The People of Malekula

Table of Contents

Observations on ni-Vanuatu Psychology and Sociology: Introduction
View of the Outside World
Final Note on the Relationship Between Europeans and ni-Vanuatu


The 1979 census counted 15,163 people on Malekula living in 122 villages. This was an average compounded annual increase of 2.6% since the 1967 census. In early 1988, following a severe dry season and Hurricane Anne, the LGC distributed a small amount of food aid and required each village to submit a list of its inhabitants. On the basis of these lists and extrapolations from the 1979 population of villages that did not submit lists, it is estimated that the 1988 population of Malekula was approximately 20,200. (In fact, the May, 1989 census population was 19,289. The birth rate had decreased somewhat since the 1979 census, which threw off my extrapolations.)

Malekula's population is almost entirely distributed along its coastline, where they have access to churches, retail stores, and transportation. The heaviest concentration is along the east coast from Lingarak to Vao, with very heavy local concentrations on the small islands of Vao, Atchin, Wala, Rano, and Uripiv. There are other pockets of people in the Lamap-Maskelynes area on Malekula's south-east corner, Southwest Bay, and Unmet-Brenwe under the dog's chin. People are thinly distributed along the South Coast, and West Coast from Southwest Bay to Unmet. There is a somewhat higher density north from Unmet to Vao. An artificial concentration exists at Lambubu, where the Metenesel Estates Limited cocoa plantation employs about 300 workers.

Observations on ni-Vanuatu Psychology and Sociology


I realize that many people who read the following comments on ni-Vanuatu psychology and sociology will condemn them as the result of a supposed racist and colonialist outlook by myself. The socially acceptable dogma in Canada is that "people are people, and under our skin, we are all the same". Nevertheless, it is silly to pretend that there are not wide cultural differences between Europeans and ni-Vanuatu. Ni-Vanuatu are certainly under no illusions as to cultural differences between themselves and Europeans, and instead of referring to "ni-Vanuatu" and "Europeans", as I do here, they simply talk of "whitemen" and "blackmen". There is no cultural melting pot here, and racial differences, including Chinese and Vietnamese, correspond exactly with cultural differences. To a Canadian, the Vanuatu constitution is openly racist, and the ni-Vanuatu wouldn't have it any other way. I must say that I haven't heard any European anti-Apartheid groups complaining, either.

I think it is best to acknowledge the differences between ni-Vanuatu and European cultures, so European development workers can effectively assist ni-Vanuatu efforts to control their destiny. Too many aid workers ignore or are ignorant of these differences and try to force foreign development strategies and tactics on Vanuatu. Since the success of these strategies and tactics are dependent on their being implemented by a population that thinks and acts like Europeans, they are doomed to failure. I am morally neutral on these differences; they are neither "good" or "bad", but they do exist. They were obviously very effective and efficient for coping with the environment faced by the ni-Vanuatu before Europeans came to Vanuatu. I will point out, though, that if ni-Vanuatu do want the material gains of a European-style money economy, many of these cultural differences will prevent the easy winning of these gains. When this is realized, Vanuatu may choose a different concept of "development" than one that is heavily weighted towards an increase in the money-economy GNP and provision of European-style material goods to the population.

The many people who are more knowledgeable than I about ni-Vanuatu psychology and society will point out that my views are inaccurate and simplistic. They may have a point; I am untrained in these matters and have only been here two years. I have in no way lived within ni-Vanuatu society and don't even claim to have formed any friendships with ni-Vanuatu. I know more than I did two years ago, however, and am passing on my knowledge to you, the next expatriate RDP. It may give you a foundation to build upon. I assume you will read what follows and, as with the rest of these papers, accept what you find realistic and useful, and reject the rest. Good luck; you will probably be best off if you retain an open mind after you read this.


Ni-Vanuatu have a completely different set of mental assumptions and fit their perceptions into a different mental framework than Europeans do. Given the same information, people of the two cultures will perceive different "facts" and come to different conclusions about what has happened and why. The two groups also have completely different priorities. I have observed the following differences, although there is also considerable variation within each group:

Ni-Vanuatu are much more concerned with form, rather than function. As long as something has the surface appearance of meeting the desired requirements, it is considered satisfactory. For example, there is usually no perceived difference between a truck that is well maintained and one that is just barely running; each will be used until it grinds to a halt and only then will enough repairs be carried out to get it running again. Another very important example is that it is often not understood that managerial jobs require more than sitting behind a desk in order to produce the services that allow a high salary to be paid.

In most matters, ni-Vanuatu have much shorter planning horizons than Europeans, and do not plan ahead. In the case of custom ceremonies, however, elaborate plans are made and preparations begun years in advance. For example, yams are planted and men are paid to produce the good weather that will insure good quality one year before Namangi grading ceremonies. Also, tusked boars are raised for seven and more years. The capacity for forward planning is present, when it is considered important, but what a European considers important differs considerably from what a ni-Vanuatu thinks is.

Ni-Vanuatu do not account for chance in their thoughts. When planning something, they expect that what they want to happen will happen and don't formulate a strategy for unexpected occurrences. When an unexpected occurrence happens, it is ascribed to the actions of another person, either through natural or supernatural means, or to the actions of an independent spirit. Ni-Vanuatu are animists and believe that many plants, animals, and natural objects have spirits and are capable of actions directed towards people. These beliefs are universal and the degree to which they are held are not related to amount of education, contact with Europeans, or other religious beliefs.

Another manifestation of the idea that everything that happens has a known reason is that if one asks a ni-Vanuatu why something has happened, and he doesn't know, he will often supply an answer that seems likely to him. Combined with a predisposition against those people not in his immediate loyalty group, this often results in blame being laid where it doesn't properly belong and fuels disputes.

Ni-Vanuatu also enjoy receiving benefits without having worked or paid for them and will put in considerable time and effort formulating strategies to obtain such benefits. Success is seen as evidence of personal power, which is extremely important to ni-Vanuatu. The expectation that European governments will provide free benefits has been reinforced by decades of two competing colonial powers providing "cargo" to win over sectors of the population and foster dependence, and by aid donors eager to appear charitable and also retain strategic spheres of influence.

Ni-Vanuatu have a strong sense of "fairness", which is not the European notion that everyone should have equal opportunity. To a ni-Vanuatu, fairness means that everyone should obtain equal results. Equitable distribution of power, goods, etc. is extremely important in the sense that, while everyone strives to get more than his neighbour, it is very important that the neighbor not get more than him. This is even true if it results in everyone getting less or nothing, as long as it is evenly distributed. (I recently read a newspaper article about South African Blacks that ascribed a similar philosophy to the belief that there is a finite amount of all goods and services and their distribution is a zero-sum situation.) Development proposals to assist "early adopters" in order that they drag up their communities with them will not be accepted by the community.


Ni-Vanuatu have very localized loyalties and a great deal of contempt for those from other families, villages, islands, etc. There is a constant struggle for power of all sorts and special effort is devoted to prevent others from obtaining power or "getting ahead". Cooperative ventures have a very poor record in Vanuatu. Divisions within the community are not considered a negative thing by the individuals involved, and often seem to be sought out. Within villages, there are many disputes, of which the most obvious are over land rights. The reason that most of even the smallest villages have several stores is that various factions within the village refuse to patronize stores run by members of other factions. This is both because people "wouldn't be seen dead" in a social competitor's store and because they don't want to give any of their business to a store owned by a competitor, allowing his business to gain a profit. One of the reasons that the LGC public mini-bus is successful is that people use it so that the privately-owned buses won't get any of their money.

I think that once a group has decided it doesn't like another group, it seeks out differences to widen the gap. Europeans have conveniently provided a myriad of institutions for this purpose. Groups that are in dispute with each other can now choose from different European languages, different Christian sects, and different political parties for the European-style political system.

Intolerance is deeply embedded in ni-Vanuatu psychology. The prevailing philosophy is that "if you're not with us, you're against us" and it is very common for a community, from village to nation level, to physically eject members who fail to conform according to this ethos. Differences in opinion are mutually ascribed to the other person being irrational, or one attempting to cheat the other.

Obviously, ni-Vanuatu society wouldn't have lasted the centuries if there were no cohesive structures. These were, however, kept to a minimum; note that almost every village has its own language, which is evidence of the extremely low level of social mixing during the centuries. There is a web of favors done and obligations owed over all of the social divisions.

Favours and obligations are considered to exist on a personal level, which can cause problems in the money economy. For example, if a bus driver, who may or may not be the bus owner, doesn't charge a man for a ride, it is considered that some day, perhaps far in the future, the passenger owes the driver some sort of a favor. This does not help the bus owner meet the immediate cash flow obligations of his business. Customer credit is a major cause of small business failure in Vanuatu, an example of the clash between ni-Vanuatu and European culture. This concept of personal favours and the feeling that everything should be equally distributed makes it very hard to find ni-Vanuatu management personnel who don't help themselves to the business's cash or goods. To a European, this is theft; to a ni-Vanuatu it is "fair" and he will do a favour in return, perhaps a social one, someday in the future. In Lakatoro, a bank manager was surprised when he was sacked by an expatriate administrator for taking money from one of the accounts; he explained that it was a friend's account.

I don't know much about the detailed organization of ni-Vanuatu society, except that it is obvious that everyone has his place, and those who lose that place, and the support that goes with it, have nothing. Everyone is part of a group, and all other groups are to a lessor or greater extent against that group, so if you lose your group, you are really on your own.

There appear to be two modes of interpersonal relationship in Vanuatu: completely non-confrontational, or attempted homicide. People are therefore extremely reluctant to overtly confront one another. Be prepared for meetings in which a confrontation looms, and everyone talks around the issue until half an hour after quitting time. Then someone looks at his watch, announces that it's past time to go, and the discussion will be continued in the morning. The subject will never be raised again.

Ni-Vanuatu do not freely share information among themselves; it is always sold. Therefore, projects that set up a demonstration in a village will probably not have the desired effect, since the person who owns the project is not likely to explain it to his neighbors. Perhaps because they are used to this poor flow of information, ni-Vanuatu are not as curious as Europeans about many things. For example, I have asked several cocoa smallholders if they know what is made from their beans. Very few of them know that the beans are made into chocolate, and the others don't seem very interested when I tell them. When I ask questions such as who owns something, rather than getting an answer, I am passed along through a secession of people until the owner is reached and he alone tells me his name. Certain people have the right to impart certain bits of information.


Languages reflect the way people think. I am only familiar with Bislama, but have been told that is retains the basic structure of Vanuatu's custom languages, with its own vocabulary. Bislama is very imprecise and obviously designed for communication over distances of less than one arm's length. In fact, people never shout over distances; they communicate by hand signals, and attention over distances is obtained by hisses or waves. Most Bislama nouns encompass a class of objects, rather than a specific object. Specific objects are indicated by pointing ("hemia") or by long description. It is the same with other classes of words. A ni-Vanuatu will express a thought in several different ways in succession in order to get the message across. Nevertheless, I have sometimes observed that after two ni-Vanuatu speak to each other in Bislama, one does not really understand what the other was trying to communicate.


People are not as healthy in Vanuatu as they are in Canada. Problems are caused by malnutrition, parasites, malaria, limited access to modern health care, and some failure to use those modern health care facilities that are present. Infant mortality up to age one is about 7%, with respiratory infections being a real problem. In general, though, infants thrive until they are weaned. There are occasional problems caused by early sudden weaning, which can be done for custom reasons, such as a woman becoming pregnant again, as it is felt that the nursing baby will steal food from the fetus. These infants, sometimes weaned as early as a month or two, do not do well and often die. While bottle feeding is not widespread, it does seem to be prestigious and is probably not usually done properly. Sugar and water or Milo and water (without milk) are often used as infant formula substitutes. Extremely few ni-Vanuatu could afford proper amounts of infant formula. Bottles, nipples, and infant formula should only be available in Vanuatu on a Doctor's prescription. I would suggest that formula be subsidized in cases of an early repeat pregnancy, but in my opinion, there is little chance that the bottle-fed infants would be properly fed. Perhaps a trial study should be done.

When children are weaned, their nutrition gets worse. Many people observe food tabus that prohibit the feeding of protein-rich foods to small children. Most of the toddlers you see around are pretty scrawny. They are also exposed to repeated bouts of malaria. When they first arrive, expatriate physicians are surprised to find that all of the children they examine have enlarged spleens, as this is very rare and a serious condition in Canada. Due to malaria, it is universal here. External parasites such as lice and scabies and internal parasites are also universal amongst ni-Vanuatu children (off and on in mine here, too, along with malaria). Another 9 or 10% of children die by the age of five, with respiratory infections again being a main cause. Therefore, total child mortality is 1 in 6.

Once the kids are mobile, their health improves since they can now forage for food and improve their nutrition. Children here spend a lot of their leisure time knocking fruit and nuts out of trees to eat or foraging for food on the reef. Poor nutrition continues for the rest of their lives. Despite an abundance of fruit and protein (fish, mollusks, cattle, pigs, flying foxes) in their surroundings, the nutritional objective of most ni-Vanuatu is to simply fill their stomachs. This is often done with a meal of pure starch, such as root crops or white rice. In the villages, white rice and tinned fish or meat are prestige foods, because they are perceived to be European, they must be purchased with money, and they are quick and convenient to prepare. Papaya, the most abundant fruit here, is looked down upon as "pig food". Nutritional habits have proved extremely resistant to educational programs.

Diseases such as TB, that thrive in conditions of poor nutrition, are common here. For those who survive childhood, life is relatively short; one sees very few white-haired people here. Life expectancy for men is about 55; for women, 47. (From the 1979 Census. The 1989 census report does not give life expectancies, but does repeat that it seems that men live longer than women.) This is one of the few places where men live longer than women, whose bodies wear out early by the combination of poor diet and the production of many children. The average woman has 6 children born to her, one of which dies in childhood. Most women are anemic, some very seriously.

View of the Outside World

Ni-Vanuatu have a very limited view of European culture. They have lots of experience with small retailers, plantation managers, and colonial bureaucrats. They have also been inundated with various limited views of the Christian religion; free magazines such as "The Plain Truth" and videos of American televangelists are widespread. The other main source of information on the West is movies on video cassettes. As the general command of English or French is not good, only action movies are watched. Most ni-Vanuatu think that these movies are documentaries of real events, i.e. Sylvester Stallone won the Vietnam war (Rambo II) and then went on to beat up Russian boxers (Rocky IV or whatever). The common view is that the West is a violent place where everyone is promiscuous and rich without working.


It is impossible to overstate the importance of land to ni-Vanuatu. Land gives a person the source of most of his material goods, social status, and his place in the custom aspects of the culture. The custom land system is so complex that it is hard for an outsider to understand it, but it seems possible that before European contact, overlapping claims didn't pose too much of a problem because as long as rival owners lived in different villages, they would have very little communication with other and each could easily perceive exclusive ownership. Actual possession could shift with the fortunes of war. Even within villages, there were various shades of "ownership", with different rights of use attached to each shade. Some types of use rights did not include the right to pass on these rights to others. This flexible system was upset by the arrival of Europeans and their imposition of the European land tenure system. All of a sudden, there was only one type of ownership that conveyed complete and exclusive rights of use and conveyance to one person. This system was imposed universally, and two men from different villages could no longer consider that each owned the same piece of land. Most importantly, this new system was written in stone. Once the Europeans decided who owned a piece of land, that ownership was for ever. These new realities sparked a plethora of land disputes which have engulfed Vanuatu, and for which no end is in sight.

Since independence, when vaguely-defined custom ownership of all of Vanuatu's land was enshrined in the new constitution, land disputes have occupied a major portion of people's time. I suspect that they just formally took up what had been left off for a brief time during the colonial alienation of most of the good agricultural land. There are several obstacles standing in the way of an easy general determination of custom ownership. For example, because various European Christian sects encouraged people to forget their custom over the generations of colonial power, some people forgot just who were the custom owner families of some land. Also, the French colonial administration complicated things by destroying all of their land ownership records in a fit of pique when they left at independence.

Much of the land under dispute was colonial plantations, and is seen as income producing. It is assumed that the eventual owner will be rich, so there is quite an incentive to put a claim in. While the dispute drags on for years and years, the disputants prevent each other from utilizing the land, so any value it once had deteriorates. Much of Vanuatu's resource base is not producing because it is under dispute. The government has given itself the power to sign leases in lieu of the eventual custom owners, which seems to be accepted by most people, but this happens to only a small fraction of disputed land, for example the town of Port Vila and a few expatriate-run plantations. The lease revenues sit in non-interest earning accounts in the Central Bank, where the government gets free use of the money and the eventual custom owners lose the real value of their money through inflation and opportunity cost.

When the ownership of a piece of land is being decided, the custom rules of the local people are used, resulting in different rules being used in every area. An entire system of courts have been set up to determine custom ownership of land. Cases first go to a Village Land Court, then to Island Land Court, and finally to the Supreme Court. Every case is always appealed to the next level and, since so much that is vital to their economic, social, and cultural well-being is at stake, the losing disputants never ever accept the judgment of any court.

Once land ownership is settled and a lease signed, the owners do not recognize the European concept of "quiet enjoyment" by lessors. In the owner's eyes, he retains complete control of the use of his land, for example, what sort of buildings are to be built where, etc. He may expect to have veto power over any sale of a business built on his land, as he may not want different person occupying his land. He will probably expect that his people will retain exclusive rights to be hired by any construction company or business that is active on his land. It is extremely easy for a custom owner to shut down a site: he just posts the leaf of a nemele palm at access points, and nobody will enter until he removes the leaf.

Because it is unconstitutional to remove real property from its custom owner, ni-Vanuatu have the ultimate in personal freedom. Courts cannot force them to pay taxes or fulfill financial obligations by placing liens on their land. If an owner steals money and uses it to construct buildings or improve his land, he retains ownership of these assets after he has served his prison term. This land ownership system also reduces economic flexibility. It is impossible for a landowner to borrow funds to develop his land, as he can not pledge it as collateral. A person whose land is deficient in some way, for example if it contains no creek for his cattle to drink from, cannot purchase a small adjoining parcel with a creek or whatever he needs on it. When an area becomes overpopulated, the people cannot readily move to an underpopulated area.

The advantages of the custom land tenure system are that it strongly encourages the preservation of the ni-Vanuatu culture by making it very difficult to break the connection between most people and the land. It also provides a sort of paternalistic protection for people by ensuring that they retain ownership of a resource that can provide a basic lifestyle.


There are two Vanuatus: Port Vila, where people work for money and purchase most of their needs, and the real Vanuatu. 85% of ni-Vanuatu are subsistence gardeners who live in bamboo and thatch houses in small villages. These people, whose lifestyle has been described as "affluent subsistence", have very little need for money. They grow their own food and recreational drug, kava. Their housing materials grow in the forest. Money is only really needed for a few second-hand clothes and a bush knife. Therefore, money is used by most people solely for luxuries such as convenience foods, alcohol, tobacco, kerosene, radios, trips to other islands, etc. The provision of the necessities of life need not occupy a large proportion of their time. Their abundant leisure (from a European point of view) time is occupied by the requirements of their elaborate social life and custom ceremonies. These activities are seen as strictly necessary by ni-Vanuatu, most of whom insist that Vanuatu has a serious labour shortage. It is considered quite proper that aid donors should provide a steady stream of labour-saving machinery that will allow villagers the time needed to attend to their social and custom obligations.

Malekula's economy is basically a subsistence gardening economy, with a marginal integration with the money economy. Most of Malekula's involvement with the money economy is directly with the world money economy, as Vanuatu's money economy is very small, underdeveloped, and undiversified. Because very little that is sold in Vanuatu's money economy is produced there, the price of goods does not reflect Vanuatu's low labour costs. Therefore, unlike other Lesser Developed Countries, Vanuatu is very expensive, with everything costing the same as in developed countries, except that freight and high distribution charges are added on. Vanuatu's money economy suffers from its small size and the generally poor quality of it's non-Oriental expatriate businessmen, who seem to have taken refuge in a place where there is no necessity to compete with well-run businesses, since the market is too small to support a competitor against an established business.

I think that ni-Vanuatu have a love-hate relationship with the money economy. They love the material goods it provides them with, but they think it is unreasonable for whitemen to force them to deviate from their subsistence gardening culture to obtain these goods. They definitely do not adhere to the assumptions that underlie European economic thinking and theory. Their material needs are not insatiable, and they do not maximize their utility by maximizing money profit. A great deal of utility is gained from participation in their social and cultural system. Concepts such as these lead to rational behaviors such as not coming to work when it would interfere with a social function, harvesting only enough agricultural produce to meet a short-term financial goal and leaving the rest to spoil, or keeping a job only long enough to meet a similar short-term goal, such as a specific purchase or payment of school fees. Because nearly everyone has custom land that can not be taken away and from which a living can be easily worked, money economy conventions such as tax payment or debt repayment can be ignored at will. Participation in the money economy; despite the standard coercive ploy of colonial governments, head tax; is voluntary, since nobody really needs money to live. Give a man a piece of custom ground, a pair of shorts, two t-shirts, and a bush knife, and he has all he really needs.


Vanuatu is nominally a Christian nation, and almost everyone observes the required forms such as regular church attendance and frequent prayer. It seems to me, though, that this is a very thin veneer, and the key to understanding ni-Vanuatu religion is to regard Vanuatu as an animist country that has incorporated Christianity into its existing beliefs. From discussing custom supernatural beliefs with ni-Vanuatu and reading local religious literature, I have the impression that Jesus is regarded as not only the son of God, but that his supernatural powers were derived from the same source as nakaemas, the supernatural power possessed by some ni-Vanuatu men. The Gospels speak of Jesus living in a pre-industrial village society, and I think that ni-Vanuatu relate easily to this. The Gospels also relate many stories of Jesus casting out devils, and this can be seen as corresponding with the devils ("Tevil" in Bislama means "devil", or "spirit" or any supernatural being.) that ni-Vanuatu believe must be feared and from which protection must be sought. There must not be very many examples in history like the Christian conversion of the Pacific islands, where a few men introduced a new belief system to large populations and huge areas so quickly, although not without loss of life (mostly of Polynesian Christian "teachers").

I think that the attraction of Christianity to ni-Vanuatu came from three factors: first, the Holy Spirit is seen as a powerful spirit that can protect ni-Vanuatu from the damage done by devils existing in nature or controlled by other ni-Vanuatu. In the absence of the concept of chance, all negative events are thought to come from this source, so a person who is aided by such a strong positive spirit will live a much happier life, free of the fear of unfriendly spirits that dogs ni-Vanuatu. Second, I think that Christianity was associated with the industrialized-economy cargo possessed and distributed by the missionaries and the nominally Christian whitemen who followed them, and participation in this religion is thought to be a means of also acquiring such goods. Third, by introducing Christianity with its abundance of sects, whitemen provided a convenient mechanism for communities to separate themselves from their neighbours and intensify inter-community rivalries.


Another European institution that has been nominally adopted by Vanuatu is a modified-Westminister type of democratic government. The physical trappings are here, but the underlying philosophy is completely different from Canada's. I don't think there is much rational discussion and consideration of the issues, especially by individual voters. I think that groups, such as extended families, church congregations, or villages, make collective decisions on which political party they will support, and all individuals within that group are expected to vote for the party chosen. Once a party is elected, there is no concept of "majority rule with respect for the minority". Rather, the overriding concepts; that those that disagree with one are either irrational or dishonest, and those who are not for one are against one; result in what I would describe as a democratically elected one-party state. Election of a party to power is interpreted as a license to, if not blatantly benefit one's supporters, at least "put the screws" to the opposition and its supporters. (Like in British Columbia, Canada.) True political power is centered in the winning political party, rather than with the Members of Parliament. Decisions seem to be made by the party executive, who then pass the word through the Council of Ministers to the Government MPs for formal implementation. When citizens are unhappy with political and even judicial decisions, they often appeal to the leadership of the ruling party for a more favorable decision. Accordingly, village representatives (commissars) of the ruling party often play the big shot and can be a nuisance.

The ruling party extends its influence as far as it can into ni-Vanuatu society, and it controls almost every institution, such as the cooperative movement, the larger Protestant churches, the Vanuatu Christian Council (only member churches are officially tolerated by the State), and the National Komunity Development Trust, which distributes all non-governmental aid. Even the most minor job appointments to institutions such as the University of the South Pacific are vetted by the Prime Minister's Office. After the 1987 election, the ruling party circulated lists to employers telling them which individuals should not be hired. Needless to say, these lists also contained party members who had personally crossed local party commissars. The LGC received one such letter which stated that it was the official policy of their party that everyone who had done wrong in the last election should lose his job.

Final Note on the Relationship Between Europeans and ni-Vanuatu:

I have been advised that, in order to keep a realistic perspective on one's time in Vanuatu, that an expatriate advisor must keep the following in mind: "Our primary function here is to provide entertainment for the locals."

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©Stan Combs, 1995.