Three years amongst the cannibals
The dilemma

Takuu - My atoll, my home, place of my ancestors


Takuu atoll seen from spaceMY ISLAND OF TAKUU/MORTLOCK lies about 250km northeast of Kieta in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.

Takuu is the name given to the southernmost and largest of the islands. This island is distinctively broken in half where one half makes up the cemetery and the other half make up our individual family gardens. It is common knowledge that cemetery and gardens hold a very high significance in any cultural society.

We come from the land of Takuu but in actual fact our population inhabits the neighbouring island to Takuu called Nukutoa.

It is a well known fact that Takuu islanders have grown ‘taro’ for nearly as long as the Chinese has grown rice and the land has provided so generously over the years despite the water table rising.

We also have banana and coconuts that are well suited to our environment and provides for us all year round just as the taro does. Taro for us has a lot of value and is used a lot in many important traditional gatherings.

Then there is the cemetery where our ancestors and those lost rest. So many generations rest on this island, their graves are decorated with their belongings whether it is a cup, a plate or even their clothes. If we leave we contradict what our very own culture has taught us and that is to respect our dead and families of those buried lose everything of sentimental value.

For some time now it has been evident that sea levels have risen due to climate change and tectonic plate movement, threatening not only food crops but my island home’s very existence.

We are not the only atoll affected by the forces of climate change. Also sharing the same fate are our neighbouring atolls Nuguria/Fead, Nukumanu/Tasman and the Cartarets.

The Papua New Guinea government has come up with a plan to relocate my people to mainland Bougainville but this is yet to be fully implemented.

Among the young people there is growing acceptance that maybe it is time to move on, but for the majority of the older generation it is hard for them to accept this change.

I am strongly against the relocation of my people and will present to you a few facts as to why we should not move.

Takuu has many exquisitely divine islands that surround it and all of them have something in common - and that is their white exotic sandy beaches and crystal clear waters. Amongst these are two main attractions that say so much about our history and should be preserved.

The first attraction is the ruins of Queen Emma Forsayth’s house on one of our surrounding islands called Amotu; and the second is on one of our other surrounding islands called Nukerekia, a pristine island that is our best kept treasure.

Queen Emma came to inhabit Takuu in the latter half of the nineteenth century, not long after a drought and an epidemic had hit the island very badly. It was during this population decimation that ‘Queen Emma’, who was of American and Samoan parentage, bravely set a goal to establish a local cocoa plantation which she successfully did as she had done in New Guinea. To this day her house ruins, though weathered, still remain untouched on the island of Amotu.

Nukerekia, on the other hand, is located on the north western side of Takuu and is known to us islanders as Bird Island because it has a reputation for birds laying their eggs on the sand where they are left untouched by all who visit the place.

This treasure of ours has been preserved in its natural state by our ancestors for many generations before us, meaning custom has taught us never to take anything from this island when we visit. Even a tiny shell is prohibited.

I believe our traditions must be maintained no matter what the cost. We cannot lose these very important pieces of our history and we must do everything in our power to preserve them just as our ancestors have protected them for years.

I strongly feel that one must take into consideration the importance of education before relocation is carried out.

Education is very limited back home due to a number of contributing factors and without the proper knowledge and skills our people will not survive in a modern society apart from the village life they’ve always known.

The two major contributing factors as to why education is limited are due to the lack of transport to and from the island and the remoteness of the island. The only means of getting to the island is by ship and in cases of emergencies, helicopter.

When there is a delay in the ship’s schedule, it delays the transport of school learning materials which in turn slows down classes for children. Most times they never reach the island, so the school is forced to withdraw students until supplies arrive, which sometimes takes up to a year.

The remoteness of the island discourages a lot of teachers from taking up their post resulting in a shortage of teachers and, when this happens, the school is forced to withdraw students temporarily until a teacher shows up.  In most cases they repeat the next year when a teacher is available to teach that particular grade.

Villagers who have lived their whole lives on the island are unfamiliar with modern technology.

If you look at the life of an average islander and compare it to a person living in modern society you’ll notice that there are hardly any similarities between the two.

Girls and boys spend their days learning to tackle the day-to-day chores of an average village in which boys are taught to master the art of fishing, making a canoe, gardening and basic carpentry and girls are taught to garden, weave baskets and mats, cook and wash clothes.

Our people are not prepared to relocate to a modernised society where education is essential for survival. If we relocate our people to mainland Bougainville it will mean culture shock for our people and their lives will change immensely.

Their normal day-to-day routine will be ruined and without a proper education most families won’t be able to afford the normal necessities in life like food, water, healthcare and school fees just to name a few and this alone can threaten our peoples’ existence.

Our forefathers have fertilised our very gardens with the dust of their bones so how can we just turn our backs on them and leave this island. If we lose this island we lose everything.

People can say that we must move forward with the times but we must move forward in the right way; without our ancestors we wouldn’t have made it this far.

If we leave our island and relocate to mainland Bougainville as proposed by the government then we face losing our many attractions, our beautiful surrounding exotic islands, the cemetery that holds the evidence of our past, the gardens our forefathers worked hard to toil and most importantly respect for our heritage.

Another important thing that we risk losing is our traditional etiquette that has always been compulsory for both females and males with most emphasis being placed on the role of a woman. In our society since women are more restricted than men, we are taught from a very young age how custom requires us to dress and behave at all times.

Our main attractions tell the story of our people and how our island came to be. All our exotic islands have meaning and a history of their own and if we move all that will remain is our traditional songs and dances that have been passed down from generation to generation to tell all our children and many generations after of our history and someday that will not be enough

Yes, it is clearly evident that the sea is rising but there has to be a better solution than relocation.

I took the time to sit with one of my uncles the other day and I just listened to the way he spoke of this island and of what it meant to him and I realised this is their home, the only life they have ever known.

It is because of this island that I have learnt where my roots lay. It has taught me to value the beauty of life itself and to never ever take anything as beautiful for granted ever again.

It breaks my heart to know that my home might one day cease to be but I will never stop fighting and neither will our people.

Relocation must be a last resort and not just considered because it is an easy and quick solution. If we leave our identity will be eroded and perhaps even lost forever!


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Raphael Semel

A good narrative of the history of the Takuu people. Advocating traditions that may be lost in modern society will be a daunting task for the Takuu people to cope with and progress in reference to relocation.

I totally agree that relocation should be the last resort, so the PNG government and the Bougainville government and Takuu people plus others should research alternative measures to help keep the people on the island in this time of global warming and seas rising.

Keep in mind that natural disasters are hard to manage and control by humans, so plan and think of how to learn, teach, store and preserve the traditional songs, dances, stories and other traditional activities. Start doing that now.

If worse comes to worse, and you are asked to relocate from Takuu to mainland Bougainville, then think of these notions.

If Takuu is going to submerge under the sea and you do not want to leave, then Takuu people will die and their tradition dies with them and will be lost to future generations.

If Takuu is going to submerge and you relocate, then the island will disappear but people and traditions will survive and their history can be still told to future generations.

Kerry Grieve

In 1974 I lived for six months on Arovo Island near Kieta. Arovo was mostly staffed by Mortlock islanders who were not only lovely looking people but also very good natured and happy. They called The Island 'Arovo Niani' and I would like to know what the name ' Niani' means in Mortlock Island culture. Can anybody from the Islands help me? Thanks, Kerry.

Michaela Panis

I too just watched a documentary about it called 'The Island that Once Was'.

This was an old one. How is the island to this date and is there any way that we can help. It breaks my heart.

Ashley Nicole

Do you still live on the island? I just watched a documentary about it from 2010. Have the conditions worsened?

Cara Borcherds

A friend of ours who ran a yacht charter company called Adventures in Paradise, recenlty posted a comment on Facebook that Bora Bora must be the most beautiful place she has ever been to..

Well Dani look at what we have here in PNG .. just how do we get people there.

We can only imagine how pristine this island paradise is and yes it and its people must at all costs be preserved.

We have lived in Kavieng for almost 12 years now and this is our home. There are many places in PNG we haven't yet been able to visit and I am going to place this island paradise on the top of my list.

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