Blog, Vanuatu

5 Weddings and a Funeral Vanuatu Style

After over 2 years ‘on the road’ we have learned that the best experiences often come from unexpected events in unexpected places. Places we would have previously never even knew existed.

Other than the rough depth of the anchorage, we had little other information on Akham Island. From the information on the chart it looked as good a place as any to spend the night, as it allowed for a lunch stop and swim at a neighbouring island that was not sheltered enough to spend the night. Having suggested our plans to friends on their yacht ‘Vega’, we set off sailing in company.

Sailing in company with Vega

Our arrival at Akham revealed that the small island housed a fairly large village. After a couple of attempts both Vega and Florence were securely anchored; the only yachts in the bay. A large crowd was gathered on the beach as skiff after skiff arrived; each loaded to the gunnels with provisions and people. The crowd and provisions both outnumbered the size of the village; something big was occurring.


Landing the dinghy through the surf, we were met with the usual enthusiastic group of young helpers. Making our way past the stacks of bananas, yam and other provisions gathering on the beach, we reached a village elder named Fred. Fred welcomed us into the village and filled us in with what was happening. His son was getting married in two days time, along with 4 other couples. The 20 day mourning period from a death in the village would also be ending, making 5 weddings and a funeral all in one day. People had travelled from surrounding islands and they were expecting a many more over the next couple of days. Cows were being butchered, vegetables chopped and kava ground ready for the celebrations. In true Vanuatu hospitality we were of course all invited.

The buying of a Bride

The following day we were invited to witness the “buying of a bride” ceremony. Gifts and money are passed from the grooms family, to the family of the bride, to compensate them losing a domestic pair of hands in the family. In Vanuatu and the bride leaves her family (and often her island) to move in with her husbands family. In the past women used to be given to neighbouring tribes as brides to create peace between the tribes. The other tribe would then provide a woman, for marriage, in return; a ‘sister exchange’. We were pleased to know that the 5 marriages that we would be witnessing were marriages of love, initiated by the couples.

Announcing the ceremony via shell horn
Along with ‘the bride price’ of 80,000vt (around£500 – £600) woven floor mats and fabrics are some of the traditional gifts given to the bride’s family by the groom’s family

5 Weddings

The weddings themselves were an interesting mix of Christian and Ni-Vanuatu traditions. The day started in style of a British wedding; with a, bail the dinghy and batten down the hatches torrential rain downpour. By the time we braved it ashore, we expected to have missed the ceremonies. Luckily for us the time schedule was in true Vanuatu style; running a couple of hours behind. Ushered towards the front of the church and encouraged to take photos, we took a pew and sat awaiting the arrival of the wedding party. While the elders had donned a shirt and the women their church dresses, most of the guests were decked out in their smartest t-shirts, shorts and occasional flip flops. We sat wondering what the brides and grooms would be wearing on their big day.


It wasn’t long before we were surrounded by a group of smiling, curious kids, content just staring and exchanging grins with the foreign guests. A hymn book was directed our way as we stood to sing. Was it ruder not to sing or to sing badly and mispronounce the words? Our attempts at singing in Bislama provided further entertainment for our growing crowd of young onlookers.

The already full church became fit to burst with the arrival of the five couples and their many bridesmaids. So what do you wear on your wedding day in tropical Vanuatu? A black suit and tie for the grooms and a white dress and veil for the brides of course! The wedding party were also all covered in patches of white powder to symbolise happiness. Beaming smiles covered the guests faces but the couples themselves remained sombre and stern faced. Divorce is very rare in Vanuatu and each couple had it instilled on them that they are doing a very serious thing in the face of god. To smile or show any sign of light hearted joy would have been disrespectful.

Each couple took turns to exchange vows
The white powder on their cheeks and clothes symbolises happiness

It wasn’t until the cake cutting, make that 5 cake cuttings, after the service that the couples started to crack a smile and show signs of actually liking each other.


Elder Fred very kindly invited us to eat the wedding meal with his family. The dishes included; yam, chicken, beef stew, rice, island cabbage and grapefruit.
The previous evening we had been invited to dinner with another family who shared the traditional ‘lap lap’ with us. Meat is sandwiched between finely grated manioc (a potato like vegetable), wrapped in banana leaves then slow cooked in a hole in the ground covered by rocks heated by a fire. It is then sliced before everyone tucks in while its still hot.

A Funeral

The cake cutting was followed by a walk to the houses at the other end of the island for the presentation of the new grave. A speech was given and flowers placed on the concrete grave. This presentation marked the end of the mourning period. Family who had traveled from nearby islands and villages to mourn for 20 days would now return home. The previous day we had sat around with the family for a meal by the fire. Tears streamed down our faces from the smoke as it was explained to us that the fire used to mask the smell of the body during the 20 day morning period before it was buried. Although the bodies are now buried sooner, the tradition of sitting in the smoke has remained.

The evening brought the standard wedding entertainment; a disco. The young guests had been looking forward to this event for months; a rare opportunity to let their hair down. Let their hair down they did. Alcohol is only consumed on special occasions. Kava and marijuana are usually the vices of choice; probably part of the reason everyone is so laid back. With the young men becoming increasingly boisterous we decided the kids were probably the safest company. Matt soon had a crowd surrounding him, copying his every move. Occasionally his inspiration for crazy new dance moves ran out and he resorted to star jumps; all copied by his enthusiastic crowd of followers. An attempt at the conga left them perplexed and unimpressed. As the evening wore on, the energy of the crowd severely outweighed ours, a few fights were brewing and we were thankful to retreat back to the comfort and safety of Florence. We had only ever been made to feel welcome and had not been threatened in any way but felt it was best to say thank you and goodnight.

It was a real privilege to witness such important life events and be welcomed so warmly. The people of Vanuatu had once again blown us away with their hospitality. We left Akham with full stomachs, full hearts and two big boxes of grapefruit to deliver to family members on the next island we were visiting.

Florence anchored behind a traditional sailing canoe. The outriggers are still used to travel along the coast and between local islands.


A real positive to our experience on Akham was the presence of Timo; a Bulgarian PHD student, documenting the island’s unique language. As well as translating anything beyond the ability of the villagers English, he educated us on life of the island and the correct etiquette of the situation; never to refuse food offered to you, whom to give a thank you gift to etc. Timo’s work was fascinating, he was documenting the language of the village, one of over 100 languages spoken in Vanuatu. Without Bislama, the common language of Vanuatu, people here would be unable to communicate with other villages a canoe ride or walk away. Most families speak the language of the village at home, Bislama is used in school and school children will learn either English or French as their third language.

Black Magic

We later found out that this island was the location of two brutal public hangings of men suspected of performing black magic. The hangings were conducted in 2014, only 4 years previously. They were initiated by chiefs and village elders and at least 40 people were involved. Our unawareness of this during our visit was probably a positive as it allowed us to experience the island without any preconceptions.

The sun setting over Malakula (a large island to the north of Akham Island). Villages close enough to see have a language so different that they would not be able to communicate without the common language of Bislama.



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