The MEKOWIAR Ceremony (August 2006)
Legendary as the single most spectacular custom ceremony in Tanna, and possibly Vanuatu…
Mythic in it’s proportions, intensity, scope, and duration…
Fear-inspiring in it’s tales of sexual debauchery and social mayhem…
Rare and exclusive – it happens just once every four or five years, only on Tanna Island, and the exact date is shrouded in mystery and confusion until just days before the massive, multi-day dance is to begin.
This is the famous… and infamous Mekowair Festival.
Commonly known As:
TOKA (thundering drums pounding in the background)
We, the Peace Corps Trainees, had been hearing tales, and warnings about this large custom ceremony since the day we set foot in Vanuatu. By our good fortune 2006 was the year of the Toka – the first time in over four years. And by my good fortune Tanna Island is once again the place to be. Or not be, depending on how brave you think you are.
I wish I had kept a log of all the different things we heard about Toka from all the different sources. Here’s a quick list off the top of my head:
1. Toka is a massive week-long festival involving thousands of islanders
2. It’s all about sexual debauchery. During three special days the men can grab any woman they want, run off into the bush, fuck, and then move on to the next woman and no one is allowed to judge or complain in any way. Married or not. You call it rape, they call it ceremony.
3. Women can grab any man they want (see above) – although I heard this one much less.
4. The women dance on opening night and don’t stop until the sun comes up the next morning. The men do the same two nights later. All sorts of revelry happens in-between.
5. The festival is called The Mekowair, but the men’s dance is called The Toka –hence the common name for the event is simply “Toka”.
6. The whole area surrounding the Toka is dangerous – constant fighting, too much drinking.
7. Tourist women should not attend without several male escorts – they might be expected to have sex in the bushes.
8. Tourist men, including Peace Corps, might be expected to run off to the bush with an admiring Ni-Van woman. Saying no is not accepted.
9. At the end of the festival, when all the dancing and bush sex is finished they slaughter hundreds of pigs and literaly wash themselves in the blood to cleanse themselves of their sins of the past three days.
Even our medical officer, among other Peace Corps staff, perpetuated these stories – often out of genuine concern.
Naturally the more debased the stories became the higher the number of Peace Corps Volunteers who planned on flying down to Tanna to experience this once-in-a-lifetime event.
So of course I’m feeling a mix of curiosity and concern. I didn’t want to miss this rare event, but nor did I want to put myself in harms way if this “Toka” thing really was all that they were making it up to be – and why would I doubt the stories since I was new in town and had no idea what Ni-Vans were capable of.
Plus, Man-Tanna has this pervasive reputation (at least in Vila and Lelepa) as a "bad boy" town. Seems that whenever there is trouble in Vila it’s often a guy from Tanna, so much so that now Man-Tanna has become the scapegoat for every time some punk causes a ruckus. Since I’ve been here, though, my casual readings of the local papers makes me think that all the ruckus is happening in Luganville – Vanuatu’s second largest urban area on the island of Santo.
Before I even arrived on Tanna the locals had begun training for Toka. Each village that planned on participating would have weekly training sessions at their respective local custom nakamal. I was able to witness several of these sessions and watch them trying to coordinate dance moves, practicing little solo numbers, and then doing it all over and over again – sometimes in everyday clothes (t-shirts and board shorts) but sometimes in various levels of custom dress.
Vanuatu is a land of custom ceremonies, I suppose not unlike the rest of the world - except we don't dance around wearing only a penis sheath when our sister gets married. They have several small ceremonies such as:
Shaving Ceremony - boys aren't allowed to shave their first time until the father says so, at which point they make a party out of it (can you imagine? puberty is hard enough but do we need to celebrate new hair growth?!). There is a similar ceremony for girls when they have thier first period - which they cleverly call "Sick Moon" - but I don't know the name of the ceremony and I haven't seen either of these take place in my village.
Sorry Ceremony - where someone has done something wrong both people get together in front of the whole village and swap pigs and kava and such. Speeches are made and all is forgiven. I got to see one where a wife had told her husband he couldn't drink kava and a fight broke out which included a stick and some broken bottles. In the end she was told she has no right to tell him he can't drink kava and he was told to be nicer. She cried the whole time and he sort of grinned the whole. Then they slaughtered the pig and drank kava and the world kept spinning. These sorry ceremonies are actually a very important part of Vanuatu culture. Even our Country Director has insisted that the very fabric of our national government has been held together through the wonders of the sorry ceremony.
The bigger ceremonies are for Weddings and even bigger is the annual Yam Harvest. But bigger than each of those are the Circumsision ceremonies which takes place several months after the actual procedure which I've not yet witnessed. I've attended several of these parties and the biggest one, up in Matt's village was for about 5-6 boys and was really quite massive.
The thing about each of the above custom ceremony’s is that they each have a purpose. In my opinion, from what I’ve witnessed with my own eyes, they are all very similar – differing mostly only in size and duration. But at least they all have an underlying reason for being. A milestone has been marked, a change has taken place, or a dispute needs to be resolved.
Not so with the TOKA. If I were to take everything I heard about the TOKA and create my own conclusions I would have to say that due to the cultural seperation of the sexes the TOKA was invented as a way to let loose for a few days and experience sexual freedom – a simple, and momentary, lifting of the cultural ties that bind. And just like the Sorry Ceremony, once the TOKA is over you go back to your daily life as if nothing had ever happened.
What happens at TOKA stays at TOKA.
Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel were in town for the event. We’ve seen them toting around the last couple days getting acclimated and visiting other custom ceremony’s while waiting for the official word on the start of TOKA. Jeff happened to be nearby while the film crew from Discovery was getting a TOKA explanation from one of the local chiefs who was using another Ni-Van to translate into English (even though Jeff knew this particular chief could speak English well enough – the translator was just window dressing). He heard the chief explain, at great length, how the TOKA was an event to honor the chiefs of the villages (well of course it is!). No mention of the sexual debauchery – the chief was keen to the idea that the white man wouldn’t approve of such things and probably didn’t want to attract any unnecessary attention. The erroneous tale about honoring the chiefs sounded so much nicer and more “Made for TV” than raping women in the bushes for three days.
At the end of July we were told TOKA would begin Aug. 10th. I was supposed to call PCHQ and let them know the date so the word could be spread around to all the other PCV’s that wanted to travel down for the spectacle. Travel plans would be difficult and they would need as much time as possible. Before I had a chance to call I learned the date was pushed back to Aug. 15th and maybe that wasn’t even the real date. No one really knew for sure, and there didn’t seem to be anyone really in charge. We started speculating that maybe they didn’t want to reveal the actual date too soon as a way to discourage tourists. Indeed so yachties had been waiting for over two weeks when they finally gave up and sailed home.
When Aug.15th was just a few days away it became the 16th, and then the 17th. It became too difficult for other PCV’s to make travel arrangement when the date kept changing. If they got down here and then learned that it was pushed back another week it would be a wasted trip for them – and a big finanical setback. So no one made any plans to visit.
Nor did any other tourists. We had expected all the bungalows to be packed but they weren’t. One other reason – The largest plane servicing Tanna, a 40-seat turbo-prop of unknown make, was once again on the fritz. This surely had a huge impact on tourism during this week.
TOKA was to begin on a Monday with the womens dance. The weekend before I had a hell of a time trying to get the agenda down as I kept getting different answers. The location was very far away, the festival spanned several days, and if you stayed over night it meant sleeping in the bushes – literally. Other than Matt all the men I knew were going to be actually dancing in TOKA with the Lowkatai village – even Jeff and the Japanese aide-worker named Katsut would be joining in the dance.
Monday rolls around and we find that another PCV has flown down with a friend visiting from the US. Turns out that most of the people from my village aren’t attending the first day, so just the white people hire a truck and drive out to see the women’s dance. We arrived in the afternoon just in time to see the last 30 minutes before a break. This was a huge bummer, but what we saw was pretty cool. They would start back up again after dinner and would continue dancing until dawn. Stop again for food, then start again until late Tuesday night when they would finish so the men’s dance could begin.
We came back that afternoon and descended into our own personal white man party mode. We retreated to the bungalows, which we had exclusively to ourselves (the other PCV’s rented a room for the night) and started drinking rum and beer on the beach. Later that night a big bonfire, and more rum and beer on the beach. Now we were joined by Kamut and a friend of mine named Kael (more on him in a future post). We were getting toasty and happy and feeling the excitement of a festival we weren’t even participating in – let alone witnessing.
The next day the other PCV and her friend had to leave. Matt and I immediately set about making preperations for the big night – we didn't know what to expect on any level. Where would we sleep (the bushes) what would we eat (close to nothing) woud we be warm enough (no) would we be able to endure the whole shabang (no) would we get dragged into debased debauchery (no, sadly). So we packed some snacks, some rum, and some magic pills to keep us awake and happy or alseep and happy depending on the need. As for warm clothing we were shit out of luck, as has been the case since we arrived in Tanna.
It’s important to note at this time that every debased thing that was propagated about this event was proving untrue. In fact, after talking with Kamut about all the stories we learned that while some it was true it hadn’t been so for many years. We no longer had any fear of any dangerous situations and didn’t anticipate any sexual debauchery – and after witnessing the women’s dance we were pretty convinved that the whole affair was about dancing and nothing else. The TOKA as it was billed to us was a bust. In it’s place was more of the same stuff we had been witnessing in every other custom ceremony – with two big differences – the sheer enormity of the event, and all the different villages that were showing off to each other.
And to be honest, the dancing wasn’t even that varied, creative, or intense. Matt is a much harsher critic than I, but I have to admit the biggest concern we had about watching TOKA through the night was how to keep from being bored.
As it happened Matt and I found ourselves traveling up to the festival alone. The entire village had left before us to prepare, since they were all involved in the dance. They needed to go ritualistically clense themselves in some river before putting on their Toka face paint. We, however, didn’t need to arrive until several hours later. They gave us what seemed like simple and straight-forward directions and having been there just the day before we felt confident that finding them wouldn’t be so hard.
We arrived when the sun was still up, but we were still wandering around lost when the sky went to pitch black. There were thousands of people milling about – no dancing was happening at this time even though we were told that the women would be dancing through the night. The main dance area was a massive nakamal, but it was deserted as people were wandering around all the smaller nakamals in the surrounding kilometer radius. We kept asking for directions, but no one knew anyone from our village or they didn’t understand our words, or they erroneously sent us off in wrong directions. It was only by chance that we happened upon Steven (French aide-worker) walking with Kamut. It was absolutely pitch dark, hundreds of people were walking up and down this path, but Kamut was able to pick out the two white guys. To him we stood out. But I didn’t even see him standing next to me when Steven was saying hello to us. I ignored him for a long time not realizing who he was – but he was only two feet away!
And so, joined with our people, the revelry began in earnest.
We were led to a nakamal where we were united with a few others from our group standing around a small fire. They were all chilly wearing only custom skirts with no shirts. And the fire was, as usual, little more than smoldering embers. I drank some rum punch. And then more.
When I wasn’t paying attentiong the energy level shifted. Suddenly people were on the move, including my people. Not sure what happened to Matt, but I was noticing that the nakamal was clearing out. Thank god for my buddy Josep (who I had been slipping some of my booze even though they are not allowed to drink during the TOKA – another phallacy brought to light) who realized I was too drunk to walk straight before I even realized it myself. He took me by the arm and we started what I would later realize was an epic hike back to the main staging area.
Funny thing was that I didn’t realize at the time that almost the entire trip was on an uphill incline. I just thought I couldn’t walk ‘cause I was drunk. If only someone told me the road inclined up I might have been able to compensate! Instead I kept falling backwards and Josep had to struggle to keep me upright. What the hell was wrong with me? 30 minutes ago I felt sober and now all the sudden I was drunker than I’d been in ages. And this was the infamous TOKA!
When we got to the staging area – the places where all the separate villages waited before queing up for the dance – they made a bunch of small fires and started putting on face and body paint. It was late and I was suddenly dead tired and layed down in the dewy grass for a nap.
I woke up many hours later (1 or 2am), but amazingly right as they were about to que for the dance. I had impeccable timing! And more importantly – I felt great!
As the group was led out to the opening of the nakamal, lit by only a handful of lights stuck up in trees, Matt and I wandered around the perimeter to view the action.
The dancing begun and we watched from the sidelines. I was surprised when I watched the sunrise come up over the festival – had we really been watching that long? And we continued watching – only now we could actually see people’s outfits.
I’m told that I actually did miss one of the best parts – the women’s dance that immediately preceded the men’s dance. Apparently this was quite a show of force, and although I missed it I had a taste of it the day before and my own personal highlight was about to happen.
At one point, without warning, all the men and women of all the villages formed one large mass of people and then started galloping in one direction while chanting tribally. A large cloud of dust wafted into the air and the ground started to thud. And then they stopped, reversed direction, and came galloping back in full force. This went on for over half an hour and was really quite dramatic and impressive. I made a short video but haven't been able to upload it.
A few hours after sunrise Matt and I were pretty exhausted and took the opportunity to jump on a truck that was heading to our area. Turns out we missed the slaughtering of the pigs, but there was no washing-in-the-pigs-blood-to-absolve-us-of-our-sins going on. They swap pigs, kava, fowl, handcrafts and vegetables with other villages, then weeks later they swap it all back, then weeks after that there is more swapping. I still don't understand it and after the first couple explanations I stopped asking questions.
So that was TOKA. And even though they say it only happens once every 4-5 years we weren't surprised to hear them talking about