Internally Displaced People’s Traditional Knowledge at Risk


Journalist Mavuku Tokona of the Vanuatu Daily Post recently wrote an interesting article about how the customs and traditions of the Internally Displaced People (IDP) of Vanuatu could be at risk if said traditional knowledge is not practised constantly while on an adopted island.

“If we don’t practise it could be lost, you (the young generation) must know your language and custom before we pass, custom from marriage, we hold on to our custom, even for circumcision, shaving, we keep our custom,” said Chief David Albea of Mele Maat.

Chief Albea was part of the original 36 evacuees from Ambrym to Efate in 1951. Being displaced for almost 70 years, the Chief said different people from different islands joining the community in Mele Maat has threatened their custom, island language and traditional methods, but they have endured and held on. According to Chief Albea, he was part of the original 36 people who fled the volcanic eruption from Ambrym and now close to 10 remain from what he can remember.

Since Cyclone Harold, International Organization for Migration (IOM) in collaboration with the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO) have published a document in June, detailing displaced individuals post-TC Harold, which is 6,218, 46% of that figure are under the age of 18. The 36 individuals from Ambrym may have made it easy to hold on to one’s customs and traditions, but over 6,000 may be a different conversation altogether.

IOM Chief of Mission for the Country Office in Vanuatu, Dr. Jessie Connell stated that displacement from natural disasters could have irreparable damage to island identity. “Displacement from disasters, including sudden and slow-onset events, can threaten the survival of traditional knowledge and culture, including intangible losses, such as knowledge about the natural environment and sustainable practices.”

The IOM Chief of Mission said aside from cultural identities and the importance of knowing one’s heritage and traditional knowledge has much more to offer. “Traditional knowledge and kastom have, over centuries, enabled communities in Vanuatu to address environmental, economic and social challenges.

“Through traditional family and tribal linkages, extended kinship networks and long-standing cultural practices, communities have been able to overcome destabilising and traumatic events including past and modern-day disasters, conflicts and, in colonial times, blackbirding. Traditional knowledge and cultural practices offer important cultural safety nets for Ni-Vanuatu people, especially in response to disasters and displacement.”

Dr. Connell added that keeping in touch with cultural ties and traditions is a form of closure and recovery which makes the perpetual traditional practices even more valuable during displacement after a natural disaster. “Lessons learned from the recent Tropical Cyclone Harold, a Category 5 cyclone which made landfall in Vanuatu on 6 April 2020, as well as the mass evacuations from Ambae and Ambrym and other relocation experiences in Vanuatu, reveal the need for people to remain connected to existing cultural practices and relationships during and following displacement to support resilience and recovery.”

Vanuatu’s National Displacement Policy, Strategic Area 11 states: “Displacement can threaten the survival of traditional knowledge and destroy records relating to personal identification, ownership of assets and land.

“Traditional knowledge is the practices, systems, skills and “know how” developed by a community and passed on from one generation to another, forming part of the spiritual and cultural identity of a group.”

While the government recognizes the importance of protecting “cultural identity and spiritual resources of communities” the communities and leaders themselves also have an integral part to play, to ensure the customs and traditions survive and are not lost by the next generation.


Slit Drums, Port Vila, Vanuatu

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