When we decided to take a family adventure and come and live in Tokelau, people back home would often ask us why we would choose this type of destination as a family adventure – somewhere so remote, isolated, and small and so unlike anything we know or are used to. Whenever we got asked this question we often found it hard to give answers that made sense to people – and I think usually we failed at that – partly because I don’t think we really knew ourselves exactly why? We didn’t even know how long we were coming for, just that we wanted to make sure we had a really good taste of the Tokelau way of life.
We had a whole lot of ideas about what we might learn and experience, but we didn’t really know if they made sense to us or anyone else. Really the only thing that felt certain as we set out on this adventure is that almost everything was uncertain. But I think we also had a sense that this was an adventure that Jesus was calling us on – not knowing the exact reason or purpose, not knowing how we would cope, having to trust that this was an adventure worth risking the unknown for.
Over the last couple of months here, I think we have begun to be able to answer the question “Why did we come to Tokelau”. This has also come at a time when we have felt the time is right for our family to make the return journey home to New Zealand.
Tokelau is a truly remarkable, special and unique place. I’m sure there’s no place like it in all the world and we count ourselves deeply blessed to have called this place our home over the last six months. It’s been an experience full of wonder, beauty and daily swimming in a lagoon which is nothing less than a tropical paradise! People here have looked after us in so many ways, from giving us fish (many many beautiful tasty fresh fish) and other foods, taken us places on their boats, taught us some of the local skills and ways of life and so many other things. At times we’ve experienced overwhelming hospitality and generosity.
And alongside the wonder and generosity we’ve experienced in this place, we’ve also found our time here to be one of the most challenging and difficult experience of our family life. Many people probably find it hard to imagine living on a beautiful tropical atoll as anything but idyllic and will be surprised that we’ve found it difficult. We put it mostly down to the feeling of “otherness” that we have encountered for the first time, a feeling that we know for many people is not a new experience. Indeed we’ve met many people here in Tokelau who have described the same feelings and experience when they first went to New Zealand.
It’s not that there’s anything specifically wrong. It’s not because Tokelau is not a wonderful place. It is because this is not home for us. It’s a place outside of our comfort zone where the language, lifestyle, schooling, food, freedoms, culture and so on are all foreign to our understanding. We’ve been caught off guard by how homesick we’ve all felt. And by how difficult it is to experience “otherness” (and to feel this even when everyone is working so hard to love and care for us). We’ve realised how blessed our life in Cannons Creek, NZ is. We’ve become a lot more grateful for that. Many of our friends and neighbours back home have been on our minds a lot as we’ve appreciated in a new way just how challenging their life in NZ is because they experience this “otherness” for one reason or another.
In Tokelau they have a name for people like us, people experiencing “otherness”. They call us the Tamamanu. Literally the small bird. The flightless one. Perhaps fallen from their nest. Or blown in by a storm. Injured, or forgotten. The tamamanu have a very special place in Tokelau culture. We have met so many Tokelau people that take immense pride in this treasured cultural value and practice of looking out for and caring for the tamamanu among them. We have experienced this. In fact we’ve survived here for six months mainly because people (both those whose names have been mentioned in our blog and many many others) have known us as tamamanu, and have cared for and loved us. This idea of Tamamanu is a profound treasure of Tokelau. We as a family are forever touched by it, and changed because of the experience of it.
It struck me clearly one night chatting to a neighbour down at the edge of the lagoon as the sun was setting. We were talking about the idea and practice of Tamamanu and our experience of it, and I realised that this was what we came here for. To learn something of what it is to be tamamanu. To receive love and care that we couldn’t return, from generous Tokelau friends and neighbours. And most importantly to hopefully be equipped as a family to take up the practice of this Tokelau way when it comes to tamamanu that we encounter in our daily lives back home in NZ.