Vanuatu is sat between two tectonic plates, the Atlantic and the Pacific, which means they are at the mercy of volcanic activity (there were seven earthquakes during 2011, with all measuring at least 6.0 on the Richter scale) and some very serious weather. The cyclone season runs from December to April and has hit the area repeatedly over the years, but the current devastation caused by Cyclone Pam is one of the fifth largest storms to hit anywhere in the world and has completely destroyed the majority of the islands' developments. It is difficult to assess exactly how much damage has been done at the moment, but President Lonsdale feels it will be many months, maybe even years, before they begin to return to normal.
The first records of this archipelago's ‘discovery’ credit the Spanish explorer Fernandes du Queiros in 1606 who thought he had landed in Australia, and in 1768 the islands were rediscovered by Frenchman Louis de Bougainville. But it was six years later when Captain James Cook rocked up and named it New Hebrides, and remained so until it gained its independence.
Vanua means 'home' in several of the languages of the nearby colonies and the wordTumeans 'to stand' and is indicative of its independence. It's thought that these islands have been inhabited for around 4000 years by Melanesian people (the word used to describe people from Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu). This is backed up with archaeological finds from around 1300 BC.
Arriving on the islands with the very first settlers were pigs, and ownership of these animals has always been a sign of wealth and status in Vanuatu. There are no indigenous mammals in the Republic so these creatures are much-prized and regarded very highly, although pig killing rituals are part of the tradition. The boar tusk is featured on their flag and the animal remains a national emblem.
The main religion among the islands is Christian, after missionaries arrived during the 19thcentury, but the Yaohnanon tribe on the small island of Tanna have established what is known as a cargo cult - in adoration of our very own Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh! The Prince Phillip Movement was established after his official visits there with the Queen during the 1970s. It's understood that, due to his position as consort to our Queen, locals likened him to a legendary son of a spirit who married a powerful woman, and so on the island of Tanna he is revered as a god. The Duke has never said how he feels about this, but as he has sent signed photos of himself to tribe members on Tanna, we can safely assume he is at least flattered!
At the time of writing, the full extent of the damage caused by the storms to this community is not known. Power lines are down and communication is very poor as a result, but the death toll is expected to rise once contact is made with the smaller islands. According to the UN, this is one of the least developed and poorest countries in the world and they will now be looking to its wealthier neighbours to reach out to them and help.
We have used an image of Vatuatu that dates prior to the disaster, but the devestation can be seen in news reports and if you want to help the aid effort in Vanuatu, please contact your local Oxfam or Red Cross for further information.