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Tokelau - Culture

Tokelau Culture

The people may be Christian, but Faka Tokelau - the Tokelauan way of life - is Polynesian culture at its most untouched, thanks to the atolls' isolation and NZ's hand's-off approach to administration. The strength of village community and its system of sharing are the defining characteristics, along with the enormous respect afforded elders. Daily life is ordered in each village by a council of elders and family representatives (taupulega), with most men joining the fishing, harvesting and construction workforce, and women responsible for village cleanliness and health.

Each atoll has one village, squeezed onto its highest island (motu). The three villages are divided territorially into two faitu, which compete against each other in fishing, action songs, dancing, sports and kilikiti (village cricket with up to 50 players per side). Despite increasing incursions made by the outside world, all resources are shared between families according to need. The most obvious features of the three villages are their churches and village hall (fale fono).

The atolls are cramped beyond belief, so individualism and a need for privacy aren't a real virtue in Tokelau. Visitors should dress conservatively, keeping those bikinis and skimpy outfits for another time and place. Resources are scarce, so don't help yourself to fallen coconuts. If you're invited into the home of a local, remember to remove your shoes on entering and to sit cross-legged, rather than with your legs stretched out.

Tokelau is staunchly Christian, and Sunday is devoted almost entirely to church-going. As many activities (including work) are forbidden on Sunday, it's a good idea for visitors to delay their arrival until Monday. The religious distribution amongst the atolls reflects the staggered arrival of Samoan missionaries in the 19th century: Atafu is almost completely Protestant; Nukunonu is largely Catholic; and Fakaofo is split between the two faiths, due to the simultaneous arrival of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Interdenominational conflict is rare as it runs contrary to the overriding concept of village unity (maopoopo). Prior to the arrival of Christianity, Tokelauans worshipped a god called Tui Tokelau, along with the usual pantheon of Polynesian gods. The coral slab personifying Tui Tokelau still stands in the village of Fakaofo.

Tokelauans are Polynesian, closely related to Tuvaluans, Samoans and Cook Islanders. The sprinkling of European surnames is the legacy of the whalers and beachcombers who visited in the late 19th century; their subsequent intermarriage has led to today's Tokelauans being described as 'an improbably bizarre genetic mixture'. Today's local population of around 1500 is far outstripped by the number of Tokelauans living away from home; New Zealand's Tokelaun population is 5000 or so.

Tokelauan is a Polynesian language, closely related to Tuvaluan and Samoan. Most people speak some English, thanks to their frequent contact with NZ, and it's taught as a second language in Tokelau's schools.

Traditional foods such as fish, kumala (sweet potato), breadfuit, taro, pork and poultry are cooked on both kerosene stoves and the ubiquitous earth oven (umu). This traditional diet is increasingly being supplemented with imported processed foods, and the islanders' general health is suffering as a consequence; obesity is on the rise. Fresh water is scarce and tank-collected rainwater tastes brackish, so no wonder 'cold stuff' (ie beer) is popular (but strictly rationed on more-traditional Atafu). Kaleva, made from fermented coconut sap, is drunk in lieu of imported spirits. Its alternative name, sour toddy, gives you an idea of the taste.

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