Kastom Vanuatu

n and woman in kastom dress

Chief Virhembat and one of his wives at Amokh, Malekula four months before his death on 3 April, 1988, age 60. Virhembat was the last of the Big Nambas to live the kastom lifestyle, but was successfully baptized by the local European priest shortly before death. His wives and family immediately joined the rest of the clan on the coast near the mission. Photo ©S. Combs 1987.

"Kastom" is a Bislama word derived from the English word "custom", but its meaning encompasses all things customary, traditional, and related to magic and sorcery.

Vanuatu kastom is not something I know a lot about; much of it is secret and passed down from the initiated to the deserving over generations. Quite a bit has been lost due to the efforts of Western missionaries and other post-contact cultural chaos, including extermination by Western diseases, general demoralization, and ni-Vanuatu attempts to emulate kastom blong waetman. The latter involves imitating Westerners in an attempt to gain a fair (i.e., equal) share of our material wealth. These efforts include the well-known cargo cults but also, by my observation, the foreign aid system, Christianity, Westminister-style government, education, and other trappings of the West.

In general, when I lived on Malekula Island I accorded kastom the respect which I felt it deserved and made little effort to break tabu by nosing into another culture's business. After I kept my mouth shut and didn't passing judgement on what I was told, eventually my co-workers and others did share a little and give me a small peek into their kastom world. Sometimes, they would test me and ask me questions such as did I really believed that men changed themselves into sharks. My reply was always along the lines of how I was a whiteman and my reality was different than theirs. People accepted this pretty well; they all thought we were all incomprehensible, anyway.

With the explosion of the World Wide Web, several sites referring to Vanuatu kastom have appeared. Here are links to some of them. As time allows, I'll also post kastom stories that I wrote home about.

The colonial powers used the classic tactic of requiring the natives to pay annual cash head taxes so they would be forced to enter the money economy by working for colonial employers. Ni-Vanuatu soon recognized that Westerners were controlling their real wages by setting pay rates as well as the prices of goods in the stores. Not caring much about Western notions about the relative value of management vs. labour, they felt it was grossly unfair that they sweated long hours and still received a small fraction of the store-bought goods that their bosses got for simply telling them what to do.

So, when Jon Frum appeared to certain Tannese in the late Thirties he found a ready audience for his message. If the ni-Vanuatu threw all their money into the sea and quit wage-work for Westerners, he would return with plenty of cargo for all. The British and French colonial administrations recognized this as a direct threat to Western economic dominance of Tanna, the rest of Vanuatu and their other Pacific colonies. A more charitable interpretation might be that they felt it would inhibit the "development" of Tanna. In any case, they jailed the Jon Frum leaders for many years during the '40s and 50's.

In the meantime, World War II occurred and suddenly out of nowhere ships and planes arrived disgorging hundreds of thousands of men with millions of tons of food, trucks, radios, buildings, and you name it. The Jon Frum cult gained impetus and adopted the US military medic symbol of a red cross in a white circle. Westerners started assuming Jon Frum must have an unknown American Marine Medic, despite his first appearance having pre-dated the War. (The Bislama pronunciation is "Joan Froom", but English speakers often pronounce it "John From" and assume he is "John from American".)

The original leaders of the Jon Frum cult were eventually released, and they continued to report the occasional visitation from Jon Frum until their deaths over the past couple of decades. The cult members continue to hold regular services and dances and march in uniforms under the American flag, waiting to Jon Frum to return with the cargo they deserve.

n accepts gift from villager.

My boss thanking Small Nambas men for their gift of a nambugi. The villagers are wearing their nambas under their shorts. Photo ©S. Combs 1987.

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©Stan Combs 1997