In a land where every island is almost a culture onto itself, the chances for diversity have never been greater. The Ni-Vanuatu word in Bislama for their cultural traditions is ‘kastom’, akin to customs, but perhaps more distinct. Kastoms are the cultural traditions that each tribe holds onto itself, apart from others. Many times these are secret things that are never seen or relayed beyond the tribe. Other times they might be more general and shared at-large. But they are the way of life, the practices of life that the people grew up with. They range from simple effects on daily living such as methods of cooking, fire-starting and family organization to more complex tribal issues of chief or leadership selection procedures, ceremonies and marriage.
With modern life encroaching ever closer upon the ni-vanuatu, kastoms have become by necessity, more pliable with the passage of time. Adaptation by the ni-vanuatu is as vital for survival to them as it is to the cast of Survivor. With the adaptation of elements from modern life, comes the loss of traditional ones. But as long as the core of their kastoms are retained, perhaps the essence of the culture will be saved. Kastom is most visibly seen these days through kastom dances, songs and ceremonies. The less glamorous daily life rituals are more likely to be overlooked and thus more vulnerable to being modified through interaction with outside cultures. So while the kastoms of the ni-vanuatu may appear eclectic to an outside visitor, they are a vivid example of a living culture adapting to its ever changing environs.
Kastoms seem to be grouped into four geographic enclaves. The Northern islands view social status and political esteem, through venues of wealth and accomplishments. Grade-taking ceremonies called nimangki, are held periodically to allow the advancement of social staus via the killing of pigs and presenting of woven Pandanus leaf mats to extended family and tribal officials. These elaborate ceremonies allow an individual to demonstrate how much he can give away and thus show he has wealth to spare. The nimangki grading system allows every tribal man to participate at some level in the pig killing ceremonies and thus attain a place in the social hierarchy. The grading system also provides reassurances of status in the ni-vanuatu’s version of afterlife, through respect in the form of song and storytelling from the living.
The Central islands have adopted a more Polynesian cultural hierarchy. Here the tribes are ruled over by powerful Chiefs who control the power and wealth of each tribe as a whole, and reign over their individual tribal members’ duties and actions in daily life.
In Tanna and other Southern islands, authority is passed along via ceremonies bestowing the title of Chief upon designated males. This status as Chief, allows the control and rights over land and social groups. Women are unable to attain the rank of Chief in the Southern islands, whereas it is possible for them to do so in some of the Central and Northern islands.
The final cultural enclaves are secret societies and cults, such as the ‘Half Halfs’ and ‘John Frums’ located primarily on Tanna but also found on Espiritu Santo and a few other islands. Their cultures are highly scripted and focued on unique rituals and beliefs. Black magic and sorcery are also practiced by some groups, primarily on the islands of Ambrym and Epi.
Kastoms are heavily influenced by the impact from enormous extended families who track, record and celebrate the passage of life from birth through death via an extensive calendar of rituals. Every birth, circumcision, initiation, grade-taking, marriage, and death is celebrated and marked in the tribe’s cultural history for all to remember. Since there are no written words to record these events, they are remembered through kastoms in the form of song, dance, storytelling, and art. These remembrance kastoms are the most highly regarded and closely held. These are apart from the kastoms of daily life which are more easily subject to the adaptations to modern life.