Vanuatu Colourful Food

Thu, 27/08/2009 – Michel Fanton

This last ten days we have been taking footage for the documentary ‘Our Roots’ for the Centre for International Agricultural Research and Development (CIRAD) in Espiritu Santo and Malekula.
Now we are back in the capital Port Vila, the capital of the Republic of Vanuatu to log all the scenes for the editors.
We travelled to the outer islands of Malekula and Espritu Santo in one case to a village more than 70km from roads and electricity. Villagers live near creeks or springs for washing. They are typical plant breeders. We documented how they multiply their root crops by seeds to obtain variability and select new characteristics, such as new flesh colours.
The documentary will be produced for schools in the Pacific islands but also for research scientists, plant breeders in African and Caribbean countries. The message of the film is that diversity pays and can be curated by the farmers themselves: Melanesians are re-learning how to obtain new characteristics, how to re-diversify their root crops, taro, yam, cassava and sweet potatoes through seed production. They normally replant by cuttings or by tubers.
Varieties travel as food with villagers wherever they go. They traditionally give their varieties to their guests or distribute them at weddings, funerals etc. This is how the diversity of their crops had evolved in the first place so it is a re-learning process to go back to seed. Now with the need for diversity because of climate change and the appreciation of more antioxidants in coloured food, traditional varieties are more appreciated.

Aerial yams (Dioscorea spp) in bright colours at Saraoutou Agriculture Station
Villagers showed us how they selected mother and father plant by colour, so now there is now purple and yellow fleshed tubers on their diet. They invited us to film their food preparations and to drink fresh kava they of course grow themselves.
To get to one of the project villages, Pessena in the north of Espiritu Santo, Jude and I first went along dirt roads in a four wheel drive. We then travelled across Big Bay small motor canoe with cameras and equipment. All was packed safely in water proof bags. We went across wide bays with small canoes as usual with just enough petrol and without safety devices.

At the village we had to go up steep tracks crawling to the traditional gardens with a long line of villagers wanting a slice of the action. We were their entertainment and they laughed very loudly when we fell. It’s fair to say they helped us negotiate very steep slopes during rains. Thanks to all those who most likely will not get to read this.
We showed our film ‘Our Seeds’ that we produced under huge duress in 2008 to the whole village.

In Malekula, we were invited to a feast with huge piles of root crops to cook in shallow holes the traditional way. Simple way of life and preparing food: once a day hot stones are heated, then, with bamboo throngs, the red hot stones are put under and over the food wrapped in lap-lap leaves. everything soaking in coconut milk. Pigs and dogs eating the left overs under our feet.
The main staple on Malekula is yam and there was a huge diversity on the market and at a ceremony at a mission station.

However villagers and city dwellers now start eating quantities of low quality Chinese rice with three minutes noddles chichen or beef flavoured. Even more during feasts it seems. Rice is also served at feasts as a status food. we filmed that too. Root crops is becoming invisible replaced by wheat and rice. Not replanted it disappears.
We had our small slice of coastal village life living with people, being given often their only mattress, following them in their far-far away gardens sometimes hours away.  We showed our documentary “Our Seeds” to 150 people one evening as well as the March of the Penguins.
Our earlier documentary, ‘Our Seeds’ was shown six times on Vanuatu television so we hope that when it is produced, CIRAD’s film ‘Our Roots’, will be shown on TV stations in the Pacific, Africa and the Carabeens.