Vanuatu – why are they so happy?

An earlier draft of this entry was posted by accident.  If you received that one, please disregard and read this one. 
If you know only one thing about the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, it might be that this nation of 83 small islands ranked #1 in the world in the New Economics Foundation’s (NEF) “Happy Planet Index”.  No,  not Norway, Sweden, Canada or New Zealand.  That an almost unknown little country that ranks very far down the UN’s  Human Development Index (in 2012 ranked 124 out of 187) could end up as “The Happiest Place on Earth” was cause for great curiosity on our part. 

This mural greets you walk off the tarmac into the arrivals area of the Port Villa (capital city) airport.

This stat did not go unnoticed by our Peterborough friend George Fogarasi who searched high and low for a place on earth that was more or less untouched by western influences of economics and consumerism.  He wanted to explore such a place with his family and the summer before last they ventured to Vanuatu for 5 weeks.  They came home and RAVED about their experience.  They visited remote communities that did not use cash, grew all their own food, made their houses out of local materials, had a very strong sense of who they were and where they’d come from, and were genuinely friendly and open with visitors.  After we’d decided in our planning stage to visit Rhonda & Henry in Fiji, we looked at the map and noted that Vanuatu was the nearest neighbour.  With the Fogarasi stories & our desire to visit people who were living sustainably, Vanuatu seemed like a “no brainer” on our itinerary. 
Vanuatu has been settled by Melanesians for more than 3000 years.  They came from Indonesia, through Papua New Guinea then the Solomon Islands before arriving in Vanuatu using dugout canoes with outriggers.  Polynesians arrived about 1000 years ago from the northeast.  The indigenous population are known as “niVans”


The 1st european encounter was a Portuguese explorer (sailing for Spain) who was looking for the “great southern continent”.  When he sailed into Big Bay of the largest island he thought he had found his objective so named the islands “Terra Australis del Espiritu Santo”.  That island is known as Espiritu Santo to this day.
French and English explorers visited the islands (known to them as the “New Hebrides”) starting in the late 1700s and colonial interest took hold in the 1820s with the sandalwood trade (for incense).  The slow growing sandalwood was running out (1870s) just as the British were ramping up their sugar cane production in neighboring Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.  They needed cheap labour so started the dark chapter in history known as “blackbirding” whereby they would trick, cajole and otherwise all but force niVans onto ships to be dropped off as indentured servants on sugar plantations.  In fact, Henry’s property on Tavewa Island of Fiji was such a sugar plantation before his great grandfather purchased the land for coconut plantation.  Henry regularly finds pottery from these niVans on the island.  The niVans could leave after 3 years but were often dropped back in Vanuatu on the wrong islands.  This practice finally was shut down in the early 1900s because of pressure from missionaries.

Missionaries have had a profound impact on the islands.  It was not easy going for them at first, because the practice of cannibalism was alive and well, and when niVans grew suspicious of them, they would often kill and eat them.  I read somewhere that the final act of recorded cannibalism was in 1970.  That aside, niVans are for the most part very strong Christians, with some traditional beliefs mixed in.  Our personal experience reinforced this fact.  Some of our guides and taxi drivers were deeply religious and asked us about our own beliefs.

The English and French colonial influences competed and coexisted through the 18 and 1900s and ultimately ended up in a joint administration known as the “condominium”.  There were two different rules, courts, police and education systems, so critics referred to the government instead as “pandemonium”.   There was a period of time when the English drove on the left side of the road while the French drove on the right.  When I asked a local how this possibly could have happened, they explained that for the most part the two groups lived separately geographically so as long as you didn’t venture too far, it was OK.  Most of the niVans we met spoke some English, but we found many little pockets where schools were in French.

The New Hebrides came into international importance during the Pacific campaign of WWII.  The US figured that Japan would want these strategic Pacific islands so moved very quickly and decisively to build their military presence.  I believe the niVan population on Espiritu Santo (“Santo”) at the time was about 5000.  The US base there grew quickly to a population of over 50000 and by the end of the war more than 500000 soldiers had passed through the many facilities on the island.  The US built more than a dozen airstrips and we found the remnants of several of these as we moved around the island.  Dozens of plane wrecks have been found where pilots ran out of fuel, got lost, or ran into bad weather.  This base was central to the US Solomon Islands Guadalcanal campaign.

When Vanuatu gained independence in 1980 (a long and fascinating course of events) the country had to decide on an official language.  Because of the competition between English and French interests, those two languages were ruled out. So too were the more than 100 local languages, for the same reason.  Instead, they adopted a pidgin English (with some mixed in French) known as Bislama (pronounce Bishlama) that bares a remarkable similarity to the pidgin English “Krio” spoken in my beloved Sierra Leone.  This was strategic regionally because the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea and indigenous New Caledonians also speak pidgen Englishes.  Peterborough friend George found some peace corps Bislama language resources to use before they arrived and got to a level of basic communication.  He came home so enthusiastic about the language that we did some prep ourselves.  We had so much fun with Bislama that we’ll devote a separate blog entry to that.

The 83 islands are aligned north to south and many of them host active volcanoes.  We tried to get to several of these islands to climb a volcano but were unable because all the flights had been booked out by niVans returning from the capital city to their home islands/villages for Christmas.  So the islands are spectacular visually, with dramatic mountains, extremely lush forests and spectacular palm lined white sand beaches.

So, back to the million dollar question:  Why are niVans the happiest people on earth?  There are a few ways to answer this.
First, the ranking of countries depends entirely on the criteria used to measure the nebulous concept of happiness.  In this case, the survey looked at three things: life satisfaction, life expectancy and ecological footprint.  The NEF chose these indicators because they measure “the ecological efficiency of delivering human well-being within the constraints of equitable and responsible resource consumption“.  Vanuatu has been actively working with the UN and other countries to come up with alternate indices for measuring wellbeing.  The following quote comes from a meeting of niVans, other Melanesian countries, Aussies and Kiwis who were wrestling with this question;

The almost universal use of GDP-based indicators to measure progress has helped justify policies based on rapid material progress at the expense of more holistic criterion. Because it is a crude measure of only the cash value of activities or production, GDP is heavily biased towards increased production and consumption regardless of the necessity or desirability of such outputs. Policies developed with regard only to increasing per-capita GDP can have negative, and potentially disastrous, impacts on other factors contributing to life quality.

It should be noted that none of the major industrialized countries ranked near the top.  Of course, much can be argued about the choice of indices and how they were applied.  The inclusion of ecological footprint as a central component of wellbeing is novel.  And for us, refreshing.  But our family’s experience was overwhelmingly supportive of this idea of happy niVans.  A conversation with our driver to and from our trek into Marakai village on Santo captured what we feel is a central part of their contentedness.  Many niVans work in the New Zealand vineyards and orchards seasonally, for 3 to 6 months/year.  They are valued for their fast and dependable work.  When I asked John if he would like to ultimately immigrate to New Zealand, he responded very quickly and unequivocally.  “No.  In New Zealand, you have to work every day, and you need money to live.  Here in Vanuatu, if you’re hungry, you just walk to your garden and get some food”.  This idea was echoed in so many other conversations we had.  I read of another conversation with a niVan who had just returned from England with a university degree.  When asked what he wanted to do with his life, he raised the fishing rod in his hand.
Every niVan I met had a garden.  Many had canoes and fishing gear.  They spent lots of time working in their garden that was often some distance from their home.  The climate supports growing year round, and the soils are fertile.  Rob on Epi Island told me “put a post in the ground and it will start to grow” 🙂 Even the poorest niVans have food to eat.  And they are very quick to share their harvest with you, with pride.
Homes outside the capital city are modest and about 95% of the ones we saw away from the major centers were made entirely from local forest products (log frame, thatch roof, woven bamboo walls).  Floors are dirt and woven grass mats are used for eating and sleeping on.  If you need a home … walk into the woods and get your materials.  We heard from others and corroborated ourselves that there is virtually no home or wealth envy among niVans.  No keeping up with the Joneses … mostly because there are very few niVan Joneses to keep up with.  Friend George explained to me that this is partly explained by their cultural practice of wealth sharing.  Prestige is bestowed upon those who give gifts of food (or whatever), much as was the case with N.A. First Nations potlatches.  Such gifts would more or less oblige the receiver to return the favour when conditions are right.  George refers to it as “Melanesian Socialism”.
NiVans are very much tied to their land.  For obvious reasons of food and home self sufficiency.  But their culture also sees land as not something to be owned (expanding white/colonial land acquisition in the 1970s was a major trigger of the independence movement) but instead something to be shared by the present generation and protected for future generations.  They have strong connections to past generations through the passing down of access to land.
We also observed very strong connections to extended family and larger community.  It was not really clear where the nuclear family ended and the extended family began.  Community gatherings were common, and our Christmas lunch was a perfect example – all food prepared and shared by the community.
Despite the unrelenting expansion of western influences (including the huge impact of missionaries), many niVan communities have maintained a remarkable amount of their traditional culture.  Many villages appear to the eye to have had no contact with the west. Many others however have schools, some concrete structures and most niVans now wear western clothes.
So … self sufficiency for food and shelter, secure and sustained access to fertile land, strong connection to culture, family and community and an absence of material envy and it seems like you have some pretty important components of happiness!  Despite these favourable conditions, most folks in western countries would not rush to sell all their possessions and move to Vanuatu (though we met quite a few who did).  But perhaps the more important point (and maybe a bit obvious … sorry …) is that these folks are content but have only a tiny fraction of the ecological footprint that western societies do.  Locally produced organic foods, every home is an “eco” home (lighting is almost always tiny scale solar), many villages consume almost no packaging and produce virtually no waste and carbon footprints for most folks are tiny.  The larger cities have larger individual footprints. 
This was the backdrop for the 18 days we spent in Vanuatu. We had so much to ponder as our adventures played out.
We spent only a day and a half on the island we flew into (Efate) and stayed in the capital city Port Vila.  Our highlight of the city tour was a trip to the VIBRANT food market.  If the profusion of food at this market is any indication of how well niVans eat … then what I said above must be true!  We took some great market photos on Kaia’s phone … that I left behind on Epi island last week during a quick exit to the tiny airport there for our flight back to Port Vila … so sadly can’t share those.  But today we finally have arrangements in place to have the phone mailed general delivery to us in Christchurch from where we will depart New Zealand January 23rd.
The highlight of our time on Efate had to be our visit to the Mele Cascades (waterfalls) and Mele beach.  After a short taxi ride to the trail head, and payment of an entrance fee, you hike about 20-30 minutes to the base of the falls.  We were the first ones there so had the entire falls and forest to ourselves for about 45 minutes.  You could swim behind the falls into a little cave, could swim in the many little pools, but best of all you could jump off the ledge of some pools into the clear waters of the next pool down.

approaching the falls



You swim under the wall of water below to get into this little cave.






GoPro selfie!



And yes, Yvonne and I had just as much fun as the kids jumping into the pools!
After about 2 hrs at the falls we hiked back to the trailhead and walked about 30 minutes to the beach.  The playful fun continued when we found some large inflatable toys set up in front of one restaurant.  Pretty smart business … because there were lots of kids playing on these, and lots of people eating in the restaurant.


This was the time that Jake didn't push Kaia down the slide.

We enjoyed a bit of beach-side lunch ourselves then headed back to town to change, pack up and head to the airport for our flight to Santo island.

This the larger of Air Vanuatu's "island hopper" planes
We really liked the Air Vanuatu plane painting .. showing lush forests and volcanoes.


2 thoughts on “Vanuatu – why are they so happy?”

  1. Hi Douglas Family,
    You look like you had a GREAT time in the happiest place on earth! Thanks Cam for some very interesting background information including Fiji’s history. Happy New Year and all the best as you continue your remarkable journey.


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