The Women of Vanuatu

The fact that a large portion of the female population in Vanuatu have children, means that most women over the age of twenty are referred to as “mamas”. While many of these women are hospitable and kind, the blanket term of “mama’s” can be incredibly deceiving. I remember after a mere week in Vanuatu having my own concrete perceptions about Vanuatu women, no questions asked.

It may seem crazy to you for me to lump every women in the country together but it’s a shockingly easy thing to do because on the surface all mama’s appear to be exactly the same. Donned in island dresses, constantly cooking and washing, they move about as their cultural restrictions dictate they should, rarely breaking tradition.

It wasn’t until deep into my second year that I began to realize that my perceptions were misconceptions. The evidence had been there since day one, but I had ignored it, I had continued to hold the stereotypes I hadn’t ever actively constructed as the basis to all my interactions with the women of Vanuatu.

Many of the women here may be the kindest you've ever met, but some of the scariest women that I have ever met, I’ve met here. Because the thing about the women here is that if you do something so stupid as to fool around with their man, they will not hesitate for one second to beat the shit out of you. Something that doesn’t exactly fall comfortably under the title “mama”.

Once while walking up my hill with my best friend (papa blo ol pikinini blo mi) Julie, we passed a woman walking down to the river to swim. I exchanged pleasant conversation with her and then we continued up the hill. Julie then told me that this women was the school chairman’s wife, aka Julies real father, the man that had left her mother. She then informed me that if she had passed that particular women years ago when it had first happened, alone, she would have fought her. She was confused by my surprise at this.

Julie’s not the best example of veiled toughness because she’s pretty much the poster child for someone who’s rebelled against Vanuatu’s standard for women. She drinks kava every night, she has a kid but refuses to have a man or get married, and she swears often and liberally. She hangs out with Marinoel and Helen, two women that are also non-traditional. Because my village is in the bush, but has access to the developed world of Luganville, it is divided by women that stand firmly behind custom and women like these three who have learned that rules can definitely be broken (though not without consequence).

My mama is a bit more traditional. While she is very intelligent and keenly aware of cultural differences (in a way that makes me completely at ease around her) she also has been against my friendship with Julie from day one. She would never tell me not to be friends with her, but she often insists that her, Marienoel and Helen swear too much and are always up to no good. Which I guess is essentially true, but not something I’d stop being friends with someone for. She once told Helen not to talk to me anymore, an incident I forgave her for because it was done the day after I had drunk homebrew with her and had consequently been creeped.

The point being, my mama is traditional, kind, hospitable, and so, so, so caring. But you couldn’t pay me enough to fight that woman. I would lose. There’s a tough, ruthlessness in her that I expect I’d see if anyone ever threatened her children (something I know I’d also see- and have seen- in my real mother).

One day we were sitting around storying on about boys with one of the neighbors and she started telling me about how she had met my papa. The end of the story was incredibly heartwarming and surprisingly a real love story, unlike any I have ever heard in this country before. But the beginning was like Kill Bill part 4.

My papa was the one to introduce my mama to one of his friends. This is not unusual, almost all couples in Vanuatu begin this way, someone likes someone else and asks their friend to “make road” to that person in one way or another. So my papa made the road to my mama for some other guy. Terina was born but before they could marry he died (I don’t recall the cause of it, but it’s not uncommon to die young here).

Another man came to fill his place. He was from the island of Malo, right off the shore of South Santo, and he didn’t hesitate to cheat on my mama a year or so into the relationship. Something that, here, is called “passing behind”. My mama went to Malo to confront him and dump his ass and when she did she had to walk right past the “other” woman, who was out washing clothes near her house.

That woman made the mistake of verbally assaulting my mama. In retaliation, my mama punched her in the side of the head. The women tried to fight back but when it was clear she was going to lose she began to try to get away, at which point my mama hit her with a bamboo stick, letting blood loose from the woman’s leg.

The man of course attempted to creep my mama that night. She ignored him, being a smart women who knows when to turn her back on something that isn’t good.

After that she was living in Asevaya, a village about a two hour walk from Narango. In those days there was a bread truck that came from Luganville and visited villages in South Santo, delivering bread. My papa, aware of my mama’s single status began sending letters to her through the bread truck. My mama replied in the same fashion.

Some of what was said was very formal, my mama demanding that my papa build a house and equip it with pots and pans before she agreed to marry him. But other bits were quite sweet. My mama expressed some worry about the fact that she already had a kid. My papa shrugged this off saying that none of it mattered because he knew her, knew that her heart was big and good and he wanted to marry her for that, regardless of anything else.

For most of the first half of my service, the women of Vanuatu were mamas and only mamas. They cooked, they cleaned, they looked after their kids and they were nothing but kind and pleasant. But for the last six months of my service, the women of Vanuatu were just women. Women that had love stories and fights, women as complex as they are in any other part of the world, with their personalities hiding behind the many restrictions of their own culture.

I’m sorry it took me so long to see that and more importantly to understand it. I suspect if I stayed longer, I’d get an even deeper look beyond the island dresses and into the hearts and minds of Vanuatu women. But for now I’m content with the lesson that this taught me: never fall into the comfort of assumption or bias. Oh, and, also that the best way to start a relationship is by written letters sent through trucks delivering bread. Can you honestly disagree?