"Kaot Blo Gel": A Woman's Rite of Passage Celebrated by the Tanna People

I was recently invited to attend a kastom (traditional) Tanna rite of passage known as kaot blo gel, a misleading title that translates to “female circumcision” with kaot being a local Tanna language word for circumcision.

In reality, the ceremony is a rite of passage celebrating a girl's first period and doesn't involve removing or cutting any parts of the genitalia. Since a circumcision ceremony takes place in Tanna for boys (usually between 8 and 12 years old) that symbolizes their transition into manhood, this one reflects a girl’s passage to womanhood.

I want to stress that Vanuatu is a diverse country, with over 80 islands and different ceremonies and traditions throughout the island nation. The kaot ceremony is one that belongs to the Tanna people. A teacher at my school, Madame Caroline, is from Tanna island, and has family near Port Vila. Her sister, Suzanne, was the one who invited me to attend the ceremony, as it was for a family member of her spouse, Tom. She accompanied me throughout, as she was one of the celebrated girl’s caretakers.

The girl we were celebrating was Marima. She saw the first blood of her period about a week ago, and on that first day is when she goes off into hiding.

One week later, Marima is ready for her kaot.

On the second day in hiding, some of Marima’s aunts, who are experienced in the practice, come to cut her. They use broken glass bottles to etch marks on her back, which will scar over and become something like a tattoo. Her friends who are in hiding with her, some of whom have experienced their first period and some of whom have not, can choose to join Marima in receiving the cutting. Marima had two patterns down her shoulder blades and down her back that resembled chicken footprints. Her other friends had similar patterns, with either two or three stripes down their back. One of her friends, who has yet to experience her first period, elected to have a cut on her upper arm instead. Suzanne explained that the cuts are representative of a shared pain, a sisterhood.

One of the older girls shows her back scars from her own kaot.  

Marima’s caretakers (aunts or extended family, as well as friends) are the ones who put her in hiding. In this case, Marima slept in a small house near her family’s compound. During the day she would hang out in the bush with her friends, playing cards and chatting. Throughout this time in hiding, no men or boys are allowed to see her. The reason for putting her into hiding is because the period blood is seen as unclean, and if men/boys see her, they could get sick. For subsequent periods, women aren't allowed to prepare food for their family, and they eat off of a special plate and use different utensils labeled for their time of the month. If a woman chooses to cook during her period, she must use special designated cookware.

While in hiding, Marima isn’t allowed to bathe herself or tend to herself in any way, so her friends are there to bathe her, brush and braid her hair, and provide her food. After the cutting, her friends roast coconut shavings over the fire and rub the warm cuttings on Marima’s back and face, as well as their own. Suzanne tells me that this is not just for healing the skin, but also it’s a sign of beauty, so when she finally emerges from hiding, she will be luminous and beautiful.

Marima’s parents, meanwhile, are preparing for the kaot. They are letting family know about Marima’s experience, and they are gathering food for the ceremony. The day that the kaot ceremony takes place is up to the parents: sometimes it is one week, or sometimes it is after the girl has finished bleeding.

Suzanne tells me that after a girl’s first period, her role changes in the home. No longer is she a child who needs to be told by her mother what to do and when. Now, she is yet another woman of the home, who can take care of younger siblings and provide for the family. Suzanne explains that this previously was the age that a girl could be married off, as she is now able to start a family of her own. Suzanne tells me that this is far less common now that Vanuatu has become more exposed to Western culture and Christianity. Suzanne stresses that times are changing, and now girls/women have more of a decision in their romantic partners and spouses.

There isn’t a strict schedule for today’s activities, but Suzanne called me this morning when the laplap was getting made. After one week of hiding, or however long the bleeding is, that is when the ceremony takes place. Since one week has passed, Marima's family planned the ceremony to take place on Thursday.

A turtle has been caught to be included in the afternoon feast!

When I arrived at around 10am, a handful of women were still making the laplap. One mama is braiding some long strips of fabric with leaves tucked inside, to be used as a kastom skirt for the ceremony. Suzanne points out a bucket on the ground that has mashed papaya and coconut milk in it, somewhat resembling vomit. She laughs as she tells me that Marima’s family will throw this on us and others who will “protect” Marima later in the ceremony.

One of the aunties makes a kastom skirt by braiding fabric around leaves. 

I introduce myself to many of Marima’s family members, who are all gathered on the family compound preparing food or chopping firewood. Several of the aunties I meet have a crusty orange slime in their hair, arms, and face. Suzanne tells me that’s the papaya mush. Just after I shake another aunty’s mush-covered hands, one of Marima’s grandfathers runs up to me and Suzanne with a bag of mashed banana. Without warning, he dips his hand in and smears it across Suzanne’s face and hair. After seeing my apprehension, he dips his hand in more carefully and presses it across my forehead and cheek so he won’t mess up my hair. Suzanne cackles with laughter, and I did the same. Suzanne laughs as she warns me again that we’re targets for the whole ceremony today...including the whipping that will take place later. “I’m going to change into pants. Did you bring pants?” I shake my head in disbelief. I didn’t know that I’d not only be witnessing, but also be taking part. Suzanne, in good spirits, tells me, “Yes! We’re protecting Marima, so they’re gonna try and whip us, too!”

Suzanne and I get covered in mashed banana

The part of the ceremony that Suzanne is referring to is the act of all of Marima’s family whipping Marima and her friends until they get to the ocean to bathe her. As Suzanne explains this, we walk back to her house. Coming towards us are two of Marima’s aunts, carrying pandanus roots that have been fashioned into whips by cutting the top and fraying it. As they come towards us, they laugh and Suzanne winces as one of the aunts smacks her on Suzanne’s calves, and mine as well. It stings, but isn’t too bad. “They got us!” Suzanne laughs.

Rosalina picks a pandanus root for her whip.

One of the boys shows off two of the pandanus whips he's made. 

We return to Suzanne’s house and she offers me clothes to change into. “If you get whipped, it leaves little dirt streaks, and it can break the fabric.” She tells me to layer up to prevent pain. I decide on some athletic shorts with a skirt, and two shirts to wear over my sports bra. She tells me that she instructed Marima to wear a wireless bra today for the ceremony for the same reason.

After changing, we return to the family compound and walk a short bit into the bush to meet Marima.

Marima was sitting in a circle with her friends in plainclothes, playing cards. I asked her how she felt, and she said fraed which can translate to anything from nervous to scared. The emotion was hard to read, as they all calmly sat there, putting cards on the mat as they played the game of Seven Lock.

As we sit there, Marima’s father comes into the bush. I’m a bit confused, but Suzanne says that since today is the ceremony, he can now see her and while she’s here “hiding” in the bush, she isn’t really in hiding anymore since the ceremony will take place today. Thus, he arrives, with a pandanus root in hand. The girls look terrified, and all but one scrambles and runs off into the bush, disappearing in the trees. He’s speaking in Tanna language so I ask Suzanne to translate, and she says he’s basically yelling at them for not supporting Marima and instead running away. What they’re supposed to do is sit, endure the whips, and support her. One friend remains and gets a single whip on the legs until he leaves. She laughs, and Marima and her friends slowly trickle out of the woods and back on the mat to play cards.

Eventually the laplap was on the fire, which meant it was time to get things moving. Suzanne emptied a tote bag on the mat, and inside was a bag full of various powdered paints. One of Marima’s aunts placed some leaves on the ground and placed a different color of powder on each leaf. Meanwhile, the girls were roasting some ground coconut and rubbing it on their faces and backs, and why not, on their legs, arms and hands for some extra moisture and shine.

Time for face paint!

Natasha gets her face painted. The powdered paint is on the leaves beside her. 

Marima sat on the mat across from her aunt, and other the other friends paired up, circled around the powdered paint. They took turns dipping coconut fronds (small, thin sticks) into the paint and pressing it on their friend’s face. The traditional Tanna paint includes thin colored lines across the cheeks. Some girls elected to just have a few stripes, while others did leaf-like veins sprouting from the stripes, or stripes running up the nose to the forehead. Marima’s aunt nearly covered Marima’s entire face, pressing red paint into the space between her cheek stripes and eyebrows.

Marima gets her face painted.

Wagina checks Facebook while getting her face painted. 

Wagina in her beautiful face paint and naio

Once the key players (Marima and her friends) have been painted, the women ask if I too want to be painted. I enthusiastically answer in the affirmative. Wagina takes a break from taking a dozen selfies on her phone to sit across from me on the mat and paint my face. Some other girls, a couple of the aunts, Suzanne’s young daughter Rosalina, and Suzanne all get their faces painted.

Wagina does my face paint.

Natasha and I pose with our face paint and naios in our hair.

Rosalina and me

Suzanne brandishes her whip and shows off the face paint she applied herself.

Natasha helps paint the younger girls.

Rosalina and her face paint.

Natasha and her face paint.

Mora applies her face paint in broad strokes.

While our faces are painted, the women and girls help Marima get ready. They pull out a traditional grass skirt and comb out the tangles before wrapping it around Marima’s waist, over a fabric skirt that she’s wearing over her athletic shorts. Another cousin wraps a leaf skirt on top of it. Marima awkwardly crosses her arms over her sports bra until her friend brings over a lavalava (sarong) to tie around her chest.

I tell Suzanne and Mora (one of Marima’s cousins) that the term “kaot” or “circumcision” is confusing for this ceremony, because there are actual female circumcisions that take place around the world, and it’s quite different than what is happening today. I tell them that in female circumcision, the clitoris and sometimes labia are cut and removed from the girl or woman’s private parts. Suzanne tells me her and Mora heard something about this, and were wondering what the clitoris’s purpose was. I tell them that the clitoris is translated in Bislama as ples blo harem gud (the feel good place), and is purely for sexual pleasure. I explain that it’s an external “button” of tissue filled with nerve endings that is super sensitive, and during a circumcision it is painfully removed. Suzanne and Mora both nod their heads, “Ah, so THAT is what that is for!”

Just this morning, after plucking the chickens to be cooked for dinner, the family has made several "naio," which are traditional feather sticks worn in the hair for kastom ceremonies. Natasha, one of Marima’s cousins, places two naio in Marima’s hair and one in her own. Suzanne explains that in the original tradition, the man who knocks out Marima’s naio to the ground would be her future husband, but this part of the tradition no longer takes place since women have more agency over choosing their spouses in the last 30 years or so.

Marima's aunt affixes a naio in her hair.

Mora takes some Christmas tinsel and wraps it around Marima’s head for decoration. Another aunt shows up to our gathering in the bush and pulls out a vial of green glitter, which the girls excitedly press on all of their faces, over the paint.

Get that glitter!

Now Marima stands ready, wearing a grass skirt and leaf skirt over it, a lavalava tied on her top, her face painted and sparkling with glitter, her neck draped with flower necklaces, her hair wrapped in tinsel and decorated with two feather naio. Her friends sport face paint, leaf skirts, tinsel, and naio. Suzanne sternly instructs her friends and cousins to protect Marima, and not run off like they did before. She pushes them into a defensive formation around her, and they emerge from the bush to the compound, where family is waiting.

Marima and Mora are ready!

One of the cousins attacks Marima and Mora just as they exit the bush

Marima and her friends (on the right) form a tight circle as family (on the left) creep in

Now begins the journey to the ocean. In our case, it’s the ocean, but depending on the village in Tanna, the trek could be to the nearest river or blue hole. It’s the journey to bathe Marima, to cleanse her and have her emerge as a new woman.

We walk to the ocean together, and we’re part of the “defensive team” for Marima. These are comprised of Marima’s caretakers and friends, but don’t include Marima’s direct family. Her direct family and distant relatives are in the “offensive team” who will try to hit her with whips. That’s not to say that our defense doesn’t have whips, because we most certainly do. How else can we defend ourselves? As we walk, we smack our whips on nearby rocks and tree trucks to fray out the ends. Marima turns to Natasha, “Can I do a test whip? To see if my whip hurts when I hit you?” Natasha turns her backside to Marima with hesitation and winces with the light whipping. I guess that's a "yes!"

Natasha gets goofy with her pandanus whip

We walk down the dirt road to a much larger dirt truck road that will lead us to the ocean. Suzanne, me, and a dozen women/girls surround Marima. About 10 meters behind us are the family. This is a less scary adventure than I was led to believe. “Why aren’t they coming after us yet?” I ask Suzanne. She tells me they can and will, but they have the entire journey to do so.

The family trails not too far behind us...

The family keeps its distance.

I was under the impression that we’d be racing to the ocean, looking behind us as people brandish their pandanus whips. But the stroll is leisurely, sometimes speeding to a skip as the women chant and sing Tanna kastom songs. One of Marima’s uncles is drunk on wine, as evidenced by the bottle hanging out of his pocket. With a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, he gives a goofy grin as he blasts tropical reggae music from a boombox on his shoulder, hopping along to the beat.

Every once in a while, the crowd behind us rushes ahead, running or skipping, and smacks us with the whips. I quickly turn around and smack others on the legs. The vibe reminds me of a water balloon fight: there’s fear, but nothing more than familial fun. Marima’s girl squad occasionally stops to take selfies, giving her family the ease to rush up for another whipping. The girls squeal and laugh and run ahead to take more selfies. I’m impressed with how well they’re protecting her. Two of her squad are holding either of Marima’s hands, and the others in the group form a tight circle around her, with Natasha trailing behind and getting the brunt of the attack.

One of the many mini-photoshoots we had on the road to the ocean, between whippings

Marima's friends hold her hands tightly and never let go.

Marima's friends don't leave her side, even when the attack is eminent.

Kids and adults alike take part in the tradition.

Suzanne gets her aunty good!

Along the way, Suzanne warns of family who are in hiding in the bushes or trees, jumping out at opportune moments to rush toward Marima. Everyone is laughing, sprinting, skipping and singing.

The day is long, with us eventually making our way to the beach at 3pm, where a large family of locals from Ambrym are picnicking. Suzanne laughs as she tells me, “Those people are probably looking at us thinking, ‘Look at the crazy Tanna people!’”

We soon approach the beach.

More whipping takes place on the beach. One aunt is breastfeeding her child when an uncle runs up to hit her. A cousin swoops in to take the baby as the aunt gets chased away, her boob still hanging out of her v-neck shirt, bouncing as she laughs and runs around, seeking out a whip of her own to get back at him.

The whipping doesn't stop once we're in the ocean!

Marima’s friends take off her clothes and decorations, leaving her covered with the lavalava as she gets in the water. Marima and all of us girls rub off our face paint in the water. Previously, Suzanne told me that once Marima’s in the water, the whipping ends, but I guess that’s to be taken loosely. Everyone rushes into the water with their whips and they’re splashing away at each other. First, the “defensive” team whips Marima, then other family, then her parents. As with the journey here, everyone is laughing and having a good time. Suzanne turns to me with a sincere tone, “You see, her parents are laughing and having a good time, but they’re just hiding how sad they are. Now their little girl is a woman, and she’s one step closer to getting married and leaving the family.”

Marima's friends change her before she goes into the water.

Marima swims past her family into the ocean. 

An uncle takes a swig of wine while taking a dip in the ocean.

Marima's family surrounds her in the ocean.

After about thirty minutes of swimming and splashing, Marima comes out of the water with her friends. She doesn’t put on her kastom clothing and instead only keeps the lavalava. We walk back, and Suzanne informs me that there are a few other relatives who will be present on our return, with sticks this time. However, since we’ve all swam together in the ocean now, the offensive/defensive teams of before are now all one mass of defense for Marima. We’re all one now. An uncle emerges on our walk home, but he doesn’t even attempt to whip her, as we outnumber him, 100 to one. Suzanne tells me that once we return to the house, Marima’s friends will change her into brand new clothing and a new skirt, and paint her face again, to reveal her as a new woman. Afterwards, we’ll eat the laplap.

I ask Marima how she feels now. “Gud. Mi nomo fraed.” (Good, I’m no longer afraid.) I point out a tiny cut on her shoulder that’s bleeding, presumably from one of the whips. Her friends gasp and point, but Marima stays calm. “There are bandages at the house,” Suzanne tells her. Marima shrugs it off, like it’s her red badge of courage.

See moments from the day in the video below. 


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