Custom Wedding On Ambae Island


Basil's younger siblings prepare the couple for the presentation of wedding gifts. A baby powder anointment is part of many ni-Vanuatu ceremonies. Photo ©S. Combs, 1988.

In early January 1988, my boss, Keith, and his wife Aslika invited us to a custom wedding on Ambae Island. Here is how I described it in a letter home.

We went to the wedding of Keith's adopted son. Basil, while we were on Ambae. It was a three-day affair, but although I laid down some heavy hints, we were not invited to the first day, where the bride killed some pigs in a custom ceremony.

The next day, Thursday, January 7, things started out on the turf of Hanson, the bride. Laurel (my 3-year-old daughter) was sick and intermittently vomited, but fortunately, we were all in the great outdoors, and Aslika just covered it up with leaves. We went to the site, and all the men were in and around a shed where kava was being served up (I had a shell, just to be sociable), and most of the women were in another shed. In the center ground, a bunch of women were unrolling and stacking mats. On Ambae, mats are used to pay social obligations. Some are about 50cm by 150cm and dyed purple with designs printed with banana leaf stencils on them. Others are left white. You buy brides with them and children from the mother's family (so they are truly in the father's family), and after a death, all the deceased's obligations are settled up with them. This was, I think, an affair where the bride's family paid up mats and assorted cargo, all of which was eventually split between the two families. These mats stacked up about 1 metre high.

The bride appeared in a red dress and sat on a 5-gallon container of kerosene, which was one of the presents. She held a fan palm leaf like an umbrella over her head (you have to know how they use these leaves for umbrellas) and a sister sat behind her to lend a hand. Then, a whole bunch of mats were stacked on their heads. She had a hanky and cried into it the whole while, as she is supposed to be (and probably is) sad to be leaving her family. Then Hanson distributed some mats to her father and uncles.

Then, all the cargo was stacked on the mats. It was a large pile of household goods such as washbasins, axes, cloth, dishes, plastic buckets, shovels, etc., etc. Hanson distributed some out to her mother and aunts (a ni-Vanuatu considers her mother and mother's sisters to all be her mothers, and likewise the father and his brothers are all considered to be her fathers), and then representatives of both families moved in and carted off their shares of the cargo and mats. The bride's family had hired a large truck to haul off their share, and it was needed.

Next, we all moved several miles down the coast to Keith's village. The goings-on here were much more interesting, although there wasn't any kava. (Nominally an Anglican, Keith was also active in the "Holiness Fellowship", an evangelical Christian Sect that prohibits the use of recreational drugs.) The women from both families gathered on different ends of the village square. Then, they advanced on each other, hamming it up with ferocious expressions and actions, and engaged in mock combat. They separated, and Basil's side hid in a small shelter, made of palm fronds stuck into the ground, that surrounded a stone that had been planted in the ground (Keith later told me that this stone symbolized that lots of pigs were going to be given away.). A banana tree had been stuck into the ground nearby, with a dead snake buried beneath it (head sticking out of ground) and two or three live snakes put up into the tree.

What followed was described variously as a test of courage, or a ritual only Keith's family was allowed to engage in. Basil's aunts advanced from their shelter to the banana tree, with one woman armed with a toy bamboo tow and arrow. After several attempts, starting from two metres and moving progressively to point-blank range, she managed to bounce an arrow off one of the snakes in the tree. Then one of Basil's aunts gave another one a leg up, and she pulled down one of the snakes. One of Hanson's aunts came forward, and the fun commenced.

Snake tug-of-war.

A sight not often seen in Canada. Photo ©S. Combs, 1988.

A tug-of-war ensued until the snake broke in half, and the pieces were thrown with gay abandon amongst the crowd. All ni-Vanuatu are pathologically afraid of snakes, so this was accompanied with a lot of laughter, whooping, and hollering. People also threw around bits of long, wiggly vegetation to add to the fun. All of this was repeated until the aunts ran out of snakes.

Men carrying custom mats.

Basil and brothers bringing the bride price rolled mats. Photo ©S. Combs, 1988.

Now, they got down to the serious business of the bride price, which on Ambae is paid in mats and pigs, preferably those with circular tusks. First, Basil's male relatives paraded out, each carrying a mat that is about 30 cm wide and reputed to be 100 metres long (I would guess more like 100 feet). Each was rolled up from each end into a double scroll. These were partially unrolled in about three stacks. Then came the women relatives with hundreds of mats on their heads, which were piled in stacks lined up behind the first three piles. Keith later told me that there were 31 long thin mats, 500 red dyed mats, and 1,000 white mats. Some of the mats were new, and some had obviously been traded back and forth for quite some time.

Tusked pig.

Bride price tusked pig, with the cone-shaped snout of a "kastom" (original Melanesian breed) pig. To obtain tusks with a full circle grown back into the cheeks, a young pig is castrated, its upper canines are removed and it is tied up and fed soft food for four years. Tusked pigs become valuable when they achieve a full circle; double circled tusks are extremely rare and especially valued.

After this, the men stuck 18 sticks into the ground and brought out 14 baskets and rice bags, each of which contained the skull of a tusked pig. On Ambae, a pig skull counts as a live pig until it has been crushed in another type of ceremony. Four live pigs, ranging from large castrated males to a weaner, were also brought forward and tied to sticks. We inquired among the people around us, and were told that this was one of the largest bride prices in living memory. Keith's extended family will probably have to trade for mats for years before another son can get married. I hope they have a few adolescent girls in line.

Women in front of a pile of pandanas mats, cloth, etc.

Hanson, her aunts, and her bride price. Photo ©S. Combs 1988.

Finally, Hanson's family rolled up a couple of trucks, loaded up all the booty, and the party was over. We got a ride back to where we were staying, and dropped off various family members with their shares along the way.

The next day, a traditional Anglican ceremony and large communal feast completed the wedding.

Return to Kastom Vanuatu page.

©Stan Combs 1997