Have You Heard of Vanuatu

I was watching CNN with my dad last night when The Wonder List came on. Supposedly the host of The Wonder List, Bill Weir, is being groomed to supersede Anthony Bordain’s show if and when the time comes. Bill’s show reminds of No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain and Earth: A New Wild with Dr. M. Sanjayan. These shows capture parts of the world that are interesting and delve into the deeper infiltrating issues, such as culture, environmental conservation, religion, and politics.

This episode of The Wonder List explored Vanuatu, which inspired Bill after he saw a photo taken by Jimmy Nelson for a project titled “Before They Pass Away.” Jimmy Nelson is a photographer who worked in commercial advertising but left to travel the world for three years and photograph indigenous tribes. His work has been criticized for capitalizing on indigenous people and for its potentially fictionalized portrayal of their cultures. Some of the people he photographed wore things that they tended only to wear for tourists. He’s also been accused of glossing a lot of the issues tribal people are facing, such as theft of their territory and resources.

Vanuatu is a country located in the South Pacific, not far from Fiji.  The people of the island of Tanna believe a spirit first appeared in the form of an American serviceman who advised the tribe to reject Christian missionaries and promised boatloads of American cargo in return. The promise was fulfilled at the advent of WWII when the Americans brought boatloads of cargo to the area. To this day, the American flag is a religious symbol for the people.

Some of the village elders have spent time in New York and London, yet they after their travels, they couldn’t wait to get out of their shoes and back into the jungle where money doesn’t matter and everyone is a familiar friend. Some people in Vanuatu reject change while others can’t wait for big hotels and an influx of money. Though the area is remote and difficult to get to, there’s great cell reception. The Western world is creeping in.

As Bill Weir points out, the people of Vanuatu are warm, friendly, and interesting. He commented that one of the ceremonies they performed  felt like it was staged for the cameras rather than a typical occurance. The film crew is required to pay a donation of “several hundred dollars” for a license to film and photograph.  Tourism has certainly picked up since Jimmy Nelson initially photographed the area for his project. Bill also noticed that women were excluded from some activities and that ancient tribal practices have limited their ability to participate in leadership positions. The children’s education is not extensive by western standards, yet they know enough to succeed in their community. As one elder explained, if a young person wanted to leave, he would try to convince him that life is better in Vanuatu, and in many ways it is. A simpler life has many advantages, but in some ways limited exposure to other parts of the world, beliefs, cultures, and lifestyles seems unfair to the younger generation. Yet some of the residents have traveled to metropolitan areas, so it’s hard to know what life is like when the cameras are gone and outsiders aren’t watching.

This show appeals to me for the same reasons the other shows mentioned above and shows like 19 Kids and Counting appeal to me. I’m very curious about what other people believe and how they live.  I recognize that I’m in the minority of people around the world who live the way I do. I’ve read If The World Were 100 People  multiple times and I feel fortunate for the life I’ve been afforded. For example, about 21%  of the world’s female population can’t read or write. Approximately 15%  of people in the world are considered undernourished. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die everyday due to poverty. Yet just because someone has fewer material goods, doesn’t mean they’re less fortunate.  I think many (if not most) people in Vanuatu have a great life.

It all begs the question, what is okay and what isn’t? Is it okay that Jimmy Nelson photographed the indigenous people yet (as far as I know) didn’t share the earnings with them? Is it okay to limit others from knowledge of or exposure to other cultures or ways of life? Is it okay to impose your beliefs about gender roles on another culture? Is it okay for the Amish to educate their children only until the 8th grade? It’s still hard for me to believe that some people believe that right and wrong are black and white issues, that there are no shades of gray.