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Friday, September 10, 2010

September 9th - Circumcision Ceremony and Kastom Dancing at Tanna

Getting solid information from any ni-Vanuatuan is an art form, one that we have not mastered. For instance: On Tuesday, Stanley told us there is a Kastom Ceremony in one of the villages Thursday, and that he would be busy with that all day. We asked him if we could attend, and he said "OK". We asked what it was for and his response was ambiguous. Then when we arrived on shore Wed., to go to the volcano we asked him again about the ceremony and his response was that if we wanted to go we would have to be at the village at 4:30 AM in order to walk for an hour and a half, to get to the village hosting the ceremony, in time for the 6 AM start. Then in the same sentence he said that if we want a ride to the village we should be on shore at 6 AM. We asked him what they were celebrating and again his response was very vague. We began to get the impression that he was not encouraging our attendance at this thing. Then as we were driving up to the volcano I asked David about the event. He informed us it is a celebration for the circumcision of the boys passing from childhood into manhood. We had read in the Lonely Planet guide that this very special ritual was brought to the "savages" by missionaries, along with other traditions such as NOT eating man and abolishing polygamy. When we inquired about the age of the boys we were given various responses. Some said between the ages of 10-11, and others said ages between 8-9. The Lonely Planet guide states it is for ages 10-12. In any event it (supposedly) only occurs during August and/or September each year. We asked around what to bring and how to dress and if women were allowed. We did not receive the same answer twice from any of three or four locals. They did somewhat imply that there would be feasting, dancing and kava drinking and the like. I suspect that they do not understand us anymore than we understand them when trying to communicate, so we used our best guess.

We arrived on shore promptly at 6:00 AM, bringing bottles of water, hats, sunscreen, cameras and a towel on which to sit. Truly we had no idea what was going on. When we arrived in the host-village it was alive with preparations for the ceremony. I met some Australian volunteers from the Seventh Day Adventist Church who are working at the Port Resolution hospital. They gave me a little more information. I wish I'd met them the day before. We discovered that we were to have brought gifts for the honorees, but of course we did not know this nor did we know how many boys were being initiated. The feasting, dancing and kava-drinking were shared only among the families of the boys and the host village. We could attend but only as observers - we were to remain silent and unseen. We stuck out of course like sore thumbs. We also soon discovered that we were way early for the event. It didn't really begin until 10 or 11:00, and was due to go all day and into the night. The circumcisions had taken place 5 weeks ago. The ceremony is performed at the Nakamal (men's club) only in the presence of men. The actual surgery is carried out by the local medicine man with a knife fashioned from bamboo. The boys are then isolated from village and family in the Nakamal to heal for 5 weeks and may only be visited by a select group of elders during this period. When they emerge from isolation they are treated as men from that day forward. This ceremony is all about celebration of their manhood.

Enough "background". Here is what happened as we saw it. There is a large, open circular staging area, surrounded by crude fencing, lean-tos and small huts where the floor is bare black earth. In the middle are two large piles of banana leaves that we discover are earthen ovens, which have been cooking for a long while. As we sit and watch, we hear violent squealing - I mean VIOLENT - from the periphery. We soon discover this is the sound a pig makes when he is being literally hog-tied to a pole. We watch men wrapped in sarongs - representing the two families who live in this village, one in vivid purple print and the other in a bright green print - parading by, carrying a pole over their shoulders with a giant screeching pig swaying from underneath. This happened 4 times. Then entered hoards of women and children decorated from head to toe in face paint, feathers, Christmas garland, beautiful fabrics, colorful grass skirts, and with baskets hanging from them; walking past us swaying as if to some distant music. Many more people arrived carrying artfully woven baskets, mats and bags, bolts of fabric and large loads of food in hand-woven banana leaf baskets.

In the middle of the clearing off to the side of the two large "ovens", men set about creating piles on the ground, beginning with the baskets of vegetables and fruits, then layering them with yards of colorful fabrics, mats and baskets and then topped them off with tall kava plants and stalks of sugarcane. They did this while other men attended to the two "ovens" in the middle where they heaped smoked quarters of beef and pig and then covered those in leaves and continued to stack them with greater numbers of beautiful fabrics, foods, baskets, mats and woven bags. They were topped with the sugarcane and then surrounded by large bushes of kava. Standing "trees" of sugarcane were propped beside these two and from them were hung long bolts of fabric that swayed in the breeze. Next, one of the pigs on a pole was carried in and laid on the ground between the two "ovens". Before we could tear our eyes away, a man arrived with a large club, which he used to whack the pig on the bridge of his snout. It was over quickly as the pig shuddered and died. Two more pigs were brought out on poles and were placed next to the dead one but were left alive. As they lay there they were covered in woven mats and kava plants and sugarcane stalks. They writhed and squealed until they must have passed out from the exertion. We soon learned that these two special piles were for the grandfathers of the families whose first-born sons had been circumcised in this lot. Lucky granddads!

More smaller piles were erected similar to the ones that were intended for the grandfathers, but without the cooked foods and the smoked meats. It looked as though there were more than 6 mountains of goodies so we got lost and confused at this point, even though locals tried to explain the meanings to us in their broken English. One of the piles was decorated by a freshly clubbed steer and another by a freshly clubbed pig. Significance was lost on us. Apparently some piles were for families of the boys and others were from the families to the host village. That's what we'll go with anyway. When this was finished the two most decorated ladies of all parlayed out from opposite sides of the clearing, sprinkling the piles with perfume as they swayed to and fro with similarly embellished women trailing behind. They drifted and swayed amongst the piles seemingly blessing them or anointing them but we really do not know what this meant. Finally a chief stepped out into the clearing and said a lot of impressive sounding words to the crowd followed by the ethereal sound of music drifting in from outside the compound. It may have been a flute or a shell being played to announce the arrival of the boys who were now men.

They approached through a decorated archway surrounded by a dozen or so ornamented boys and men, and were hidden from view until formally presented to the chief and then escorted to their awaiting, wailing mothers and grandmothers. Once the women greeted them they seated them onto special mats where they were heaped with gifts from family and treated like royalty. Then the presentation of gifts from all others began. A steady stream of guests paraded by, bending and adoring the young men, presenting them with all sorts of gifts from food to tools and clothing.

There was another "announcement" and then the men circled up to begin the Kastom dancing and singing to the rhythm of hand made instruments and drums. The women encircled the dancing men, bouncing up and down along the outside, clapping and smiling. This went on for 45 minutes to an hour. Suddenly it all ended. The colorful people dispersed. The piles were quickly disassembled and distributed to various pockets of villagers. They all adjourned to feast, leaving us mulling around wondering what to do next. After their feast, the men would adjourn to the Nakamal to drink kava and then they would all feast again and dance and drink kava all night. Frank and I opted to walk back to the village while the others piled into the truck. We accompanied a young English woman named Cheryl who was staying at the bungalows adjacent to "our" village.

We enjoyed the beautiful walk and stopped to take photos along the way. One particularly interesting resort boasted a treetop accommodation at Shark's Bay. It was splendiferous! I would like to have stayed there - high up in a banyan tree it looked like a cottage out of a fairy tale. We walked the beach and then took a quick gander at the Port Resolution Yacht Club before returning to Destiny where we reflected on our day. This event is another of those "once in a lifetime" opportunities. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. We sure hope our pictures turn out nicely.

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