From Orchid Island, With Love

by on Wednesday, 28 August 2013 Comments

Impressions of another island

About 40 miles southeast of Taiwan lies an island called Lanyu, which means "Orchid Island" in English. The local people on the island used to call this island Bon Showao Dawa which means island people. However, after winning an orchid race a long time ago the island became known as Lanyu. It is actually rare to see an orchid on the island, I saw more goats than orchids during my stay there.

Currently the island is comprised of six villages and one tribe called the Yami (or the Tao). Despite the island's small population the local people on Lanyu have been working hard to keep the tradition of canoe building alive. Each man is expected to build a canoe by the time he reaches the age of 18, however, it is becoming more common for young men on the island to wait until they reach their twenties or thirties before they start building their own canoe. Community efforts are critical in the process of canoe building and once the canoe is built the local people on the island will have a ceremony to celebrate.

It is in the deepest interests of the island's elders to preserve the tradition of canoe building and efforts to preserve this tradition focus on the island's elementary school. According to Principal Syamen Womzas at Lanyu Elementary School, they have been trying their best to negotiate with the Department of Education to revive the tradition of canoe building as well as sailing by including these activities as a form of extra curricular activity at school.

As part of the school's extra curricular activity, it often takes its students to watch the elders build canoes so that they can learn from participating in the canoe building process.

The manner in which they teach canoe building on Lanyu is similar to that in Lau, because no plan or drawing is involved in the canoe building process. The son just learns from his father or grandfather, by watching and practicing.

The locals use Breadfruit trees to build their canoes, they use the gum from the trees as glue to join the planks together. It doesn't last long but its lighter for when they want to row against the wind instead of sailing. They only use the sails if they are going with the wind or with the wind at their backs.

The Taiwanese take pride in their culture and tradition and have strived hard to revive ancient songs and dances with a lot of passion. Their interest in how our ancestors sailed the ocean is huge. After being invited to the Formosa Song and Dance Troupe, formed by indigenous people from the 14 tribes in Taiwan in 1991, they were given an insight into traditional Fijian navigation and sailing. The Taiwanese believe that the fruit of the barringtonia asiatica — vutu in Fijian and which grow in the coastal area of southern and northern Taiwan and Orchid Island — is dispersed by the ocean connecting the islands and shows how humans migrated (floated) from Taiwan into the many lands of the Pacific spreading their seeds of hope, possibility, culture, language and knowledge.

The Drua Project — a proposal to build a drua in Fiji that will sail to the Pacific Arts festival in Guam in 2016 — is of particular interest to the Hualien Tribal College (Taiwan Indigenous), which may send one of its own to Fiji in August to learn and take back our traditional boat-building skills. There's only one club in Taiwan which teaches about the sea and I was glad to be back in the water with some of its members. I was taken aback by their surprise when I returned from paddling three miles out. One of the old men thought I was going to paddle back to Fiji.

The Taiwanese pride themselves in traditional revival and the Formosa troupe, which travels the world performing in theatre and stages, is working with other stakeholders to try trace their past to revive all indigenous cultures, songs and dances in all their tribes.

Earlier on, I did my first presentation at the National Taiwan University, which was organised by Taiwan Society of Pacific Studies and co-hosted with the Taiwan Indigenous Peoples Resource Center, with the support of the Council of Indigenous People. This workshop was well attended with more than 100 participants of all ages and walks of life. They were given an insight into the Te Mana O Te Moana voyage and the Uto Ni Yalo bole, a traditional challenge that was written by Manoa Rasigatale. It was only right that I made this traditional call as this here is a new journey for me and the Uto ni Yalo Trust (formerly the Fiji Islands Voyaging Society) with our Taiwanese friends and kin. The bole is what they have requested I must teach them before I leave but first they must understand the meaning of the chant. I began with short clips of the soon-to-be released documentary, Our Blue Canoe. Then I shared with them the history of the Uto ni Yalo Trust and its role in the epic voyage across over 50,000 kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. I shared with them some activities we've carried out such as turtle tagging around Ringgold Islands and whale watching near Ovalau, the community visits and sails with children and how we are trying to reach out to revive our traditional sailing knowledge.

After Hualien, I travelled to Taitung, one and half hours by train towards the southern side of the island, and was welcomed by the students and principal of the National Guan Shan Vocational Senior High School, which has a special class for students learning about their culture, carving, weaving and traditional designs. Fiji must do the same if we are to safeguard our traditional knowledge. We must act fast and also start a school to revive the ancient arts of navigation and boat-building for those with the knowledge back home are in old age and time is running out on us. We need to teach primary schoolchildren. I hope the Ministry of Education can allow such a school or a special class for each school to learn chants, songs and meke.

There is much to learn from the Taiwanese and there are a lot of similarities between us. While I was on the island, I discovered there were some words that I found were similar to our Fijian language, such as "ulu" for head, "daliga" for ear, "mata" for eye, "gusu" for mouth, "lima" for five, "vitu" for seven, "walu" for eight, "tina" for mother, and "tama" for father. My only regret is that I didn't fully understand their language so I was unable to dig for more information.

Seeing the response from the people of Taiwan made me eager to see the UTO NI YALO sailing up to Taiwan as soon as possible in order to reinforce the message that I had shared with them on behalf of Fiji, and hopefully reconnect the people of both our islands.

moce mada vakalailai



Photo by Tupe Lualua


Watch here a video overview of the workshop in Orchid Island

 

Setareki Ledua

Traditional Sailor (Sailina Vessel Uto Ni Yalo)

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