The tale of two Nakamal

Wednesday 30 August 2017

Asanvari, Maewo

Hi, name blong Steven. I’m one of the dentists on MSM mission three. I live in Melbourne and am recently semi-retired. I came to be involved with the MSM mission through Dr Barry Stewart and the Australian Dental Association Vic branch.
This is my first trip as a volunteer dentist on the MSM mission. Actually, it is my first time as a volunteer in the capacity of a dentist. However, it is not my first time to Vanuatu. I’ve been here on two occasions previously on scuba diving trips. The reason that I have become involved is that, it has troubled me at times, that I would enjoy my time as a comparatively wealthy tourist in a poorer country.
This blog is largely one of my impressions about what I have seen and experienced over the course of the mission. My strongest impression is from the people of Vanuatu, the Nivan. They are a people who appear to be happy, clean and orderly respectful. Their teeth are unstained by any betalnut chewing habits (as a dentist I can confirm this). There doesn’t seem to be any alcohol problems.


I notice that their lives are governed by two influences, the church (largely the Presbyterian Church) in recent times and the ancient influence of Kustam (evolved over centuries of tradition). The two seem to coexist comfortably. Yet there are contrasts.
The previous Sunday some us attended a Catholic church service, the only reason of which it was convenient being close to our mission work location. Yes, we worked on the Sunday afternoon. Our work location that day was in the village Nakamal; which is what might be best described as a large one roomed hut that serves the purpose of being the central location for village social and administrative life.

There seems to be two significant buildings in a village. One being the Nakamal and the other the Church building. When you enter the church building your first impressions are of bright space, clean, a concrete floor that may or not be polished and the air smells, well like air. There are many rows of benches with a central aisle, plenty of seating for everyone. People would sit on the benches and face the front towards a cross and altar.
When you enter the Nakamal it is dark, there is a residual smell of smoke and there is a fire pit immediately to the left that is about two metres in diameter sometimes smoldering. The air smells of smoke and people. The dirt floor is uneven and chickens roam around freely. There is no formal seating and people sit anywhere. To the untrained eye its seems somewhat disorderly. Quite a contrast to the church.

However, people seem to meet in the Nakamal every day, but the church once a week. Nakamal meets the needs of everyday lives while the church the spiritual. The whole village sings in the church, and very beautifully too. Whereas specific groups of people who meet in the Nakamal sing tradition ceremonial songs prior to doing business, sitting on woven mats in a large circle in the middle of the room. Such as when we witnessed the senior women of the village doing what I was told is monthly community banking. The village chief and elders are never far from the Nakamal as we found out when we would enter the various villages. I found it interesting that church has a door and the Nakamal has no door whatsoever. I’ll leave any conclusions to others.


Today we had a rest day after what must have been the busiest day of surveys and dental work. The dentists were exhausted, and yours truly was almost in tears having to extract large adult teeth from six-year-old kids.
Arriving at the next island, our last, we had a chance sail across the small strait under wind power for the first time at 3 knots, later the engine powered up to push us along faster.
At our anchorage, we had the privilege of seeing a dugong, well I saw its nose anyway.
We also visited a beautiful waterfall that had a pond at the base full of carp that fed out of our hands. The day finished with a great dinner cooked by our skipper Jon and we watched a sunset over an adjacent island. Ah paradise.
Maybe I will come along to the next mission trip.

Fang (the dentist?)

One Response to “The tale of two Nakamal”

  1. Hi Steven, we met earlier today and I’ve been looking at the MSM site. Having been cruising through the Pacific islands this and last year and always struck by the poor to appalling state of dental health we were both really impressed by the commitment of you and the rest of the team, “medics” and sailors together. Well done.

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