7 December 2016
Tara has been sailing along Niue’s coast for several days, tossed by the Pacific Ocean. On these cliffs made of coral, some inhabitants of this island, nicknamed “the Rock”, attempt to preserve the maritime heritage of their ancestors by manufacturing traditional pirogues called vaka.
It took me a few hours to go up the track leading to the man everyone here calls «Fai» and talks about with respect and pride. Tamafai Fuhiniu is waiting for me in the shade of his workshop, sitting on a simple wooden stool as a king on his throne. Bright red moota chips stand out on his dark shirt. His grand-daughters are playing under paddles lined up on a rack. Tamafai has been living on the heights of Niue since a hurricane devastated his home in 2004. Back then, his hands and strength of character were all he had left to rebuild everything from scratch.
He is the last heir to a long line of master carpenters whose origin was lost somewhere in China before reappearing on Niue’s cliffs 700 years ago. While human communities had already conquered the Pacific for 4,000 years, the «Rock» was one of the last islands in this ocean to be colonized. Among the 5 brothers who first set foot on this hostile shore, a few master carpenters kept the tradition alive by adapting it to Niue’s geography. In order to launch their boats into the water from cliffs no lagoon protects from the whims of the Pacific Ocean, they had to design light vessels a single man could carry. The first vaka was born in Niue.
Traditional Niuevaka © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation
«Even today, it makes me smile to hear people speak about our ancient kings», says Tamafai. «My ancestors weren’t idiots, they always refused this tribal and political game. In ancient times, we were cannibalistic, and in kings’ and clan leaders’ views, if you didn’t generate wealth, you were the first to die and to be eaten. This is how my family has survived for so long».
Around his house lies the domain of the master carpenter who became the first landowner in Niue. He was born on these lands 60 years ago, along with his 8 siblings. His father was then the last vaka craftsman on the island and he decided to pass on to Tamafai the knowledge of their ancestors. «My brothers may not have spent enough time listening to our bedtime stories, these legends passed down from one generation to the next. At an early stage in my life, I knew I was different from them. My father did not necessarily need to teach me things. Everything I learned was through observation. It didn’t involve words or drawings. This is why traditional knowledge is so rich: you have to learn things without being shown».
Tamafai takes me a little way away from his house to an open-air workshop sheltered by a few trees. This is where he carves out of moota trunks the vaka capable of braving offshore conditions. The curve of the hull is remarkably smooth, its length no more than 5 meters, its thickness only 4 millimeters. Through constant improvements, Tamafai has succeeded in creating a pirogue weighing only 15kg but able to hold loads of half a ton. «The method of fabrication has evolved as a result of tool modernization. At the time of my ancestors, trees were first burned. They chose a tree young enough not to ignite and split. Then they had to hollow the trunk out on site and carry it to the coast. It was very hard work. People at that time had to be giants».
Since these ancient times a bond continues to unite land and sea. Even today, the first fish caught on a new vaka is offered to the family who owns the land on which the tree was cut.
Tamafai Fuhiniu, the last master carpenter in Niue © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Tamafai will only reveal a few main principles of traditional vaka fabrication. From his ancestors, the master carpenter has inherited the tradition of keeping secrets that are passed only from father to son. «At that time, this knowledge was preserved by different people who had a very special status in the community. They were the custodians of unique knowledge», Tamafai explains. «It was a well-kept secret in our family. Today I share most of my knowledge but there are really important things that I keep for myself. My father always told me: pay attention to how you share your knowledge because when you share everything, you end up with nothing, naked. I’m trying to find a balance between his words and today’s world because if I don’t share this knowledge, it may disappear».
In addition to islanders who have long lost the passion for fishing off the coast of Niue aboard these traditional pirogues, Tamafai’s destiny may also contribute to extinguish what remains of this ancestral flame. Ironically, after generations of men in his family, the master carpenter is the father of 5 daughters.
Maika is the last one to live on Niue. She receives me in her office at the back of the tourist information center, curious to learn about my impressions after my meeting with her father. Her rapid conversation contrasts with Tamafai’s placidity. However, the same pride animates her when speaking about vaka. Long kept away from the sea and pirogues, the women of Niue have gradually set sail under the impulse of Maika and her 4 sisters. «Even though we were going against tradition, we girls grew up in this world», she remembers. «I got my first pirogue when I was 8, and our father built them adapted to our size. Many people became jealous because our father let us set sail on our pirogues and since then, we have encouraged more and more women to join us».
Today Maika encourages young people to learn this ancestral technique from her father. Among them may be the person who will continue Tamafai’s work and in turn, keep the lineage secrets. «I hope my father won’t take them with him to the grave. He must find someone who shares the same love and passion and I don’t think he’s willing to reveal his secrets as long as he doesn’t find this man. We must find this person, not only for the sake of our family but for the whole island».
Tamafai below the cliffs at Opaahi Landing © Pierre de Parscau / Tara Expeditions Foundation
At low tide, Tamafai asked me to join him at Opaahi Landing to board one of his «women» as he likes to call his pirogues. While loading one on his shoulders, he points at the cliff facing us. This is where, in 1774, after 3 attempts, James Cook and his men finally managed to set foot on Niue and faced the islanders’ hostility. An anecdote that makes the master carpenter smile, convinced that his ancestors were among the first islanders to throw stones at the Endeavour.
Around us, waves are breaking on the reef and our attempt to put the vaka into the water is proving to be tricky. With a thrust, the white and blue vaka leaves solid ground to slide toward the open sea, as light as a feather. «A vaka is a living object. It has a very feminine shape», Tamafai says facing Niue’s cliffs. «A vaka is as sacred as a woman. If you take good care of her, she’ll feed your family, but if you neglect her, she won’t provide you with prosperity. We don’t name them because by doing so, we would take away their sacred aura. Vakas define who I am and who we are as a people. I don’t believe we should use language to define our identity because it evolves over the course of history, just like culture. Tradition, however, is something different – a way of doing and thinking».
To become one with one’s vaka means feeling her, talking and listening to her. Tamafai is repeating the very same gestures that generations of men before him developed on these same coasts, a mixture of instinct and inheritance. In the wake of his pirogue, Niue’s history continues to write itself while waiting for someone to take over the story. At 60, Tamafai has bequeathed a vessel to his island in the form of an identity.
Better still, a life’s work to be admired.
Pierre de Parscau
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