Vanuatu - A Canadian's Perspective

arved wooden bird on prow of traditional canoe.

 Birds such as this attached to the prow of a canoe signify the traditional social rank that the owner has achieved. Photo ęS. Combs, 1987.

A Table of Contents for easy access to the different pages of this site.

A note about this site: My family (tolerant wife and two daughters aged 3 and 5) and I moved to Malekula Island, Vanuatu in February, 1987 and lived there for two years. In August, 1989, we returned to Vanuatu and lived in the capital, Port Vila, until leaving in November, 1992. This site is about rural Vanuatu, not Port Vila, and it obviously contains no up-to-date information about that town. Nevertheless, having read the accounts of missionaries, labour traders, explorers, and map-makers who worked in Vanuatu from 80 to 150 years ago, it seems that some things in rural Vanuatu didn't change between then and when I lived there. I see no reason why they have changed much since I left. Enjoy the site.

Vanuatu is an unknown quantity to most Westerners; I usually limit explanations to casual inquirers to the facts that it is a archipelago (Commonwealth Games map) located in the South Pacific between Fiji and Australia (Commonwealth Games map), and James Michener's "South Pacific" was set there. If the inquirer is of the older generation, I add that its pre-independence name was The New Hebrides and it was the site of the U.S.'s largest WW II base in the Western Pacific. These few connections to their experience are more than most Westerners want to know; nobody wants to puncture the South Pacific Illusion carefully cultivated over the past two centuries by novelists, travel writers, and the tourism industry.

 The region is almost always portrayed as a paradise of warm breezes coming off blue seas, crossing sandy beaches, and rustling palm fronds. Under these coconut palms, it is said that unspoiled natives live close to nature in social harmony.

 The South Pacific, however, is not a fantasyland, or a "paradise"; it is a real place. Living there is entirely different from holidaying at a resort located there. Like anywhere else, lots of things about the South Pacific are pleasant, and some things are not. I have experienced the fantasy, and I met many people who showed me much friendliness and tolerance. I have also passed my children out the window of a disintegrating building in a 170-mph cyclone and attended a meeting where members of a small village could not come to terms with what in Canada would have been a small case of social diversity. As for lolling about under coconut palms, that is for tourists and fools only - when a ripe coconut falls, it falls without warning and with deadly force.

hildren with teacher.

 A small facet of Vanuatu's interaction with the new universe in which it finds itself: Grade One children and their teacher take a break from their measuring workshop (note one-metre sticks) to pose for the first whitemen through their village in some weeks. Photo ęS. Combs, 1987.

Vanuatu, as well as being a "place", is people. People who have had the Western universe forced upon them and are struggling to find a place in it. This site is about what I learned about Vanuatu during 1987-92, when I worked as a development adviser first to a regional government and then to the central government. One of the first useful things I learned was that Vanuatu was getting a lot of technical, monetary, and in-kind assistance for the stated purpose of helping it adjust to its new universe. I also learned that most of this assistance was not really helping the vast majority of ni-Vanuatu grasp control of their circumstances (i.e., "develop") or improve their lifestyles. Besides, very little of the progress attained is sustainable without continued aid. I concluded that aid donors, ni-Vanuatu politicians, and Vanuatu's people had conspired to form a "cargo cult" dependency. I characterize "underdevelopment" in Vanuatu as a clash of the Melanesian and Western cultures, with "bewilderment" being the operative word on both sides.

 This WWW site is for those who want to explore what I call "Real Vanuatu". It is not an "official site". Although it contains information on travel in Vanuatu, it is not a tourism site. It certainly isn't the definitive site. Much of it probably isn't as accurate as it could be; it is just what I learned about Vanuatu. I had the opportunity to see a lot of Vanuatu; I lived on an outer island and in the capital, and I traveled throughout the archipelago. I had dealings with all the regional governments, most of the central government departments, and most of the foreign aid donors. I worked with ni-Vanuatu and foreign aid advisers. I socialized with expatriate plantation mangers and businessmen.

 I thought that it was wasteful and a shame that many of Vanuatu's development decisions were made by ni-Vanuatu who did not understand the West and Westerners that did not understand Vanuatu. Here is my contribution to the knowledge of the latter:

A Selection of My Writings About Vanuatu:

Comments, suggestions, want to read more, or have questions?

Email me at: I'll do my best to answer any questions, expand on topics, or provide what information I can on Vanuatu.

 ęStan Combs 1996-2002