Sunday, May 10, 2015

Talofa Tuvalu!

approaching Funafuti by air, one skinny green strip in a vast blue

Talofa! Hello!

Welcome to Tuvalu (Tu-VAH-loo)! Although I didn't initially plan to come to this country when I designed my Watson proposal last year, the evolution of my project made it possible and worthwhile to give Tuvalu a try.

But why Tuvalu? What am I doing here? Where the heck is it?

the government building, with new solar power installation
Tuvalu is a series of atolls and islands in the South Pacific Ocean. The nine clusters of land total about 26 square kilometers sprinkled amid nearly one million square kilometers of open ocean. Tuvalu is the fourth smallest country by population (about 12,000 people), and the second lowest by elevation. The highest point is about four meters above sea level.

downtown Funafuti
Land is precious, and Tuvalu's very existence faces dire threats. Sea level rise, salt water intrusion in the groundwater, coastal erosion, overcrowding, rubbish, cyclones, pressure on fish stocks, lack of nutritious food, lack of economic opportunity...The list goes on.

There are a lot of reasons why life isn’t easy here. But man is it laid back. There’s a beautiful energy. People are kind. They look out for each other, even for the odd visiting pelangi (pah-LUNG-ee=white person) who needs help finding her rented bicycle that some little kid ‘borrowed.’

So, I’m here doing what I’ve been doing all year: trying to learn about how nature conservation and creative writing relate to each other and fit into daily life. The imminent threats to this country make this a particularly fascinating place to study these relationships.

arriving at Funafala islet during storm damage
assessment with PM and MPs
Every atoll/island has a town council, called the Kaupule, that delineates a conservation area where hunting, fishing, collecting, and visitation are restricted. Only Funafuti, the capital, has a conservation area with legally protected status. Other activities play important roles in the workings of conservation here. Some of these include tree plantations of coconut, banana, breadfruit (all important foods), climate change adaptation initiatives, and studies of the surrounding reefs and fish.

traditional dancers at Funafuti's Nukulaelae community
maneapa (meeting hall) performing to
celebrate 150 years of Christianity on Tuvalu
There isn’t a big history of writing here. I only met one poet. I'm pleased to say I helped Tongi enter an international writing competition themed around the role of tuna in the South Pacific. While creative writing by Tuvaluans seems scarce, there is an abundance of literature on Tuvaluan history and past scientific studies in the jam-packed National Library and Archives and in the University of the South Pacific library. One of the most interesting was a fragile copy of Funafuti or Three Months on a Coral Atoll: An Unscientific Account of a Scientific Expedition from 1899, in which Mrs. Edgeworth David chronicles her life on the island while her husband and team drilled hundreds of feet down into the coral bedrock to prove Darwin's theory of how atolls form. I paid a visit to the remnants of the rusting drill on Fongafale's northern end.

Singing fills the writing niche. I’ve met a couple songwriters and listened to several choirs. People have told me about the symbolism in the songs, and how the lines imply entire backstories beyond the repetitive lyrics. For example, one song about “the paddles of the men, the paddles of the gods” tells a whole tale of fishermen battling powerful spirits at sea mainly just by singing about their paddles.

me performing my poetry at Tefota, in Funafuti
I’ve been trying to branch out in my own writing as well, and try some multimedia things, and I think I'm growing as an artist. That feels good. I even got to perform a 30 minute poetry reading at the local live music bar: Tefota. I'm not sure how well I was received by the increasingly drunken and inattentive crowd, but I had a helluva time, and am growing to love being behind the microphone. My artistic impulses have kept me relatively sane while I've navigated the challenges of island life.

Challenges, eh? Since so few tourists come to Tuvalu (we're talking double digits most years), and most pelungi are here representing foreign aid, I was met with a lot of confused looks when I tried to explain myself and my goals as a Watson Fellow. I seemed like an especially odd duck--too unofficial to team up with the Department of Environment or Fisheries, yet too unusual to be completely dismissed. Whether at the libraries or the conservation workers I talked to in the government or the Kaupule, nobody seemed to really know what to do with me. So--I decided to embrace being unofficially affiliated.

Most of my successes connecting with people here in Tuvalu happened over dinner. Luckily, it isn't hard to meet anyone as there are only four restaurants in town. I learned that just turning up at somebody's office, dinner table, or even by flagging them down when they zip by on their motorbike, opens a lot of subsequent opportunities.

the Nivaga II that brought me to Vaitupu,
my first voyage on the high seas
Just a smattering of these happy chance-adventures:

I got to join the former prime minister and climate change activist/researcher Bikenibeu Paeniu and UN researcher Andrea Milan on a climate change and migration survey on the outer island of Vaitupu.
I joined the current prime minister and several MPs for an assessment of the storm damage of Cyclone Pam on the outer islets of Funafuti, including an afternoon banquet on Funafala islet.

Through the Kaupule, I visited the Funafuti Conservation Area, and explored the islet forests and reefs on the western end of the lagoon. We motored back across the lagoon in driving rain, which blocked out all visuals of the low-lying lands and brought on the only real sense of cold during my time in Tuvalu. 

Bikeni, me, Minister of Cultural Affairs
I met a marine biologist, fisheries experts, school teachers, singers, dancers, fishermen, a theologian, pastors, chiefs and island elders. 

And, since it seems fair to mention these encounters too, I've watched many a gecko gobble up ants while upside down, swum in the midst of schooling baitfish, drunk the slightly fizzy water of freshly harvested coconut, and eaten more raw fish than I ever before dared. I know most of those examples are food related, but food is a big part of any given day here.

I'm certain I will miss this place, and I wonder if I will ever return. Soon, no one may live here if the coming decades bring the predicted effects of climate change on the rising sea level, increased erosion, and further lack of freshwater to the islands.

The world is changing. So am I. So are you.

With love,

traditional foods at banquet in Funafala:
clams, raw fish, laulu, breadfruit, coconut apple

the forest of Fualopa islet
broken corals, shells, and bits of sand on the beaches of Vaitupu
me with traditional garlands (fous) on Funafala
catamaran at sunset off the jetty of Fongafale


  1. How lovely, Carrie...thanks. We may be the only pelungi you'll ever know who have actually been to Tuvalu...sailed there. I often think of it when I am reminded of higher sea levels. What is the local take on this situation? Do they talk about it? Carry on! You're doing a great job!

    Phyllis and Rick

  2. Beautiful pictures! I would love to be sitting with you near that crystal clear blue water in the Funafala islet picture! It is so interesting to read about the island culture, so very different than life here in the states. Thank you for sharing your inspiring journey with us.

  3. You make me want to be sitting right there with you. How lucky you are.

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