Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Culture and Spiritual Need

Ni-Vanuatu culture is obviously very different from American in hundreds of ways (many of which I'm sure I didn't even begin to realize on this short trip)! Here are some things I was able to pick up although please realize I am writing from an outsider perspective with no pretense of interpreting what I saw and thought with any great accuracy. Is that enough of a disclaimer for me to be able to continue on? :) I hope so. The first thing one notices and realizes upon entering Vanuatu is the slower pace of life, the greater enjoyment of life. At any time of the day, one can find men playing boules/petanque outside the market area. (I don't actually know what they call it there. My sister and I learned the game name as boules in French class but Brad learned it as petanque while in France. In my vastly extensive - right! - research on the internet, it looks like boules is the overall game name while petanque is a specific version of it. If someone knows the specific name in Vanuatu, let me know and I'll delete all this unnecessary verbiage!) That there is a shady place here in Vila makes this game all the more appealing I'm sure. I didn't get any pictures of this, but at the market, Ni-Vans lay on their handmade mats on the floor all day unless someone shows interest in their goods and then they magically appear from under the table or behind the table or something. It is very funny to see them pop up and say "halo" and tell you the price for the item or tell about all the items they have to offer. One thing of note when paying for items is that it is not polite to dicker like one would in Mexico or even at a farmer's market in the States. The asked price is the price one pays. At restaurants this is the same in that it is not polite to tip. The same goes for bus and taxi fare.

Along with the enjoyment of life and slower pace goes a love and appreciation for children certainly not seen in white cultures in general. In America and it would seem in European cultures, decisions about having children are made more on personal preference or on money or convenience for the parents. In the store, the movie theater, and most public places, children are seen as a nuisance if heard and are most appreciated if they are quiet and out of the way. This is not the case at all in Vanuatu nor did it seem to be in Fiji. Everyone from women to men to boys and girls light up when there is a baby or small child around. Gretchen often had her hands free because some stranger would come up and take Gwenyth or Jesiah and play with them and get them to laugh. Jesiah freaked out about this (except when it was other boys playing with him, he loved that) and he also got very upset, yelling "Gwenie, Gwenie" whenever someone would come take Gwenyth. This picture is a woman who was walking on the street near us in Fiji that just came and took Gwenyth out of Gretchen's arms to hold her for a bit. If people didn't just take the kids, they at least patted them or talked to them or touched them in some way. They would often say to Jesiah "kam" (come) and clap for him to come to them. Fortunately, Gretchen is about the lowest maintenance mom I know and wasn't worried or concerned, just enjoyed the free hands! She did always end up with the kids again sooner or later (usually if they were crying and couldn't be consoled).

Music seems to be another important part of culture. When we got to the Port Vila airport at 10PM their time, we were met by a ni-Vanuatu band playing us some songs. Keep in mind that there were about 15 people on this airplane and they still met us late at night to sing for us. Here's a blurry picture of our greeting musical band. Notice the box with a string on a stick for the bass! (This is the only time I saw guys in skirts in Vanuatu but Fijians wear them quite a bit). We saw either this band or others like them around town some too. As I mentioned on a previous blog site, when ni-Vanuatu sing, they bust it out! They are all about clapping and singing with everything in them. There is radio in Vanuatu too. Often the radio was played on buses and in taxis in which we rode. Many times the stations were fairly contemporary ones to what many people listen to in the States, which was interesting!

In Vanuatu, the night livens up as it is cooler and people come out of the woodwork! There is a whole culture around a drink called kava. I'm not sure I even understand a fraction of that, but from what I understand, kava is a root that is ground and then made into a drink. It is non-addictive and causes a calming affect and a general increase in amiability. Drinking large quantities can cause a hangover-type reaction. In many areas, only men are allowed to prepare and drink kava and it traditionally was used in war councils between villages. In town, kava "bars" are marked out with red lights in the evening for when they are in business. The light is turned off when they run out of kava. This picture is of kava drying on tin sheets. Kava is something one can purchase at the store. I saw it at the market for 4500 vatu (about $45). Compared to a bunch of bananas at 40 vatu ($0.40), that is pretty spendy! The guys said that on Malakula, there were meat grinders everywhere that they were using for mass production and grinding of kava to be shipped off to other Vanuatu islands and around the world. Hopefully I can get a picture of that to put on here later.

So how does one dress in Vanuatu? I guess the answer depends on where one is visiting. In the towns and everywhere we went in Santo, as well as just the general expectation, women wear skirts to the knees or longer. Girls can get away with Capri-type pants if they are loose, but I never saw women wearing them. Always the t-shirts worn with a skirt or Capri or long board shorts covered the backside. When a ni-Van girl was asked what ni-Vans think about a female wearing shorts or skirts much above the knee, she was very embarrassed and tried to refuse to answer, but finally was coaxed into it saying "vila." I guess this is the term used on Santo anyway for what they believe to be prevalent in Port Vila (the capital city on Efate island) - prostitutes. Wow, that puts most North American women and girls in the category of "vila" then, at least in the ni-Vanuatu estimation. I have to say though that after seeing everyone in knee-length or longer attire, at the end of the trip, seeing tourists in Vila right off the cruise ship in short shorts and skirts was a bit of a shock. Guys mostly wear long shorts or board shorts and t-shirts. In the villages and always for church, most women wear "island dresses" like what these girls are wearing here. The "kastom" (custom) dress on smaller islands and in the more remote bush typically involves wearing items made of leaves and nothing else. Children often run naked. Where we were on Efate and Santo, we didn't see any of this, but Malakula definitely has areas like this.
Men vs. Women
In town both men and women hold professional positions, although it really is more male-oriented. However, in the bush village, there was a definite separation and at all the churches we were part of (in the bush, at Matevulu College, in Luganville). In church, men sit on one side of the church and women on the other. In the bush village the women prepared the meals and typically don't eat with the men in the cooking house, but eat separately outside. When we ate at the bush village at the pastor's house, Gretchen and I were allowed to come in and eat with everyone else. The pastor's wife ate in there too but she sat apart and by the doorway. When we ate with a larger group of several pastors, she sat outside with some other women. It was awkward not knowing what was appropriate and offensive when we were eating there. I tried to wait until I was offered a plate or some food but we were told that we are given grace since we are visiting so that was reassuring. When we go to live we'll have to be a little more savvy with the whole deal. In town we only ate at restaurants where food is served up pretty much like a restaurant in the States. At the camp it was self-serve from Ashley's tasty creations and in Vila we just bought our own groceries. You can see in the picture here that in the cooking houses (different from sleeping houses with different roofs for ventilation from smoke from the fire) we ate on mats on the floor. It is interesting sitting on the floor in a skirt, by the way. No matter how you try to modestly arrange yourself, your legs still fall asleep. That will take some getting used to. One never wears shoes into a house so stuff isn't tracked in. Shoes are left outside the door. Here Gretchen is sitting with Jesiah, who was pretty great pals with Joab, the little boy sitting to his right in front of me. Joab played a game during most meals of going around the circle of seated people and touching them. When I kept teasing him and poking him back, he would come around and lean on me and run his hands through my hair and pat my back. Anyway, back on the men and women topic! Division of labor in "kastom" villages is pretty much women doing childcare, cooking and cleaning, and men hunting and fighting (and preparing and drinking kava)! :)
It is amazing to think about living without health insurance and easy access to doctors, hospitals, and medicine. As I think I mentioned on an earlier post about my getting cellulitis, many people die from things easily treated in the States. There are clinics around on the islands and a some care available in the towns. However, for anything big, from broken bones to childbirth, missionaries and other non-natives fly out to Australia for care. We were told that we should bring any and every medication we might have need of for our group. Something of interest to me was learning that the people here cover any area that is causing them pain. For example, in the bush village, a teenage girl had a sore that had swollen the area on and above her eye. She was wearing a t-shirt on her head to drape over the swollen eye. She was very embarrassed about her eye. At one point a friend pulled the shirt away and she very hastily got the shirt back and put it back on her head. We saw a child with a cloth tied around her head showing that she had a toothache. If someone has a sore or a pain in their leg, they tie a cloth around their leg. I was told that this is to signify to others "stay away, this part is sick" so that others don't touch them there for fear of possibly contracting the same problem.

Spiritual Need
Vanuatu has a lot of syncretism, or mixing of traditional beliefs with all the beliefs that have come in with missionaries of various denominations and groups. There are a lot of denominations serving in Vanuatu, as well as Mormans, Jehovah Witnesses, and some other cults coming in with a large Chinese presence in the country. The traditional island view is animistic, which is a belief in spirits and forces, to generalize a whole lot. To the right are some idols. From my understanding (from a woman at a market), only chiefs can carve these idols. These range from a few inches to these here that were 7-8 feet tall. Our hope in going into tribes is to go where a Biblical foundation has not already been laid and to teach chronologically through the Bible. In doing this, the prayer is that greater understanding is gained so that confusion about beliefs does not occur, like what is happening with the syncretism. Obviously, much of this is the work of the Holy Spirit in giving discernment and spiritual understanding, but this seems to be a method most easily understood, especially in tribal settings. Firm Foundations, a curriculum developed by New Tribes Mission, is a Bible study series with related materials that "centers on following God's progressive pattern of revealing His character and plan of redemption within the context of history." Here is a link to these materials: There are a great many people in Vanuatu who have never heard the gospel, or good news, about God whose Son paid our penalty for sin (Romans 3:23, 6:23) by dying on the cross (John 3:16; Romans 5:8). Nor do many of them know that believing in this Son grants us eternal life and freedom from the punishment of death and hell (John 3:36; Romans 1:16, 3:22-26). Please pray for the ni-Vanuatu people that the Holy Spirit would be preparing many for salvation and release from the bondage and fear of spirit worship, magic, and animism.

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