Kato'aga: Rotuman Ceremonies

by Elizabeth K. Inia

Table of Contents


Part 1: Components of Ceremony

'Epa, Apei, and Päega: Ceremonial Mats
Koua: Earth Ovens
'Umefe: Chiefly Tables
Tefui: Garlands
Lolo: Anointing Oil
Mena: Turmeric
Mafua: Knowledgeable Elders
Fumarä'e: The Man in Charge
Etiquette and Manners
Numbers and Measurements

Part 2: Ceremonies

Death and Funerals
Birth Rituals
First Birthday
Hapagsu: Recurrence Prevention
Majau: The Power to Heal
Ag Forau: Farewell to Travellers
Mamasa: Welcoming Ceremonies
Installation of a Chief
Homage to Chiefs
Koua Puha
Ancient Marriage Rituals
Modern Marriage Customs

Rotuman Indigenous Spirituality

Etiquette and Manners

Humility and modesty are virtues that every Rotuman child is expected to learn. Showing off, bragging, talking and laughing loudly in public, and generally drawing attention to oneself are all behaviours that are frowned on and punished by teasing and ridicule. Especially in the presence of chiefs, one is expected to be constrained. [11] Modesty is expressed in the way people dress, move, and sit.

Proper dress on ceremonial occasions calls for appearing neat, clean, and well groomed, but avoiding gaudy clothing or jewelry. When approaching chiefs or dignitaries, people are supposed to bend at the waist, crouch, or on especially formal occasions, to approach on their knees. One speaks to chiefs in a quiet voice and uses special terms of respect. When passing in front of other people, one should say turo' (excuse me) and bend down slightly to acknowledge their presence.

If a person on a bicycle or motorbike passes by a place where a ceremony is being performed, or if he or she meets a chief on the road, it is proper to dismount and walk until the place or chief is passed. If wearing a hat, one should remove it; if holding an umbrella, one should lower it. It is improper to wear hats or to raise umbrellas inside houses.


Girls are told not to roam around the village (la' kalu), to tell tales (hoa' rogo), or to laugh loudly with their mouths open in public, which would suggest that they were undisciplined and loose. When away from home, they should be chaperoned by older females, especially at public gatherings.

Ever since missionary days, women have been expected to cover themselves down to their ankles when in public. At ceremonies they wear ha' fali (wraparounds) beneath their dresses and leaf skirts (titi) around their waists over their dresses. Beginning in childhood, they are taught to sit with legs bent to the side, pointing behind (päe fakhani). Because they are expected to serve chiefs at feasts when they get older, girls must become accustomed to sitting for long hours in this position. While serving a chief, it is improper for a woman to shift her legs from one side to the other, or to move about until the mafua announces the end of the feast.

Girls are taught how to serve a chief's meal on an 'umefe, and how to mix and serve kava. They also must learn how to fold and carry mats in the proper ceremonial manner. When tying tefui around people's necks, anointing them with oil, or spraying perfume on them, a woman must first say turo' (excuse me—in this case, for intruding on someone's person).


Men are required to wear shirts in public spaces and should secure their ha' fali with a belt or sennit. It is bad manners for a man to whistle shrilly (ui käkä'e) as a signal to someone within the village or on the road. The proper way for a man to sit is with legs crossed in front of him with knees kept down.

Boys are taught the proper way of presenting a chief's food basket (fono)—holding it in the palm of one hand with the other hand holding the upper front part of the basket. If they are not wearing a titi (as at funerals, for example) while presenting the chiefs' food baskets, they must tie a piece of coconut leaf around their waist. While waiting to take the baskets to the women who serve the chiefs, they fan the food with coconut fronds to keep flies away.[12] Boys are also taught how to present kava ceremonially and to cut up pigs in the proper manner.

When grating coconuts for making fekei, a man must put a ji leaf around his head and tie it at the back to stop the sweat from falling over the grated nut. When squeezing the oil out, he must make sure it does not flow down to his wrists.

[11] An exception to this rule is at weddings where the han mane'ak su (female clown) induces people to act in provocative ways. back to text

[12] The custom of fanning food to keep flies at bay was introduced by Dr Hugh MacDonald, who served as Resident Commissioner on Rotuma in the early 1900s. back to text

To Numbers and Measurements