“The Prime Minister, Hon. Faimalaga Luka and Mrs. Sikiona Luka request the pleasure of the company of Ms Hilary Macleod to a State Luncheon to mark the 23rd Anniversary of Tuvalu’s Independence on Saturday, 29th September, 2001 at 11.00am at the Government House, Vaiaku…….dress: your comfort!”
So began a full on weekend of social events that left me needing a holiday! But before I go on to describe the Independence weekend celebrations, let’s go back to what happened when I arrived back from Brisbane last time……..
The first event of note was the oft-postponed Italian night at the navy fale (renamed Casa Marina Laguna for the night!). I was back from the Land of Oz and the boat was in with supplies so the theme evening was on again for the Sunday night. Sunday during the day there was frantic activity as I attempted to make some fresh pasta– I dug out my pasta making machine and set up a small pasta factory in one of the navy kitchens. Unfortunately due to the high heat and humidity it took some doing but eventually we had ‘spirelli’ and macaroni shaped pasta enough for a fairly decent pesto pasta dish or two. The navy guys made some pizza and the road gang guys were providing chicken cacciatore. Eti flew some salami and real cheese up from Fiji and some red wine was found at the Fusi (supermarket). One of the navy guys had wired up the fale for sound and Pavarotti was brought out to blast across the lagoon. Imagine …… the stars, pasta, red wine, Pavarotti and an unexpected breeze across the lagoon – it was difficult to believe we were in Tuvalu. Buster/Jack (the navy cat – there’s a song in there somewhere!) was in his element – a veritable social butterfly this one and insisted on doing the rounds of the guests for a pat or two, plus of course being the official pasta taster! A good night was had by all.
A day or two later I went for a visit to the TCS (the co-op) warehouse to buy a slab of water and discovered one of the mysteries of Tuvalu – why, when the island has run out of food, is there still pile upon pile of soap?…tons of it: block soap; detergent; washing up liquid; and so on. Even more mysterious – why, when there is so much soap, is there never any in the toilets at the Ministry of Education building?! Hmmm, I think there’s a research project in there somewhere and I could probably get funding for it!
Maybe the lack of soap is why I got sick again…same symptoms as before and this time ended up visiting the Funafuti Princess Margaret Hospital for a few hours. It was the usual story though – “we don’t know what’s wrong, maybe it’s a virus, just go home and rest”. And so I did. It was a world-changing, momentous time – but not because of my illness. On the morning of 11 September 2001, when I was still recovering in bed in my room, I got a call from the Australian Navy Lieutenant Commander (in-country as Maritime Surveillance Adviser MSA) to ask if I had heard any news. News? Tuvalu doesn’t have TV so how could I have heard news? I was confused to say the least. In my drug induced state I was told that there had been major terrorist activity in the USA. He then picked me up from my room at Filamona Guest House and took me down to the Navy fale to watch the coverage of 9/11 on CNBC, which was the only channel they could pick up from the navy satellite dish. Also there was an American palagi, who has been in Tuvalu for over 10 years, looking very shaken. Maybe it was the drugs I was taking for my illness or just the unbelievability of the situation, but I thought I was watching a Tom Clancy plot. We all just sat there without speaking whilst the whole thing unfolded in front of us. But the funny thing about being in Tuvalu is that if this had happened earlier in the year, we probably would not have known. There is no international TV, no newspapers and, earlier in the year with the Internet down, no access to satellite TV. For the average Tuvaluan it is always like this. The media corporation (that does broadcast internally to the islands) decided at first that it was not important news for Tuvaluans and did not warrant a special broadcast. Very soon though, and as the political and economic implications for the world were realised, they wanted the CNBC tapes from the navy guys. These were played on a special edition of the news (normally the broadcast is only on for 2 hours on a Monday night) and the announcement was made over the radio that ‘the President of the United States was going to make an announcement to the world, live on Tuvalu TV!!!’ If you think that it is incomprehensible for us in the Western world imagine what the average Tuvaluan makes of people jumping from 110 story buildings when the highest point in Tuvalu is 5 meters. 6,000 dead is also over half the population of Tuvalu and more than the population of Funafuti (the capital island). But of course even though it’s a topic of conversation amongst the palagis, life goes on pretty much as usual in Tuvalu – no increased security at this airport necessary here and it’s still as chaotic as usual when the plane arrives!
The next week the contingent from the Australian Defence Force in Canberra arrived for the annual defence cooperation talks. It was a flying visit of two days but as part of the program the patrol boat (Te Mataili) was ‘polished up’ and VIPs invited to a ‘shop front’ exercise. This means that the crew take the boat out onto the lagoon and show off their skills on training drills. On board, apart from the Defence Force contingent, was the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, the Deputy Prime Minister, various ministers and secretaries of government and me! I got a bit worried when I saw the program which advertised the ‘man overboard’ demonstration as I thought I finally realised why I had been invited! Was I to be the red-skivvied Ensign equivalent from Star Trek who never makes it back from an away mission?! But no, I was relieved to discover a dummy ready to be tossed overboard. Actually the display was very impressive and everything went like clockwork – although the ‘casualty’ for the mock ‘electrocution in the galley’ exercise got a fit of the giggles as he was being carried up to the flying bridge. All in all though it was a pleasant afternoon out of the office, sailing the lagoon. Where else in the world would I get to go sailing with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of a country? (Graveyard humourists suggested that now was as good a time as any for a terrorist attack on Tuvalu). Of course you have to realise that the Governor General and PM are often seen trundling their food wastes in wheelbarrows across the runway to their pigs along with the rest of Tuvalu, and degrees of separation are many fewer than “six degrees of Kevin Bacon”!
The following evening was the cocktail party in the Vaiaku Lagi Hotel to celebrate the end of the defence talks. The usual suspects (the increasingly shrinking pool of palagis) were lined up for Tuvaluan style ‘finger food’ (including raw chunks of freshly caught tuna) and hot Paddlewheel plonk. At this point you may be asking…..does she ever do any work? And the answer is yes, of course….when the power is on and I can get to the office! But seriously though all of these social activities are far more interesting to you, dear reader, than my work, which consists of me sitting in my office, tapping at the computer trying to develop some materials to support the syllabus. I have managed to work my way through it and have now developed quite a nice set of photos, which will be printed on to A4 card and laminated. Sets of activities for each year level are being developed by myself in conjunction with the reference group and a set will be placed in each school. For the educators amongst you – if this sounds a bit old hat remember that the outer island school kids rarely get to come to the main island and the schools have no television, radio or video and have to rely on the ‘old methods’ and old style resources.
Anyway, back to the more interesting social life…..the next event of note was an invitation to attend the Niutao fatele in celebration of their annual island feast day. Nuitao people perform a different form of fatele (local dancing for those who haven’t been following the postcard series) in that they don’t use a wooden or tin drum, so it’s all done with the voices. I was invited to attend the other parts of the celebration too (food, speeches, games etc) but decided to only attend the evening function. I dug out my one and only posh frock (which is getting a bit of a work out lately!) and rocked up to the Nuitao falekaupule (there will be a test on this word at the end!). This particular evening was to be ‘a dance off’ between two Nuitao groups at opposite ends of the falekaupule. One group gets up, does a fatele and gets thoroughly excited whilst the others wait for their turn. Towards the end it is not unknown for a bit of sabotage from the opposing group. After this there are a lot of speeches in which each side berates the other and it’s always declared a draw! Once again though I was amazed at the amount of sound that could be generated and they are fun and you just can’t help laughing and clapping along.
And so to Independence Day…….
The weekend started with a Friday evening invitation to another first birthday party for the daughter of the VSO People’s Lawyer [ASIDE if you are hankering after another good read about Tuvalu check out the book written by Philip Ells], and as usual, most of the palagis were invited. This necessitated another birthday card creation using Microsoft Publisher as the local choice of birthday cards is limited and naff! Well, thank goodness it was a short party as we needed our strength for the rest of the weekend.
Saturday morning I was up at 6.30am to attend the Tuvalu Independence Day parade. This time I was an invited guest and got to sit in the falekaupule to witness the marching. The police had been practicing for weeks as had the school kids and the maritime school students. Now I don’t know if you remember that last time there was a march for the Queen’s birthday the tune of choice was the Hokey Cokey? Well, it took me a little while but I did eventually recognise that this time it was…..’Wise men say, only fools rush in….but I can’t help, falling in love with you’!! Can’t wait for the next march…any suggestions?
OK, so part one over and it was off to the PM’s lunch as mentioned in the opening line of this postcard. There were tables laden with the usual over abundance of food including lobster and a crowd pleaser – coconut crab, (which is called u and pronounced “oooooo” – hence the overheard expression “oooooh u”!) However, it was a party with a difference because I experienced my first taste of Tuvalu-style karaoke. Unheard of apparently (and perhaps frowned on) a couple of wives of secretaries to government and other dignitaries grabbed the microphone from the band and sang some local songs. I was desperately trying to avoid being called up for a version of ‘Waltzing Matilda’. So the lunch ended at 2pm with an invitation to attend the afternoon fatele competition. Part 1 consisting of four island communities was in the afternoon and part 2 with the other four in the evening. I decided that an “LLD” (Little Lie Down!) was in order so I missed this part of the program because I had to start again at 6pm with the deputy PM’s cocktail party at the hotel. A few zzzz later and another posh frock on, I set off for the finger food, cocktail bash. I decided to take my video camera again (having accidentally wiped the entire morning’s videoing) and was rewarded by being able to capture the wonderful harmonies of a hymn to the backdrop of the best sunset this year. Te Mataili (the patrol boat) was off shore, fully lit up for the occasion too. After the food (more food!!) and speeches the Moana Drifters (local band) played and were wearing their new uniforms supplied by Alpha Shipping Company. My friend Tenene (who was in our band Coconut Wireless) plays with the Moana Drifters and had designed and painted the back drop cloth. It was another good night but was not over yet as I set off from there to capture part 2 of the fatele competition on tape.
Sunday and Monday were well-earned rest days but on Monday night I was invited to attend the wedding feast for Jimmy (real name Chen), the Chinese guy who runs the restaurant in the guesthouse where I am staying. He has been in Tuvalu for about 2 years under mysterious circumstances having acquired a Tuvaluan passport and then being deported from Fiji to Tuvalu on the basis of that (or so the coconut wireless story goes!). Actually he is an amazing guy because when he arrived he spoke no English and has taught himself English by reading a dictionary! A few weeks ago his girlfriend arrived from China and it looks as though they were told that in order to stay living where they were they would have to get married!! Almost a shotgun marriage. How do I know this? Because it was the basis of the wedding congratulations speech!!
So, I am at the end of another postcard from Tuvalu…..a recent palagi visitor who happens to be a journalist has told me that I should consider turning the series into a book….what do you think?
BACKSTORY…After being a FIFO consultant for the Tuvalu Australia Education Support Project in 2000, I was asked to become the in-country Long Term Advisor for the Project. These are my postcards home describing my adventures!