"Imprisoned" by Geography, Tribe Eludes Change

April 18, 2003

Oceania's Vanuatu, formerly the New Hebrides, is an 80-island nation without traffic lights, street postal service, or even a McDonalds. What it lacks in 21st-century amenities, it makes up for with traditional culture. Vanuatu hosts some of the most remote and untouched bush tribes in the world.

Seven years ago, while cruising the South Pacific on my sloop, I visited Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu's largest island, and trekked deep into the highlands. After three days I stumbled upon the tribe of Mareki, a village living as it had for centuries. Now I'm returning as a solo videojournalist—with the heart of an anthropologist—hoping to capture Mareki's remarkable lifestyle on film before the modern world catches up with it.

After traveling from San Francisco for 72 hours on four different air carriers, I finally landed on Espiritu Santo. It is located about 1,303 miles (2,172 kilometers) northeast of Sydney and 3,450 miles (5,750 kilometers) southwest of Honolulu.

My expedition began by hitching a ride to Numuro village near the southern end of the island. After hiking inland for a few hours, I stopped at the tribe of Fafafia for the night. Here I met an English speaking bushman named Jeffrey Karai who agreed to take me into the interior. He was the ideal guide; born in the bush, he spoke nearly fluent Kia, which is one of the most widely spoken dialects in the Santo interior. The next day we spent a long morning hiking to Supemalo, a small village of thatched huts anchored atop a spiking mountain.

Isolated Tribes

There are many reasons why Mareki and other bush tribes of Santo are so traditional. Everyone agrees it's because they're isolated; but the cause of their isolation is a point of contention.

University of the South Pacific's senior lecturer in Pacific languages, Robert Early, believes it has to do with land ownership. "The men simply don't want to leave the land that's their birthright to own, hunt on, and cultivate. You can call it a matter of pride."

The business people in Santo's tiny town, Luganville, have another opinion. They say it's because there's little opportunity on the island, giving no incentive for bush people to leave the interior for the wealthier villages on the coasts. Indeed, 80 percent of Vanuatu's population exists on subsistence farming.

I had a different take—the reason had to be the imprisoning geography. The interior of Santo is one forested vertical mountain after another, separated only by deep, often impassable rushing waterways.

At noon, Jeffrey and I arrived at Supemalo. I presented the chief with a machete and he welcomed me to stay in his hut for as long as I liked.

I spent the next week recording the daily lives and customs of the tribe. While Supemalo is not as traditional as Mareki, nearly all the villagers still dress in bush attire. Women go topless, wearing Nangaria leaves; men wear mal mals, similar to loincloths. Christianity has not crept into the traditions or dances. The people are raw and free—animism and black magic form the foundation of their beliefs.

Leeches, Snakes, and Malaria

Continued on Next Page >>


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