We are the happiest people in the world


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That's what the men of Vanuatu proclaim in this really interesting series called Meet The Natives. I don't usually enjoy reality TV, but I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed this show, which is posted on Youtube. The premise of the show is that five men from Tanna, a village in Vanuatu go to Britain and live among what they refer to as "three tribes": the working class, the middle class, and the upper class. I often find that shows about tribal people can be dehumanizing and prevent people from seeing the tribal people as individuals, but this show does not suffer from this.  Chief Yapa, Joel, Posen, Albi and Jimmy Joseph are all very interesting and wise people. Jimmy is the narrator, as he speaks very good English, but the voices and personalities of the other men are very distinct as well. Interestingly, Jimmy also seems to be the uploader on Youtube and has some comments on the show there. 

I actually learned about Vanuatu from The Paleo Guy's blog. The people of Vanuatu are not hunter-gatherers, but foraging horticulturalists who grow roots and raise pigs. It's clear from the documentary that the people are very healthy, with lean muscular bodies, clear skin, and strikingly white straight teeth. As I have written before here, horticultural and foraging cultures are very diverse. I can understand why the people of Tanna were chosen because their tribe seems very happy and healthy. 

It becomes obvious that the five men aren't going to Britain just to experience the culture, but because they dream of meeting Prince Philip, who they believe is the son of their God. The rest of this post contains spoilers for the show, so if you want to be excited about finding out if they achieve their dream, watch the show first and then come back here. 

The first family they visit is a middle class pig-farming family. I thought it was interesting that they chose a free-range pig farmer, since most pig farms these days are not free range. I would imagine that the men would have had a very difficult experience if they visited a typical pig farm.The people of Tanna also farm pigs, but there were amazed by the size and fatness of the pigs in Britain. However, the fact that the farmer artificially inseminated the pigs bothered them. The chief said that "animals and human beings are the same thing, mating should be done in private." Posen, the pig farmer, says that pigs are possessions and they must treat them with respect. They then cut to a video of Posen feeding his pigs some coconut. The pigs in Tanna are even more free ranging than the British pigs, wandering about the village. I suppose they stick around because the people feed them. 

However, while animals and human beings are the same thing to the Tannans, the chief also says that "animals are made to be killed, but not human beings." The Tannan views on animals are among the most interesting parts of the show. While eating dinner with the middle class family, it comes up that the Tannans eat dogs. The middle class mother asks if they eat their pets. They say that they do not, but some dogs are pets, others are not. 

Dogs come up again later in the show when they are staying with the working class family. While out shopping with them, the Tannans see homeless people for the first time. They cannot understand how people can be homeless. Jimmy says that in their village anyone can build a hut and everyone will help them and share food with them. Later in the show the Tannans say that sharing is the source of their happiness. The sad fact is that if a homeless person tried to build their own house on unused land in the US they would be evicted. It is even illegal to share food with the homeless in some cities. 

After they learn about the homeless the Tannans are brought to a place where women spent all day "treating dogs like humans." It's a dog grooming parlor. After seeing this the chief says that "English people care a lot for their animals but they don't care about people's lives."

The Tannans meet a kindred spirit when they meet a professional rabbit hunter. They are impressed with his skills and philosophy on life, which is that he wants to do what he loves and not be part of the rat race. They say he is like a brother to him. When they are skinning the rabbit, they learn that people no longer want to wear fur. Jimmy is mystified, he says it makes sense to wear the fur since the rabbits are living in England and it's cold in England and the fur is warm. The hunter says this mystifies him too, but that he is so happy to spent time with the Tannans since they understand him and many people in England do not understand hunting anymore. Later when they are visiting the upper class people, the Tannans see a fox hunt. Because of animal rights activists, real fox hunts are banned in England and they carry on the tradition by having fake fox hunts. The Tannans think this is a crazy waste of time. 

Another interesting this is that when they see the homeless people they ask "does this mean they have no fathers or mothers?" Later they learn about the fact that many families in Britain are broken. Their working class host, Ray, tells them he has a son from a previous relationship who he never sees. Now he is off to war in Afghanistan. This makes the Tannans very said. They explain that the bond between fathers and sons is very important. 

Another thing I really liked about the show is that it also wasn't exploitative of the people of Britain. I've seen a fair number of British reality shows that portray British people, particularly the working class, as being very uncivilized, but while it's clear the working class family on this show had problems, they were shown as very nice and welcoming people. The Tannans form very close bonds with the working class family and are actually happy that they have to share a room because they like sleeping near each other so they can talk. 

Unfortunately when they visit the working class family they have their first tastes of truly processed foods from boxes and KFC. I think some people have the idea that taste is more culturally relative than it actually is. The truth is that all humans are vulnerable to hyperpalatable foods, though increasing exposure seems to lead to increasing divorce between craving and needs. The Tannans say that KFC is very good, even better than home cooked foods. I was heartened to see that during a meal with the middle class family, the chief asks to be passed the butter and he eats all of it up with a spoon. 

I was very happy that they do get to meet Prince Phillip, though they want him to come back to the island with them to fulfill their prophecy and he doesn't. It's funny because they say that they understand that son of their God chose to live among the upper class tribe because the upper class tribe follows the ancient rules of the ancestors. In the end Joel says "I think the English should return to a more traditional life. I think they used to be a lot like us, living with love and respect and unity. But if they carry on the way they are, they won't be able to find that life anymore." 

Interestingly, the people there credit some Westerners with having taught them important things. According to legend, a US serviceman during WWII named "John Navy" taught them to end tribal warfare. 

I think it's amazing that we are at the point that we can listen to the wisdom of people from places like Vanuatu, but underneath there is a tension. In the show it's clear that on their island there are gender roles that most Westerners would be uncomfortable with. Some jobs are lady's jobs, some are men's jobs. When they visit a gay club the Tannans are very uncomfortable. I learned later that parts of Tanna are part of a movement known as Kastom, which is a traditionalist movement. They resist things like public schools, believing them to be a threat to their customs (correct, IMHO). The commenters on Youtube praised the Tannan's ability to "live in harmony with nature" but were clearly put off by these attitudes as well as the attitudes towards animals. 

Either way, I learned a lot from the show and I'm looking forward to watching the next one, which is about their trip to the US. 

Jimmy home with his baby