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Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu

Tuvalu is made up of nine low-lying coral islands out of which six are atolls. Under British rule from 1892-1978, this cluster of Central Pacific atolls were known as the Gilbert (Kiribati) and Ellice (Tuvalu) Islands Colony. Tuvalu has a land area of only 10 square miles and with the current population at approximately 12,000, it is the fourth smallest country in the world.

Cultural History

Linguistically and culturally Tuvalu is Polynesian. Earliest voyagers some 2,000 years ago may have come from Samoa with later migrations arriving from Kiribati, Tokelau, and Tonga. Like all Pacific Islanders, the past is documented through oral history. These complex oratories are studied by academics and continue to validate the present. For example, the recitation of genealogies was critical before written language because they were the only way to support claims to chieftainship, land ownership, and history. There was a time when people could recite the names of their ancestors back twenty-five generations.

Contact with European nations did not begin in earnest until the mid-19th century. While whalers were the first to consistently travel to their waters, tragedy struck Tuvalu in 1863 when “blackbirding” slavers captured two-thirds of the population and sold them to mines and plantations in Peru.


The church on Vaitupu is the most prominent structure and the locus of social activity.

Tuvalu and Kiribati have strong historical ties since they were governed from 1892 to 1976 as a single British colony. In the transition for independence in 1976-78, both the Gilberts and Ellice were given the choice to stay together and form one nation or to separate into two. The Gilbertese (Kiribati) had several advantages: their population was ten times greater, they controlled 33 islands, and the education system (and teacher training) was headquartered in Tarawa. The colonial capital was Tarawa, consequently, a public infrastructure (albeit colonial) was already in place.

One of the few road signs in Funafuti.

Perhaps because they are culturally Polynesian, the Ellice Islanders decided to strike out on their own despite their small population and having only nine islands. They named themselves Tuvalu, meaning "eight-standing-together," in honor of the nation’s eight traditionally inhabited islands. As a result of the challenges they have faced, Tuvalu continues to distinguish itself for its strong and independent character.


Children play volleyball at the Funafuti Airport.
Funafuti police work next to the Parliment Building.

Upon claiming independence in 1978, an unprecedented migration of people left their homes, jobs, and families in Kiribati to relocate to their ‘new’ homeland. Most of the leaders of the new nation were educated and often born in Tarawa, Kiribati. The transition was not easy. Yet, within a few short years, they created a new government infrastructure on the atoll of Funafuti. The indigenous tradition of collective leadership was consolidated into their new parliamentary democracy.

To this day, there are no formal political parties. Leaders are elected based on personal and family ties. Each atoll is represented in parliament and high voter turn-out is the norm. In the 25 years since independence, the capital island of Funafuti has become the political hub and economic engine of the nation. Government revenue comes from the sale of fishing rights, the production of postage stamps and sale of the Internet domain “.tv”. Remittances from Tuvaluans working abroad also provide significant domestic income. With the assistance of other nations, the government has established the Tuvalu Trust Fund -- an international sovereign trust fund held in reserve to cover shortfalls in the national budget.

Village Life


Vaitupu islanders living in Funafuti love to gather to feast, sing, and laugh.
Hundreds gather in the maneapa to sing non stop for hours.

Outside of Funafuti, traditional lifestyles continue to hold value and meaning. Chiefly leadership is often rotated between families; however, a chief cannot retain authority without the consensus of the community. Most islanders are engaged in the work of living off the land, which involves catching fish, cultivating taro and breadfruit, and weaving mats for sitting and sleeping. While most families raise pigs for important celebrations, fish is the staple food. Some men fish for food everyday. In today’s economy where money becomes increasingly important most families have at least one member working in Funafuti or as a merchant seaman. 

“The strength of feeling that relatives (even neighbors and fellow community members) have for each other is not gauged through words but through sharing food, giving away material goods as they are needed by others, lending tools and providing help... The social relationships created through this system of generalized reciprocity are as important as the transfer of material goods." [1]


Price list from the general store in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

Modernization has not been without its challenges. The shift to a monetary system has undermined many traditional values and has weakened family bonds. Today, half of the population of Tuvalu lives on Funafuti for economic and educational opportunities. Overpopulation has also taken its toll on the atoll’s fragile ecosystem. Funafuti’s groundwater supply risks contamination from improper sewage disposal. Furthermore, many families cannot afford the necessary water storage tanks. A growing reliance on imported canned goods has also led to waste pollution and an increase in diabetes and high blood pressure.

Traditionally, land rights in Polynesian cultures were never sold since village districts and land ownership are organized around clan inheritance and shared village commons. Most land holdings were established well before independence with every individual having rights to part of an ancestral claim. While half of the entire population may live in Funafuti, their identities, attachment, and loyalties remain steadfast to their island of origin.


Samoan evangelists spread Christianity to Tuvalu between 1862 and the 1870’s. Approximately 91% of islanders report being part of the Church of Tuvalu (Congregational Church). The church plays an important role in the spiritual and social life of the island. Singing, dancing, and passion plays animate weekly worship and engage youth.  However, the introduction of choral religious singing, patterned after Samoan and European models has suppressed some traditional forms of Tuvaluan music and dance.


University of South Pacific, Tuvalu Campus.
Mr. David Manuella, Director of USP Tuvalu Campus.

Education plays an essential role in the modernization of Tuvalu. After independence, a former church school on the island of Vaitupu became Motufoua - the only high school in the nation. Youth from all nine islands travel 20-40 hours by ship to study and live at this school. The Tuvalu Maritime Training Institute in Funafuti prepares young men for the increasingly important commercial fishing and shipping industry. The University of South Pacific (USP), Suva, Fiji, has a satellite campus on Funafuti. With the availability of internet, it is now considering expanding distance learning to Vaitupu.


Musicians beat rhythms and everyone sings around wooden box

The maneapa, or meetinghouse, is the largest indigenous structure on the island. It is well suited as a gathering place for elders, chiefs, village leaders, and visiting dignitaries. It also serves as a place to sleep when large groups visit the capital.

Singing and dancing the fatele is a favorite past time in the maneapa. Friendly competition is at the core of these gatherings. On the island of Vaitupu, residents are ‘divided’ into two groups. Each group prepares for the fatele for months in advance. All ages gather to participate in the fatele. Each group crowds around their wooden box drum and biscuit tin drummers. The dancers move in synchrony to the joyful song, drum beats and laughter. The competitive nature of the fatele motivates participants to sing and dance at their best. However, the role of the fatele is not to create distinctions between good and bad dancers, but rather to create a space for socialization. In Tuvalu, communal participation is more important than individual virtuosity.

All fateles have a cyclical structure. A poetic line is repeated 3-5 times followed by a pause. During this pause, it is as if the whole group takes a breath before the song is repeated in a higher pitch with an accelerated tempo. The drumming pounds louder, voices are stronger, and the energy builds. This can go on for five to six cycles until the excitement refuses to be contained. The song concludes with a sudden stop, leaving performers flushed with ecstatic pleasure.

In Tuvalu, songs and dances have been orally passed down from generation to generation. New songs are being composed all the time, yet the names of composers are often forgotten. Children will memorize hundreds of songs by adulthood. The fatele is the perfect arena to teach history, reinforce community ties, and transmit values which contribute to the island’s evolving cultural identity.

"This World of Ours"

Composed by Kelemene (2011)

This world of ours
Does not feel steady
We keep rotating
Oi! What will happen to us?


This world of ours
It is not steady, it keeps moving
We worry about climate change
Oi! My Tuvalu, what will happen?
Will we float into the ocean?

Listen to my tiny voice
Crying out for help
Hear our plea from Tuvalu
Our low and small Pacific home


Don’t panic
Always be alert
Look back to what God has said
Forever the rainbow stands



As with Kiribati and Tokelau, Tuvalu faces the same challenges of a subsistence economy.  Traditional ways of life of fishing and the cultivation of any crop is hindered by the limited amount of fresh water and arable land.  The lack of soil limits agriculture to coconuts, taro, banana, breadfruit and pandanas.  insert photo  Often farms are owned by extended families and are on another island; this requires travel by motor boat. The Agriculture Division has been implementing programs designed to join together communal lands into larger farms in order to increase efficiency with the ultimate goal of ensuring that no land capable of agriculture remains unproductive. As the communal farms are joined together, profits from production would be divided into 3 parts: one-third for the original land owners; one-third for the agricultural workers; and the final third would be deposited in a communal fund in a bank. This group fund would serve as a resource for future land improvements or to offset periods of underproduction or price declines.


Kaleve, often called "toddy," is the favorite beverage of the entire region. Men identify coconut palms that produce the most sap and can harvest from several flower bud spathes. The kaleve is collected twice a day - in the morning and the evening. With some trees are as high as 30 feet tall, climbing up with glass bottles in hand is no small feat. Women boil it down into a sugary syrup and children drink sweet fresh kaleve straight from harvest, while some men make fermented kaleve.

[1] Unity of the Heart page 132

Photo Description:

Members of the Kiribati company took Mitoma on a field trip around Tarawa- and ran into a sail fish!

Low Carbon Diet Tip:
Check for places where air may be leaking out of your home, causing drafts. You can increase your energy efficiency as much as 30 percent simply by plugging air leaks.