Grade-taking ceremony

Mon 4 Jul 2016 02:23

Grade-taking ceremony


As you can imagine, land-diving is a pretty hard act to follow – but wait – Pentecost had another treat in store for us……..


After a scenic 30 odd mile sail up the coast to Northern Pentecost, we entered the reef pass to anchor in front of the village of Loltong.  It’s a snug anchorage but with the friends we have been cruising with for some weeks now, the three boats fitted in just perfectly. 




Going ashore to seek out the Chief to ask if it’s OK to hang out for a bit, we noticed an unusual amount of activity about the place.  Being the hottest part of the day, afternoons are usually pretty laid back in Vanuatu but there was definitely something out of the ordinary going on.  It turned out that the following day was a “grade-taking” ceremony for one of the oldest men in the village – 86 years of age would you believe!  Now we can’t claim to understand a fraction of the goings on here – but basically – grade-taking is all about a man’s status in society.  Unlike other parts of Polynesia we have travelled where status is usually linked to bloodlines through clans and families – here you can buy your status in society and progress through several grades or levels during your life – depending on your ability to pay.  Some parallels to NZ here J  This does make you a chief, but there are many chiefs in a village – no idea how that works.  The main currency of grade-taking is pigs – and this is where things get a bit messy.  We only lasted through most of the day time activity, but it went all night and into the early hours of the next day as well – we heard drumming and more pigs meeting their demise even at 4.00am.  We were the only outsiders present – so this is totally authentic as they do this ceremony for themselves.  Consequently they are wearing a mix of everyday T-shirt and shorts type clothing and traditional kastom costume.  Here’s what we saw …….


The central point of any village in Vanuatu is the Nakamal.  As you might remember from previous photos, the Nakamal was mostly amongst the tree roots in Tanna, but in Pentecost it’s always a large A-frame type building with the roof going all the way to the ground.  Inside are several huge fire-pits full of volcanic rocks for cooking large amounts of food, and long bamboo bench’s for sitting on to prepare and drink Kava.  Men at one end with the Kava – women at the other with the food. 




As with most things in the Pacific, formalities get underway with the drums – known as tam-tams here.



 It was kind of like the silent movies – these guys didn’t look away from what was going on in front of the Nakamal and they adjusted their drum beat to match what was happening.  There were several hours of the fella who was going up a grade (the 86 year old in red) tottering around in sweeping circles – matched by other men swooping in.  They do a strange kind of dance – where they are almost slow jogging – the chief with 1 arm reaching up to the sky – and the other with his arms down straight and hands out like little aeroplane wings. 




They follow each other all over the place until someone (who?) decides it’s over and a pig is handed over.  It’s either a live pig on a rope or a sack containing a dried boar’s head – complete with the tusks. 





The tusks are incredibly valuable here – like a sperm whale’s tooth is in Fiji.  All transactions are recorded in a book (this must have to do with reaching the correct tally for that grade), and now the guy whose going up a grade must pay.  Couldn’t exactly work out how this goes but the women in the chiefs family would drape red painted mats over the people who had been giving the pig or pig heads. 




These mats are also used as currency and status symbol and you will see many women wearing them when they dance. 




Wealthy women were also wearing one or even two tusks round their arms as bracelets.  We have one of these red painted mats on board now so we’ll never go hungry in VanuatuJ  Later in the day/evening (after we left thankfully), said pigs were dispatched by club by the guy going up a grade – all of them.  They were then cooked in the underground ovens in the Nakamal for the next day.


After a lot of men’s aeroplane dances – a slow distant drum beat could be heard approaching the Nakamal and round the corner come well over a hundred women and girls.  Two ladies in front with small drums seemed to be controlling the show as they slowly filed into the clearing. 




It’s hard to describe this – we must try and get some video footage posted – but it went on for several hours – starting very slow and almost mournful and whipping up into a bit of a frenzy.





The moves looked pretty random but there were always columns of women running in different directions directed by the ladies with the drums who were altering the beat often assisted by a system of whistling done by one of the ladies.




Whistling is almost a second language here – we’ve seen people whistling from one village across the bay to another village – where someone on the beach whistles back – I guess the sound carries better than yelling or drumming.  We’d love to know how it all works.  This dancing style seemed quite African to us – lots of foot stamping, chanting with groups answering each other.  The status of the women is not only in the mats they are wearing and the tusks around some arms, but also in the feathers and headdress worn.  Apparently these also have to be bought or handed down – haven’t got to the bottom of that one either but some ladies did look very regal J




After the ladies finished dancing it was back to more men doing the aeroplane dance with more piggies on leads and pigs heads in bags so we decided to call it a day.  As I said, it went all night and I think we all felt more comfortable on the boats at night as it can get a bit spooky at times.


So there is another unexpected adventure in a country full of surprises.  We headed further north to the island of Maewo where we will no doubt have more tales to tell – hopefully the piggies get a break from being stars of the show J