waters shining like a piece of polished jade. That day it had taken ninety uncomfortable minutes riding in the back of a Toyota Hilux fitted out with wooden bench seats and a canopy. We were on the milk-run. This time we were in a Toyota Hi Ace ten seater and we covered the distance in thirty five minutes.

There are four boats lined up for us to share. Ours is a fourteen foot aluminium fishing dingy with a forward canopy. We sit shoulder to shoulder around the perimeter. Do you have life jackets? I ask the operator. It's okay. It's safe, he assures me and we set off.

We leave from a tongue of concrete and arrive on a sandy beach, met by fifty members of the local village including the paramount chief. He offers our coordinator a cluster of crocus leaves, the plant always used on these occasions. Our leader accepts this offer and after shaking hands offers it back. The agreement is complete. We have been welcomed and we have assured the chief that we come in peace.

Our bags, which have been littering the beach like a pod of beached seals, disappear and the throng dissipates and moves towards the centre of the village. We visitors process along a back path lined with vivid green hedges. As we near the village the sound of a conch shell blasting a long sweet foghorn note sounds out accompanied by shouting. We are being challenged before we enter the village. Again we pass the test and move through a palm fringed arch emerging onto a ridge overlooking a large traditional meeting house twenty five metres long and fifteen wide. It's constructed from huge timbers and ribbed with timber held together with hand woven pandanus ropes. The roof is thatched with thousands of individual clusters of pandanus leaves woven together into metre long flaps which overlay each other. It is open at the front and tapers towards the back. I later learn that this tribe has the whale as their totem and the Nakamal references that shape.

In the space between us and the Nakamal stands a warrior, a man who has applied charcoal to his body to become even blacker. He has become a moonless night. Now the real Kastom welcome begins.

Fifteen men accompanied by the same number of children and a handful of women rush from behind us and, dressed in full skirts of rustling banana leaves and anklets of dried seed pods, begin a circling dance stomping and thrumming to the sound of clacking sticks, chanting and the haunting call of the conch shell. The little ones run around the dancing adults circling them. On a signal they all stop and join the vocal chanted chorus. The little ones who are having a great time miss the cue and there's a pile up as each one bumps into the body in front. The crowd is in stitches. The welcome is complete. The village has welcomed the new arrivees who will spend the next five days as guests in their village.

There is no mains power here. No permanent water supply, no flush toilets, no roads, no motor vehicles. Life is lived by the rising and setting of the sun. The only nods to the modern world are the aluminium and fibreglas boats and their outboard motors lined up along the beach. That and the ubiquitous mobile phone. To my surprise most of the delegates and village leaders carry one and coverage is remarkably good.
Once during the following week I am surprised by the sound of what I guess is a small chainsaw. I hear it for five minutes and then its gone. Occasionally I spot a Yamaha generator quietly humming. It powers our printer and digital projector and a single fluorescent light. The only other evidence of modernity is the power cable bisecting the open space beneath an enormous mango tree as it runs towards the block-built church hall where our workshop will take place.

1 comment:

jane.healy said...

I love your welcome to the village. How utterly charming.