Tanna Island, Vanuatu – The breeze drifting in through the open windows did little to alleviate the stifling heat, so most of the congregation were fanning themselves with their hymn books.
In the rafters of the tiny Presbyterian church, mynahs and kingfishers played tag, swooping down now and then just above the heads of the clergymen and the elders.
But the playful birds weren’t the only things that set this service apart from what we in North America would consider normal. For a start, the average clergyman doesn’t begin by asking the outsider (in this case me), “Yu stap wea?”
That’s pidgin English, here called Bislama. It’s the official language of Vanuatu, and Pastor Thomas Niditause was asking where I came from. (“You stop where?”)
There would be a lot more Bislama in the one-hour service, including a sermon about two brata (brothers), one of whom spent his mane (money) on nogud gel (loose women) and grog (strong drink). Picking out these phrases, I recognized the parable of the prodigal son.
And I knew that the congregation was praising the Lord when they called out, every so often, “Jisus, yu numba wan.” They sang to the accompaniment of a piano, or as they call it, “Bigfala bokis blong waetman, tut blong em sam I blak, sam I waet; taem yu killim emi singaot.” (“Big white man’s box with some white and some black teeth; when you strike it, it cries out.”
This was Sunday morning in Lenakel, the chief town on Tanna, one of the most southerly islands in the republic of Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides), an archipelago of about 350 islands and keys, 74 of them inhabited, about 1,500 kilometres north of New Zealand. Eighty-five per cent of Vanuatu’s population is Christian, with Presbyterianism predominant.
Pasta (pastor) Niditause began the service with a salutation to the local bigman (chief) and included a prayer for Prince Charles—“Numba wan pikinini blong Kwin”—meaning Queen Elizabeth’s’s eldest child. (Vanuatu was once part of the far-flung British Empire and there’s still tremendous respect for the royals).
Something like 106 languages are spoken in Vanuatu. English and French are spoken in the towns, but the local dialects are spoken everywhere else. Officials say there is a distinct language for every 1,200 inhabitants, possibly the highest density of languages in the world. This means there would be no communication at all if it weren’t for Bislama. Everyone, native and ex-pat Westerner, speaks it.
The people are avid churchgoers. On Sunday mornings the women exchange their grasket (grass skirt) and basket blong titi (bra) for a Mother Hubbard dress; the men, meanwhile, doff their shorts or loincloths for a suit and head out to worship.
In the church this Sunday, Pastor Niditause ends with these words, “Glad hat blong God papa, pls blong Jisas Krias pikinini, follosip mo kampani blong tapu spirit I stap wetem tufala tete, mo ol taim, koko ino save finis, Amen.” (“May the blessing of God the father, Jesus Christ the son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you always.”)
For more information visit the Vanuatu Tourism Office website at vanuatu.travel.