Dance with the Past

As a guest of the Small Nambas tribe in Vanuatu, Alvah Simon absorbs the atavistic sensations of their ceremony and ponders the future of their culture. From "The Roger Henry File" October 25, 2007

October 24, 2008

Alvah headshot 368

Billy Black

Malekula Island, Vanuatu

Whatever its benefits may be, “globalization” may result in a culling of cultures with Darwinian ruthlessness. Any nation or people not poised to adapt to and capitalize on new technologies and markets will be worse than left behind–they will be ground beneath this juggernaut of progress. The past is but a nostalgic indulgence; all eyes on the future! We are assured that ultimately this is in the best interest of the ‘consumer,’ which is apparently the highest of callings.

But the tribe of Small Nambas in Banom Bay on Malekula Island in Vanuatu either have not been told or simply do not care. They must believe that a people with no past can have no future. Perhaps they view the past as the feathers of an arrow in flight–giving stabilizing direction to forward progress. So, they stubbornly cling to ancient ways, sustainable ways that have worked for them for millennia.


When the number of yachts anchored in the half moon bay reached six, apparently a critical mass, the chief of the village decided to organize a traditional dance for our entertainment and their income.

We were met on the beach one morning by a barefoot Edwin, dressed in a ragged T-shirt and shorts. In a quiet yet methodical manner he explained that we would be led to different dancing circles where first the men, and then the women would perform a series of traditional dances. We were to follow him closely and not wander off because they have strong taboos about either men or women being in certain locations.

We were lined up on one side of a rectangular clearing with a thatched eating hut at one end. Everything went still, then suddenly, 20 screaming, armed men exploded out of the dense bush.


Each was dressed, if one might call it that, in nothing more than a thin frond wrapped around their penis which was tied upright by a string to a woven belt around their waist. Nothing else was left to the imagination. Thick dancing rattles tied around their ankles added noise and drama to their stomping as they swooped down upon us.

A young man with a fierce expression jumped high into the air and brought the tip of his spear to within inches of my face, then deftly landed nose to nose with a smile. Like the New Zealand Maori, this is a form of greeting within which lies a warning: “We can be wonderful friends or terrible enemies. You choose.”

While the oldest men beat a rhythm on hollowed out logs, the younger men leapt, chanted, beat sticks together, and sang. Through the war dance, birth dance, circumcision dance, we were treated to a spirited and powerful performance.


We were then lead to a different clearing where 20 bare-breasted women in grass skirts performed further ritual dances for us. Their dancing was tamer but their simple harmonies were wonderful.

Herded back to the Men’s area, the chief gave us a warm welcome in Bislama (Pigeon English) and asked that we all introduce ourselves, state our country of origin, and say a word about the experience.

I told them straight what I thought–they have their pride, their heritage, and each other. And no matter the challenges of the future, that was a good start.


We then sat on woven mats laid on the ground under the thatch. Food was piled high on a circle of banana leaves. As is their custom, as guests we had to eat first. With our fingers we sampled the fried manioc and almost indistinguishable chicken parts cooked in coconut milk.

The chicken feet did not seem to spark a hearty appetite in my compatriots, so much was left to the dancers, who rushed in enthusiastically once they felt their guest had finished.

I sat with them for a few moments, watching them squat in a ring around the food, bare butts up, mouths down, slurping it up happily, murmuring to each other, laughing, and belching.

The scene was primitive and oddly unsettling. I tried to just absorb the sensations at an atavistic level. My first impression was that they smelled. Not smelled bad, but strong, smoky, and acrid, like human beings who had just danced hard in the sun. I could not remember when I last smelled a human being, not his or her powders, pastes, or perfumes.

Next, I just listened to the cadence of their conversations, unhurried, and broken often by laughter. The old and young seemed to mix and relate so easily.

Then I thought about their horizons and world outlook. The majority of these people had never ventured farther than the reefs offshore or their jungle gardens in the hills behind. They do not tour, nor vacate their routine lives for two weeks per year. A man’s only urge to travel seems to be to find a pretty girl in the next village or island.

They have and need next to nothing, which forced me to think about the difference between poorness and poverty. With little more than a machete, a dug out canoe, and the natural materials the jungle provides, they go on contentedly in an ancient rhythm that does not distinguish much between work and play, the physical and spiritual, the past or present.

They always get a confused look when I ask them how old they are. First, because they don’t know exactly, they relate to seasons, not numbered dates. And second, this is not an important milestone, personally or to the village. A birth, death, a girl’s first menstruation, a boy’s circumcision or first wild pig– these things matter.

This is a very basic, earthy, primitive way of life. I do not romanticize nor glamorize it for I have spent enough time in the “third world” to know its harsh realities. But I did have to wonder– If happiness can indeed be linked to GDP, per capita income, and material wealth, why would it be that a UN study ranks the Ni Vanuatu as the happiest people on our planet?

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