About every three years (2015 being the most recent) come August, a great restlessness spreads across Tanna. The men scour the bush and villages for pigs and kava, counting, calculating. Finally one of the chiefs announces that his village will host the Nekowiar, a three-day extravaganza of song, dance and feasting during which the leaders of neighbouring villages organise marriages.
Preparations for the Nekowiar are exhaustive. Three complex dances are practised, and beauty magic takes over. Men, women, boys and girls use powders mixed with coconut oil to colour their faces a deep red, with black and yellow stripes.
The ceremony begins with the host village’s young men dancing an invitation to the women. They respond with the Napen-Napen, a spectacular dance that represents their toil in the fields, and continues throughout the first night. The male guests watch and wait for dawn, when they dance the Toka, a pounding, colourful dance that shows scenes of daily life. If the Toka dancers make a circle around a woman, she’s tossed up and down between them. During this stage a man may have sex with any woman who is willing.
On the third day the chief of the host village produces the kweriya, a 3m bamboo pole with white and black feathers wound around it and hawks’ feathers on top. It announces that the Nao – the host village’s dance – is to begin. This men’s dance enacts events such as hunting and wrestling, followed by triumphant feasting.