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Vanuatu: Water, music and cultural rights

20 June 2023

Water, in the language of the indigenous peoples of Vanuatu, is Nebei. She is the head and the feet of a body sustaining the movement of human lives. Water is understood in my culture as a force that balances the environment. Nebei resides at the bottom of the earth, and she is also found above the earth, providing the necessary harmony for us who live on land. 

Is it not clear that our world is in peril? The threat we face in Vanuatu is not only climate change.

In my home country of Vanuatu, we the indigenous peoples of this island nation are facing the global climate crisis through a number of water-related issues. Our country faced two major cyclones during February and March 2023, only a few weeks after our government’s historic request to the International Court of Justice to develop a new international legal framework on climate change. Vanuatu has also called for an advisory opinion at the United Nations on states’ legal obligations after causing climate harm. The call was backed by over 100 UN member states and the resolution has been billed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as a turning point in climate justice. Yet Vanuatu is not only showing the way in terms of legal or political action to combat the climate crisis, we also hold traditional cultural knowledge that is essential to our ability to respond to the changes affecting our world.

And is it not clear that our world is in peril? The threat we face in Vanuatu is not only climate change, which affects us in the form of more frequent and intensifying cyclones as well as sea-level rise. What threatens our way of life also comes from within the island. Dangers arise from the encroachment of major industries, especially property development. Our land is carefully provided for by numerous water sources that give life to our environment and which feed into human life. This relationship, which is essential to our mode of life, is being threatened by those who seek to make profit out of the selling of land for tourism and luxury housing development.

Pastor George Timothy from Wiana Village on Emau Island has childhood memories of a vastly different coastline here before the area experienced severe coastal erosion. Wiana Village, Emao Island, Vanuatu. Credit: Niki Kuautonga/Greenpeace.

Despite not having a water supply in my local village, all our cultural activities focus on water. Culture bears a message that for us cannot be forgotten. Vanuatu is experiencing the return of clean waters following the Covid-19 pandemic, which temporarily prevented people from cutting down trees along the riverbanks and coastal areas. The pandemic made a big difference in terms of making people rethink their connection to water and the environment. The pandemic has given our people a moment of reflection and reconnection. Now more than ever, we are convinced that the fight against extractive industries is something we must engage in with our culture, our memory.

Water reflects everything we see around us.
Without water, life does not exist.

That is why the indigenous peoples of Vanuatu must work to retain their collective memory of water. This is also why we seek to document and preserve our cultural connection with our Mother Earth and Nebei. We are working hard so that our people do not forget. We must listen carefully to water, to the sounds she makes and the messages she conveys to us. Water makes many different sounds that reflect the sounds of a living universe.If we watch the sea carefully at low tide, we can see reefs and rocks that tell us whether it is harvesting time. Natural events are signs that tell us what we should be doing or working on. We watch and listen carefully to nature, for example to the whales and the dolphins, to the sounds they make as these animals move through the water. A dolphin jumps and flaps its fins on the surface. When we go underwater, we make those sounds too. This is where our culture comes from: water and the beings that live there.

Women of Limerous village playing the water music. Gaua Island, Vanuatu. Credit: David Kirkland.

Women’s water music is perhaps the finest example of how nature flows into the cultural life of Vanuatu’s indigenous peoples. I hope that one day water music will teach overseas people about Vanuatu and inform them about changes in the lives of people and the environment in our island nation. The unique sounds of women’s water music can be heard on the remote islands of Merelava and Gaua as it is passed down from grandma to mother to daughter. Water music is also taught in local schools to girls from the age of six. Nowadays, water music is mostly performed on the island of Espiritu Santo, where women and men from Merelava and Gaua have resettled, thus continuing this unique tradition. 

The village of Leweton on the island of Espiritu Santo is where the community usually rallies together to share its rich cultural and environmental knowledge. Through women’s water music, the people of Leweton continue to celebrate and strengthen their deep relationship with nature and culture.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=AuW427C9I1Y%3Ffeature%3Doembed

The women usually dress in the traditional clothing of Merelava and Gaua. This includes armbands and headwear made of flowers and leaves. The women place themselves in a half moon formation. Their bodies lean forward over the water waiting for the signal. The leader’s head dips in a nod. Hands are united in action. The water is beaten into a rhythmic swirl. The palms of their hands slap each passing wave. Their hands move closer to their bodies and then away again.Water music connects us with every aspect of the surrounding environment. The sound of water drumming travels far, transforming the participants, making us all interconnected beings in a mesh that allows people to understand land, water, nature and culture as part of the same continuum. 

The water music of Vanuatu is a once in a lifetime ritual performance that expresses not only our deep connection to water, but also our sense of care for the environment and the need to respond to the threats of changing climate.  

Water music plays a major part in educating our children and maintaining a sense of cultural continuity. We draw upon live performances to introduce the value of water to all members of our nation. Women represent our Mother Earth; their movement represents the life cycle.  

We believe that this is the way of our ancestors.  

Our forefathers and foremothers left with us a knowledge imparted through storytelling, food preparation, dance and musical activities that we still rely upon to this day. 

This is why our cultural right to water is vital and urgent to us. Nature and culture are always an intrinsic part of who we are. 

Water reflects everything we see around us.
Without water, life does not exist.

Water music is my identity, my culture.

We are grateful to members of Leweton Cultural Centre for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: Women of Limerous village playing the water music. Gaua Island, Vanuatu. Credit: David Kirkland.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >

Author(s)

Sandy Sur