Tying the Knot in Vanuatu: An inside look at a local wedding, Part 1

Last week, I attended my fourth Vanuatu wedding, and it was the best one yet. Weddings make the whole village come alive with the hustle and bustle of preparations.

This wedding was different than the ones I've previously attended because it was my close friend, Rena's. You may think, "were you allowed to go to strangers' weddings?" Yes, yes I was, and I'll get to the public aspect of the wedding later on. The fact that Rena and her family are so close to me allowed me to freely ask questions, find out the true purpose and order of the ceremonies and learn about a local Nguna wedding in the most fun way possible.

Weddings are different all across Vanuatu, but this series will focus on Efate-area weddings.

In part 1, we'll take a look at the preparations before the wedding.

Me, Rena and David at the 2017 year 8 graduation day


Rena and her partner, David, have been together for over thirty years. They have three children, Annie, Daniela, and Angela. The first two already have boyfriends and children. Annie and Daniela are older and already out of school. Annie's daughter, Margaret, is already in the 7th grade. Angela is currently in the 9th grade.

Despite the very Christian background of ni-Vans, it is very common to have children out of wedlock and get married later on in life. Weddings are expensive and quite a production, and the monetary and time constraints prevent multiple weddings from happening many times a year.

Wedding Season

In early July, Rena asks me what I'll be doing over school break between terms 2 and 3 (which takes place in mid-August). "I'll be around." "Good...I'll be getting married!" My face lights up in a pleasant surprise, and we hug. That is my official wedding invitation!

The process of announcing the wedding publicly reminded me of when I was researching my family history in Norway. Just like in Norway, there are wedding banns, in which the event of a wedding must be announced to the village at the local church (Rena attends the Presbyterian, the largest one in the village) three consecutive Sundays about a month before the date of the event.

August is a popular month for weddings in Vanuatu. With opposite seasons to the USA, June-August are the cooler months. It's also conveniently in the middle of the year, so there aren't "close of season" issues, like there would be in December or January when all programs, organizations and clubs end for the year and restart in February.

Since Rena is a teacher, it's convenient for her to make her wedding during the school break, since weddings can be quite disruptive for school. Everyone is invited and therefore students miss school for the week of events. We'll get to more of that later.

Once David and Rena decided to get married, they gather their immediate family in an official meeting at their respective families' homes. They announce the plans, and they hit the ground running. "It takes a village to plan a wedding" is an English phrase that I tell people here. Once David and Rena tell their brothers and sisters, it becomes their siblings' responsibility to spread the news to family near (Efate) and far (other islands, like Santo). Their siblings and family also take on the responsibility of contractors, cooks, and handymen for the days leading up to the wedding.

Rena tells me that they finally got around to organizing a wedding because they just saved enough money to do so. It takes time, money, and lots of family dedication to plan one.

Rena also explains to me that her wedding will be a short one, for monetary reasons. All the previous weddings I've attended were Monday-Thursday dining and preparations, and Friday was the actual church ceremony. To save money and time, Rena and David's will have a Tuesday church ceremony, and public dining only on Monday.

The Set-Up

July is a busy month for David and Rena. Imagine...for each and every wedding, not only are you physically building your reception venue, but you're doing all the planning and catering. Stressful, right? But like most of my friends here, they don't show their stress. I feel bad stopping by their house to visit, but each and every time they tell me to have a seat, brew me some tea, and have me chat with them as they work on the various tasks leading up to the big day.

For a wedding, there are two areas that are prepared: the bride's home and the groom's home. In each of these two areas, shelters are erected for a long dining table and an area for floor seating on mats. There is an area created and designated as the laplap and/or cooking area, where a pit is dug in the ground and filled with rocks to later be used in the cooking process. An earth oven is built, wherein a pit is dug in the ground, larger than that used for laplap, because this one is for bunia, which is a roasted vegetable dish, which in this case will be made with a whole pig baked on top (there were many of these built for the chief's ordination last year). They build a small fire kitchen, which can hold a GIANT pot (there's lots of mouths to feed), and there is an area built for people to wash dishes and plate the food. There is another shelter that is much like a table on stilts, which I'll refer to as the "food shelter." This area houses all the vegetables, chickens, pigs and fruits that will be consumed over the days surrounding the wedding.

The food shelter at the bride's home, filled with food a couple days before the wedding.

The dish washing/plating station at the bride's home.

The food shelter for the groom's side, already piled high with food days before the wedding.

The dining area built for the groom's area.

Annie erected a tarp wall around the bride's home for a bit of privacy around the dining and cooking areas, since their home is so close to the road. 

An open shelter for mats located near the groom's area, so people can sit in the shade to prepare food or simply hang out. This one has been built out of sticks and tarp. 

A tarp set up near the groom's area for shade where gifts will be presented to the groom's family. 

A kitchen erected near the groom's home. See how big that pot is?! It's not even the largest one I've seen for a wedding...

An earth oven for the bride's side, located near the beach. A "wall" is built to block the wind.

The earth oven near the groom's area, where the men cook the meat the day before the wedding. 

Since Rena and David already live together and Rena's parents are deceased, their shared home will serve as the bride's home, and the groom's home will be set up at his father Joseph's home just a short walk down the road. In July, they're both living together, but David is often spending his days with his family doing things at his father's home, setting up.

On July 11th, their family helps them build a shelter beside their shared home (in this case, the bride's area). They erect wooden poles and put up tin roofing to create an open-air dining area. They bring in planks of wood and build a long dining table and long benches on either side.

On July 16th, David has a busy day at his father's house, building the side floor-seating shelter, the food shelter, and the laplap shelter. One full day of work, but lots of progress was made!

Throughout July, David and his family are also busy building new toilets beside the bride's home. They have toilets already, but they've upgraded to water-seal toilets and a new shower. "There will be a lot of people passing through; we want it to be nice," he tells me. The concrete structure housing them is quite impressive, and David plans to install lights in each the shower and toilet stalls.

Rena and David reach out to the women in their respective families and ask them to start weaving over 20 mats out of local pandanus leaves. These will come into play later, but for now I'll simply say that they're for gifting to those who help with the wedding.

David tells me his personal deadline to get everything prepared for the wedding is July 30th, but he lets out a chuckle saying that there's always last minute work to be done.

Dressing the Part

Meanwhile, Rena is busy getting all the fabric for the clothes. All dresses for weddings and events are custom-made in my village, and there are many outfits the bride and groom wear throughout the festivities.

Rena went into Port Vila and selected a color and pattern for her side of the family to wear and one for David's side to wear. She decides on a green paisley print for her side, and the identical print in purple for David's side. However, once the distributing of fabric begins, they run out and have to buy more, but the purple paisley has run out. David's side of the family ends up being a mix of blue floral, purple floral, and purple paisley print, while Rena is able to get another massive bolt of green paisley print.

In mid-July, Rena comes to the school and tells the teachers that she is officially inviting us to stand on her side of the wedding, and that we will have seats reserved on the wedding day at the church hall for lunch. This is a special honor, as we'll be sitting with her direct family and David's direct family, while the remainder of the village will be eating at the bride's and groom's areas in the village. "You'll get to eat PIG!" Rena excitedly tells me with a laugh. Pork is very exciting indeed!!!

Rena also takes this time to get our fabric orders. I've found that if you're offered to wear a specific fabric for an event that it's not an option. It would be quite rude to turn it down. Not that I wanted to, because her paisley fabric was quite nice. I bought 3 yards of fabric for a total of 600vt, which is enough for either an island (Mother Hubbard) dress or a missus (fitted) dress. The other teachers buy much more fabric, enough to make shirts and dresses for their husbands, wives, and children.

Rena tells me she bought some of the fabric for herself, to make an island dress. She'll wear it around the wedding, but for the actual wedding itself, she will have a wedding dress. She tells me she doesn't want to wear white. I tell her that traditionally, white is worn because it's virginal. She lists off her three daughters with a laugh and says, "Not me!" She instead tells me she'll be wearing an island-print fabric instead, but it will be sewn in a different style than the missus or island dresses. She seems excited, and I am, too!

Rena also took a large quantity of fabric to sew up dresses for her three daughters, her grandchildren, her sisters and brothers-in-law and other family that will stand on her side. She sent the fabric for both her family and David's family to various women in the village and paid them to make over 20 dresses and shirts.

Right after I buy my fabric from Rena, I take it to Leiman in the village to sew me a dress. I bring her another missus dress that fits me well, and tell her I want a "butterfly" dress, which is a missus dress with a fluttery neckline. She sees my missus dress doesn't have darts in it, but she prefers sewing darts, so she decides to just take my full measurements.

I go to Leiman's sewing workshop/handicraft shop in the village and she takes out a tape measure and notes that she doesn't have my measurements on file. She pulls out a tiny notebook with a pre-folded page listing the types of measurements and starts listing my measurements: height, bust, hips, waist, shoulders, etc, on a new page listed as "Leimara" (my village name).

A Woman's Worth

One of David's responsibilities leading up to the wedding is arranging a bride price. In Vanuatu culture, the groom's family traditionally puts together a large collection of gifts to present to the bride's family in exchange for the bride. David explains that the bride price no longer carries the weight of importance that it once did in their culture, but it still remains a major part of kastom in their culture. He tells me that despite the missionaries majorly affecting the Vanuatu culture over the last couple hundred years and making it follow more Western ideals and Christian traditions, it is still important for locals to maintain their traditions through various rites and ceremonies. The bride price, he tells me, is now more of a sign of respect to the bride's family for all that they do in preparation of the wedding, and a way to join two families with a sign of respect.

The bride price is subjective, he tells me. There is not a set amount to pay the bride's family, it is what the bride and groom's families agree upon. Traditionally, a bride price traditionally includes mats, raw sugar cane roots, a pig, and kava root.  Pigs are a very respected animal in Vanuatu culture (tusks are present on the Vanuatu flag), but now, cow is more commonly given instead of pig, because of Seventh-Day Adventist (or SDA) churchgoers, who are forbidden from eating pork.  There are also other island foods included in a bride price, such as coconuts, plantains, yams, manioc (cassava),  and kumala (sweet potato). In more modern times, the bride price also includes bags of rice, white sugar, island dresses, and yards of island-print fabric.

He also tells me that now, in more modern times, money is also given as part of the gift. The chiefly council known as the Malvatu Mauri recently changed the designated monetary price of the cash given in a local wedding as 80,000vt. However, David tells me that our island has different rules, and each couple is also able to agree on a price they find fair. Rena tells me that David's family will probably give closer to 30,000vt instead.

In the next part of the series, we'll take a look at the controlled chaos of the days leading up to the big wedding day!


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