“In His Footsteps” explores the diets and health of native peoples, as experienced by Westerners who have visited them, much as Weston A. Price did in the 1930s.
Dr. Weston Price’s visit to the South Seas included stops at Fiji and New Caledonia, a route that would have taken him just south of the island nation of Vanuatu. Inhabited by people of Melanesian stock, the former New Hebrides is a chain of 83 islands covered in dense rain forest. Blue seas, towering volcanic cones and raised coral islands with wide beaches make this an island paradise indeed, one that has attracted communities of French, British, Australians, New Zealanders, Vietnamese and Chinese.
My visit to Vanuatu in 1999 left me with the same concerns that Dr. Price had as he chronicled the disappearance of robust good health when the peoples of the South Seas adopted the “displacing foods of modern commerce.”
A great many of the adults still have broad smiles and beautiful teeth. To know their friendliness is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Visitors are reminded that there is no tipping and no bargaining on the islands–these factors are part of the Island traditions. Many of the older generation would not know how to use a toothbrush but have beautiful beaming white teeth. Yet there were some toothless ones who quite freely admitted to “too much sugar.”
Those who grew up on the outer islands enjoyed a nutrient-dense diet of seafood of all sorts, particularly the coconut crab and giant clams, and many plant foods including coconut, island cabbage, manioc, yams, taro, banana and other delicious native fruits. These are the ones with beautiful teeth, and slender strong bodies that move with lightness and grace.
There were no land animals in these areas until the 1700’s when Captain Cook left the first pigs. These have thrived and now constitute an important part of the native diet. Cattle and goats were brought later and now provide milk and meat for both islanders and tourists.
Unfortunately, many islanders seek work opportunities in Efate, site of the government, harbor and main tourist centers. Here they receive money for their labors and in turn spend their earnings in the modern markets. These are filled with the same junk we find in western countries–canned foods, white bread, cookies, crackers, corn chips, vegetable oils and margarine. Although wonderful butter from New Zealand is available, it takes up only a fraction of the space on the shelves that is devoted to margarine. Soft drinks are sold by street vendors at fairs and markets.
Many foodstuffs are still bought in from the outer islands and sold at outdoor markets. The diet is therefore mixed, part nutritious native foods and part junk.
Among the children there is quite a bit of tooth decay and many have narrow faces. Adults living on the main island suffer from many illnesses, including paralysis and weakness. I met one family of three siblings, all of whom spent most of their hours in wheel chairs.
Visitors are always welcome in the villages. There one sees the sharp contrast of old and new–a plastic grocery bag hanging on a tree outside a thatched hut, for example. Most houses have electricity–either from oil burning generators in the towns or, in remote villages, through solar energy panels donated by the Japanese–but few have running water. Corrugated iron has replaced wood and thatch as the main building material.
The villagers told me that rather than eat all the ripe papayas, they left them as food for the flying foxes and birds, to fatten them. The birds and animals were then hunted and enjoyed for their delicious flesh. A local chef is now making jams of local fruits, including bananas, pineapple, papaya, guava,and chimoiya (custard apple) but there is far more nutrition in the birds and animals that have eaten the fruits left for them.
A popular commodity available in the markets was fresh watercress. This is grown in running streams using an ingenious method of propagation. Stakes approximately seven to eight feet long are driven into the sand. These become the adhering point as small rootlets move with the current downstream. A wonderful clutch of fresh watercress grows up around each stake.
A typical dish is laplap, consisting of grated yams, taro and bananas in coconut milk, wrapped in leaves and placed on red-hot stones to bake in an earth oven for about three hours. Kava, derived from the pepper plant, is customarily prepared by young boys who chew the hard root to a pulp, then mix it with water, giving it a brown muddy look. The beverage is said to be nonalcoholic but it can have strange effects. For example, it makes imbibers sensitive to noise, so usually drinkers talk in whispers.
It was a delight to see the noni tree, morinda citrifolia. The islanders use the leaves for medicinal purposes whereas in Tahiti the fermented juice is consumed as a tonic.
In former times, Vanuatu islanders traveled freely in sail canoes. They were used for fishing and carrying foodstuffs from garden to market. Use of canoes was curtailed when Europeans began to capture their crews–usually to sell them into slavery. The missionaries also actively discouraged canoe voyaging along with most other traditional practices. Use of sail canoes is being revived as a wonderful way of transport between islands. There are some cars on the islands, but most people walk.
A notable aspect of village is the large numbers of babies and young children. Many young women have one or more children before they marry. This is not considered a disgrace and everybody assists in the child rearing. They informed me that in earlier times, an herb was used as a natural contraceptive, so that they could space their pregnancies. I was interested to learn that boys are circumcised at the age of eight. Plants are used to dampen the pain and prevent infection.
The challenge for the inhabitants of Vanuatu will be to adapt the conveniences of modern life without abandoning the many positive aspects of their culture, particularly the use of nutrient-dense foods that alows them to have beautiful, healthy teeth and bone structure, even in this modern age. But there are many temptations. An article from a local newspaper advises mothers to serve cake at children’s birthday parties.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2000.