November 08, 2013

Prince Philip is a God. Life in a Kastam village. Tanna, Vanuatu

Tanna gets a bad press from inhabitants of the other islands of Vanuatu. Whenever a burglary or crime occurs in Port Vila on the main Efate island 'Man blong Tanna' will conveniently (and mostly unfairly) get the blame. They are a close knit community who have a warlike history against other islands, particularly Erromango to the north, and to unwanted visitors. Missionaries would be eaten before they had the chance to convert.

These days the islanders are incredibly friendly and welcome tourists. Tanna remains a unique island in Vanuatu, giving rise to the John Frum Cargo Cult, as well as many villages which retain Kastam (Custom) beliefs, embracing long held local traditions and rejecting western values and consumerism, while the main towns flourish from the new prosperity brought by tourism and internationally recognised coffee exports.

We had a long weekend on the island. With many flights, and Tanna being only 45 minutes from Port Vila, it is one of the most accessible islands to visit. As well as getting a lift up Mt Yasur, relaxing in hammocks, and eating fresh seafood, we visited Yakel, a Kastam village.

The village was the only one of several in the area which was actually open to visitors. The others, probably wisely, did not wish to encounter tourists. The village was hidden away up a long muddy track, with a large central area dominated by a large banyan tree under which the men congregated and talked. A long communal hut was off to the right, where food was shared and kava drunk in the evenings.

These are the villagers who worship Prince Philip as a God, a fascinating story covered in more detail here, and who continue to live a traditional life. Feeling slightly voyeuristic we watched great local dancing, tasted home grown fruits and vegetables, and visited their homes. The simple wooden huts consisted of banana leaves for the floor and kapok for mattresses. What more do you need?

Leaving Yakel in our van we were chased by the village children, which gave me the chance to take the memorable photo above.

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