The Mysterious Kiai

by Sebastian TIRTIRAU

The Mysterious Kiai

In 2006, a National Geographic reporter was exploring the island of Espiritu Santu, one of the 85 islands of the Vanuatu archipelago, South Pacific.  Sandwiched between Fiji and Australia, Vanuatu has been one of the fiercest cannibal regions of the Pacific, where several foreign missionaries have been sacrificed.  The archipelago is dotted with caves filled with bones of these occurrences, speaking of a very turbulent time in the history of these people.

Exploring the Santu mountains, the reporter lost his way in a powerful storm and he found himself deep in the jungle, in extreme heat and humidity.  Suddenly he stumbles upon a small village, with long bamboo houses on stilts, high in the mountains, in what appeared to be a crater of a former volcano.  The village was quiet and appeared deserted.  As he walked through, a few heads appeared out of the long, smoky houses and he stopped.  Who were they?  What kind of people did he just encounter?

It turns out he just “discovered” a previously unknown tribe, the Kiai tribe.  No one in the outside world has heard or seen them before.  Content in their own world, hidden by sharp rising volcanic mountains and dark jungles, the Kiai have existed here for a long time.

In 2007, my brother and I sailed to Vanuatu to see if I can visit them.  After an extraordinary sailing voyage (the subject of another article) we reached Vanuatu and started my search for them.  The reporter had only a handful of photos of these people so I didn’t have much to go on.  He was discreet in his description of the place, with good reason, because disturbance from the outside world is not always a good omen.  But I managed to find someone in Luganville town who heard of them and agreed to take me there.  We trekked for hours through the mud and the intense humidity of the jungle, climbing higher and higher, on narrow mountain paths.  Eventually, we reached the first village of the Kiai and I was welcomed in their midst.  Over the next few days, I got a glimpse into their incredible culture, their way of life and their mystery.  I ate in the same house with the men, I was given their traditional dress called sapsapele and I let go of my preconceived ideas of primitive man and social barriers.  I was accepted into a culture that had no connection with the world outside their crater and for a short time, I was free to roam with them the jungles that surround them, hunting and gathering our food like our ancestors did.

In time, I saw their plight of finding drinking water (the rain water is poisoned by the volcanic ash and once it touches the ground it cannot be used anymore) and we helped them install 6 water catchments from high up in the mountain and bring the clean water down to their villages through very long pipes.

The Kiai will always remain in my heart, as free and mysterious people of the mists of Vanuatu.


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