By Anita Grigg
I read with interest an article by Aileen Goodson “Nudity in Ancient to Modern Culture,” Issue 50 of TAN magazine, where she wrote, “Unfortunately, modern civilization’s puritanical laws of decency have labeled unclothed tropical-zone cultures as offensive and inferior. Missionaries, settlers, and tradespeople have effectively forced compliance with western dress codes wherever primitive cultures are found.”
Recently we went on a cruise with P&O aboard the Pacific Dawn. At the remote Pentecost Island in Vanuatu, we found an almost nude tropical- zone culture that very much illustrated how missionaries and the influence of western visitors are causing natives to dress in western clothes in the name of “modesty” and we fear the Christian Church, which is being built on the island, will irreversibly change the nature of a unique cultural ritual which will be a tragic loss to the diversity of human behaviour throughout the world.
Pentecost is a lush, mountainous, tropical PacificIsland60km in length. First sighted and named on the day of Pentecost 22 May 1768 by Louis Antoine de Bougainville, it was also sighted by Captain James Cook during his voyage through the New Hebrides(now called Vanuatu) in 1774. The descendants of the present day native inhabitants (Ni-Vanuatu) ‘island hopped’ from New Guineaand Indonesiathousands of years ago. Visits by westerners have been rare over the years, however, in modern history; successive Christian missionaries have influenced the cultural dress code of the remote island. Fortunately, some traditional customs and rituals still remain today having resisted change thus far.
One of the main reasons for selecting this particular cruise was that it was one of the few cruises to visit PentecostIslandin Vanuatuwhen the N’Gol was taking place. What is the N’Gol? The N’Gol is the land diving ceremony of the southern part of the Island, which is considered the spiritual birthplace of the extreme sport of bungee jumping. N’Gol is regarded by many as the most unusual and unique ancient tribal ritual in Oceania(a region well known for unusual native rituals and customs). These mysterious people and their ritual would not be out of place in National Geographic magazine.
The origins of N’Gol land dive goes back to a legend passed down by word of mouth to successive generations of indigenous inhabitants. Many generations ago, as the story goes, a newly married young woman was shy on her wedding day and ran away rather than satisfy her new husband sexually. He chased after her. She climbed to the top of a tall banyan tree. Her new husband pursued her up the tree. So she threw herself from the tree and he followed feeling that life without her was not worth living. On the way down her foot was caught in a vine, which stopped her fall and she did not hit the ground below and lived. However her new husband was killed by the fall. Sadly the missionaries have changed the story that is now being told to the children saying instead, “the husband abused the woman and that was why the woman ran away and jumped from the tree”. Apparently they think it is better to tell children a story with violent content rather than a tragic romantic tale with sexual content! So this was the first change they made.
At first it was the women of the tribe who did the land diving. Alas the Western visitors objected to this and now only males are allowed to dive. Both women and men of the tribe dance and chant on the mound next to the tower to encourage the men and boys to jump. All the males who are involved in the ceremony, whether they are jumping, preparing the tower, digging ground, assisting the jumpers afterwards, or just dancing and chanting on the mound wear only a penis shield and belt (called a nambas) made out of woven palm leaf fibres. The females involved in the ceremony as chanting dancers, wear only a grass skirt and are topless. We talked to a 13 year old girl and a six-year-old boy at the primary school before the ceremony who were to be chanting dancers at the ceremony. The ritual has now become an initiation into manhood for young boys as young as eight and a fertility ritual for all males who participate, which ensures a good yam (Taro) harvest.
Each year, between April and June, the men build a 35 metre high wooden tower on the side of a hill. Prior to their dive, the men, advised by tribal elders, select their lianas (vines). It is important that the vines are the correct length but also that they are not too moist or elastic so they don’t stretch or jerk the diver back to the tower and not too dry so they don’t break. The reason for the timing of this ritual is because between April and June the vines are just right and it is the end of the wet season so the land below the tower is soft. It is also the time before the main Taro growing season. The elders of the tribe further soften the earth before the dive ceremony by digging with poles sharpened to a point at one end.
The divers leap from platforms set at various heights of the tower. The youngest boys, being inexperienced, leap from the lowest platforms. They leap head first with a vine tied to each ankle to prove their courage and suitability to become “men” of the tribe. It is expected they will scrape their head lightly to pass their male virility and fertility to the earth ensuring good crops of food for the year. Mark and I talked to one of the young eight year old boy divers before the N’Gol ceremony in the village. He was excited and proud. Later, we watched him climb the tower to a lower platform. He performed the rituals he had seen performed by the men of his tribe so many times. He stuck out his pelvis and swivelled from side to side pointed his pelvis towards the crowd. He let go of the tower with one hand and then the other and he waved to the crowd and he waited for the cheering and clapping of the crowd to build as he balanced precariously on the platform. He appealed to the native dancers on the mound to dance faster and chant louder. And when he was ready he jumped without hesitation.
He was slightly concussed (because he did hit the ground with his head having tumbled straight down instead of pushing himself out) but the elders helped him up at the base of the tower and made sure he was OK. Many tourists were upset by this head injury but I thought I had seen worse at a schoolboy football game. It was a “man” of the tribe who rejoined his mates on the mound with such obvious pride. The other boy jumped further out as he had been taught and was unhurt when he touched the ground.
Other older males jumped from progressively higher platform until after two hours, the chief jumps from the highest platform.