September 29 is the day of Saint Michael in the calendar of the Melanesian branch of the Anglican Church. That is reason enough for the whole island population of Tikopia to congregate in and around the church under his patronage. It is a long dilapidated concrete building with a corrugated tin roof. We had come ashore with the morning service already underway, the chanting of the choir had lured us in. Once again a group of children had greeted us as we landed our canoe and had lead us by our hands across the big open clearing towards the church, which is not big enough to accommodate everybody, so groups of people in colorful dresses had been sitting in the shade of the trees all around while the muffled sound of the celebrated mass continued to nurture their lack of attention.
Now we are sitting cross-legged on the matted floor of a house next to the church. Ariki Tafua has invited us for the feast and we are in the house of his wife’s family. The chief and the invited guests seem to be always eating first. From a couple baskets bundles of food are unwrapped. The big green leaves are spread out on the floor in front of us and now serve as plates. Mashed manioc and banana pudding serve as staple, and heaps of it land on our plates plus sizeable junks of baked fish. A short blessing is pronounced, the Tikopia have embraced the Christian doctrine only very recently, in fact since about the middle of last century. Then the fingers dig in and for a short while the conversation stops. Tikopia are of Polynesian stock, proud and tall built and Ariki Tafua is a splendid example. His sizeable frame is hunched over the edibles in front of him and we do our best to keep up with his appetite. As soon as he’s had enough his food is moved on to the next group of people and eyes staring at us from the opposite side of the ample room give us a hint that our feeding time better be over too. Before we know it our ‘plate’ is also moved along and ends up before other hungry fingers.
After washing our hands and a short chitchat we go back outside and return to the clearing around the church. There the people who have come from afar, if such a thing can exist on such a tiny island, are finishing up their picnics. We are invited to sit next to the chief and his family on a mat covering the sandy grounds. A wailing sound comes from the other side of the clearing where a group of men has risen and a slow chanting makes a rather timid entrance. Little by little the voices clear and become infused with passion. The chief explains that the folks from the other side of the islands are ‘rehearsing’ their first set of ‘kustom’ presentation. The two chiefs from the township of Ravenga, Ariki Kafika and Ariki Fangarere are both dressed in traditional attire, broad bands of tapa cloth wrapped around their waists, bare chested with bright white leis around the necks, the heads topped with crowns made from the yellow stems of palm fronds. Soon the group starts advancing towards us swaying slowly from side to side while stomping heavily on the ground. A crooked half of an old canoe has been placed in the center of the clearing and a guy with two wooden sticks pounds a slow rhythm down on it, keeping the performers’ pace in unison. The group has now been reinforced in the back rows by women and young folks and as they advance towards us their chanting grows in crescendo until they approach the lonesome drummer in the center. There all of a sudden their pulsating fervor comes to an end, but the group reforms once again in the background from they had started.
After two more chants the dancers retire to their places and sit down. It is now our side’s turn and we’re immediately dragged into the action, soon swaying our enchanted bodies from side to side with hanging arms, trying to imitate the intriguingly monotonous melody, while connecting to mother Earth with our pounding feet. With every new number the dancer’s enthusiasm accelerates and we clearly are on a path to some mystic frenzy. The beetle nut stained teeth of our hosts gleam read and ravaging as the smiles become more and more exuberant. Our heads in the meantime have also been decorated with yellow crowns of palm fronds and Beatriz’ advanced dance moves are greatly appreciated and profusely applauded.
All afternoon long the two parties alternate their presentation, the dance moves growing more elaborate with eclectic jumping in line formation, clearly a challenge to improvise on given structure, where the most daring take the lead and enthusiastic followers trailing their valent initiative.
A short announcement of Ariki Tafua brings the celebration to a close while the sun starts its decent in the West. We are summoned to a short meeting at his house with the two chiefs from the ‘other’ side, to explain to them the purpose of our visit. They are both young and friendly and promise support by sending workers for our task of resuscitating the neglected Lapita canoe. This brings the day of celebration to a close and we retire to our gently bouncing floating home on anchor just off the reef. The children help us carry our canoe back into the water and send us off with cheers and laughter and eyes of immense curiosity, a trait we would soon learn to appreciate well beyond admiration!