Vanuatu - Nalawan Festival of the Small Nambas, Malakula


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Philip and I walked all the way to the village of Labo seeking the organizer of the Nalawan festival. We found no one the village except a frail old old man and this tamtam.

Labo Serene

The homes and gardens of the 100 or so villagers of the pretty village of Labo cascade down the hillsides.

Hilly Terrain

Flat land is of a premium in Labo and some of the villagers must resort to stilts in order to build their homes.

Folktale of the Yam

This photo of the Small Namba dancers and the two that follow depict the folklore of the yam, an important food in Vanuatu.

Smart Brother

A series of five brothers confront a witch who controls the fate of the yam harvest. The first four are defeated but the fifth triumphs over the witch.


The colorful and elaborate props used by the dancers are all handmade using jungle materials. No plastic here. This clan has exclusive rights to these colors and designs established over millennia.

Abundant Lunch

The women of Labo put on a plentiful lunch feast: chicken, beef, yams, taro, laplap, cassava, pork, bananas and more.

Gardens Everywhere

Nelson showed us the water lilies that the villages were growing in the pool of fresh water that was diverted from a mountain spring.

Copra is King

The village men demonstrate .how coconuts are spilt open with axes after which the meat is extracted with special knives and then dried in crude ovens, fueled by fires of - surprise! - coconut husks.

Christina's Dress

Christina, of the Swedish sailboat Comedie, shows off a dress that was a gift from one of the Labo village women after she mistakenly admired it.


The skin of the ripe cocoa fruit is yellow. When split open, the seeds are enveloped in a white somewhat slimy coating which has a sweet and pleasing taste. The seed itself is later roasted for processing.

Lapita Revival

The peoples who settled these islands are descendents of the Lapita people who were known for their distinctive pottery. This artist was trained in NZ as these skills have died out in the islands.

New Art

This newly constructed pot is ready for firing. The villagers are planning on building a wood fired kiln.

Lapita from the Bush

This is close up photo of an ancient piece of pottery which the villagers had found at a nakamal in the jungle. The significance of the markings on the pottery are unknown.


One of the attractions of the festival was kava drinking. Here, two guys work to pound fresh kava roots into a pulp which is then wrapped in cloth and the liquid squeezed out. The taste? Like peppery dirty water that makes your lips and tongue go numb. the Sun Sets

This pretty sunset appeared off Labo village as we stood around for the kava drinking ceremony. The upright stick is a common aid to navigation in the Pacific Islands.

Everyone Must Try Kava

Philimen hands Philip a full cup of kava. The custom is to down the liquid at one low slow gulp without taking the cup from your lips..


This man is in mourning after the passing of his brother, a village chief. Note the ash markings on his face and body and the tusk of boar, a sign of a warrior.

Warrior Dance

Four or five musicians, shiny with perspiration from their efforts, accompanied the dancers.

Becoming a Fish

The props the men used were highly colorful and made entirely of flora found in the jungle.

Swimming to Battle

The symbolism marked the ability of the warriors to change themselves into fish in order to disguise themselves to their enemies. They would then change back into men and vanquish their foes.

Victorious Return

The school of warrior fish returned to the village, victorious. This is a classic Small Namba warrior dance.

Making Fire

This young man demonstrates how the villagers start a fire by rubbing a sharpened stick within the grove of a dry log. Within a minute after starting, he had started this fire.

Will Philip Make Fire?

These children watch as Philip attempted to start a fire.

Coconut Crab

A sacred art in Vanuatu, sand painters trace intricate patterns in the sand in one long continuous line. The images are stylized and often represent animals, this one is a coconut crab.

Natangora for Your Roof

This lady, also in mourning for a recently deceased chief, was weaving natangora fronds for a roof. Surprisingly snug, the roofs are watertight for about six years and will not leak water even in a tropical downpour.

Pandanus Mat

All village women learn the art of weaving pandanus mats, some woven in bright colors with intricate designs. These represent the furniture in a home and are spread around the floor. Shoes are always removed before entering a home.

Little Weaver

This young girl was weaving with a skill that nearly matched the that of the older women.

Cooking Tools from the Bush

The village women demonstrated the use of hand fashioned kitchen tools: bamboo wood knives (surprisingly sharp), shell knives and this taro grater made from the woody part of a natangora leaf.

Bamboo Cookware

Sections of bamboo were packed with food such as laplap or banana and placed directly on a wood fire for cooking.

Small Namba Game

The Namba dancers tried to demonstrate a traditional game but ended up dissolving into laughter when some of the men made incorrect moves.

Handsome Guide

Nelson was our personal tour guide at the village of Labo.

Water Yam Dance

This prop is supposed to depict a part of the yam plant.

Celebrating the Water Yam

The dances and festivals are performed, not for tourist purposes, but for traditional ceremonies for the villagers.

Heirloom Masks

To avoid bad luck, all the beautifully constructed costumes - except the masks - used in the dances are destroyed after the festival ends.

Anchorage from Labo Village

This view of Southwest Bay looks out from Labo village south towards Ten Stick Rock. Note the reef in the foreground.

Yegor of the Peace Corps

Yegor, a talented and personable guy, is an American of Russian descent who is ending his two-year commitment in the village.

Lembinwen Yacht Club

We up-anchored from Labo and moved to Lembinwen village for the third day of the festival.


Simon, our Lembinwen village tour guide showed us giant clams which are being cultivated in the lagoon behind the village.

Ocean Blue Wood for Canoes

The wood of the tree used in canoe carving turns blue when in contact with water. Hard to see here, but note the blue color leeching out from these wood chips.

Sailing Home from the Garden

Some villagers utilize a makeshift sail of palm leaves held vertically while a person paddles or uses the paddle as a rudder.

Amazing Archer

Lembinwen put on a demonstration of attracting lagoon fish with coconut pieces so this man could shoot them with arrows from his hand carved bow. An impressive sight; his first shot into the water from a distance of 15 feet and he hit the fish hit dead center.

Who's the Strongest Swimmer?

Four young village men vied for honors in a swimming contest. First prize: a small pig, second prize a rooster.


Women dancing amongst the Small Namba tribes is somewhat rare and is performed by women of standing in the village. This ceremonial dance was undertaken to celebrate the ascension of a woman to a higher grade in the village.


The eldest of the dancers with her bamboo tamtam chanting and signing in her native language.

A Woman Rises in Rank

The woman on the far right wears a woven hat for the occasion. The three nubbins on top mean she has reached a status after having killed three pigs.