Magazine article Geographical

Building a Republic

Magazine article Geographical

Building a Republic

Article excerpt

Isolated and battered by storms and earthquakes, the relatively new nation of Vanuatu struggles at times to survive. Marco Magrini marvels at how a land of diversity overcomes immense hardship

Vanuatu, a 35-year-old republic in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, made headlines back in March when Tropical Cyclone Pam smashed into the island chain with Category 5 winds blowing at 210 miles an hour. It brought widespread devastation, particularly to the southern provinces.

Experts said the storm was comparable in strength to Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013 and killed more than 6,000 people. In the aftermath of Pam, officials mentioned 24 victims and more than 40 people unaccounted for. At the time of writing, the final death toll stands, miraculously, at 11.

This was probably due to a combination of communications technology (mobile phone-carrying tribal chiefs received a cyclone advisory text message from the government), an ancestral inclination to preparedness, and the light material--mostly bamboo and pandanus--that most of the local homes are built with.

The superstorm severely hit ni-Vanuatu's (the the correct term for Vanuatuans) housing, subsistence farming and tourism infrastructure. Still, not every island was shattered--Espiritu Santo, the biggest in the chain, was somewhat spared--and the process of rebuilding has begun with the tourist flow quickly restarted and international aid pouring in.


Vanuatu is home to 266,000 people across 65 small islands of recent volcanic origin (17 more are uninhabited). After three millennia of sporadic immigration from other Pacific islands, mostly from Melanesia and Polynesia, the archipelago has evolved into a monumental display of anthropological diversity.

This quarter of a million of islanders speak a staggering 113 different non-written languages, many of which, being spoken by few remaining people, are endangered. This makes Vanuatu the place in the world with the highest density of mother tongues per capita.

Three centuries of persistent immigration from colonising European countries, first Spain (the explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros thought the islands were Australia), then Britain and France, has left a confusing mix of language. English and French are commonly spoken--villages only a few miles apart will speak one or another. There is also an official Vanuatuan language: Bislama, which is a rough and ready English with a dash of French, all wrapped around a simple Polynesian grammar.

For an English-speaking person, Bislama is relatively easy to learn. The prefix ol ('all') makes plurals; long stands for every possible place Cat', 'in', 'to', 'by', 'beside') and blong merely means 'of'. 'I want some glasses of beer on the table' is mi wantem ol glas blong bia long tebol,' explains Peter Uhi, a young lad who earns a living selling copies of the only newspaper on the archipelago, the English-speaking Vanuatu Daily Post.


In Vanuatu the range of human diversity doesn't stop with language.

Hiu, the northernmost island, is 530 miles from the southernmost one, Aneityum. The only two cities, the capital Port-Vila and Luganville on the Espiritu Santo island (the name of which comes from the aforementioned Fernandes de Queiros, who discovered the island under Spanish patronage, but who himself was Portuguese), hold no more than 21 per cent of the population.

Different cultures are spread throughout the dispersed nation, where recovered tools and artefacts date the first human settlements to at least 3,000 years ago. But, some anthropologists argue, they could be twice as old as that.

As a nation, Vanuatu is among the youngest in the world. Before Captain James Cook baptised the islands New Hebrides after the faraway Scottish archipelago, they didn't even exist as a concept, let alone a collective noun. …

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