A group called the New Economics Foundation (NEF) rates the happiness of human beings worldwide. Several years ago they concluded that the small Melanesian island nation of Vanuatu had the happiest people on earth.
Flying Fish was introduced to the Ni-Vanuatu people at Port Resolution on the island of Tanna. My welcome was tumultuous. A pack of schoolboys descended onto the beach laughing, singing, jumping, and talking all at once.
“Where you from? Why is your hair white? Where is your wife? What is in your bag? Want a coconut?”
After a while the boys’ school teacher, Willie Jila, 33, appeared and brought order to the joyous melee. “They have too much energy in the classroom,” he says in perfect English. To settle them down he sent the kids to the beach to fill sandbags to be used in the village for construction and for barriers against sea level rise. I help load the sandbags and then together we all walk to the village.
“What is the most important lesson you teach these children?” I ask Willie Jila. Without hesitation he responds, “I teach them to remember who they are, and who their father’s fathers were.” He said there are nearly 100 children in the tiny Port Resolution village and they all attend school. “The most important thing I can teach them,” Willie Jila says, “is not to forget their heritage.”
The Ni-Vanuatu are the indiginous Melanesian population of 83 islands in the Republic of Vanuatu. Many of these islands were formed by volcanoes, others by the buildup of coral. The island chain was previously called the New Hebrides, named like so many other South Pacific islands by Capt. James Cook who sailed into Port Resolution 245 years ago. The country gained independence from Britain and France in 1980. Vanuatu is probably best known to Americans as the setting for James Michener’s novel Tales of the South Pacific.
Despite the importance the Ni-Vanuatu place on maintaining their traditional culture in the face of Western influences, Willie Jila invites me to his home in the bush for a traditional meal prepared by his wife Sheila. The role of women varies among the Ni-Vanuatu. In some areas, men are in charge. In others, especially parts of Espiritu Santo and Efate, women have more power. In these societies, descent is traced through the female side of the family. For the rural Ni-Vanuatu, the choice of a marriage partner is determined by family. The marriage itself is usually accompanied by an exchange of gifts, including woven mats and pigs. Women are often the main food producers. With this invitation to their home Willie and Sheila ask for nothing other than the opportunity to talk with a person who’s culture is so radically different from their own.
Over one hundred distinct languages are spoken in Vanuatu. English and French are the official languages, a result of the countries’ colonial past. Bislama, a pidgin-English, is the common language spoken by nearly all Ni-Vanuatu (How are you? / Yu oraet?) The main religion of the Ni-Vanuatu is Christianity. Still, many Ni-Vanuatu practice traditional ceremonies including ritual dancing and the drinking of kava which are considered pagan by some church authorities.
Tradition is an essential part of life here. Some Ni-Vanuatu practice male initiation, which usually involves circumcision, Willie Jila said. “Do the boys cry?” I ask. Yes, he says, but a boy who refuses to undergo circumcision may not be considered an adult man. Following the ritual, a young man wears a cover of braided fibers over his genitals. Tradition dictates other interpersonal relations among the Ni-Vanuatu. For example, in some communities there is a strict rule that brothers and sisters must avoid each other at a certain age. After reaching adolescence, they are not permitted to speak to each other, or even to be in the same place. In these communities, brothers and sisters must communicate through a young girl who acts as a go-between.
Willie and Sheila’s home, which they share with their young daughter Nahio, is in a family community called Enkahi located deep in the Tanna bush under the active volcano Mt. Yasur. It is a 45-minute walk from the Port Resolution village along a steep and narrow dirt pathway. My guide to the village is a young boy named Kennedy. He moves with quick grace as he leads me up a steep ascent into the bush. He occasionally turns around to say, “Are you okay, sir? Can I help you, sir?”
Sheila welcomes me to Enkahi with a wide smile. “Welcome to my home,” she says. “I think it must be different from your home.”
In cities, Ni-Vanuatu live in the style of western nations; houses, apartments, and condominiums. Rural housing such as this one at Enkahi includes traditional elements, such as woven bamboo walls and dirt floors with thatched roofs. There is no electricity at Enkahi but, more importantly, there is no fresh water either. Wells were dug some time ago but they have gone dry. There are no springs. A small creek several kilometers aways flows from the direction of the volcano but the water is “poisonous” Sheila says, and only drinkable if it is boiled for a long time. Willie’s family must hand-carry heavy jugs of water from Port Resolution, up the mountainside to their homes.
Most island families grow food in their gardens, and food shortages are rare. Papayas, pineapples, mangoes, plantains, and sweet potatoes are abundant through much of the year. Coconuts are used to flavor many dishes. Food is usually cooked using hot stones or by boiling and steaming over open fires.
Sheila starts an indoor cooking fire in her hut and puts some of her precious water into a smoke-blackened pot. There are pigs and chickens in the village but eating them is reserved for special occasions like circumcision, which is not happening today. She instead prepares namambe, a delicious seed that tastes like a chestnut, and boiled banana with wailu root. She asks me to grate a couple of coconuts which she then squeezes between her bare hands to make coconut cream. She garnishes the food with a flourish, sprinkling it with green onions from her garden. We hold each other’s hand and give thanks. I feel honored to share this meal.
Willie Jila arrives after the meal has ended and receives a few sharp words from his wife (as would happen in any culture, in any part of the world, when a spouse is late for supper.) He explains that he is building a stronger house in the bush, one more capable of standing up to storms like Cyclone Pam which devastated these islands four years ago. He has been shoveling coral rock for hours to make a foundation for the new home. He is thirsty. He has carried five gallons of water back to Enkahi, holding the jug aloft like a trophy.
The British think-tank NEF which has created the Happiness Index recognizes that a country’s well-being does not come simply from consumer-driven goals. Vanuatu has no military (Ni-Vanuatu like to say, “Our culture is our strength”), and the GDP per capita is more than twenty times smaller than neighbouring Australia. The country has been consistently democratic and peaceful despite its immense cultural diversity. Ni-Vanuatu in tight-knit social communities like Enkahi meet often to discuss family matters from conflict resolution to ceremonial planning. These social meetings, according to NEF, are a key factor contributing to Vanuatu’s high level of well-being.
Vanuatu also rated high in the world index for its use of renewable energy from hydropower, wind, solar, and coconut bio-fuel. In 2011, according to data from the World Bank, 34% of the energy Vanuatu consumed came from these renewables. The country aims to be completely powered by renewable energy by 2030. Earlier this year Vanuatu banned all single-use plastic bags and drinking straws.
Willie and his wife Shelia don’t need a happiness index to define their lives. Vanuatu is has a rich Melanesian culture full of tradition, magic and ritual, and love of family. Ni-Vanuatu goals are immediate and personal. They want clean water to drink and stable weather for their crops to flourish. They want their children to be healthy and to remember the traditions of their ancestors. Vanuatu’s ranking in the index slipped recently (Costa Rica is now ranked first) but if the radiance of the smiles and the music in the laughter of the Ni-Vanuatu is any indication I’d still consider them the happiest people on earth.
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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019