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


My mother, Kijiana, and my aunt, 'Ufiamamalu, taught me all I needed to be a Rotuman woman. They showed me how to plait baskets—'af mamasa for fish, tauga for fono; and fans—tökrau for kitchens, nukfetau for the house. They also taught me the process of drying pandanus leaves for making mats and apei (fine white mats), and guided me through the process of making a small mat and a tofua (waistband) when I was 14 years old. This was the hardest work I had ever done in my life, sitting down for hours, splitting the shiny part of the sa'aga (pandanus) leaf from the bottom part ('ar'ara). At times I nearly gave up, but my mother insisted that I must learn it before I left Rotuma.

Mother was the purotu (song composer) of Itu'ti'u, so I learned to sing and compose songs from her. She was also the tautei (fish drive leader) of our village, Savlei. She and my aunt taught me to fish in daytime, but it was my father, Karisto, who taught me to fish during the evening hours and early in the morning, just before sunrise. He made me a small canoe for fishing and a pair of shoes from the bark of a hau tree (Hibiscus tiliaceus) for walking on the reef. On dark moonless nights, he took his throw-net and I ran and splashed the water to chase the mullet into his net. Oh, what fun!

On Saturdays my younger sister, Makereta Firoagou, and I accompanied our father to his garden where I learned the names of crops, when to plant, and how long it took them to mature. Climbing coconut trees and cutting copra are said to be boys' jobs, but because my three elder brothers were in Fiji getting an education, I took their place climbing coconut trees to pick nuts and leaves for our family to use. My father bought me a knife for cutting coconuts, which I used when helping my auntie feed our pigs.

I went to Fiji in 1940 for further schooling, already well equipped with skills that a Rotuman woman must have. When I returned to the island in 1953, my parents were still alive and they continued to teach me Rotuman customs until they died, my father in 1957, my mother in 1969. My auntie, however, died in 1945, before my return.

From 1977 to 1985 I worked for the Curriculum Development Unit, Ministry of Education, in Suva, to produce reading materials in the Rotuman language for classes one to six. My eldest half-brother, Sapenafa, and my elder sister, Akata, helped me to collect materials for the booklets I produced. Sapenafa was interested in astronomy and knew the names of many stars, but I was not interested at the time and regret having missed the opportunity to learn. He was fond of telling stories about spirits and liked to see us shudder with fright. I gained most of my knowledge of Rotuman spirits from him and my parents. I think my auntie knew more, because she was a spirit medium in her younger days, but after her conversion to Christianity she did not talk about it. She was the one who taught me to pray and sing hymns, and encouraged me to go to Sunday school and attend church.

In preparation for the 1981 centennial celebration of Rotuma's cession to Great Britain, Jare Vafo'ou and I were commissioned to write stories and chants for the commemorative booklet. In researching Rotuma's history, I was introduced to the writings of J. Stanley Gardiner, W. E. Russell, and C. Maxwell Churchward in Suva archives, and anthropologist Gordon Macgregor's field notes from his 1932 visit to Rotuma. I also discovered my husband's copy of Nataniela Mataiasi's notebook, a resource my husband never used. Nataniela wrote in Rotuman, so his information has the advantage of not being corrupted by translation. He wrote about all the ceremonies described in this book, and I have relied heavily on his accounts.

I must also thank Tanu and his wife, Nakaora, of Pepjei for giving Vafo'ou and me the kava chant first published in the 1981 cession commemorative booklet and reproduced here. Gagaj Riamkau and Fiu of Tuai shared their valuable knowledge regarding birth and marriage ceremonies during a teacher's workshop in 1998. Father Carde let me read the diary of Fr Joseph Trouillet, an early Roman Catholic Missionary, which contained accounts of Rotuman legends as well as a history of the mission. I am grateful to all of the above for adding to my knowledge.

I owe a special debt to the Committee of Mafua (knowledgeable elders) that met in 1993–1994 to discuss traditional customs with the goal of preparing materials to be used in the schools. The committee consisted of Ufiamorata, Hangata Susau Titofag, Susau Tigarea, Fai Fasaumoea, and myself. In 1997 a workshop was held at Ahau for the women of Rotuma and the mafua of the seven districts under the chairmanship of Fuatnefau Poar.

I first met Alan Howard in 1959 in Rotuma and we quickly became friends. When he returned to Rotuma in 1987 with his wife, Jan Rensel, we not only renewed our friendship but also began a collaboration dedicated to the preservation of Rotuman knowledge. In 1993 after I attended the Polynesian Language Forum in Hilo, Hawai'i, Alan and Jan invited me to stay with them in Honolulu. The three of us began to prepare the Rotuman proverbs I had collected for publication as a book. We worked on the project when they visited Rotuma in 1994 and 1996, after which I again spent several weeks with Alan and Jan in Honolulu completing work on the volume. It was published by the Institute of Pacific Studies (IPS) at the University of the South Pacific as Fäeag 'es Fuaga (Rotuman Proverbs) in 1998. We have also collaborated, along with Sofie Arnsten and Hans Schmidt, on republishing Churchward's 1940 Rotuman Dictionary, with the addition of an English to Rotuman wordlist. It, too, was published by IPS in 1998.

During my 1996 visit to Hawai'i, Alan and Jan introduced me to A. M. Hocart's field notes from his 1913 visit to Rotuma. They kindly provided me with a copy of the notes, transcribed by Hans Schmidt. Hocart had a good ear for the Rotuman language and he recorded information on a wide range of topics, including ceremonies, in a mixture of English and Rotuman. I have frequently consulted his notes while writing the text for this book.

A third visit to Hawai'i, in 1999, provided the opportunity to prepare the text for publication. After attending the World Indigenous Peoples' Conference on Education in Hilo in late July and early August, I stayed for two months as a guest of Jan and Alan in Honolulu while working on the manuscript. After I wrote each section in longhand, Alan typed it into his computer while we engaged in continuous dialogue about ritual procedures, the meaning of various terms in English and Rotuman, grammar, format, and so on. It was an extremely fruitful process and I am grateful for his patience and guidance. Faiaksea 'e hanisi Alan ma Jan se lelea' Rotuma ma panpan ne rogrog 'atakoa se computer, puku, ma website. Hanis uan maf te'is kal po ra la mao.

Alan and Jan visited Rotuma again, 8–22 June 2001. Their two-week visit had multiple purposes: They came to attend the höt'ak hafu (gravestone ceremony) of Akeneta Sakimi, whose family had hosted Alan on his first trip to the island in 1959–1960. On behalf of the Rotuman Club of Hawai'i (the Tefui Club), they brought a donation for the Rotuma Hospital Board of Visitors, the result of several years' worth of fund-raising efforts. They also came to see and catch up with many old friends on the island. Above all, they spent time editing and organizing the materials for this book. After Jan worked with me reviewing and amending the manuscript during the day, she typed the changes into the computer in the evening. Because Jan and Alan’s computer required electricity, Frank Vilsoni and Maria Mama'o and their family extended a cord from their generator through the coconut trees to our house; I am very grateful for their help. I am grateful to my ma'piag (grandson) Christopher Kevin Fonmoa, who relieved me from my household chores so that I could devote my time to working with Jan, and to my sigoa (namesake) Pauline Hailey Elizabeth for helping, Injimo for fishing, and my kindergarten students Frederick and Joseph Tepa for bringing fruit. I must not forget my dear granddaughter Lisa who printed out draft sections of this book on her computer. I also thank François Deschamps for designing such an attractive and meaningful cover, and Linda Crowl for her guidance and skill in bringing the book to publication. Words cannot express my profound thankfulness.

Finally, I would like to thank all the other knowledgeable Rotumans who have shared information with me over the years. They are too many to name, and I apologize if what I have written differs from what they have been taught. Culture is a living thing; it changes over time and varies from place to place. There is no one correct way to perform a ceremony. In this book, I have tried my best to synthesize the knowledge conveyed to me by my parents, relatives, and fellow Rotumans with archival sources. The result may be unique, but I hope it will stimulate other Rotumans to discuss issues of importance to preserving traditional knowledge, and perhaps to produce their own accounts and interpretations. The winds of change are blowing harder than ever, but we Rotumans have every reason to be proud of our language, culture, and identity. This book is my way of thanking our ancestors for the rich cultural legacy they have left us.

Elizabeth K. Inia
22 June 2001

To Components of Ceremonies