Tokelau Olosega: Laughter, Music...and Rats|
by Eldon Haines
Editor's comments: Eldon Haines, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry and expertise in solar energy, was a technical assistant with the American Samoa Territorial Energy Office. During the course of his project, he traveled to Swains Island (Tokelau Olosega) to assist with the installation of a solar electric system. This story reports on the trip and Eldon's experiences.
The ship Manu'atele set out from Pago Harbor bound for little Swains Island (Takelau Olosega), 200 miles north-northwest of Samoa. She carried about twenty residents of Olosega to a family reunion, plus three working teams: biologists to study the rat problem, an energy team to install a solar electric system, and agriculture people to collect quantities of the sweet variety of coconut grown on the island.
The twenty-hour passage was peaceful. A magnificent sunset blessed our journey, and flying fish soared as much as a hundred meters above the hull of the ship. I rolled out my sleeping mat on the hard bridge deck under the stars and slept for intervals through the night.
Normally about five families occupy Olosega's coconut jungle, turned wild after thirty years of neglect at the old plantation. Now only five young men, ages twenty to thirty, occupy the island. A family from Tokelau plans to return in November if the rat problem can be licked. The marine and wildlife biologists, led by former technical assistant Holly Freifeld, had come to assess the problem.
Clearly it may not be solved by November. A brackish lagoon covers almost half of the island's 800 acres. More than 20,000 rats occupy less than a square mile--it's a mess! Rats are everywhere and into everything; they had driven the families off a year ago. Their population is saturated and they are hungry, even devouring their own from the snap-traps set out by a biologist to assess their density.
Because we slept in tents on the beach, we weren't bothered by the rats, since there was no food supply. However, they did swarm all over everything in the village at night--and over a coconut I broke open and left briefly one day--and when I walked through the forest, I could hear them scampering away from me.
On Sunday morning we were invited to the little white one-room church for service with lots of a cappella singing, which raised memories of my childhood. We were asked to refrain from working on Sunday. Our presence was also requested each evening at dusk for sā, or vespers, with more a cappella singing of Samoan hymns and a long prayer of thanks for the sun and sea, the island's productivity, and people's warmth.
We were treated to the island's coconut crabs (fierce foot-long monsters which can husk a coconut), the lagoon's lobster and fish, one of the family's domestic pigs baked slowly in the underground oven, and lovely hot rolls baked in a barrel oven over a wood fire. But more than anything else, we were treated to Tokelau-Samoan friendliness, welcome, joy, laughter, music, and dance.
I worked with an engineer named Chris and our two Samoan assistants, Taliga and Sio, to install the solar electric system. Three photovoltaic panels charge twenty batteries in a twenty-four-volt system that operated the DC refrigerator and lights for the island's dispensary and one-room school. We ripped out all the 110-volt wiring and reused it in the twenty-four-volt system, doing some ingenious 'bush wiring' for missing light switches. It went well.
Following sā the evening before our departure, old one-armed Poni of the island announced the fiafia, a departure party of music and dance. Sā and fiafia and feasting all took place in the common fale, an open wood-pole structure covered by coconut frond thatch and lighted by two Coleman lanterns.
What followed were four hours of song and dance contests, taunts sung humorously between the Pago Samoans and the Olosega Tokelauans, extemporaneous verses, and crazy slap-stick skits which had everyone rolling with laughter. Our palagi (Westerner) contribution paled in comparison: Under my direction we sang the round 'Hey-ho, nobody home!' and got everyone up for the hokey-pokey to great gales of laughter.
Songs of soft beauty, gentle moving harmonies, and tender counterpoint wafted through the air. Fighting songs were belted out to muscular, masculine dancing. The siva is a soft dance with symbolic arm, hand, and eye movements much like a modest Hawaiian hula. One man danced a men's siva that was beautiful, and each woman danced the siva at least once.
For the last dance, seventy-eight-year-old Eliza danced the most sensitive siva and became a young woman before our eyes. After several minutes of dance, she invited each of the palagis and Pago Samoans up to dance with her while the Tokelau people played guitar and sang their hearts out.
We danced barefoot on the wave-rounded white coral rubble, lava-lavas (wraparound skirts) swirling around our legs, under the soft light of the lanterns, the stars, and a new moon, until we were completely exhausted. At the end of the evening, we went off to bed on the coral beach, laughter still ringing about the village as small groups recounted the evening's celebration.