The bride’s family prepares wedding day food for the groom’s family © Vanuatu Cultural Centre

Traditional Marriage Practice in Pentecost Island

Located Northern Vanuatu, Pentecost Island is home to a unique traditional marriage practice, different from practices on other outer islands of Vanuatu. Traditional marriage practices begin between families of future spouses with food gifts offered from the groom’s family to the bride’s family. If a marriage agreement is reached between the two families, the groom’s father will return later with mats for the future bride. Future gifts are exchange between the two families to prepare for the wedding ceremony, signaling respect and a sense of community between the families.

On the morning of the wedding, the man’s paternal uncle sits at the bride’s door to announce that she is to be married that day. However, the bride will not know who the man is or the identity of her future husband. Thus, the emotional shock induced by such a sudden turn of events without her consent can leave her with a great sadness of leaving her people for good, making her particularly short tempered. Assisted by her aunt, she will be enveloped in a large red mat and, whether she wants to or not, is taken to the village square.

Large baskets filled with white mats, partly woven by her and therefore constituting her dowry, are also brought along. Her father will make a speech, and an earth oven full of cooked food will open, from which only certain women from the groom’s side will help themselves. When the food is consumed, everyone walks to the groom’s village. But the long walk is not taken amidst an air of melancholy. The groom’s aunts, disguised as men, joke around with the bride’s aunts, who are closely watching their niece, lest she be tempted to flee. Laughter and jokes increase as the group reaches its destination.

Upon arriving at the young man’s village, the aunts of the bride and groom sit in the women’s house. All marriages include lengthy declarations, especially on the part of the groom’s father. He talks and saunters around the central square before a row of stakes, where dyed mats are laid out and pigs are attached. He gives the bride’s parents several tusked pigs, varying in number and value according to the qualities attributed to their daughter; with that act, the marriage concludes.

However, the bride has still not met her husband. Later that evening, she will see a young man squeezing coconut milk over laplap (a baked dish made from grated manioc, taro, or banana). Her aunt will whisper that he is the bride’s husband. Numerous stone ovens that have been cooking all day are then opened.

In the nakamal (community meeting place, sometimes for men only), village men drink kava while village women joke amongst themselves. Some female members of the groom’s family, still in their masculine costumes, let themselves be carried about by the others, laughing and singing. The jokes and mimes depict the forthcoming nuptial night. While the collective excitement increases in the village, the bride, squatting in a corner, weeps bitterly.

Additionally, the tradition of dancing until dawn on the wedding night is still practiced. A leader intones a song, which is then taken up by other men gathered in a group, while women dance around the men while others carry flaming torches around the dancers, which adds impressive effects to the scene. For the next four days the bride’s family remains close to her to persuade her to stay in her new home. Surveillance ends with the families sharing more laplap, after which everyone returns to their respective villages. Current practices allow youth to voice their opinions regarding equal marriage practices and partner choice. However, it remains true that on the wedding day, the bride and groom cannot show the least sign of happiness. Also, preliminary gift exchange and festivities remain unchanged.

Evelyne Bulegih (Woman Culture Program Coordinator, Vanuatu Cultural Centre)

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