Esso Kapum on one of the many kastom walking tours that he offers to tourists, centered on the middlebush area of Tanna Island in Vanuatu

Extra-Ordinary People.

‘Extra-ordinary People’ has been a project involving five months of pilgrimage in 2015 over six South Pacific countries, asking ordinary people what was happiness for them, and how they pursued contentment in their lives. The project attempts to explain how the aspirations of individuals to be happy can shape cultures and countries. With an objective entailed :

The setting is in the South Pacific where the happiest people in the world live, and interviews were carried out in New Zealand, Samoa, Fiji, Tanna Island in Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Australia. The project may not have found the ultimate secret to human happiness, but it certainly adds to the discussion."

Gente Extraordinaria provides insights into what makes people happy around the World, and has interviewed Esso Kapum a Tourism Operator from Tanna Island

Gente Extraordinaria

Article written by Bruna Talarico of “Gente Extraordinaria” & translated by Greg Watt.

Interview of Esso Kapum of Middlebush, on Tanna Island Vanuatu.

Interview of Esso Kapum about what makes for a happy life on Tanna Island in Vanuatu, by

Ask “man-tanna”, what age he is, and you get a somewhat hazy response. Esso Kapum, former police officer and now a well-known tourism operator on the island, rounds his age out to about 40 years. However, dig a little deeper, and you understand that maths works a little differently in the South Pacific.

People here in Tanna do not count the days and years, they only know that today is today, and tomorrow is tomorrow. I’m 40 years, maybe a little more … I know I was born in 1972

Not that Tanna is Neverland – time passes the same as anywhere, but is lived differently. Traditionally, if a daughter grows fast, their parents can get a husband for her as soon as she feels “old enough”, which can happen at 11, 12 or 13 years. ( Notably, the eldest daughter of Esso has surpassed 20 years, but he is in no hurry for her to get married).

Balancing life as a Tourist Operator, and Working The Land with Mt Yasur Ever Present.

Esso along with his wife Rachel, own and run the Tanna Adventures tourism Operation out of Middlebush in central Tanna, Vanuatu.


The Tanna-Adventures vehicle surrounded by village children from one of the kastom(custom) villages on Tanna Island .


Mt Yasur Volcano as viewed from the Tanna Adventures accommodation in Middlebush, Tanna Island

Esso divides his days between his tourist accommodation, taking guided tours to Mount Yasur (the most active volcano in the world) and helping manage his family’s coffee plantation . There is no clear division of when, or how much is dedicated to each aspect, because life as it happens, arranges each day.

We (Tannese people) do not mind the clock, and wake up when we wake up. It’s okay. Sometimes in an idle moment, I stare at my pigs, chickens, my banana trees, the coffee plantation, the horses … it’s so beautiful. Our land is what makes me happy.

Vanuatu consists of 83 islands, but it is common to hear that Tanna is special. More than 100 tribes live on the island, with varying degrees of contact with modern civilization. The only TV media of Tanna, involve documentaries about the way of life of the various isolated villages living there . The commonality between all inhabitants is the inescapable relationship with Mt Yasur, who everyone affectionately calls Grandpa. If little value is given to clocks and calendars, it is because the noisy rumblings of the volcano send clear signals about the fragility of the islander’s everyday lives.

As a part of his volcano tour Esso drives, with amazing agility, his Toyota Hilux by a desert valley that literally crumbles to ashes under the tires, while teaching tourists how to decipher the language of the volcano.

When the Yasur gives the most terrible explosions, we know it’s time to plant yams and taro. It is mother nature directing and fulfilling life on the island.

On an expedition to the foot of the volcano, Esso gets out to talk to the kids of the local village, before driving the 4×4 truck up the steep climb that easily passes 45 degrees, without apparent concern.

Now the explosions are not as strong, and he’s (Yasur) starting to paint the entire island gray. When it’s so gray that the plants are covered with soot, it is the time of harvest.

Mount Yasur Volcano : Spectacular viewing.

nighttime is the ultimate time to see Mt Yasur Volcano in its full glory, and well worth the relatively late journey back to guest accommodation

Once at Yasur, a small number of travellers dressed in comfortable clothes and walking boots, climb to the crater rim, the floor of ash showing every step. Esso goes ahead, wearing only light clothes and jandals, watching Grandpa’s behavior.

Researchers come here looking at the wind, thinking that it pushes the erupting lava over there, or over here. It’s not like that. Stronger explosions throw the lava up high, and solidifying as it falls back, it forms a lid on the craters blowholes. It is this temporary cap that determines the direction of the ongoing belching of lava.

God and Kastom (Custom).

God and Christian belief plays an important part in ni-Vanuatu life, but must also allow for long standing Kastoms ( customs and traditions) that are present in everyday living.      There are many celebrations at local area level that helps tribes  cement their bonds, but provides a great excuse to get together to have a good time.

In the capital Port Vila, the importance of Pentecostal churches on Vanuatu culture is clearly evident from dusk Saturday, until sunset on Sunday, with a sacred commitment to contemplation and spiritual duties. But on an island that does not care about time, God is able to signal and prompt the holy day.

I did not go to church today (the interview took place on a Sunday). Most people do not even know if it’s Wednesday or Sunday, or what day of the month is. One day we wake up and discover that it’s Christmas, so let’s celebrate Christmas.

It is at “kastom” celebrations that all the tribes in Tanna come together. Different localities speak different languages and have diverse customs – Esso swears he can speak all of the native tongue’s, along with English and Bislama, the official languages. Traditional celebrations are for everybody’s enjoyment, and it is a chance for all the tribes to both, show off, but also to be acknowledged.

Everyone is invited and involved in all celebrations, no matter whether it is a traditional tribe, Christian, John Frum (a kind of cargo cult; it is believed that, here, has origins in Vanuatu relationship with a soldier American during War II) or religion. This is happiness out in front, with everyone being involved.

Kava | A traditional part of life or a curse on society ?

Kava drinking is a tradtional drink of Vanuatu and historically was used at important meeting of men, and it was not a Kastom (custom) to drink as a leisure pastime. its more frequent use is having a detrimental effect on Ni-Vanuatu society.

Kava, a drink made from a plant bearing the same name, has a variety of effects (mainly calming), is also an integral part of Tanna life. It is widespread in the western pacific region, with each society developing its own use and relationship with it. In Samoa it is used as an aphrodisiac, and people say that it helps them to work under the hot sun. In Fiji, its potency is feeble [Editors Note : This would be vigourously denied, and Fijians would be insulted by the insinuation] and people drink it over an entire evening. Vanuatu, however, is known to make a concentrated and very strong concoction. In Tanna, the drink is prepared in accordance with the older traditional ways, and the task of preparing the elixir is a “kastom” duty of pre-teen boys. Instead of pulping the kava root with a pestle, as in Fiji or Samoa, Vanuatu children chew the root and spit it out into a large bowl, while listening to the teachings of Yaramara (the High Chief of the tribe). Traditionally, only he can authorize the use and give young people the kava. However, as with all societies, respect of traditional customs is sometimes disobeyed, to test imposed boundaries.

If I say that my children never took kava, I may be lying. Many young people simply drink hidden. How can you be sure ?

Responsibilities of being a Tannese Chief | Rankings and Responsibilities

Chief Jack Kapum is the Paramount chief of the area and his advice is sought by many of the surround villages on Tanna island in Vanuatu


Esso Kapum taking time out from his busy life to be with his neice in Middlebush.

The High Chief and the men of the tribe, partake kava during major tribal meetings where, far-reaching decisions are made, important teachings are passed on, marriages are arranged, and songs of tribal identity are sung. Here only Chief’s Kava is drunk, the best and most potent. While the High Chief is the ultimate authority in Tannese culture, there are many chiefs (Debunni) all of which have specific responsibilities, and who have their own dedicated hallowed ground. There are chiefs for each of crop: there is a yam “Debunni”, another corn, another taro, and so forth. Each “Debunni” has its own place to have kava alone.

If we have a good harvest of vegetable then the ‘Debunni’ has done well, he is responsible. If the crop fails, then he is also responsible. So they frequent their holy places to partake kava, and pray to who they believe will smile kindly on their crops.

Esso is the first child of Jack Kapum, the High Chief of his tribe.

It is an honor for me, and also a responsibility to look after the happiness of the people (our tribe) close to me.

He asks to speak at the meetings that his father presides, and tries to persuade the community to develop the local economy, to reduce the necessity and desire young people to move to Port Vila.

Disasters, Resilience and Consequences of Cyclone Pam.

Cyclone Pam was a disaster of unprecedented proportions, destroying 90 percent of all homes on Tanna Island, and wiped out all food crops.

Esso instigated the development of a quick growing vegetable plantation on their tribal land to help provide the hardest affected areas of Tanna Island with their food supplies and to help provide food resilence on the island.

In the summer of 2015, one of the most powerful cyclones ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, Cyclone Pam, hit Vanuatu and caused devastation on Tanna, one of the worst hit islands. Much of the suffering was caused not by the direct effect of the storm that produced winds of 320km / hr, but instead, due to the lack of food, water and medical care, the result of isolation. Getting to Tanna involves a 3 day trip in old ferry cargo ships, or on board small planes that are unable to fly to Tanna for over a week after serious cyclones. Some months after Cyclone Pam, Esso instigated a new local plantation project, growing quick turnaround crops, which donated 2,000 kilograms of food to outlying villages, three weeks after the first planting.

Despite the tragedy of Cyclone Pam, fate has not shaken the happiness of “man-tanna”, or in particular Esso.

These things happen and are part of nature, probably showing us that it’s time to change some of our traditional ways. After Pam, when plant growth finally came back, we had spectacular crops. We do not know whether it was due to the gods of the crops, the rituals of ‘Debunni’, or fallen trees that brought nutrients to the soil, but it was a gift.

The Future

Esso Kapum enjoying a view of Mt Yasur Volcano providing an entertaining display of flying magma at duck on Tanna

In other islands of Vanuatu, where a Yaramara retires or dies, the eldest of the tribe assumes the post. For Esso this is far from his mind.

Despite the tragedy of Cyclone Pam, fate has not shaken the happiness of “man-tanna”, or in particular Esso.

I’m happy so do not think much about it. When the day comes, I’ll think about the possibility. Let that happen when the time comes.

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