Gifting in Melanesia Storian - the Vanuatu Aelan Walkabaot blog

By Stephen
January 2012

Gifting is a nice way of showing gratitude that is less commercial and more lasting. To gift successfully in Vanuatu however, you need to understand that Melanesians do not gift. Melanesian society works on sharing and exchanges.

What is appropriate

  • Leaving things behind after you've finished using them, e.g. clothes, footwear, a torch light, etc. I like to donate used tents to my guides.
  • Gifts that will be used in your activities, e.g. Chinese "Crocs" sandals, bush knife, snorkeling mask, fishing tackle, etc.
  • Donations to the kitchen, especially at home-stay style accommodation and in remote villages, e.g. rice, sugar, tea, 3-in-1 coffee mix (ni-Vans love "mix coffee"), tin fish, etc. Sharing food is one of the best ways to make friends.
  • Gifts for friends and "family" on return visits.
  • Cigarettes and tobacco! Ni-Vanuatu men and kava drinkers love cigarettes. For jungle treks, tobacco is an essential motivator. I stock up on cheap cigarettes whenever I can but haven't been to Asia for a couple of years now.

What is not appropriate

  • Gifting to random strangers and anyone you do not know really well. It's uncomfortable for the receiver when they feel obliged to reciprocate the gift. We also don't want people to expect free gifts from tourists. In Zanzibar, east Africa, village kids know at least two words of English: "pen school". And I've had ni-Vanuatu ask me for lawnmowers, computers, DVD players, tents, etc. I am not John Frum.
  • Cash gifts, unless for a specific and agreed purpose (e.g. School fees). Cash is easily wasted and the memory lost.
  • Impractical things, like electronics, that are soon broken and tossed into the bush or the ocean. There is no IT support in the bush.
  • Gifts to big men may not be necessary. In the past, a stranger might bring a gift for the Chief of a village and then ask for his assistance. This hasn't been very successful for my explorations. Today, gifts to big men are usually not expected, except in politics (where they are not viewed as bribes)!
  • Gifts should not be used to settle your accounts! Most ni-Vanuatu build bungalows and guest houses to generate cash flow.
1 Comment | Comment on this article

Margot wrote:
I sent a breast pump to a young mum on Hideaway, she left a very young baby with a friend in town when at work. The cost of milk powder is high and it enabled her friend to use the expressed milk, when the young mother was working. Got big hugs from several staff when I returned this year - was like coming home.
20 April 2012, 00:45

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