Weddings… Island Style (Carmen)
Imagine…you had your dream wedding, hundreds of your closest family attended and the reception was held at the community hall where much lap lap was consumed. You now live in a small village in North Ambrym and have dutifully had 1 to 3 kids, what’s left? Well… have you paid for your bride?
July and August were ceremony central, we attended weddings, funerals, Children’s Day and Independence Day but most importantly a bride paying ceremony. A wedding is only the first step to being married and to seal the deal the husband’s family must pay for the bride. It is very common to have the wedding and then years later finalise the marriage with a bride paying ceremony. Bride payment signifies, in part ownership of the bride but it is also considered compensation to the bride‘s family.
In Vanuatu when a woman marries a man she leaves her family and joins her husband’s family. This is why on the wedding day the groom’s family is enjoying the festivity, while the bride and her parents, aunties, uncles and siblings are all sobbing… they are losing their daughter. Before the wedding the bride contributes to her family by cooking, cleaning, looking after siblings, working in the garden or may even have a paid job. When she marries the bride no longer contributes to her family but to her husbands and it is believed that the brides family should be compensated for their loss.
So how much does a bride cost? It is based (as far as we can tell) on many things including; how much the mother cost (expensive mothers make for expensive daughters), how long she attended school, as schooling is expensive and also raises the price, the social standing of the family and how much the family of the groom can afford. At the bride paying ceremony we attended, $3000 was exchanged as well as 13 pigs and piles of food – an expensive bride.
It is not just the responsibility of the husband or his parents to come up with the money or pigs but the whole family including grandparents, uncles and cousins. This added another complicated layer to the marriage, as now the husband’s family has a financial interest in ensuring the marriage works. Divorce is very uncommon and although it is more common for a man to leave his wife and set up shop with someone else, it causes rifts in the family.
Many communities have recognised that arranged marriages have lead to unhappy unions and across Vanuatu there is widespread domestic violence and suicides are not unheard of. While arranged marriages, in the traditional sense, are on their way out of fashion, marriages still have to be approved by the heads of the families. Now the daughters have a choice of who to marriage, even if this choice is limited to who the parents find appropriate and who they know that they aren’t already related to. When you are related to half the men you know and the other half you think are drop-kicks, it doesn’t leave many fish in the sea.
Surprise Visitors (Carmen)
Anita and Jonne called the day they arrived back in Australia and surprised us with the news that they were coming to visit in two weeks. Since I hadn’t seen my sister for just over a year I was over the moon.
First job on the list was to kill Laurence. Laurence the rat had taken up residence about the same time that Rich’s parents came to visit. He wasn’t persuaded to leave when we packed all the food away or by our first attempts at setting the traps. Then we learnt the secret, roasted coconut flesh. Two day before Anita and Jonne arrived, Rich set the trap with delicious smelling coconut; it did the trick. With the house cleaned, guest room set up and Laurence dead we left for the airport.
To our surprise the plane was on time and after what seemed like a couple of very long minutes, Anita and Jonne set foot on Ambrym. After a big hug from us we walked down to the beach with bags in tow, only to find that our boat and driver weren’t there. So we waited and Anita and Jonne learnt their first lesson in island life: patience, with the unwavering faith that everything will work out just fine. It wasn’t long before we were in the back of a ute being driven around to the next bay where our boat was waiting.
The boat trip was a breeze and within 2 hours we had reached Magam. After a quick tour of our house and importantly the location of our toilet, we settled down to dinner and a good chat.
Anita and Jonne usually love a sleep in but the roosters woke them up at 4am and at 6am they had given up on trying to sleep and got up. It wasn’t long until we had the coffee brewing and breakfast set up on a mat on the veranda, a lovely way to start a Sunday morning. The Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union (PWMU) was opening their PWMU week and we were invited to their opening service at Melvat, about a 1 ½ hour walk away. We donned our island dresses and the boys, their floral shirts just in time for Mama and Papa to came and pick us up for church and because it’s hard to go anywhere without Dingo, he came to.
It turned out that Anita and I were special guests and when we arrived we were quickly ushered to the front to lead the women’s march into Melvat. I have never led a march before and it is as you would expect, walking, swinging of arms, but I also spent a lot of the time watching the ground, hoping I won’t trip and fall down. As Anita and I sang and marched with 50 North Ambrym women, Rich and Jonne waved and laughed. After the march, the four of us lined up for the official welcome and the girls who were presenting the salu-salus lined up across from us. You could see the moment when the two girls near us realised that they were presenting their salu-salu to Rich and Jonne. First they counted up the line, looked at the boys, looked at each awkwardly and then giggled. With salu-salus in hand we headed into church.
Mama and papa were keen to spend Monday with Anita and Jonne and show them their garden. To start the day Anita and I headed to mama’s kitchen to help prepare manioc laplap which cooked in hot stones while we were at the garden. On the way, we detoured and went to Olal where there is a school and the Catholic Church and is also the heart of the francophone area. There was a working bee in progress and I stopped to talk to some women and was translating for Anita, when I looked over my shoulder to check that Rich was keeping Jonne in the loop and found that Jonne was in the middle of a conversation in French and it was Rich who stood by trying to catch on. It wasn’t long until Jonne was the star attraction and although he insisted that he only could speak a small amount of French he managed to impress and was quickly being introduced as ‘…Carmen’s family. He speaks French.’
After Olal we headed to the garden where mama and papa showed us the different crops they had growing and explained why things were done a certain way. The boys then learnt how to climb a coconut tree and after papa climbed to the top with a big bush knife, we all sat in the shade drinking the freshest green coconuts. The next day marked the end of Anita and Jonne’s short stay on Ambrym. Anita, Jonne and I hopped in the boat and headed back to the airport leaving Rich to hold down the fort at home.