AMBRYM ISLAND, Vanuatu   (con't)                                                                                   

Oct 3, 2005
Already hidden in mystique by its active volcanoes, ever-present earth tremors, and black magic traditions, the island of Ambrym is the location of the mysterious ROM dances.


At 8:30 am we met Geoffrey on the beach and he escorted us along the trail leading to Fanlan Village, where the ROM Dance would take place. The trail was steep and my pack was heavy so the going was tough in the heat. Along the way Geoffrey gave us some insights as to life in Vanuatu which was really interesting.

The 600 foot climb to Fanlan brought us to a summit where we rested and took in the fabulous view of the anchorage.

Kastom Life Style

We arrived at Fanlan Village, home to about 200 people who live in primitive thatched roofed huts and have maintained their culture and beliefs. Recently they attempted to revert to living the strict kastom way of their ancestors, exchanging their clothing and cooking utensils for banana leaves. However, progress prevailed and after a year there was a compromise made for some things. However, their lifestyle is still a very customary and basic way of life. Traditional ceremonies still form an integral part of village life.

The ROM Dance

The Rom dance is an initiation dance used in the grade taking ceremonies called Maghe, to enable advancement to higher levels within the tribal social structure. It is traditionally performed for ceremonies like circumcisions, appointments of chiefs, the yam harvest, etc. These kastom dances are unique to each grouping of tribes generally having evolved according to geographical area. In the North there are the SeaSnake dances, the Malekula region has some of the Bird dances, Ambrym has the Rom dances, the Southern region has the Toka festival and John Frum dances. Harvest dances celebrating the Yam planting or harvest and the Pig-killing dances are celebrated by tribes of all the islands. 

The Rom dance is itself a visual mystery as it is exclusively male and kept very secret. Additionally some of the custom dances have stringent rules surrounding them regarding rehearsals or costumes. The  dances  are rehearsed until the Chief is satisfied with the performance quality. Sometimes the accruements of the dances such as the masks and costumes are destroyed immediately following the dance presentations.

As one of the highest profile elements of the ni-vanuatu culture, kastom dances are highly regarded, closely held and revered by the tribal members. And each detail of the dance is meted out by the tribal elders, so as to insure the accuracy of the repetition of the cultural tradition along the generations. Participation by the large extended families and tribal affiliations is intrinsic in the structure and presentations of the dances, weaving family, tribe and culture together into an unbreakable bond. 

Our guide (left) took us to the sacred ceremonial area, where women are not allowed (foreigners exempt).

The grounds were surrounded by elaborately carved Tam Tams (slit drums) which provide the rhythmic and musical accompaniment.

Waiting in anticipation, children lined the area, ready to watch and learn from the men.

Elaborate Mysterious Masks and Banana Leaves

The drums started beating and 4 ROM Dancers appeared wearing colorful and elaborate masks and costumes made from long banana leaves.

Then the Namba dancers appears forming an inner circle consisted of men and young boys (learning) wearing only a banana leaf sheath in front and other colorful leaves over their buts. They stamped their feet and chanted something we could not understand.

Some of the dancers, meant to be spiritual men, are dressed in tall conical banana fiber masks and banana leaf capes, costumed from head to foot. They hold conical shaped carvings symbolizing weapons.

The mystique extends to the costumes themselves, as anyone caught viewing the costumes while they are being made must pay a fine of a pig to the Chief and is whipped with stinging plants.

It costs 120,000 vatu or a pig to buy the right and the knowledge to make a ROM mask and dance in the ceremonies. For the few who have jobs, there income is not much more than 100 vatu/month! (About $100 US) And then it costs extra each time a color is added to the mask.

The chief, adorned with the highly valued boar's tusks (used to buy wives), broke away from the group and circled around. These costumes are then destroyed  immediately after the dance to prevent the spirits from haunting the dancers.

After about 15 minutes the ceremonial dance was over. We paid our $3000 vatu each and shook hands with the dancers, took pictures and visited the area. The building was tabu because masks were being made in there.

Lots of Carvings for Sale


Then we were taken to an area where there were carvings for sale. The local craftsmen stood by hoping we would take a fancy to an item.

I couldn't resist a tamtam with 2 heads and I made a deal with a really shy man to trade some string and a fish hook and 3000 vatu. Probably a little pricey, but I really liked the piece.

We arrived back at Ranon by noon and relaxed on the boat the remainder of the afternoon.

Since time was running out on our Vanuatu Visas we had to get back to Luganville to renew them. We left Ambrym and decided to make a stop at Pentecost on the way.