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TUVALU

THE CYCLE OF LIFE

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BIRTH

From the early months of pregnancy certain tapu are placed on the expectant mother (faele). She is prohibited from eating raw fish which, it is said, can spoil her breast milk or delay the normal healing process of her body.  She may not chew split pandanus fruit - in case she has twins, or a child with a hare lip.  Nor may she cut her food with a sharp-edged instrument, again in case the child be born with a hare lip, or some other deformities. She must also refrain from eating hot food, or eating while walking, lest the child become a beggar.  Nor is sex permitted during pregnancy, for fear of causing abortion. 

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Preparations for the birth of a child start when the woman is about five to six months pregnant.  She will normally be delivered in her parents' house.  Her own mother begins the preparation by choosing a midwife (tufuga faka fanau) to attend to the confinement. If there is no midwife in the family, the woman's mother will do the job herself. 

A midwife is a highly respected person and in the course of her duties she receives presents of mats and food. The appliances of her calling, which she is expected to have ready at all times, include: (a) Noa - an abdominal binder, six metres long by eight centimetres wide plaited from pandanus leaves. (b) Faka fafine - a suspensory belt, one metre long by ten centimetres wide, made from the bark of the te fou tree. (c) Pulu - a pad made from the dried pith of the leafstalk of the pulaka. (d) Coconut oil. (e) A few yellow breadfruit leaves which have just fallen from the tree.  (These can be collected when the woman is in labour). (f) A knife or pair of scissors - for cutting the umbilicus. (In former times the sharp edge of a Kasi shell was used).

Once chosen, the tufaga attends the expectant mother two or three times a week, mainly to massage the abdomen.    Massaging over the uterus is believed to assist correct presentation of the foetus. If a midwife is unable to correct an abnormal presentation she will call on the help of a colleague who is expert at doing so. 

Meanwhile, mats for the expectant mother will be prepared by the women of her own family, while her husband's cousins and sisters prepare mats for the baby.  Both families will also organize food for the ceremonial feasts to be held after the birth. 

The actual process of birth starts with the onset of labour pains. The midwife and her assistant prepare themselves beside the mother with their equipment - cut throat razor, a pair of scissors, umbilical ties, tampon or pads and an abdominal binder. Traditionally, mothers are delivered in either of two positions; lying prone on the back or sitting and reclining backwards.

After the placenta is expelled, the midwife measures the cord to the side of the infant's waist where it is tied and cut. She next cleaned the mother, failele, and then wraps the abdominal binder around the woman's waist to the back of this, to which she attaches one end of the the suspensory belt.  The other end of the belt is then brought forward under the woman's buttocks and fastened at the front of the binder, so as to hold in place the vaginal pad, which has been wrapped in yellow breadfruit leaf smeared with coconut oil.  

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MARRIAGE

According to Tuvalu custom a son's choice of wife needs to be approved by his parents.  His sisters and close cousins may have some influence on the decision but the final say remains with the parents. 

Because courting is not done openly, as in some communities, boys and girls have to make each other's acquaintance through a third person, fai fekau.  In this way they can arrange to meet without their parents knowing.  Another courting practice is that of moetolo, sleep crawl in which the man illegally enters the girl's house when everyone else has gone to sleep.  Such nocturnal visits are pre-arranged although the visitor is likely to be punished if he is caught, especially if the girl's family disapproves of him.

When the boy has finally chosen the girl he wishes to be his wife, he informs his parents and awaits their approval.    Sometimes parents disapprove and make their own choice.  Tradition maintained that boys and girls obey and respect their parents, although on occasions the boy and girl agree to elope. 

Another way of getting married is through what is called potu lama (which means a torch made from coconut leaves).    The men of a village may decide to light a potu lama. The young men then tell the old men about the girls they admire.  The old men are then expected to go to the girl's parents on their behalf and seek approval for a marriage.  When a young man's request is granted it is said that his potu lama is lighted.  If he is rejected his potu lama is not lighted, and the old men approach the parents of other girls he may have mentioned. 

In any marriage resulting from these proceedings, responsibility for the wedding ceremony and for the feast rest with the village that sponsored the lighting of the potu lama. Everyone from that village contributes food, mats, clothing or money, as decided by the leaders. 

In the conventional marriage the two families plan their contributions together weeks before the wedding.  Each has to prepare a laulau avaga or bed.  The bride's one, prepared by her family is given to the bridegroom at the wedding feast while the bridegroom is given to the bride.  Each also prepares food, kavega.  Again, this is exchanged between the two families, who sometimes compete as to who can contribute more food. 

After more than a century of Christian influence no one now knows how marriages were conducted in the past.  Today, as in other Christian countries, they are performed by a pastor and are legally registered.    After that ceremony comes feasting and dancing, during which the newly-married couple are given advice on what to expect in their future life. 

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DEATH

On hearing the dirge sound out from the church bell, people know that someone had died on the island. The name of the deceased is soon known to everyone, and relatives go to mourn for their departed kinsman.  The body is dressed and placed on new mats in the centre of the house.  Relatives paid tributes by donating money or cloth or by praising the deceased for his achievements and for the value of his contribution to his family and to the island. The grave is usually dug by members of an organization such as Volunteers, Scouts or Boys' Brigade. They also made the caskets, usually from one of the family canoes.  

While some members of the family mourn their dead kinsman, others busy themselves preparing refreshments for those who will come to console them on their bereavement. This may entail looking after about half of the island population.  When the burial draws near, the pastor arrives. The coffin is then carried to the place of interment where the pastor holds the burial service. 

The night of the funeral, the immediate family with their relatives assemble for prayers and supper. This period of mourning, faganoa, may continue for several days or even weeks. The eldest member of the family, the matai determines the duration. At the end of the mourning, a big feast called the aitagi is held. 

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 7th October 2010)