The Very Different Vanuatus

During my six years there, I found several different Vanuatus. Here they are in order of expatriate access; in reverse order of actual importance. (Be plante man we oli stap holem nambawan ples, bambai oli mas godaon long las ples. Mo plante we oli stap long las ples, bambae oli mas kam tekem nambawan ples. - Matyu 19:30)


Direct Links to:

The Tourist Vanuatu
The Resident Expatriate Urban Vanuatu
The Resident Expatriate Rural Vanuatu
The Ni-Vanuatu Urban Vanuatu
Finally, The Real Vanuatu - Rural Melanesian Villages
Underdevelopment and the Real Vanuatu - My Conclusion


It is easy for expatriates to get stuck at one of the Vanuatus that is most accessible and never find the real one. Here are the Vanuatus that I learned about, starting with the ones easiest for expatriates to find:

The Tourist Vanuatu

Tourist Vanuatu is almost completely limited to the capital, Port Vila, and makes up about 0.3% of the population; triple that when a cruise ship arrives. This is "The Friendly Isles" of the tourism posters, a place of smiling natives ("Look at those big, white teeth, Mabel!"), where one can lounge around the pool sipping on a tall glass with a little umbrella, secure in the knowledge that even though one's hotel is just like home, if a person really wanted to, he could explore deepest, darkest Melanesia just beyond the golf course. Fortunately, the hotel has arranged for dancers from DDM to come pool-side two evenings a week; and what a deal you can get on those pirated audio cassettes at the shops downtown!

I used to amuse myself by classifying cruise ship day-trippers into three categories: Pairs of men, Foster's tin in hand, walking up and down the main street looking for cruise-ship women to pick up; Pairs of young women looking for the men (but never seeming to actually make contact); and Families wandering up and down with whining kids in tow. "No, No", a friend told me, "There are only two classifications of cruise ship tourists: those who pose for pictures inside the large iron whale-oil rendering pot in front of the Library, and those who don't". Anyway, in the main they are just out for a good time, they are confined to a very small area of Vanuatu, and they provide foreign exchange.

Really adventurous explorers are encouraged to make an expensive day trip by air to the island of Tanna, where they can be driven to the lip of Yasur Volcano and look down through the smoke into the fires of Hell, visit the Kastom Village and watch nearly-naked dancers, and maybe even try a shell of kava (hopefully ground mechanically, not by chewing in the traditional Tanna manner). In April, tourists pay really big bucks to fly, boat, and walk for the day to watch the Land Dives on South Pentecost Island.

Knowledgeable SCUBA divers enjoy Efate's reefs and head up to Luganville to dive the President Coolidge, a luxury liner-turned-troop ship that happened upon a "friendly" mine in 1942. A very few travelers disregard the official government restrictions on areas open to tourism and head out to places like Vao Island, Champagne Beach, and elsewhere. Yachties drop anchor in Vila Harbour and drive the tourism authorities crazy by enjoying the place for months while spending the absolute minimum.

The Resident Expatriate Urban Vanuatu

This is about 2% of the population, found mainly in Port Vila with a sub-set in Luganville. It is made up of a mixture of fully-funded aid advisers, NGO volunteer aid advisers, diplomatic staff, professionals rotated in by large corporations like banks, permanently-resident entrepreneurs (many of whom are ethnic Chinese or Vietnamese Vanuatu citizens; they are cultural expatriates and have their own Vanuatus not included in this list), and a smattering of retirees. The Vanuatu government does not let these people in unless they have a job that can't be filled by a ni-Vanuatu or they make a minimum investment in the economy (apparently, a large local bank account qualifies). They also have to have the equivalent of an air ticket home held in trust at a local bank. Adventurers and live-off-the-fat-of-the-landers need not apply.

For three years after living in rural Vanuatu, I lived in this Vanuatu, which I nicknamed "Disneyland", as it is not part of the real world. This is a land of tax-free salaries, often with free housing thrown in, even if prices are high (very little that is sold in the money economy is produced in Vanuatu, and the government's main source of revenue is import duties). Relatively inexpensive (but inefficient and protected by affirmative-action labour laws) housegirls and gardeners perform most domestic chores, except for cooking.

When I lived there, Port Vila (1989 population 19,311, maybe 2,000 expats) had over forty restaurants, including several top-notch French restaurants and a couple of sidewalk cafes. There were two riding clubs, a couple of squash clubs, and four golf courses. Expatriates whiled away their off-hours running the "Hash", competing in dressage and jumping competitions, participating in or watching amateur theater (pictures of me in the Rocky Horror Show chorus are not going to find their way onto this site), the annual horse-racing day, and black-tie dinner-dances. The expatriate community is made up of fascinating people and is by-in-large very friendly, but with enough divisions to provide a plentiful supply of entertaining gossip.

Is this that fabled Pacific Paradise? Not quite; the downsides are several. This Vanuatu is grudgingly accepted by the Vanuatu people and government as a necessary condition of obtaining access to Western goods and services. The government has an intrusive bureaucracy set up to favour Melanesian citizens, and there is an undercurrent of resentment by the population at large. Break-ins are frequent; expatriate wealth is considered fair game by many young men. Cyclones are normal weather during half the year. Malaria and Dengue fever are deadly and commonplace. Serious medical emergencies must be evacuated on the next commercial flight to New Caledonia or Australia. The day-to-day frustrations of life in a foreign culture can build up, and old friends and the extended family are far away. The supply of consumer goods can be irregular. For a certain personality, it is heaven; for others, hell (refer to the City Mouse vs. Country Mouse fable).

The Resident Expatriate Rural Vanuatu

This is a Vanuatu of bygone times. These are the remnants of a large number of expatriate plantation owners and mangers, most of whom left voluntarily or were deported in the years following independence in 1980. The few that remain are leasing their plantations, which they may have once owned, from the kastom owners. They are converting the old coconut-and-beef plantations to straight beef operations because the coconut trees planted by indentured Vietnamese labour in the `30s are beyond their prime, and copra prices are too low (largely due to American and EEC oilseed subsidies and competition from palm oil) to justify replanting. Many of these planters live within an easy drive of Luganville or Port Vila, and participate in The Resident Expatriate Urban Vanuatu. A few, however, live on isolated islands and only get into town occasionally.

These planters are by and large not living on the Pacific version of Tara. They have made a commitment to Vanuatu and have chosen a tough row to hoe. Their business environment includes high input and marketing costs; cross-cultural labour, government and regulatory issues; regular destruction of their capital investment by cyclone; and all the problems facing urban expatriates, but more so.

I believe that the pre-independence planters had even a harder time. There were a few private fiefs, like Tisman Plantation with its private jail, payment in tokens redeemable only at the plantation store, and separate houses for each of the owner's indigenous wives; but most planters were scraping by while contending with low copra prices, isolation, malaria, and a generally hostile environment. I have seen many of their old houses, and few of them are anything but shacks.

I have been told that one reason New Caledonian French are so opposed to those islands' independence is that many of them were pushed from Vietnam, Vanuatu, and Algeria when they became independent. Once, when I innocently asked the wife of a French ex-planter how long she had lived in Vanuatu, she replied bitterly that she had lived in the New Hebrides for twenty years and Vanuatu for three months.

The Ni-Vanuatu Urban Vanuatu

This is about 13% of the population, also centered in Port Vila and Luganville, but a very different Port Vila and Luganville they are. There is a cadre of ni-Vanuatu politicians and high-level civil servants that have one foot in The Resident Expatriate Urban Vanuatu, but for most, this is the land of lost dreams and broken promises. Lured by the promise of escape from the day-to-day sameness and social strictures of village life; the excitement of urban activities, including the goings-on of expatriates; and the promise of paid employment providing the means to buy imported material goods, people drift to the towns. Many are no longer satisfied with village life after they have done well in elementary school and attended the Western-oriented secondary schools in town or even gone overseas to university.

The reality is that wages in town are usually very low and instead of obtaining food and shelter from one's labour in the family garden or from the forest, urban ni-Vanuatu must contend with the money economy. In the village, all money is available for luxuries like radios, batteries, beer, and easy-to-prepare white rice and tinned fish. In town, all money is eaten up by necessities like housing and expensive-to-buy white rice and tinned fish. People live several to a room in corrugated-iron shacks. One toilet serves a city block of crowded houses. That freedom from chiefly authority is also felt by a criminal element that preys on fellow ni-Vanuatu, who are easier targets than expatriates. In town, one has to constantly deal with unreasonable ni-Vanuatu from other villages and islands with their different customs and loyalty to only their own language group.

To get one's less-than-fair share of the money available in town, one has to perform incomprehensible duties, often for an expatriate boss who just sits around behind a desk doing something with papers and a telephone, while his employees do all the hard labour. Often, the boss won't give off time for essential social duties like multi-day wakes and weddings, or the January-long celebrations of Bonane, the New Year. All in all, town is an inexplicable, unfair place.

To make things worse, after announcing to all and sundry back home how one was going to move up to the Big City, one is ashamed to return home and admit defeat. That would invite intense ridicule, in the normal village fashion.

The Real Vanuatu - Rural Melanesian Villages

This is the Vanuatu that counts, the true Vanuatu where most ni-Vanuatu live. Fancy development projects that make life easier in town or attract tourists to urban hotels or short day-trips to outer islands don't have any impact here. When we at the National Planning and Statistics Office were writing Vanuatu's Third National Development Plan, I took the unprecedented step of touring villages in all of Vanuatu's far-flung regions and asking villagers just what they wanted out of "development". I was surprised by the unanimity of the responses: men everywhere (well, except for the one who requested French recolonization) wanted more money-earning opportunities from selling export crops. The women also wanted to earn more money, but in addition they wanted better child-birthing facilities and information about growing Western crops in their family food gardens.

Village Vanuatu comprises about 85% of the population, and outwardly it has changed quite a bit since European contact. Formerly, villages were spread all over the mountainous interiors of the archipelago's islands. Encouraged by missionaries who wanted better access to the heathens and in order to gain better access to Western goods and health care, almost all ni-Vanuatu moved to the coastal plains. This can mean long walks to the village food gardens, which rotate over land in the "slash and burn" agricultural system.

In the village, everyone lives amongst their own clan, often with its own language and different customs and traditions than neighbouring villages. People and their ways are known and act in predictable ways. Society is comfortable and supportive, as long as one conforms to it. Neighbours provide vital social support against hostile members of other clans and language groups. One lives on one's own ground, the home of one's ancestral spirits, and one understands the spirits of the local land, rivers, trees, stones, etc., even if some are antagonistic. This is where the family nasara, or sacred dancing ground, is located.

The money economy doesn't have much influence in the village. One can buy matches, soap, tea, sugar, and stick tobacco at one of the village stores (there are usually more than one, because competing village factions won't shop in each other's stores), but only immediately after a coastal trading vessel has come from town, bought copra from the villagers (providing the only source of cash), and sold inventory to the store (removing the cash from the village). Housing comes from the bush, and food is grown in the garden. Money is necessary to buy the clothes that missionaries insisted on (villagers were taught to be ashamed of their nakedness and cannibalism), a machete, and better tobacco than the village can grow, but it isn't really necessary for day-to-day life. Everyone is more-or-less equal economically, and since only a few days' work per week is necessary to obtain the necessities of life, lots of time is left for elaborate and essential social functions.

Is Village Vanuatu the fabled Pacific paradise? I don't think so. There is a lot of stress in rural Vanuatu. Despite the very visible presence of Christianity, one is constantly threatened by enemy spirits of what Westerners consider inanimate objects, and one's social competitors within and outside the village are liable to pay a kleva to cause harm through sorcery. Village bigmen, including the village representative of the locally-favoured national political party, can demand favors. Sexual abuse is rampant; wife beating is common, and a woman who is found alone may be considered sexually available. Incest is not unknown. A woman who is married to a cruel man may not be able to escape her situation unless her brothers decide to rescue her and return her bride price. Mental illness and suicide are well-known in rural Vanuatu. While nobody starves from a lack of food (except for occasional ill-fed infants), about one-sixth of all children die before the age of six. With an average of six children born to each woman, this is an average of one child lost per family. Women's lives are shortened due to malaria, multiple pregnancies, poor nutrition (for cultural reasons; food is plentiful), and hard work. Malaria, poor nutrition, and infections also take their toll on men.

Men are demoralized because of the new Western universe that has been thrust upon them. Rather than ni-Vanuatu earning places in the previously well-ordered traditional power structure, much present power is held by foreigners who haven't earned it in the Melanesian fashion. This Western universe is frustrating, unnatural and bewildering. Alcohol, two colonial masters striving for influence by negating each other's actions (the New Hebrides was "shared" by England and France), and the opportunity to escape village authority by moving to town has damaged the social order. The outside world has forced Vanuatu into its concept of a nation, when it is really a geographically-defined collection of villages.

Underdevelopment and the Real Vanuatu - My Conclusion

I have come to the conclusion that in the Vanuatu context, "underdevelopment", or ni-Vanuatu loss of control over their situation, is the result of a giant culture clash between village cultures and the Western juggernaut, with "bewilderment" being the operative word on both sides.


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©Stan Combs, 1995.