The man sitting next to me says, “I’ve been trying to come to the Toka for twelve years. Every year when I arrive the dates change and I miss it. Finally this year I get to see it.”
Eighty some islands of the Pacific country of Vanuatu lay scattered amongst the teal blue waters in between Australia and Fiji. The Toka is one of Vanuatu’s most spectacular custom ceremonies. Happening once only every four years, the Toka signifies an alliance between tribes on the southern island of Tanna with days of celebration and gift exchanges.
With changing our own plans and flights multiple times to attend the Toka in just the course of one week prior, it’s hard to pin down an exact start date. The Toka will start when the chiefs determine the preparations and dance rehearsals are complete.
Having gotten word that the Toka was indeed finally under way we woke up at 4 am in the hopes of arriving early. By the time the truck came, people and gear were loaded, stops made and we were transferred from one truck to another, we ground our way up steep dirt tracks with low gear into the mountains arriving around 11 am.
Our guide Robert was showing four of us visitors around the ceremony. Dropping all of our gear off for his grandfather to watch we all tried to contain our excitement as we could hear this tremendous rhythmic pounding from the forest. We fell into a line to follow Robert along a small worn path into the forest. From the intensity of the thundering beats we assumed we were just a short stroll from the ceremony–until we kept walking. And walking. The pounding beats kept getting louder and louder as we went up and down eroding trails through the forest and across streams.
Dripping with sweat we emerged to a clearing with hundreds of people circled around a giant cloud of dust. The four of us edged our way to a break in the crowd till an English speaker told us this is where the dancers run through and it was not safe to stand there. We mingled our way into the crowd and watched with jaws dropped as this mass of people performed their custom dancing ceremony.
People of all ages watched the dances with an infectious spirit of happiness and pride.
Planning and preparation takes place during the four years prior. Roads are built, viewing platforms are created, dances are meticulously rehearsed, food stands and shelters of all types are built almost entirely from native materials.
We saw all generations participate in the Toka.
The dancing goes non-stop for three days. Literally.
The dances tell the stories of daily life working in the fields, hunting, wars and of coming together. Each dance holds special significance. Some dances are only allowed to be performed on certain years.
It was not possible to understand the exact translation behind every symbolic gesture- yet the pride and respect the Vanuatuans have for their culture was unquestioned.
The people of Tanna love when visitors come to see their island home with its natural wonders such as one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes. They were especially excited to welcome visitors who wanted to tap their foot to the beat of their festivals and gain a deeper understanding of their culture as well.
It was a surreal experience to have been in an isolated forest in the middle of the Pacific with these cultural customs thriving and surviving. The colour, energy and extreme joy that reverberated through the forest in these moments was unbelievable.
After experiencing the power of the Toka, I can understand why that man tried for twelve years to be a part of this celebration.
In an ever modernizing world I find such admiration witnessing thousands of people still holding onto their beliefs and customs. It was such a privilege to see these century old traditions not getting tossed like last night’s fast food take away container. To have been so warmly welcomed into this celebration is something I will carry with me all the rest of my years.
The Toka is about forgiveness and peace. Through mutual agreements and celebrations neighbouring villages concede to forgive wrong doings and keep their culture strong. Each of us has the power to celebrate and keep the Toka alive in our every day lives and communities.
If you go:
Catching the Tolka Festival requires a certain amount of the luck. The best way to increase your chance of luck is to give yourself as much time as much time as you can around the island of Tanna and ask, ask, ask locals if they heard when it is starting. There is no exact, fixed date. It will start when the elders think it is ready to start, and this usually is in October.
Vanuatu is an awesome destination to visit with other super cool things to see as you try to get your timing down for the festival. I wrote this post highlighting how we spent our month in Vanuatu while waiting out the festival:
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