The ten years I spent as a French teacher in several small South Pacific countries have taught me a lot. Being immersed in radically different civilisations has greatly helped me: not only to define myself but also to learn what real respect consists of.
In particular, I spent three years on one of the Loyalty Islands off the East coast of New Caledonia, the island called Nengone. I was employed by the French Reformed Church, not by any choice on my part, but I soon realised and liked how much they promoted the native civilisation.
In the 19th century, when the Catholic missionaries introduced the Eucharist to their newly converted flocks, they celebrated it with the bread and the wine. But bread and wine were completely alien to the Islanders at that time.
The approach chosen by the Protestant missionaries was quite different: they decided to celebrate the Eucharist by sharing the coconut milk and the yam, which was and continues to be of such significance to the Islanders, because they truly are their foods of life, therefore linked to their ancestral system of beliefs.
Nowadays, the yam feast (the day when the first yams are dug out and offered to the elders) is still a crucial celebration in the Islanders’ annual calendar, because it is a symbol of Nature’s – and of the Ancestors’ – recurring generosity. Actually, eating a yam is, symbolically, eating the Ancestors’ flesh, which means getting strength and wisdom from their experiences.
Time, in the Islanders’ world-view, is not linear but cyclic, so, maybe, it is no wonder they were able to grasp so naturally the concept of Jesus’s resurrection. The Islanders have achieved a symbiosis, a harmony, between their traditional beliefs and Christianity: their Ancestors are still alive in specific places, trees or animals, and I remember a night when, on the grounds of the Secondary school I was teaching at (it was called Taremene, which means the owl’s perch), an owl started flying around, everybody hid until the bird had disappeared.
The word taboo is – as far as I know – the only Polynesian word in the English language ; in the South Pacific, the original word tapu means sacred, set apart, in the sense that one has to show respect to the Spirits of the dead.
One day, a friend of mine went fishing but he had omitted to formally pay his respect to the Spirits inhabiting the fishing spot: his spear severed one of his toes. It is a puzzling anecdote because in the Nengone language, sarengom, the word meaning twenty – for ten fingers plus ten toes – also means a human being considered in both his/her physical and moral integrity… Had my friend lost his physical integrity for being morally at fault?
I was mentioning a harmony, and I remember when, after my days at work, I used to be walking back from the school and could see the vicar sitting with some of my pupils around an open wood fire in the middle of his tidy lawn, close to the church and to his traditional family hut. Under the starry deep-blue sky, in those cool nights – it can get quite fresh in the South Pacific – it was such an appeasement to watch and to hear the old man telling the children tales of traditional wisdom in the native language.
The word taboo appeared in 1777 in Cook’s A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. It is a Tongan word, Cook having just visited that archipelago, the main island of which is called Tongatapu.
Cook called Tonga the Friendly Islands, as he saw its inhabitants as particularly welcoming. In fact, he fortunately left before realising that Tongans were cannibals and had lured him into a sense of false confidence! It would have been a paradoxical fate for a Cook…