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Te Akatawa – a culture of sharing

Friday August 29, 2014 Written by Published in Return to Pukapuka
Pukapuka mama play cards as they wait for the food to cook.  14082906 Pukapuka mama play cards as they wait for the food to cook. 14082906

I woke up this morning to the sound of singing and the pate calling us all for a cup of tea.

“Don’t forget it’s our turn to cook the malolo today,” said Anne Williams.

The women rotate in groups taking turns cooking, serving and cleaning while the men clean the motu, collect uto from the bush, play volleyball, and fish.

Tawangake lost the afternoon volleyball game and so sent out seven boats to catch malolo.

Having caught more than a thousand they came to our side of Tawalalo at midnight singing songs and offering 680 malolo, keeping 400 for themselves.

The midnight exchange of singing, taunting and fish-giving ended with a promise of another volleyball game, and to whichever side won, more midnight malolo.

For the last two weeks, to celebrate constitution day and Cook Islands independence, Te Kau Wo Wolo or Council of Elders, has declared an akatawa or a splitting of the island into two.

The three villages of Ngake, Yato and Loto usually run the island, their motu and resources.

In the akatawa also called the notawa, to sit in two, the island divides into Tawalalo and Tawangake.

Tawangake is the sunrise side of the island and the village of Ngake and half of the village of Loto moves to the sunrise side of Motu Uta.

Tawalalo is the sunset side of the island and the village of Yato and half the village of Loto moves to the sunset side of Motu Uta.

Each side selects a chairman and sets up their own programme.

Tawalalo and Tawangake have similar programmes.

Each side lives on the motu, cooking together, sharing fish, cleaning and living communally.

There are volleyball games in the afternoon, cards, ping-pong and movies at night. Tawalalo went to Motu Kotawa to collect birds and pulaka, bringing back more than five hundred birds, two for every man and woman and three for every child.

Tawalalo had such a surplus of pulaka that they shared it with the other side. Different members of each tawa, or half the island, generously contribute to the whole.

Someone will come and donate a bag of flour and then we cook doughnuts.

Someone else will donate the petrol for the men to go fishing or the lights for the generator.

When it’s time to share the food, the ladies make sure that everyone gets an equitable share.

Usually, one malolo for the children, and two for the men and the women, and on special occasions the birds.

We all roast the fish and birds on the low-lying coconut coals and eat all together with whatever kinaki the women prepared that day, taro, breadfruit, rice, pulaka. “There’s so much food and fresh fish during the tawa,” said Papa Charlie, “let’s extend it.”

Te Kau Wo Wolo met and at the request of the people, decided to extend it for another two weeks.

It means more food sharing, more hard work for the community, more cleaning of the motu, more fishing and more sports.

The KWAI sustainable sailing cargo ship brought fresh supplies this last week. “People donated 25lb bags of flour and sugar.

“People came and donated milo and cabin bread all to the Tawa,” said Tere Williams chairmain of Tawalalo, “there is a lot of aloa.”

Tawangake and Tawalalo continue to share all the donated boat food as well as the local food, and the men go fish while everyone cooks and eats together.

“Everyone wants to extend it through the end of the year,” said Tere Williams. “We will wait and see what Te Kau Wo Wolo decides.”

This akatawa is significant since the last akatawa occurred from 1977-1980 and has not happened in Pukapuka for the last 34 years.

Originally it too was only set for a short time but people so enjoyed it they kept extending it.

My father conducted his research and wrote Making History (Borofsky, Cambridge University Press, 1989) entirely based on the last akatawa.

When we arrived to Pukapuka in 1977, the akatawa had just started as a new social division.

The akatawa provided a new way of sharing resources, crosscutting ties, and something fun and different.

My father chose Pukapuka as a site for his research because anthropologists had spent significant time here and he wanted to compare his research findings with theirs.

He originally wanted to look at westernisation and changes from previous anthropological accounts, but since Pukapuka still had so little westernization, that research made no sense.

Instead, he studied the akatawa.

What he found was no mention of the akatawa in five previous anthropological accounts.

He looked at this puzzle and came to the conclusion that Pukapukans and anthropologists make history.

In the process of learning and validating their traditions, Pukapukans continually change them.

And anthropologists often over-structure the traditions emphasizing uniformity at the expense of diversity, stasis at the expense of change.

The akatawa, like all Pukapukan social organization and activities, changes with practical needs and the direction of the wind.

While the akatawa has not happened in Pukapuka since 1981, it has happened among the Pukapukan communities in Australia and New Zealand.

“It’s convenient,” said Chairman of Te Kau Wo Wolo Pio Lavalua, “people are busy with their jobs overseas. For the Pukapukan community abroad, playing sports in two tawas instead of three villages is faster.”

There is a practical purpose for everything.

“In the old days, I believe,” said Lavalua, “they probably did the akatawa after hard times when they needed to redistribute the food and the resources.”

This akatawa came about as a way of teaching the children about the past and “just to have something different.”

Everyone has enjoyed the akatawa, seeing new faces and living communally, eating together every evening for a month with morning and evening daily prayers.

Still, the akatawa is not likely to extend beyond this month.

“There were too many problems over the family taro patches in Motu Uta and dividing those resources,” said Pio Lavaula, “that’s my understanding of why everyone does not want to extend the akatawa for much longer. Plus each village has its own bank book now and we have different financial resources and reasons to stay in the village system.”

In addition to the akatawa, there are two main other times in Pukapuka when the village structure of Yato, Ngake and Loto is replaced by new crosscutting ties. During the yolonga, or the patrilineal social system, everyone leaves their village and goes to their burial grouping.

During the wua, everyone goes to their matrilineal side.  

During the yolonga, everyone gathers in their burial groups to pick the grass from the gravesites, cook together, play cards and visit the motus.

It has a similar feel to Day of the Dead celebrated in Mexico though in Pukapuka it lasts for a week or two.  

When children are born, they know where and next to whom they will be buried. During the days leading up to the yolonga all the children ask each other “what’s your po?” or “what burial ground do you belong to?”

Wua means life-generating female organs and is the matrilineal social organisation. The island splits into the Wua Kati, translated as the land people and the Wua Lulu, translated as those not land people and everyone divides along their mother’s side. The wua is celebrated every five years or so and was last celebrated last year.

“It was one of the best times in my life in Pukapuka,” said Teaomua Anker. “I am usually part of Ngake but I got to go to the Wuakati and we went to Yato’s Motu Kotawa where I had spent so many happy childhood years catching birds, fishing and having fun.”

The yolonga and wukati did not happen during the akatawa for the four years my father conducted his research in Pukapuka, but there are numerous previous anthropological accounts and mention of them in the makos, old chants.

“We want our children to know about these traditions so we make sure they happen regularly,” said Pio Lavalua.

During these times of moving out of the villages of Yato, Loto and Ngake to new social groupings, there is a redistribution of food, more food and resources available, more food shared, new working groups to look after the island, and of course new love and liaisons. 

It may be years before another akatawa happens. I asked Te Kau Wo Wolo, “Will there be another akatawa and when?” As is the typical Pukapukan answer for most things, Pio Lavalua shrugged his shoulders and answered: “It depends. For now, people seem to be enjoying themselves, it’s something different and a good change.”

This akatawa still may get extended, or happen again next year or in another 34 years. When it does happen again, it will be for a practical, playful or seasonal purpose depending on the tides, the wind and the mood of the atoll.

Whichever social organisation utilized, Pukapuka remains the original Polynesian commune surviving together through sharing and making history.

“A static culture is a dead culture,” said Pio Lavalua, “we keep our culture alive.” 

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