What is Kastom?

Kastom is a pijin word (Bislama/English) used to refer to traditional culture, including religion, economics, art, and magic in Melanesia. The term is the generally accepted term in anthropology to describe such phenomena as well as the common and lay term used in everyday language.

The word derives from the Australian English pronunciation of custom but crosses meanings that incorporate:
• Custom (law) or customary law,
• Norm (sociology),
• Convention (norm) and
• Tradition

It is consistent in spelling across most of the many variations in pidjin and pisin across the region. 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.
• Ritual objects - objects of special power, significance and symbolism.

The use of the word is slightly different in the different countries and cultures of Melanesia. There are designated Kastom villages in Vanuatu which are open to tourists, dedicated to preserving Kastom.

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’). Vanuatu is 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, and often from district to district. These cultural traditions are known as custom (or custom), locally spelt kastom.

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, 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.


Vanuatu boasts 113 distinct languages and innumerable dialects making it one of the most culturally diverse countries on earth. Out of the three official languages, Bislama is the most spoken in Vanuatu, followed by English, and lastly French. Here are some of the 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,nimbus simple’s/ signs of chiefly hood
• Nangol / land Diver first step from child hood to become men
• 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
• Burao leave / when someone is Dancing in a nasara / customs fil and someone else is holding a burao leave and is dacing behind him this simply say’s that he is the step father, father in low, the adopted father and that from birth of that child the father uses this leave the burao tree to web his bath went he/she after going to toilet.
• Bamboo leave / on the islands when someone give you a bamboo leave this simply say’s or mean that you were originated from that tripe’s this could be your ground father, ground mother, father in low or Mather in low etc….
• Basket with a bush knife holding in hand / this means going to the garden
• A basket, knife, acts, rice bag 25 kg with a screwdriver / this means going to the plantations
• A women in a village with a tattoo sign or a broken teeth in front / this means that, the girl is been block to become someone’s wife
• Tattoos in the village/ this simply means that someone occupies the girl or simple of where the family is originated from customary believes eg: spider, sharks, turtle, etc… 
• Also a coconut leave/ been fasthern around a tree trunk such us naval tree or naos, mandarin / simply state taboo to that tree
• Sun Drawing/ is use in the islands for passing of messages especially to people etc…
• Wild grass / Went someone is holding a wild grass in his/her hands this means that he /she has two ideas/ thoughts one that is good and the other which is not good.
• Red flower / this is a sign of blood
• Wild cava leave / went someone in the village use a wild cava leave to fasten around the tree this means taboo
• Wild can leave / sign of taboo

Nagol 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, also known as land diving, is the role model for the modern bungee jumping. Each year around the time of yam harvest (April/May), tall wooden towers (up to 70 feet) are constructed on Pentecost Island. The tower is hold together by local vines with no piece of manmade building material used. Young men, dressed in traditional mats wrapped around their bodies, jump from a platform on the tower, only secured by vines tied around their ankles.
Rituals, the obligations of kinship and traditional ceremonies is an integral part of modern life and one that can be appreciated more fully by a visit to one of Vanuatu's many islands.

Traditional Economy

Naturally, traditional societies' economies are based on produce from the land. Staple foods are mostly root crops; yam, taro and manioc. Seasonal fruits like breadfruit are important mainstays. In most areas, a portion of the jungle is simply cleared to plant crops.
However, 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 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 it is cut and chewed into a pulp, then spat into a bowl. The mushy pulp is squeezed and the resultant liquid drunk. 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; so much so that women dare not pass near nakamal's (men's houses) at the time kava is being drunk.