Geography and Population
Vanuatu is a Y-shaped tropical archipelago located in the South Pacific Ocean with over eighty islands, sixty-five of which are inhabited. Espiritu Santo is the largest island. Port Vila, the capital, which was also the colonial headquarters, is on the south-central island of Efate.
Vanuatu is a beautiful country made up of many islands and people of many ethnic groups and languages. The islands have black and white sandy beaches and beautiful coral reefs with tropical colored fishes. The forests are full of lovely birds, flora and fauna, and spectacular cascades.
The islands are prone to natural disasters including earthquakes, cyclones and volcanic eruptions. There are seven active volcanoes scattered throughout the islands.
Rising sea levels threaten to erode the land; and pollution from vehicle fumes, oil from boats, and plastic waste badly affect the environment.
Each year Vanuatu can expect an average of 8 to 10 cyclones. Cyclone Pam, a category 5 tropical cyclone hit the island nation in March 2015.
The inhabitants of Vanuatu are known as Ni-Vanuatu. Most are of Melanesian descent with a Polynesian minority on the outlying islands.
Due to the country’s colonial history, the English and French languages have been adopted as the official language of education.
Bislama has evolved from broken English, French and traditional languages. The creation of Bislama facilitated communication but also put local languages at risk of disappearance.
The flag is comprised of the color red to signify the blood lost in gaining independence, yellow to signify Christianity, green to signify land, a Y shape to represent the islands, a pigs tusk which is the customary symbol of honor, and a namele palm leaf which is a chiefly symbol representing peace between people.
The ancestors lived on their own islands, in their own villages, in thatched houses made from leaves and trees hewn with stone axes. Each island and village had their own name and their own systems of governance.
Chiefs were the custodians of the land, language, and heritage, and determined the norms of the societies under their jurisdictions. Men and women came together at the Farea (village meeting house) to debate major issues.
This system of traditional governance was decentralized. The arrival of foreigners, including missionaries, changed that to a more centralized system.
In 1606, the first foreign explorer to arrive was a Spaniard named Pedro Fernández de Quirós. In 1774, Captain James Cook from Scotland came to the islands and named them the New Hebrides.
After these explorers, came the blackbirders. The term “blackbirding” refers to the largescale kidnapping of people indigenous to the islands in the Pacific Ocean to work as unpaid or poorly paid laborers in countries distant to their native land.
In 1906, the New Hebrides became a colony ruled jointly by Great Britain and France. The New Hebrides Condominium had a Joint Court but each ran separate administrative bureaucracies, medical systems, police forces, and school systems.
The natives of the New Hebrides were stateless in their own homeland until independence was declared on July 30th, 1980, and a parliamentary democracy was installed. The country was renamed Vanuatu, which literally means ‘country that stands up’, and a motto was adopted which says “In God we stand.”
Land is very important to the Ni-Vanuatu and a crucial resource for production. Land is thought to be the precondition of human culture; the human inhabitants merge with the earth in some sense. Land is not viewed as a thing to be owned but as vital to the existence of humans and animals in sustaining their livelihood.
The traditional practice of conservation of the land and sea allows certain areas to be used for fishing, gardening, and hunting while leaving other areas idle either for regeneration or reproduction. This ensures there is always ample food for community consumption.
Yams, bananas, taro, kumara, cassava fruits and nuts may be organically cultivated. Coconut, coffee, sandal-wood, white-wood, cocoa and kava are all cultivated to earn a living. Fresh water is obtained from coconuts, copra for coconut oil for cooking, as well as body and hair lotions. The coconut tree is viewed as the tree of life because all of its parts are useful.
Vanuatu’s economic growth is based on tourism, construction and offshore financial services.
There are minor income earning activities such as the Nagol (land diving) and the traditional weaving of mats and baskets. Women make and sell clothes at the market places to earn money to help support their families.
The traditional Vanuatu family has a built-in social security system where there is a place for everybody and there is no poverty as people work on their own land, grow their own food, and make their own items for trade or for use in the home.
However, with the current monetized system, and a growing trend of a nuclear family mentality, a huge gap has been created between the haves and the have-nots.
Parents are a child’s first teachers before moving on to the education system to acquire the skills for a better life and standard of living.
Primary education is not free or compulsory. It is provided by law under three main objectives: access, quality and management. The government assists its schools subsidizing the tuition fees for the first six years to enable more children to have access to education. Many children in rural areas walk long distances to go to school; some even have to leave home and attend boarding school at a very young age. Secondary education is only available to those who can afford it.
The majority of the population lives in rural areas with poor transport and communications, less qualified health care givers, fewer human resources and poor health facilities. A major health issue for women, besides reproductive health and maternal mortality, is breast and cervical cancer, since screening and treatment are limited.
Malnutrition is a concern in both rural and urban areas. Children suffering from malnutrition do not recover from childhood illnesses, such as diarrhea, pneumonia, or other contracted diseases.
Since Vanuatu ratified the convention on the Rights of a Child in 1992, women’s reproductive and children’s health have been key national priorities of the government. However, maternal and infant mortality rates are still high.
Access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities is a big concern in Vanuatu. The population has poor water sources such as unprotected wells, springs and surface water. Many water sources are far and take 30 minutes to an hour to reach.
Originally, the people of Vanuatu had their own way of worship as well as their own gods. The Vanuatu people did not worship animals or plants but believed there was a creator somewhere in the heavens, and they offered sacrifices to that being.
Missionaries and explorers arrived at about the same time in the 19th century. The Presbyterians, which is currently the largest denomination, established their first church in 1852.
Today, Christianity comprises approximately 83% of the total population, while 17% is made up of other religious groups, customary beliefs and cults. The Vanuatu Christian Council provides a platform for those churches to work together ecumenically across the islands.
Women are usually full time homemakers caring for children, the elderly, people with disabilities and other family members. The opportunity for women to set up businesses is limited as they lack access to capital, financial services and markets.
Despite these discriminatory issues, women are participating in the business sector in their own ways. They earn their living selling clothes, vegetables, and fruits at the market.
Young people between the ages of 12 to 30 make up about a third of Vanuatu’s population. Data shows an increase in movement from rural to urban areas. Young people are migrating to Luganville and Port Vila for better education, training and employment opportunities.
Like all other Pacific Islanders, Vanuatu people love music and dancing. Traditional instruments such as carved slit gongs, slit bamboo beaten with a stick, bamboo flutes, seed rattlers, are used to create a rhythmic sound, along with voices, clapping hands, and stamping feet. They also create sand drawings, play string games, and surf.
Nagol (land diving) is practiced by males to display their prowess and as a means to appease the gods for abundance in the farms. Nagol attracts a lot of tourists to the nation. The frame and vines for the Nagol structure are carefully selected by experienced jumpers; and a traditional healer stays on site in case of accidents.
Ni-Vanuatu staple foods include yam, taro, banana, coconut, sugarcane, tropical nuts, greens, pigs, fowl, and seafood. Ceremonies typically involve an exchange of food along with a feast. Pigs are exchanged and eaten at all important ritual occasions.
The national ceremonial dish is laplap. It is a pudding made of grated root crops or plantain mixed with coconut milk and sometimes greens and meat, wrapped in leaves, then baked for hours in a traditional earth oven.
World Day of Prayer History
The first World Day of Prayer service was reportedly held on March 8, 1946, in the Presbyterian Paton Memorial Church in Port Vila.
On the invitation of the Presbyterians, Anglicans and Catholics joined in 1981. Women from Apostolic and Church of Christ congregations remember joining together as young women in the 1980s on the islands of Ambae and Pentecost.
With the creation of the Women’s Desk of the Vanuatu Christian Council, in the early 2000s, collaborations with WDP groups already in existence were developed.
The World Day of Prayer International Committee held a workshop in Vanuatu in 2011 to strengthen the connection between those groups. The Vanuatu Committee was recently re-organized ecumenically and confirmed the disposition to develop the resources for the 2021 WDP program.
The Vanuatu Committee’s prayer is that the ecumenical relationship they experienced during the blessing of working together for the 2021 program will lift up the voice of Vanuatu woman across the world. For many who participated in the writing process, this was their first ecumenical experience. All are
confident that this will bring a new assurance to Vanuatu women’s voices.
The Writer Committee Workshop for the 2021 WDP annual celebration was held in Port Vila in 2018 at the Presbyterian Church, which was carefully set up for the meetings and communal meals, including the traditional lap lap to celebrate WDP. The participants brought gifts to beautifully prepare the altar table. It was decorated with flowers from their gardens, the Bislama Bible, garland necklaces, and palm weaved baskets and fans.
The picture reflects those moments lived together which are now extended to WDP around the world. It represents a gesture of care from Vanuatu women to the WDP theme preparatory process. It symbolizes the Vanuatu communities, it reflects God’s creation, and it shows the connection with the land and the beauty of a life by faith.
The Artist and Artwork
Juliette Pita is currently the most well-known artist in Vanuatu. She was born in 1964 on Erromango Island and is the third of eight children. Her talent was discovered early on. At school she was always the best in art classes. She was the first woman to graduate from the Institut National de Technologie du Vanuatu (INTV). Juliette never imagined making money from her art but she believed God had plans for her. She gives all the money she earns to
anyone who needs help.
The painting titled “Cyclone Pam II: 13th of March, 2015” shows a mother bending and praying over her child. The waves crash over her but a palm tree bends protectively over them. The palm tree is Juliette’s favorite tree with strong roots able to withstand strong winds. The woman’s skirt is modeled after the traditional clothing on Erromango. On the horizon you can see small crosses representing the lives taken by cyclone Pam in 2015.