Escape to Vanuatu
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN NEW CALEDONIA
Feeling stressed? Need to get away? Then imagine unwinding on a sun-drenched tropical island. Picture yourself swimming in turquoise-colored waters, meandering through lush rain forests, or mingling with exotic indigenous tribes. Does such a paradise still exist on earth? Why, yes! In the remote islands of Vanuatu.
LOCATED roughly halfway between Australia and Fiji, Vanuatu is a Y-shaped chain of about 80 small islands in the southwest Pacific. According to geologists, massive tectonic plates in the earth’s crust collided at this point to form lofty mountains that are mainly underwater. The peaks of the tallest of these rose above the ocean surface, creating Vanuatu’s rugged islands. Today, the geologic crunch and grind triggers numerous earth tremors and fuels nine active volcanoes. Daring sightseers can even view molten lava at close range.
Luxuriant rain forests abound in these islands. This is the realm of the mighty banyan tree, whose leafy crown can spread over vast areas. More than 150 species of orchids and 250 types of ferns adorn the thick undergrowth. Superb beaches and jagged cliffs frame pristine waters teeming with colorful fish and corals. Ecotourists travel from around the globe to swim alongside gentle but playful dugongs at Epi Island. *
Cannibals and Cargo Cults
European explorers first arrived in Vanuatu in 1606. * Fierce tribes inhabited the islands, and cannibalism was widely practiced. At the time, forests of sandalwood, an aromatic wood prized in Asia, carpeted the landscape. Smelling profit, European traders systematically plundered the trees. They then turned their hands to blackbirding.
Blackbirding involved recruiting indigenous islanders to work on sugar and cotton plantations in Samoa, Fiji, and Australia. In theory, workers signed on freely for a term of three years. In practice, though, most were kidnapped. At the height of the trade, in the late 1800’s, more than half the adult male population of some islands of Vanuatu worked abroad. Most never returned. Nearly 10,000 Pacific Islanders died in Australia alone, mostly from disease.
European diseases also wreaked havoc on the islands of Vanuatu. The islanders had little or no resistance to measles, cholera, smallpox, and other illnesses. “The common cold proved capable of wiping out whole populations,” says one source.
Christendom’s missionaries arrived in Vanuatu in 1839 and were promptly invited to dinner—they were reportedly eaten as the main course! Many of their successors suffered the same grim fate. In time, however, Protestant and Catholic churches gained a firm foothold throughout the islands. Today over 80 percent of Vanuatu’s residents claim church membership. Even so, notes author Paul Raffaele, “many inhabitants still revere village sorcerers, who use spirit-possessed stones in magic rituals that can lure a new lover, fatten a pig or kill an enemy.”
Vanuatu is also home to one of the world’s most resilient cargo cults. During World War II, half a million U.S. soldiers passed through Vanuatu en route to Pacific battlefields. Islanders marveled at the vast wealth, or “cargo,” the soldiers brought with them. When the war ended, the Americans simply packed up and left. Millions of dollars of surplus equipment and supplies were dumped at sea. Religious groups, called cargo cults, built piers and landing strips and carried out drills with mock military equipment to entice the visitors back. Even today, hundreds of villagers on Tanna Island still pray to John Frum—“a ghostly American messiah” who, they claim, will one day return, bringing them an abundance of rich cargo.
The languages and customs of this island nation are amazingly diverse. Says one guidebook: “Vanuatu claims the highest concentration of different languages per head of population of any country in the world.” At least 105 languages and numerous dialects are spoken throughout the archipelago. Bislama—the national lingua franca—English, and French are all official languages.
Throughout the islands, though, one thing remains the same: Rituals govern every aspect of life. An ancient fertility rite on Pentecost Island even inspired the global craze of bungee jumping. Every year at the annual yam harvest, men and boys dive from wooden towers that are 60 to 100 feet [20 to 30 m] high. Only long vines tied to their ankles save them from certain death. By brushing the ground with their heads, the land divers hope to “fertilize” the earth for the next year’s crop.
On Malekula Island it is only in recent years that some villages have opened up to outsiders. The tribes known as the Big Nambas and Small Nambas live here. Once fierce cannibals, they reportedly ate their last victim in 1974. Similarly, their custom of tightly wrapping the heads of male babies to form “attractive” elongated skulls also ended years ago. Today the Nambas are exceptionally friendly and enjoy sharing their cultural heritage with visitors.
People in Paradise
Most visitors escape to Vanuatu for a brief vacation. But Jehovah’s Witnesses arrived there some 70 years ago to help people spiritually. The efforts of the Witnesses in this “distant part of the earth” have borne fine fruit. (Acts 1:8) (See the box “From Kava Addict to Christian.”) In 2006 the five congregations of Witnesses in the country spent over 80,000 hours sharing the Bible’s message of a coming earthly paradise. (Isaiah 65:17-25) Happily, that future Paradise will bring permanent relief from the pressures and worries of modern life!—Revelation 21:4.
^ par. 5 Dugongs are herbivorous marine mammals that can grow to 11 feet [3.4 m] in length and weigh over 900 pounds [400 kg].
^ par. 7 Vanuatu was called the New Hebrides prior to national independence in 1980.
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THE HAPPY ISLES
In 2006, Vanuatu topped the global Happy Planet Index. This index, produced by the New Economics Foundation, a British think tank, rated 178 countries for national happiness, longevity, and environmental impact. “[Vanuatu] came out [on] top because its people are happy, live to nearly 70 and do little to damage the planet,” said the Vanuatu Daily Post newspaper.
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FROM KAVA ADDICT TO CHRISTIAN
Willie, a native of Pentecost Island, drank kava heavily from his youth onward. That potent sedative drink is brewed from the crushed roots of the pepper plant shrub. Every night he staggered home from the kava bar drunk. His debts accumulated. Often he became violent and beat his wife, Ida. Then a workmate, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, encouraged Willie to study the Bible. Willie agreed. Ida objected to the study at first. But as her husband’s conduct improved, she changed her mind and began to study too. Together they made good spiritual progress. In time, Willie conquered his vices. He and Ida were baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1999.
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Land divers engage in this extremely dangerous practice as part of a fertility rite
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