Among these islands there is one that, for me, stands out above all. This is Tanna, the most primitive island of Vanuatu discovered at the end of the 18th century by Captain Cook, where you still find primitive people who do not want to know anything about the western world, who still live in a traditional way: they preserve and practice initiation rites and circumcision and there are even those who make fire with two stones. They are the small nambas that live in the same way as their ancestors and have not wanted to evolve. They have deep-rooted customs, enjoy magnificent landscapes and are accompanied by the Yasur volcano, still active. It is a journey in time and adventure.
Just arriving at the airport I was approached by a man named John, who offered to take me to the town of Lenakel, the largest on the island. On the way we talked and I told him that I was interested in seeing a circumcision ceremony. Since then we didn’t separate. I installed myself in his house with his children and his cats.
Most of his family lives in Lamnatu, a town in the interior where my arrival caused a stir. There I met his parents, brothers and neighbors. Everyone was very hospitable to me; they did not leave me for a moment. They were very curious to know what were those buildings in Barcelona that showed them on postcards (Sagrada Familia, Cathedral).
John had a house of property. Melanesian people believe that they are raised by the earth they tread, in the same way that plants and trees do. Each family has the right to occupy the piece of land that they have inherited from their ancestors, but never to sell it. The only way to acquire property outside of his clan is by marrying a woman from another clan. Although locals are forgiving of foreigners, one should never leave the road to enter a town directly or pick a fruit. For them it is quite a provocation, since, for the Melanesian culture, making use of private property is a great offense.
In Vanuatu the circumcision ceremonies are very frequent in September and it is an event that is celebrated for two days with great intensity. The time had come to see the authentic circumcision ceremony. For them, traditional life is a cycle of rituals: birth, circumcision, marriage and death.
We arrived in the morning to the great esplanade, or nakamal, of Lowkueria. There are manu people. The grandparents of the children who will be circumcised receive us. I go into the houses to see the preparations, which begin with the session in which both men and women paint their faces and dress with feathers, Christmas garlands and colorful clothes. They are certainly so striking that they arouse my full attention.
When the child is born, they name it as a girl and they change it only on the day of the circumcision, at the age of 10 to 12 years. Then it is when they take him to the forest where they build him a cabin on a tree, where he will spend three months after being circumcised. Only the men in the family will take food to him, be it the father, the uncles or the brothers. When the wounds have healed, he returns with his family to celebrate. From then, he will be considered a man, and his mother will no longer be able to punish him because his rank will be higher than that of his mother. He will live with his father or with the men of his family, and they will teach him the traditions of his clan and have responsibilities. Now he could dress the namba.
While the friends arrive from other islands to celebrate the great party that is done in the great esplanade called, nakamal. The offerings consist in palm rugs and the slaughter of pigs, goats and cows, as well as a lot of food that the guests bring.
When it gets dark starts the dance that will last all night. Men and women dance energetically in the middle of the square, to the rhythm of the drums. Barefoot, they spin from left to right, jumping up and down. The dances have different movements and the clouds of dust that rise are mixed with the smoke of different wood fires in a mysterious environment. The whole body vibrates like the earth that, at times, seems to sink until the sun rises.
The next day there is a hangover throughout the town, and the party meal is used, which can last for weeks. Living this ceremony has been quite an experience.
But the culminating experience of Tanna was to live with the most primitive of the island, those who still live like their ancestors, the small nambas. John’s eldest son, Philippe, accompanied me to the town of Lenaulaul, our next destination and main objective.