Tuesday, September 25, 2007

gaua, chapterette the fourth: arts festival.

during the last week of my stay on gaua -- and this was completely unknown to me when i landed on the island, so another "coincidence" -- was gaua's yearly "arts festival," which is basically a big celebration of traditional culture. since independence in 1980, vanuatu has made a focused effort to hold on to its many traditional cultures; there are practically as many little cultural groups as there are languages.

festivals like this one are part of that. many of the kids get off school so they can come watch and learn, and it did seem that a huge chunk of the population of the island came from far and wide to see and participate in different aspects of the festival.

the delightful isolation of kaska bay, where i stayed, meant that it was rather far away from the festival. an hour walk each way, if you're walking at a good clip. collette, my hostess, has a truck and a boat, but of course neither of them were working. so: feet. but collette was one of the lead organizers of the festival, and on the first day i actually arrived with her and a former MP, a relative of hers. so tramping in with a couple of VIPs was one way to arrive at the festival in style.

for three days i got to see a lot of kastom (taken from "custom" and meaning traditional) dances and music, demonstrations of weaving and carving, and even a pig-killing ceremony. pigs are a hugely important part of kastom culture here, with the wealth of a man based on the number and quality of pigs he has. in order to rise in status, he has to kill a pig. pig-killing is different on every island, and gaua pig-killing is brutal, done by hitting the pig over the head with a special club. repeatedly. not for the squeamish. i forced myself to watch and i don't think i'll watch it again if given the opportunity.

there were also many speeches promoting "kastom economy." the government and the council of chiefs have declared 2007 the year for celebrating "kastom economy" in vanuatu. this means traditional ways of buying and selling, such as trading with pigs, mats, or shell money, rather than using cash. about 90% of ni-vanuatu (as natives here call themselves -- "ni-vans" for short) still live in these little rural villages and a lot of their economy is still kastom economy.

but that is in danger from the cash economy, largely because a lot of people are selling off the land that their families have farmed for hundreds of years, to get some quick cash. land is traditionally seen here as a treasure and a resource that you take care of and preserve for future generations. which makes vanuatu's a naturally environmentalist and conservationist society. but increasingly land is being seen as a commodity the way much of the rest of the world sees it, and that opens the land up to certain abuses. and a lot of people effectively sell their family's future without realizing it. one speechmaker summed it up with the phrase, "land is life, land is not money."

speeches were, happily, only a fragment of the festivities. the dances were fascinating, each one telling a story, with different sorts of costumes for each story. almost all of them were exclusively danced by men and boys. the dances looked exhausting, mostly including quite a lot of very energetic stomping that made the ground shake and sounded off the rattles that dancers wore around their ankles. even young boys joined in on some of the dances, with quite impressive skill and energy.

so loads of people watched the dances, and i lunched mostly on coconut and coconut products during the long days of the festival. i'm getting good at breaking and getting the meat out of a coconut, but had to buy a bigger knife in order to "stick hem" -- make an hole for drinking the juice. i have fallen in love with coconut jam, coconut cream, and various kinds of laplap... which is ground up mash from sweet potato, yam, manioc, or taro all steamed in coconut juice.

even better than coconuts was the water music, a way of using the sea itself as a percussive instrument, with rhythmic sloshing and slapping and clapping, mixed with singing. it's a lot harder than it looks, as i have already found out. i hope to post video of this on youtube once i have a fast enough connection back in the US.

only the women play water music on gaua. there are a few places in the south pacific where it's done, and i've heard water as percussion from elsewhere too. but there's nothing like the sound of a dozen women making calculated and varied rythmic phrases in the water in perfect unison.

one odd thing about the festival was the white people. somehow it attracted maybe 15 to 20 white people, mostly people on yacths who are sailing around the south pacific. after spending so much time with only ni-vans, it was very strange for me to see so many white people, most of whom actually spoke english. the yachtie (or "cruising") community is a special culture all unto itself, with a sort of language and kastom of its own. someone needs do an anthropological study of them.

that's all for gaua. i'll write more about subsequent adventures as i have time and internet access.

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