Tuvalu: Observations & Reflections

I traveled to Tuvalu in 2011 as a representative of Tribal Link Foundation. Following is an excerpt from my field report.

EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED: TUVALU’S ISLAND ECOSYSTEM

Isolated and remote, Tuvalu is a nation of 9 tiny islands in the South Pacific. Each island is actually a ring-shaped atoll- narrow strips of land built on a rim of coral, surrounding a lagoon. The capital island is Funafuti, which is comprised of 33 tiny islets surrounding a shallow lagoon. The Pacific Ocean envelops the atoll for hundreds of miles. Slivers of life in a vast ocean, geographically distant from foreign influences, the impact of anything new in Tuvalu ripples through society, changing the culture and the environment.

LANDSCAPE

On the Funafuti atoll, we resided for a week on the largest islet named Fongafale, the only urban center in the nation of Tuvalu. As our guide, Maina described it, “Fongafale used to be soft, now there’s fewer trees and it’s a much harder landscape.” The other islets we visited that week did appear softer- the waters edge, where the clear waters revealed the coral sand below; the weathered edge of the continuous tree canopy, shifting with the wind; the tapered ends of each islet.

ARCHITECTURE

Homes in Funafuti are typically modern, mostly ad hoc construction of corrugated metal sheet, 2x4 pine, and cement board. Some are painted bright colors, mostly greens and blues, a few salmon, yellow and red. Often the structures are raised on posts one meter above grade, for protection from floods, but some are built closer to the ground. Two story homes often left most of the first floor unenclosed, with shade provided by the upper part of the house and open to cool breezes.

Each home is composed of two or three distinct spaces of varying enclosure. The living room, bedrooms, and small kitchen comprised the main house and are the most enclosed spaces. A second, outdoor space, which is simply a raised floor and a roof, without walls, sometimes with low railings, was either attached or separate but nearby the main house. This semi-enclosed space was the most frequently used throughout the day as a gathering and working space for the family. People are seen weaving, sewing, sleeping, playing cards, cooking, and children are playing in this versatile, open space. The rafters are used for hanging laundry. Fabric, vinyl or tarp “curtains” for protection and privacy surround the space and can either be pulled to the side or rolled up. Some homes have a third outdoor space which is simply a raised platform, used for drying meat, work space or reclining on to gaze at the nighttime sky.

Since each home is usually two or more structures laid out in close proximity to other homes, in an apparently random fashion, the lines of property are blurred and it is difficult to tell who owns what. The blurring of boundaries is furthered by the rich social life of the community, in which people often cross into each other’s yards, make casual visits, and sometimes even operate a restaurant without any signage in an outdoor kitchen for part of the day.

Before missionaries brought Christianity to Tuvalu, the homes were rectangular open structures of pitched thatch roofs, posts, and roll-up mats around the perimeter — no walls. Even in the modern, western-style homes today privacy does not seem to be an issue. Doors and windows are left open, curtains, pulled back. In the evening, spaces are illuminated and one can view domestic life from the street.

Windows are mostly jalousie, 5-inch slats, no screens; some windows have awning-style boards propped up, which are lowered to protect the inhabitants during storms.

SUSTENANCE and SOIL

Funafuti, as most of the Tuvaluan islands, is built on a coral atoll. The coral base, dissimilar to soil, is infertile and most agricultural species cannot grow here without a significant contribution of nutrient-rich compost. However, tropical trees and plants are abundant including papaya, coconut, banana, breadfruit, pineapple, and limes. Pulaka (a starchy root vegetable) is the main subsistence crop which is grown in compost pits.

Additionally, other abundant trees are cultivated for local traditions: pandanus (leaves are used for thatch roofs, weaving, rolling cigarettes and much more. The root is used as a natural red-orange dye), frangipani (white and yellow flowers are worn by women behind the ear and used for weaving po- traditional headbands).

RUBBISH, IMPORTS and POOR HEALTH

On Tuvalu, rubbish is not easily disposed of. All non-biodegradable items that are imported will ultimately end up as litter, additions to the massive piles of rubbish at both ends of the island, or in the “borrow pits”. Although the garbage is apparently one of Tuvalu’s biggest problems, there are limited recycling opportunities.

Almost all of the rubbish on the island is both unnecessary and unhealthy. Soda and sugary drinks in 12-ounce aluminum cans and 2-liter plastic bottles contribute to the piles of rubbish. Local stores carry non-essential items in excessive plastic packaging imported from China. It’s easy to imagine the brief usage of a plastic watergun, or a pair of flipflops. Most of the food is imported, cheap and unhealthy, contributing to high rates of obesity, diabetes and other health problems.

VULNERABILITY

“There’s nowhere to run”, says the hotel manager at Vaiaku Lagi Hotel, referring to times when a storm blows in, or the king tide washes up to the front door of homes. Traveling by bicycle to the south end of Fongafale, one can see water on both sides of the road. Look to the right, through a row of coconut trees and the occasional pigpen to see the lagoon. Look to the left, past a settlement of houses, only one or two deep to see the Pacific Ocean. The sensation of being surrounded, enclosed by vast expanses of water brings an ominous, sinking feeling for the people of Tuvalu and their uncertain future in the face of climate change.

In memory of Pamela Kraft.

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