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Kastom is a pidgin word (Bislama/English) used to refer to traditional culture, including religion, economics, art and magic in Melanesia.

The word derives from the Australian English pronunciation of custom. Kastom is mostly not written only passed down through teachings and stories. It is concentrated through:
• Kastom House - sites where objects and rituals are stored.
• Kastom stories - myths, legends and communal histories.
• Kastom tabu - objects of special power, significance and symbolism.

There are designated Kastom villages in Vanuatu which are open to tourists, dedicated to preserving Kastom.

Here are 8 ways to experience local culture and kastom and 5 must-see cultural experiences on the outer islands. If you want to learn more about Kastom before experiencing it, read on.

Vanuatu traditions

The people of 'Vanuatu' (a name which means ‘Land Eternal’) are largely Melanesian and the people are called Ni-Vanuatu (meaning ‘of Vanuatu’). Recognised as one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, dances, ceremonies, status and systems of authority, artistic styles, animal and crop husbandry can vary from island to island, known as that island's 'kastom'. When on your Vanuatu holiday, you will undoubtedly come across facets of kastom in your travels.

Kastom way of life

In cultures where language is unwritten, oral traditions of the kastom way of life, have been faithfully passed down from generation to generation. Throughout the middle and southern islands of Vanuatu, there existed the story of a great and powerful chief Roimata who united the warring and cannibalistic tribes of the area into a unified, and peaceful group of tribes, a first in ancient Vanuatu. That kastom way of life exists today called 'naflak'.


Vanuatu boasts 113 distinct languages and innumerable dialects. Out of the three official languages, Bislama is the most spoken in Vanuatu, followed by English, and lastly French. Symbols and items used day to day especially in the outer islands which highlight the kastom way of life:

• nakamal / men's house or meeting ground
• namele leave /signs for taboo
• pigs tusk, red mat / signs of chiefly hood
• Naghol / land Diver first step from child hood to become man
• Circomsion / During the time of circumcise it is taboo to go near the place custom believes
• Navenue leave / someone holding a navenue leave working through into the village on which she or he left long ago the message is to say that he / she belongs to the place / that village
• Bamboo leave / when someone gives you a bamboo leave it means you belong to the tribe
• Basket with a bush knife holding in hand / going to the garden
• A women in a village with a tattoo sign or a broken front tooth / the girl is engaged
• Tattoos in the village/ symbol customary origin eg: spider, sharks, turtle, etc…
• Also a coconut leave or navele palm leaf across a beach / taboo sign
• Sand Drawing/ passing of messages and stories through kastom art on sand and song

Naghol or Land Diving

One of the most well-known Vanuatu traditions is the Naghol. Legend has it that the first jumper was a woman. She was trying to escape from her abusive husband, climbed a tree and jumped. He followed her, leapt and died, unaware that his wife had secured liana vines to her ankles. For some time, only women participated in the dive until the male elders decided that they should dive to address their shame and prove their courage.

This awe-inspiring ancient tradition, is known as the land diving, is the role model for the modern bungee jumping. Each year, land diving happens from April to June on Pentecost island every Saturday and invites observers to witness the event.

Traditional Economy

Naturally, traditional societies' economies are based on produce from the land and staple foods like yam, taro and manioc. And in places where there is plenty of water, taro is grown in complex terraces hand built from earth and rocks. Pigs are a mainstay of the economy not just as food but as a form of money and prestige.


Although kava is not just a food crop; it is a significant part of Vanuatu's kastom, usually drunk to seal an agreement between people after a long meeting. Kava is a derivative of the pepper tree family traditionally cut and chewed into a pulp, then spat into a bowl. The mushy pulp is squeezed and the resultant liquid drunk in. On some islands, both men and women may drink kava after a hard day’s work. On Tanna however, it has become more ritualised as a 'men only' pastime and women are not allowed to pass near nakamals (men's houses) at the time kava is being drunk. During their time in Vanuatu, some tourists choose to partake in kava ceremonies. It's best to check with your accommodation provider to find out what's appropriate where you are.