Yesterday I wrote about the laid-back attitude of people in Vanuatu (Ni-Vanuatu or Nivans), and how it makes for a peaceful society.

Here in Vanuatu there are some interesting traditions that date back to before the first “western” explorers scoped out the area hundreds of years ago.

One of them that endures to this day and can teach western nations “a thing or two,” is the Sorry Mat.

One time we had a bicycle stolen. I received a phone call a day or two later from a bus driver who lives nearby, telling me he was upset because he he had learned that a youth who had been staying with his family had stolen the bicycle. He promised that he would make sure it was returned.

A few days later he turned up with the young man and the bicycle inside his bus. He said the young fellow had something to say. The thief (he was about 18 years old I suppose) was crying as he told me how sorry he was that he'd stolen the bicycle. He wheeled the bicycle to me, and presented me with a woven grass mat about 2×3 metres that had pink-dyed feathers sewn along 2 sides. He begged me to accept it as a token of his being sorry, and forgive him. I did.

I had just experienced my first “Custom Reconciliation Ceremony!”

This particular “Sorry Mat” would have cost him more than 6,000 vatu, or 3 days wages for a labourer.

These mats are generally woven from narrow strips of Pandanus leaf. It takes many hours to prepare the materials and weave a mat. Today you can buy a plain mat in the market – about 2 metres by 1.5 metres – for around 3,000 vatu (USD28). This is what many Nivans sleep on. A more elaborate ceremonial mat with coloured patterns and feather decorations along two edges might cost double that or more.

And here's where it gets interesting. The ceremonial use of mats. They are often presented as a gift to visiting dignitaries, but today we focus on their use as part of a custom reconciliation ceremony.

In Vanuatu if you have wronged someone, you are expected to perform a simple traditional ceremony to show you are sorry. The perpetrator demonstrates his repentance by publicly presenting a number of gifts to the victim. THe victim accepts, and the wrong action is henceforth “forgotten” in the sense that all parties feel that a new beginning has been started.

One of the things that has created ongoing tension in many societies is the way many people refuse to let go of wrongs that were done to them. Even when a court hands down a sentence, the victim often feels that “justice has not been done” and in many cases the victim receives no compensation. Bad feelings and grudges fester.

In Vanuatu a court will take into consideration the custom ceremony that has been performed as evidence of repentance, and may reduce a sentence accordingly. The local newspaper has a court report section where you can read detailed accounts of pigs, mats, and money that was presented by perpetrators to victims. In the simple proceedings the transgressor tells the victim they are sorry and asks forgiveness. He presents his gifts, which almost always includes at least one “Sorry Mat.” The victim usually accepts the statements and the gifts, indicating that all parties can move forward. The “right thing” has been done.

This even extends to something like a case this week where a Government Minister was in court for being drunk on a plane and frightening the other passengers. According to the court decision, the Member of Parliament “has expressed remorse over his actions.”

He performed custom reconciliation ceremonies to his constituency and the National Council of Chiefs. He also apologised to the Prime Minister, his political party, and the airline who owned the aircraft and employed the pilot.

People won't “forget” his actions of course, but they will “forget” about any further need for holding onto it.

Don't you think many western countries could learn a thing or two from the Vanuatu way of doing things?

Cheers from paradise

Lance in Vanuatu