Le Kal Vurës: Lifting Up Our Language

Promoting language maintenance and literacy on Vanua Lava, Banks Islands, Vanuatu

Men's dance at Sasar (2010-11-30) by Raymond AmmannUniversity of Newcastle

The Vurës language

Vurës is an Austronesian language spoken in the southern part of the island of Vōnō Lav (Vanua Lava) in northern Vanuatu, southwest Pacific. There are approximately 130 languages spoken in Vanuatu, an island nation with a small population, making it the most linguistically diverse country in the world.

Men paddling outrigger canoe (2008-10-21) by Katherine E. HolmesUniversity of Newcastle

The Vurës people are people of the sea, people of the rainforest, people of the land.

Men working in irrigated taro field (2009-10-16) by Armstrong MalauUniversity of Newcastle

We fish and eat from the sea, we hunt, we farm our crops, and we live through what the land provides us.

Joana serving löt (2012-01-03) by Catriona MalauUniversity of Newcastle

The life that we live today is very similar to the life that our ancestors lived many hundreds of years ago. We are very proud of our language and culture and how it identifies us as a strong community, different from all others in Vanuatu and round the world. We respect the knowledge and ways that our ancestors have passed down to us, and we want to keep this knowledge alive for our children.

Cover of 'A Dictionary of Vurës, Vanuatu' (2021-09-30) by ANU PressUniversity of Newcastle

Language & literacy

In the past, Vurës language was only a spoken language. It was never written down.  For many years, we never wrote in our own language because it was too hard to work out how to use the English spelling system for the different sounds of our language.  Finally in 2021, our Vurës dictionary was published and in February 2022 we launched the dictionary with the community. 

Working in irrigated taro field (2010-02-11) by Catriona MalauUniversity of Newcastle

Agriculture

Our most important crop on Vōnō Lav is qiat ‘taro’. We plant it both in irrigated fields and in dry ground. There is a great amount of taro diversity on our island, which we are proud to maintain. We distinguish over 100 named varieties of taro in our language. We also plant yams, bananas, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, and cassava. We plant some varieties of leafy green vegetables, and others we forage from the bush.

Taro löt with coconut cream (2012-01-03) by Catriona MalauUniversity of Newcastle

Traditional food

Our favourite food dish is called löt. It is made from qiat 'taro' or biēg 'breadfruit', which we pound with a vutulöt on a wooden platter called a tabē. It is then covered with cooked coconut cream or local nuts, n̄e (Canarium indicum) or wotag (Barringtonia edulis).

Pounding breadfruit for löt, Raymond Ammann, 2011-01-31, From the collection of: University of Newcastle
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Breadfruit löt with caramelised coconut cream, Raymond Ammann, 2010-01-31, From the collection of: University of Newcastle
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Preparing hot stones for baking (2010-12-08) by Catriona MalauUniversity of Newcastle

Another special method that we have for preparing food is in a large stone oven called a vësëw

Placing taro in oven (2007-08-09) by Katherine E. HolmesUniversity of Newcastle

As the taro are piled in a circular mound, a hole is left in the centre. The mound is then wrapped with heliconia leaves to hold the heat in.

Pouring water in oven to steam taro (2007-08-09) by Katherine E. HolmesUniversity of Newcastle

Water is poured through the opening onto the hot stones of the oven, then the opening is sealed up, so that the taro is steamed as it bakes.

Baked taro (2021-12-05) by Armstrong MalauUniversity of Newcastle

Using this method, we can bake up to 1,000 taros at one time. 

Kali with outrigger canoe (2012-01-02) by Catriona MalauUniversity of Newcastle

Fishing practices

Harvesting from the sea is a significant aspect of our lifestyle. We fish from the shore or using outrigger canoes, and gather shellfish and other marine life.

Women fishing on reef (2008-10-15) by Katherine E. HolmesUniversity of Newcastle

We fish from the shore with bamboo fishing poles and gather shellfish from the rocks and reef. 

Pounding derris leaves for stunning and catching fish (2007-08-12) by Katherine E. HolmesUniversity of Newcastle

One fishing technique that we use for special occasions involves using a plant called do man. We put parcels of pounded do man in shallow pools and it stuns the fish so we can just pick them out of the water. We can catch hundreds of fish in one go like this, so we know that it is not a sustainable fishing practice. 

Gathering palolo with coconut leaf torches (2008-10-20) by Katherine E. HolmesUniversity of Newcastle

After the full moon in October or November, we use coconut leaf torches and gather the un ‘palolo worm’ when they rise to the surface. 

Gathering palolo after the full moon in October (2008-10-19) by Katherine E. HolmesUniversity of Newcastle

waga 'woven prawn trap' (2010-11-30) by Raymond AmmannUniversity of Newcastle

We also catch freshwater prawns in a trap called a waga.

Weaving pandanus mat (2012-02-01) by Catriona MalauUniversity of Newcastle

Cultural practices

We use everything that the bush provides for us to make things we need in our daily lives. Our houses are made with timber frames, walls woven from bamboo, and roofs made from sago palm thatch. We weave different styles of mats and baskets from pandanus and coconut leaves. The style of baskets that we weave from cane and vines are unique to our region, not made by people in the islands to the south.

Traditional house, Stefan Schnell, 2009-01-19, From the collection of: University of Newcastle
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Basket for storing nuts, Catriona Malau, 2012-01-01, From the collection of: University of Newcastle
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Speech at wedding (2010-12-08) by Catriona MalauUniversity of Newcastle

We celebrate many traditions which are an important part of our cultural identity. Our marriage ceremonies include payment of bride wealth as a part of sealing bonds between families. 

One year anniversary death feast (2021-12-05) by Armstrong MalauUniversity of Newcastle

Our death ceremonies involve feasting together on several different occasions, counting the days until 100 days is reached. 

Men dancing at Vētuboso (2011-12-25) by Catriona MalauUniversity of Newcastle

We make elaborate headdresses that are worn as part of our dances, with different styles of dances for men and women. Sadly, much of the knowledge around traditional grade-taking ceremonies has been lost, as these were banned in early colonial days by Christian missionaries. 

Grinding kava (2012-01-01) by Catriona MalauUniversity of Newcastle

Finally, background on our culture would not be complete without mention of ‘kava’, our cultural drink of choice. Kava is made from the roots of Piper methysticum, which are ground and mixed with water, producing an intoxicating (non-alcoholic) drink.

Drinking kava (2022-01) by Mikey MalauUniversity of Newcastle

Credits: Story

Story by Catriona Malau & Armstrong Malau
Images by Raymond Ammann, Katherine E. Holmes, Armstrong Malau, Catriona Malau & Stefan Schnell

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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