Field Work – Vanuatu 2016

In April 2016 I, and two colleagues, spent a month in Vanuatu conducting research with the traditional (‘Kastom’) children in the highlands of Tanna island. Sometimes life is hell, right? My two colleagues were Jac Davis, our intrepid and experienced leader who had already spent some time with the people on Tanna, and Karri Neldner, a woman with experience traveling to remote destinations to do interesting work.

We arrived in Port Villa, and not even 24 hours later we were woken by an earthquake during the night (not our last for the trip!), and less 36 hours later we were getting reports of a cyclone to the north (only a year after Cyclone Pam leveled much of the island system). We spent a few days doing necessary legwork – obtaining permits, arranging flights, buying food and gifts – in preparation for our trip to Tanna, a small southern island. We had made plans to visit the Kastom villages of Ikunala and Yakel to work with the children.

We arrived in the township of Lanakel on Tanna incident free (the cyclone did not bear south) and met some of Jac’s colleagues and friends, who would help us arrange further plans. It rained for several days, but fortuitously, this gave us the opportunity to manage some unexpected issues involving translators. In the end we had a great team of locals, two of whom knew many of the children in Ikunala, which certainly helped our research run more smoothly.

Here I am working with a young boy in Ikunala.

Here I am working with a young boy in Ikunala.

Soon thereafter we made our way up the rugged track to the village of Ikunala, where we were greeted by near-naked men and excited children. We were shown our quarters (a spacious palm-thatched hut) and were given a tour. We participated in a welcoming ceremony, and offered our gifts of Kava root, coconuts, and dried meat. We were then asked to get down to work (we were a day late, and many families had walked from neighboring villages to participate). That day we tested more than 25 children. The next day we tested more than 30. The day after, the same again. It was hard work, with few breaks, and only pressed dirt and woven mats to rest on.

A young boy and an infant in Ikunala.


In the evenings I (the only man of our troupe) drank Kava with the men of the community in the Nakamal (a traditional men-only place, and that particular evening is a whole other story), while Jac and Karri spent time with the women cooking Laplap (that, too, is a whole other story).  On our second evening we participated in a full evening of dance under the stars, which we then repeated the morning after (in full Kastom dress). We spent three full days in the village, but had been prepared for many more. Ultimately we were far more successful than we could have reasonably hoped for.

After spending a few days back at at ‘base camp’ (which was actually a rather idyllic guesthouse, even if the water wasn’t hot and feral dogs prowled at night) we went halfway back up the ridge to visit a school. It was run by a woman who Jac had met previously, and it gave us some insight into the kind of education the kids receive outside of the townships (though it should be stressed, the children we tested in Ikunala did not receive any of this schooling). The school was actually run by the mother of one of our translators, and it became apparent how useful a few Australian dollars would be for them. (After we returned to Australia Karri and I raised ~$500 for them, which was enough to buy many necessary educational and building materials).

Karri and Jac walking down a path only 30 seconds from the Guest House


We returned back to camp and spent a few days managing our individual projects – inputting and backing-up data, writing, and coding. Given our success at Ikunala, but not quite having reached our ideal N, we arranged to head to Yakel. Yakel has the best PR of all the kastom villages, though their kastom is ‘less’ than others in some respects. This took a few additional days of leg-work, but was possible because Jac knew a prominent man from Yakel who arranged to facilitate our visit and act as a translator. A few days later we made the much longer journey, up a different ridge, to the village. As before we met the chiefs and many of the villagers (though not all, it was considerably larger than the first), thanked them, and introduced the kinds of research and games we would play with the children. We only spent one day at Yakel, and as before, it was hard work (even if the photos don’t convey this). We returned to the base-camp that night.

Young boys in Yakel waiting to participate

Having essentially finished our data collection we settled down into a few days (again) of backing up dating, coding, analysis, and writing. Given the nature of Jac’s and Karri’s projects, they ended up arranging some additional testing with a school in Lanakel. The logic was that these kids – in formal schooling – might represent a population halfway between the WEIRD kids in Australia, and the Kastom kids on the hill. This wasn’t appropriate for my study, and so I stayed at the guesthouse (though it should be noted I had been pretty much constantly sick since we arrived, and lying in bed was actually sort of necessary at this point). It was at this point, after data had been coded, cleaned, and analysed, that I discovered I had failed to find support for my hypothesis. Bummer. (The publication, as of July, is in preparation). While this was a downer, I began preparing a new experiment to conduct back in Australia (and ideally, also in South Africa – the next trip).

Without going into too much detail, at this point of the trip – several weeks in – we three finally found a day or two off from the near-constant work. Karri and I crossed the entire island to climb Mt. Yassur, an extremely active and awe-inspiring (dread-inspiring) volcano. On the trip back we spent considerable time with an older woman in the back of the truck, who shared a great deal of cultural knowledge with me. On topics relating to the legend of Yassur, the significance of cooking and a wife’s obligations to her family, as well as topics involving spirits, heaven, and hell.

There is so much that isn’t included in this brief essay. My near constant sickness (which included one night where I was more sick than I likely had ever been in my life), the trucks and the roads, the idyllic beaches, the red-cross workers, the gossip and the traditional system of ‘justice’, the friendliness of the locals, the sheer contrast between Australia and Vanuatu (and how men and women are treated). Overall the trip did not yield the results I had hoped, but did provide valuable insight into the theories and behavior I am grappling with.

Front left to right: Selena (translator), Jac Davis, Mary (Translator), Rachel (Translator/Cultural Centre Delegate), Karri Neldner. Full Kastom dress on our final morning in Ikunala.