October 25, 2013

Wala, an island of large statues and small Namba's

Wala is a small island, a short ferry ride off the north eastern tip of Malakula, its much larger neighbour. The island is a curious mix of Malakula and Ambrym, with Tam Tam statues making an appearance, while the islanders wear small namba leaf penis sheaths. Namba in Bislama means Number, an oblique reference to the penis, and their traditional costume proudly shows off their small namba's, albeit surrounded by a healthy amount of flowers from a native tree.

In northern Malakula the locals wear big namba's, and there is great rivalry between the two groups, which in the past resulted in fighting, and the eating of the vanquished, as cannibalism was rife. The small namba's celebration of a smaller male organ size is a welcome antithesis to current western cultural obsessions.

The custom dances are both colorful and noisy, with tam tams being used as drums, and the island itself is a great place to explore. Wandering into the hilly interior I was warmly welcomed by the locals, as I stumbled along tiny paths into their small villages. Each time I was offered bananas, which seemed to grow everywhere, and the ubiquitous kava to drink.

Wala has largely been undisturbed by tourism, until P&O Cruises started visiting a couple of years ago. Cruises arrive four times a year. This has boosted the local economy, and also those of Malakula and Ambrym, as stall holders descend on Wala from the surrounding islands on these days. Although, not all have benefited from this sudden influx of money, see the Australian SBS TV news story on http://www.sbs.com.au/dateline/story/about/id/601721/n/Vanuatu-s-Broken-Dreams , as the large cruise landing fees seem to have disappeared, and ended up in Port Vila bank accounts.

Perhaps the most bizarre story to emerge from the occasional influx of tourists is the construction of the modern amenity building near the shore. This has fresh clean water, and warm showers, and also uses a significant amount of the available water on the island. The building was funded entirely by Australian Aid, and should be seen as a great gift, and a major improvement to the lives of the locals where easy access to pumped clean water is difficult, and warm showers are unknown. Unfortunately  the building is locked for most of the year, and only opened when a cruise ship arrives.

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