Existing Member?

Stories from the South Pacific

Malekula Island of custom, cannibalism, culture and beautiful smiles

VANUATU | Wednesday, 7 March 2012 | Views [2581] | Comments [1]

From the moment you land on Malekula Island in Vanuatu you know you're in for an experience. The airport has no roof, no lights, no running water and no worries. The waiting lounge is the shaded area of a large tree on the ocean shore.

It's a short bumpy ride to our seaside bungalow, Amel Toro, owned by Rona who with 20 or so brothers and sisters has plenty of stories to share about her homeland.

As the sun is setting and the water turns a steely blue we spot a couple of turtles pop their heads up to greet us. We grab the traditional dug-out canoe, on offer for guests, and paddle out to catch another glimpse of our marine neighbour. Once we leave the shore, it's the view back to the island that captures our attention. Kids are splashing and playing around, dads are fishing and big mammas in colourful island dresses are washing clothes. All waves and smiles as they call out 'Hello Missus'.

Amel Toro also has a French influenced restaurant which expats have claimed has the best 'kaekae' food in Vanuatu, and they're not wrong. A spicy green papaya salad is followed by a delicious filet of steak served with fried wild yam in a crispy batter. It is mouth watering.

In the morning we travel by truck to Rano village in North East Malekula to see the custom dance of the Small Nambas tribe. There are two primary cultural groups on the island: Small Nambas and Big Nambas, originating from the size of the men’s nambas (penis sheath). Our tour guide Veronique explains to us in perfect English, as well as French, the traditional customs of her tribe.

"Before we started dancing for tourists, we hid like coconuts, we were shy and kept all the goodness hidden inside. But now we are open, we know how to show our best side and we're proud."

The pride is evident in the faces of each of the Rano custom dance group's faces. Veronique's eyes light up as she explains the spiritual significance of each dance.

As you watch the men and women dressed only in paint, leaves and woven palms you're transported back to a world of movement, music, dance and deep spiritual connection to each other and the land. Each movement, each drum beat has a meaning: preparing warriors for battle, celebrating victory or blessing a marriage.

After the dancers have finished, Veronique leads us to the coral covered shoreline to show us the traditional kitchen where everything has come from either the land or sea. Our plates are large leaves, our drinking water is delivered in bamboo cups and our food is prepared with stones and shells. As we try our hand at the incredibly laborious making of laplap (ground taro mixed with grated coconut and water) I worry that we'll be here until nightfall with empty stomachs at the rate we're progressing. Veronique then hands us our leaf plates and brings over our pre-prepared laplap steamed in bamboo stalks and soaked in fresh coconut milk. It's good and we're grateful.

Veronique's village is one of many in Malampa who are proud to share their ancestral way of life and her father, Chief Amedee, runs a custom school to ensure the knowledge of their ancestors are passed down for generations to come.   

It's hard to find a glass of wine in Malekula but not a kava bar also known as a nakamal. And the kava here is amongst the best on the islands. Kava is a sedative drink made from the root of a plant and is heavily steeped in Melanesian  culture, it is the customary 'after-work' drink in Vanuatu. Women aren't usually allowed to drink it but we're offered a half coconut shell filled with the murky greenish grey liquid and it's worth a try. Tasting something of a mixture between dirty cucumber juice and fermented lettuce milkshake Kava is not something to sip slowly. The effects are quite relaxing and it makes for a great conversation starter with the locals.

Malekula is the island known for being the site of the last acknowledged victim of cannibalism in 1969. Rather than shying away from this fact, the Department of Tourism is embracing Malekula's reputation and marketing it as the islands of cannibalism and custom.

The push for tourism has awakened and revitalised custom life for many tribes in Malekula. Elders who were once ashamed of their cannibalistic forefathers now take you to the old cannibal sites scattered with human bones and share stories unabashed. We listened to the elders with anticipation and fascination of a culture so far removed from our own.

Unlike the Port Vila resorts or the dive tours of Santo, there are no expatriate run tourism businesses in Malekula. It doesn't feel like the quasi-cultural experience you get at well established tourism posts, such as a temple visit in Bali surrounded by hundreds of other Australians tourists. This is the real Vanuatu. The people you interact with here are the custom land owners, the original inhabitants. The money you spend in Malekula goes to the people in Malekula to improve their livelihoods and provide funds for their children's education. You get a real sense that your part of a community here, you're not the outsider but more like a guest and at the end of your stay you'll leave as a friend.

How to get there:

Virgin and Air Vanuatu fly to Vanuatu daily from Australia

There are daily flights with Air Vanuatu from Santo and Port Vila to Malekula and there is also the Big Sista Ferry which travels between the ports once a week.

What to bring:

·         Camera

·         Mosquito repellent and possibly anti-malarial drugs - there is some incidence of malaria  in Malekula

·         Modest clothing - Best advice here is to avoid tight clothing, cover your shoulders and wear skirts or pants long enough to cover your knees.

·         Cards or a gameboard or ball- a great way to interact with the local kids is to play a game with them and then leave it behind as a gift.

·         Don't really need your phone or laptop - most of the time in Malekula we didn't have phone reception or internet access but we did have an abundance of friendly people willing to storian (share stories) with you.



Information about Malekula

Shaped like a sitting dog, Malekula is the second largest island of Vanuatu and the most diverse, culturally and linguistically, with over thirty distinct languages spoken, and some of the best custom dances come from the island.

The interior of Malekula is mountainous and forest-covered with good walking and bird watching. There are old cannibal sites hidden in the bush on north Malekula and an estimated population of about 25,000 on the coastal areas and around 1,500 in the rugged interior. The villagers are exceptionally friendly and enjoy sharing their proud cultural heritage with visitors.

Neighbouring islands such as Maskelynes and other small offshore islands along the east coast of Malekula have sand beaches and coral reefs with amazing snorkelling and diving.

Tags: adventure, cannibalism, cultural dances, food, kava, malekula, travel, vanuatu



thank god the airport has no roof cause like imma be scared if there was. I been scared of roofs since the disaster of '09! god bless.

  Kanye Oct 18, 2017 2:17 AM

Add your comments

(If you have a travel question, get your Answers here)

In order to avoid spam on these blogs, please enter the code you see in the image. Comments identified as spam will be deleted.

About charlotteemmaconnell


Follow Me

Where I've been

Photo Galleries


My trip journals

See all my tags 



Travel Answers about Vanuatu

Do you have a travel question? Ask other World Nomads.