As in most Polynesian societies, family structures define the order of proceedings in Tuvalu, from meals and child care to farming and fishing. Within the community, each family has a salanga (task) to perform: fishing, construction, maintenance, crop planting, harvesting, repairing nets... Skills are passed down from generation to generation. Important community matters are thrashed out in falekaupule (meeting halls), which are also used for celebrations and dance performances (Tuvaluans love to dance).
On the food front, Tuvalans make do with what's around them: coconuts, fish, coconut milk, pork, coconut crabs, taro...and coconuts.
Unfortunately, environmental concerns have focused international attention on Tuvalu. As an atoll nation, the major long-term ecological threat to Tuvalu comes from global warming and rising sea levels. As well as shoreline erosion, water bubbles up through the porous coral on which the islands are based, and causes widespread salt contamination of areas used to grow staple crops. If sea levels continue to rise as predicted – around 40cm in the next 100 years – much of Tuvalu will be underwater, with the remnants above sea level rendered uninhabitable.
What will happen to the population if Tuvalu does start to go under? The government has been in talks with Australia, which has twice rejected Tuvalu’s pleas to open a migration channel. New Zealand has said it will absorb Tuvalu’s population if it comes to that.
Population pressures and changing lifestyles also present a problem. Tiny Fongafale Islet, only about a third of which is habitable, is crammed with some 4500 people. Pits end up filled with waste, due to a lack of adequate garbage disposal and the reliance on imported packaged food – a common problem for Pacific Islands of all sizes.
While in Tuvalu, try to watch, or better still join in, a game of Tuvalu’s unique sport, te ano. Almost completely incomprehensible to a first-timer, it’s great fun and one of the few games that men and women play together.
To play te ano you need two round balls, about 12cm in diameter and woven from dried pandanus leaves. Two opposing teams face each other about 7m apart in five or six parallel rows of about six people, and nominate their alovaka (captain) and tino pukepuke (catcher), who stand in front of each team.
Team members hit the ball to each other with the aim of eventually reaching the catcher. Only the catcher can throw the ball back to the captain to hit back to the other team. To keep the game lively, two balls are used simultaneously. When either ball falls to the ground the other team scores a point, and the first to 10 points wins the game. Crazy stuff!
If you're more of a cricket fan, keep a look out for kilikiti, which puts a South Seas spin on the old game. To say that the rules are 'flexible' is probably fair comment.