The second day after we arrived, the Tukumai ceremony started. This is a ceremony in which people honour the deceased that have died during the last six months. It is conveniently arranged around the time of the boat’s arrival so that people coming back to the island can attend. The event begins by harvesting the taro (kano kano) on the larger island of Takuu.
At the break of dawn I took the camera across to Takuu traveling in a small vaka (outrigger). The vaka was hand carved by our interpreter Sio's father using traditional tools. The wood is made from big logs that drift onto the beach and the vakas are only made when a log gets washed up.
Takuu is the largest island and, I was told, is very mysterious. There are some parts that people don't, and are forbidden to, go to. The other thing about Takuu is the mosquitoes - thousands upon thousands swarming around you. Once upon a time (te Henua e noho) the Mortlock people lived on Takuu but no one knows how they managed the mosquitoes, nor how they built the large taro gardens. The women cut off the top of the taro leaves and then planted them back into the soil, while at the same time digging up the roots of those ready to be eaten. I could sense that the island was a very spiritual place as I slushed through the thick smelly mud. It really felt like a wild jungle complete with a chorus of bird calls, humming crickets and ancient towering coconut trees.
Walking closer to one garden I could see that the women there were singing together and I asked them to repeat their song for the purpose of recording it. The women were quite excited by this and instead of continuing about their work they got up (as if on stage) and started performing for the camera. Seeing them singing while all covered in mud was something – but what made the whole experience even more equally surreal was the song they sung. It was a European Christian song that I had learned at Sunday school. It goes, "Love, Love Love in my heart this wonderful wonderful love in my heart, Peace Peace Peace in my heart this wonderful wonderful peace in my heart". Then the women continued to go about their work with crackling laughs. That is when I met the most impressive lady, Barbara. We have an interesting connection. Despite the language barrier I think there is a unique rapport between us. She explained to me in her limited English "I'm a clown.. I am the clown here". She then laughed at herself. I tell her "I'm a clown too". When ever I see Barbara I give her a hug and we laugh. Barbara has no children of her own but only one adopted son and one front tooth. She is around 50 or something and was married once but is now alone.
The Vakas and banana boats returned to Nukutoa in a slow migration with the women carrying their te kete (basket) full of taro (kano kano). Once back on
the island they divided the taro into equal piles for each person involved in the ceremony. There was some fighting about the evenness of each pile. Inside the Ariki's house the people standing closest to the dead were waiting to speak with the dead spirit. They are called spirit mediums. It takes some time but after a while these people will enter a trance-like state and communicate with the dead person. This is an example of the traditional religion that is still practiced here, and arguably only practiced here, with most Polynesian cultures having converted to Christianity. I was expecting to feel something - perhaps the presence of this spirit - but I felt nothing. I can't say whether I would have felt different if I wasn't so focused on filming. When I am behind the camera some of the magic of purely experiencing things is sadly taken away.
Later that day the village had a number of parties. I am guessing this is usually a time when people can fellowship together after communicating with the deceased. Perhaps it is a time to move on, but also to sing newly composed songs about the person who has died. Here I got to see the traditional Takuu music and dancing. I also had a go at dancing myself. Of course Barbara got me to do this and much laughing was involved.
On this occasion many people were drinking Karave (which is fermented coconut juice and a very strong alcohol). People make this by attaching plastic milk cartons to the coconut's young shoots, which drip juice into the bottles. This juice then ferments. The result is incredibly strong and sour tasting, a bit like vinegar and coconut juice mixed together. Many people got drunk after the Tukumai.