Many years ago, I had a conversation with my good friend Okesene Faraimo that first captivated me and planted the seed of interest in Tokelau culture, which ultimately lead us to bring our family here. Okesene told me about the age old Tokelau tradition (and present day practise) of “inati” – the sharing of resources so that everyone in the community is cared and provided for.
Inati happens constantly at all levels of Tokelau society, but specifically refers to a semi regular event where all the village men head out, often well before dawn, to bring in a large catch of fish – enough to share around every person on the atoll. The catch is then very carefully divided out according to the number of people in each kiaga (family or household) and the whole nuku (village) gather together to participate in a practise that is profoundly shaping of Tokelau culture.
The other night, Chrissie the kids and I were already tucked into bed at around 9:30pm. At around 9:45, we received a phone call (well two actually because we groaned, rolled over and ignored the first). It was Danny a teacher at the school ringing to say that someone from the family needed to make the trip to Fale the next morning to receive our inati. He said be there around 8am and bring “containers” because this inati was of dried foods such as flour and rice.
So being the palagi that I am, the next morning I left promptly at 8am with a bunch of containers – at least what we think of as containers – Tupperware or Click Clack type things. The first niggle of doubt occurred to me as I met with an elderly woman who carried several buckets rather than a couple of small containers! We took the trip to Fale on the first boat heading that way and when we arrived she vanished in a different direction so I headed up to the Fale Fono – the meeting house - to await what was to happen next. I arrived at the Fale Fono to find only the Pulinuku (Mayor) talking to one other man and subsequently found out that 8am actually meant sometime in the morning and that most of the village had been up partying the night before – hence barely a soul to be found. I settled down, realising I’d be waiting a while and that at least I’d witness the whole process.
Apart from carrying 50kg sacks of flour and sugar (no mean feat for a little palagi boy like me) to be placed in piles in the Fale Fono, I waited island style until about 11am before any real action started. At this point people showed up from everywhere – each and every one of them with large 10 and 15 litre “containers”. Fortunately my little palagi containers were hidden away in my backpack! Finally at 11:30am, the inati kicked into action. First a “significant” tithe was loaded onto golf carts and taken to the two ministers on the atoll. It appeared that inati could not begin until this important step was completed. Once done, all the remaining food was divided into four piles which become ‘distribution stations’.
Each station had a pre-prepared list with the family name and the number of people in the kaiga. Names are shouted, repeatedly, over the top of each other – calling people up to receive their inati. First round was breakfast crackers. Actually this was four rounds in total and took a full hour or more as they figured out how many should be given out per person. There was a very clear importance placed on making absolutely sure that no-one would miss out. All told it ended up being 20 crackers per person and a good handful per family for good measure. For our seven that meant the equivalent of about 2 ice cream containers full.
Crackers were followed by rice, sugar and flour. I was given sacks to collect mine in and at approximately two very large cups per person ended up with some 30 plus kilos of these items.
The gathering is full of life and noise and laughter and people crisscross over each other and pass the time chatting, and generally enjoying being together.
Kids all emerge as preschool and then junior school finishes and they add to the lively nature of things. So after many many rounds of assessing if more should be given and how much (it reminded me a bit of the Fruit and Veg Co-op that Wesley runs in Cannons Creek, were sometimes we’re trying to figure out if there’s enough surplus for everyone to get one more of some item), things finally seemed to wrap up at around 2pm – or so I thought. People all vanished pretty quickly and I secured myself a ride with someone with a boat heading back to our motu. However just as we were about to load the boat, I realised that inati was not in fact over for the day. In addition to the large load that I’d already accumulated, a huge quantity of pork and chicken had been divvied up in similar fashion at the waters edge (but thankfully a whole lot more promptly given the heat) so I was also allocated about another 10kg of meat for our 7 person kaiga. Overwhelming for a wee palagi boy to say the least! And very heavy and hot to carry in two or three loads from the beach to our house at Fenua Fala!
It was such a blessing to be part of this most beautiful of cultural traditions and practises, and to be included without even a question of our ‘eligibility’ – just that “everyone in the nuku gets their share”. What a profound and beautiful challenge to reflect on in the way we live our life and spend our money, time and resources. My prayer is that some or a lot of the ‘spirit’ of inati will rub off on my family and I during our time in Tokelau.