Last week we had a big custom celebration in my village; a cower (coh-er), the party held to mark the end of the month-long seclusion for newly circumcised boys. This is pretty much the biggest kind of custom party that happens on Tanna, and they always happen around this time of year, because this is when we harvest the yams, and exchanging yams is a big part of this festival.
I’m not going to go into all the anthropological details—I did that in a post last year—just going to share some photos and fun tidbits. Basically it was a solid day of making laplap with the women of my host family, so lots of rubbing taro roots against a prickly black palm branch until they turned into mush. Around me, the other women cut up yams, bananas, and manioc, which still others were grating into mush like myself. My older cousins cut open coconuts and scraped out their flesh into bowls, which I was amused to realize were really large, round rubber buoys, cut in half. I asked one aunt about it and she said they’d washed up on shore on Erromango, an island to the north, and made much stronger bowls than the flimsy things you buy in the store.
Then that night there was a little pre-custom dance, which consisted of women from my village and surrounding areas basically getting drunk and dancing around a burning tree. Yes, it was as cool as it sounds.
The next day was the actual custom celebration. We ladies all put on our finest face paint and grass skirt, wrapped our heads in tinsel and stuck feathers in our hair. The men put on slightly more restrained face paint and wrapped themselves in sarongs, and we all went to the nakamal. The families of the circumcised boys built big piles of yams and baskets and mats, to be given to other families. So there was much exchanging of yams, then we went back in the afternoon and ate our laplaps.
That evening I busted out a bunch of glow sticks for the kids in my family, and we spent a while hanging out. Finally, around 11:00 PM, the dancing started. I went with my grandma and some of my cousins back to the nakamal, where people were doing custom dances. They’d keep going until dawn; I planned to just dance a little bit and then go to bed.
This being a pretty big event, there were people from all over the island there, and my obvious foreignness made me a novelty all over again. The people from my village all laughed and cheered to see me dancing in custom dress, of course, but they know me. Going that night, there were fewer people from my area and a lot more strangers, and in the shadowy nakamal I heard whispers of “Missus! Missus!” following me wherever I went. I gamely went out and started dancing—the men dance in the middle, and the women stand in a circle around them, jumping and sometimes skipping around them. At one point, my teenage cousin helpfully leaned over and told me, “They’re laughing at you.” “Yeah,” I replied with a smile. “I know.”
In a way it was frustrating—I mean, I’ve been here for almost two years. I LIVE here. Who are YOU? But at the same time, I’ve gotten so used to being stared at and noticed and whispered about that it’s not a big deal any more. One woman from the group of those dancing and staring and whispering nearest to me finally worked up the courage to ask, “What your name?” When I replied in Bislama and started chatting about who I was, she was very friendly and sweet. She held my hand while we danced, and squeezed it to signal when I should stop jumping, and led me in skipping around the circle.
I danced with the women for a while, chatting with my new friend. She told me I was the best of anyone in my village at custom, which literally translates as “You win at custom,” so that made me feel pretty good. I wasn’t sure what she meant—I guess that I was dancing and not many women from my village were yet? But still, I win! Yeeeeeah.
Then I walked home, past more men on the road staring at my whiteness, and washed the paint off my face, and fell asleep to the sound of the singing and dancing in the nakamal.
It was a lot of fun, and as I sat at the nakamal, and wandered around my host family’s compound from kitchen to kitchen that night to chat, it was remarkable how comfortable I felt. This is my place, now. And it’s my place to be out of place. The stares, the giggles, the endless conversations happening around me and about me in incomprehensible language—it just doesn’t bother me in the same way anymore. This where I’m at home being an outsider. It’s an odd thing. And it feels pretty good.
And it’s also just home. As I told another volunteer, “I can tell I’m more integrated now because instead of telling me to take a photo of the dancers, my mom is telling me to go find our mat and then cut the laplap.”