Documenting the Female Chiefs of Maewo Island

On a small island located west of Fiji exists an anthropological anomaly: a group of female chiefs. Maewo Island is the only country in Melanesia with female chiefs, who are called ngwotari.

Explorer Sophie Hollingsworth carried the WINGS Flag on an expedition to this island in the Pacific Island Nation of Vanuatu to document their practices. The women seek to gain official status from the National Council of Chiefs of Vanuatu, which they have previously been denied.

In performing the first and only ethnographic study on these women, Hollingsworth’s work may help the female chiefs gain official status.

During the festival, the women demonstrated their practices and powers, undertook grade promotions, engaged in traditional dancing and performed secret ceremonies, including the use of black and white magic. Hollingsworth also visited nearby villages to learn more about both female and male chiefs.

Hollingsworth participated in the local customs of sand drawing, water music, bird calling and constellation naming.

Initially she visited the island with a team; however, they left and Hollingsworth stayed alone on the island for an additional month.

Hollingsworth spoke about her experience at a recent Explorer Talk event hosted by WINGS WorldQuest. She demonstrated speaking Bislama, the local native language. She learned how to speak the language by taking lessons over Skype with a tribe member who formerly lived on the island.

“It’s not like there’s a Rosetta Stone for Bislama,” Hollingsworth said. “That would have made things so much easier.”

When asked what piece of information about her experience she would bring back to Americans, Hollingsworth answered: “There is more than one way of doing things.”

She touched upon this in her recently published flag report:

There is a troubling fallacy that pockets of communities practicing traditional culture unconsumed by technology and globalization are somehow leftovers of a past era. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are modern men and women who continue to defend their unique way of life and prove that there are other ways of interacting with the earth.

For more information about Sophie Hollingsworth’s expedition, see her full flag report here, or visit her website, The Sofia Log.

Subscribe to our mailing list or follow us on social media to learn about future Explorer Talks and other upcoming events.

Your donation helps extraordinary women make extreme discoveries.