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"On a coral atoll, little grows; on a coral atoll with little rainfall even less grows."
So begins the opening paragraph of an unassuming booklet celebrating the abilities of the women of Kiribati and Tuvalu to make innovative use of every aspect of their harsh atoll environment, particularly of the limited species of plants that too have had to adapt to coral and sand for soil and limited freshwater supply. ‘Atoll Anthology II: the uses of trees and plants by women of the Gilbert Islands and Tuvalu’ is a cyclostyled pamphlet published by The Tungavalu Society in 1976. This title appears to be rare, the copy held at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum is the only one listed on the New Zealand national combined libraries catalogue.
Atoll Anthology II is a collation of recipes and source information corresponding to knowledge and skill sets which fall under the realm of expertise of Tuvaluan and I-Kiribati women: cookery, dye production and medicines.
Mrs Tekarei Russell, Chairperson of the Tungavalu Society, is named as the individual who gathered together recipes in the cookery section that names several Tuvaluan food plants as key ingredients: the pulaka, (Cyrtosperma chamissonis - giant swamp taro), talo (Colocasia esculenta - taro), and mei (Articarpus altilis - breadfruit).
One such recipe for pulaka is as follows:
Image: Atoll Anthology II : the uses of trees and plants by women of the Gilbert Islands and Tuvalu; AWMM S400.K5 ATO
Pulaka solo (grated pulaka)
Kaleve kula (red boiled coconut toddy)
Tisi lolo (basin of coconut cream)
Pound the whole mass of grated pulaka root and then mix in with the boiled red toddy to form a paste. Make it into small balls (mafu) by using your hands or a small bowl. Place them on banana leaves which have been previously warmed over the oven for a few seconds. Wrap up each ball separately in these leaves and bake them in the oven for 1 ½ hours. Open the oven and remove the wrapping; place the balls in a big basin of coconut cream and stir them together with a green coconut stem (palafa). They are now ready to eat.
The Tungavalu Society (appearing to be a blended name combining ‘Tuvalu’ with ‘Tungaru’, the Indigenous name for Kiribati) was a group comprising of expatriates and community members concerned with promoting research, history and culture of the two nations. Atoll Anthology II was one of many publications they produced to this end. Out of their work and advocacy would come the establishment of Te Umanibong or the Kiribati National Museum, a cultural centre located in Bikenibeu, Tarawa. Two years prior to the publication of Atoll Anthology II, the outcome of an historical referendum determined that the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (the previous names for Kiribati and Tuvalu respectively), previously under joint colonial administration, were to be administered separately and set on a pathway to full Independence which would eventually come in 1978 for Tuvalu and 1979 for Kiribati.
In light of this historical context Atoll Anthology II can be seen as a demonstration of Tuvaluan (and I-Kiribati) independence and self-determination which the island nation continues to wield in the face of the sobering climate crisis that is having devastating impact across the Pacific, especially on the nine atolls of Tuvalu, technically the fourth smallest nation in the world. At least two of these atolls are immediately at risk of rising sea levels and what fresh water is available has such high levels of salt that drinking water must be imported. In these circumstances customary food crops struggle to grow let alone produce harvest. This is the contemporary context challenging those who hold traditional knowledge relating to food and agriculture and how that knowledge is retained and transmitted to generations that follow.
As the editors of Atoll Anthology II wrote:
‘Without wishing to be pretentious, we aim to do two things: maybe to add a drop to the reservoir of knowledge about ‘the Pacific way of life’; and to bring to the attention of people outside these islands the great achievements of Gilbertese and Tuvalu women in making a larder and a pharmacopea of only about twenty plants and trees. To these women this booklet is respectfully dedicated.’
Image: From Atoll Anthology II : the uses of trees and plants by women of the Gilbert Islands and Tuvalu; AWMM S400.K5 ATO
Another title that gives some detail about Tuvaluan food and cultural heritage is ‘Field notes on the culture of Vaitupu, Ellice Islands’ by Donald Kennedy (DSO), published in New Zealand in 1931 as one of the Memoirs of the Polynesian Society (vol.9). Kennedy, who was appointed as an administrator in the British Colonial Service for the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, focused largely on material culture and traditional tales and songs, many of which are written in Tuvaluan with an English translation alongside. However, he did also include a short chapter, ‘Diet and Cooking’ which has a significant focus on Pulaka and Talo as food sources and various methods of cooking these, including another detailed description of the making of fekei pulaka. While Kennedy doesn’t acknowledge those from whom he obtained his Iloa, he directly quotes knowledge holders in the text.
Image: Field notes on the culture of Vaitupu, Ellice Islands; AWMM GN671.E4 KEN
A third title ‘Plants of Tuvalu: a guide to indigenous and introduced plants of Tuvalu = Lakau mo mouku o Tuvalu’ by Randolph Thaman, Eliala Fihaki and Teddy Fong, is the most recent of the three highlighted here, published in Fiji in 2012.
Plants of Tuvalu has a botanical focus strongly interwoven with traditional knowledge and terms. Each entry has colour photos of the plants and notes regarding when the plants were introduced to the islands, their importance to culture, cultivation techniques, food and other uses.
Image: Plants of Tuvalu : a guide to indigenous and introduced plants of Tuvalu = Lakau mo mouku o Tuvalu; AWMM QK473.T88 THA
A number of traditional knowledge holders contributed to the creation of this book; Ioasa Tilaima and Tauese Tusitala from Funafuti, and Vevea Tepou from Nanumea.
These three publications have been identified as holding knowledge relating to food plants that will be discussed in ‘Fakatili te Kiloga fou’ a zoom discussion held on the evening of Wednesday 30th September during Tuvaluan Language Week.
Image: From Plants of Tuvalu : a guide to indigenous and introduced plants of Tuvalu = Lakau mo mouku o Tuvalu; AWMM QK473.T88 THA