The classic Western description of the tropical islander is usually one of a happy, bronzed islander none to eager to do any type of work. When placed in unfamiliar surroundings this may be true but none can refute the fact that Kapingamarangi islanders keep busy from sun up to sun down and at the end of the day have much to show for their labors.
Work on the island is done by various groups of people with everyone being part of at least one group. Certain jobs are the task of the young people, others done by the elderly.
There is one group that builds the frames for the huts while another is responsible for roofing them, still another group builds canoes. The women of the family usually make mats for the huts. Everything from felling trees for the various jobs to make food for a feast is done within this framework. Those with exceptional skills are “hired out” and paid with food or other valuable materials.
In the case of roofing houses careful records are kept of who donates materials. In return, when their own hut needs roofing, they can expect to receive just as much help as they gave to the rest of the community. In this way, laggards are discouraged.
Within the group there are those who are responsible for certain duties. In the roofing committee, one was responsible for maintaining the records, another was the “foreman” who counted how much material each person brought and directed them where to place it. There was one who handled the workers on the ground, and one on the roof. In all, it was a very structured and well-ordered task and it moved along like clockwork.
This system of cooperative work makes life much easier in Kapingamarangi. While those unversed in atoll live may think that one only needs to go pick a few breadfruits and throw a line in the water to catch some fish, it is a little more complicated than that. True, it is possible to live like that but most would tire of the same dreary meal day after day.
On Kapingamarangi there is very little that grows besides coconuts, taro and breadfruit. There are a few banana trees and I didn’t see a single papaya tree. Their diet consists of the foods mentioned, supplemented with rice that they purchase from the local store, and seafood such as fish, lobster and, on special occasions, eel.
While the coconuts and breadfruit require little work, the taro patch is a real back breaker. And some may think that daily fishing is like a vacation. But the time spent fishing makes for less time to earn money for rice and the luxuries of coffee, tea or biscuits.
These jobs need to be done just sustain life at the level to which they have grown accustomed. In addition, their homes and canoes require upkeep, which also entails a lot of work. For example, to put a new roof on the house, the old one must be taken down and then any damaged beams replaced or fixed. Then pandanus leaves must be collected and dried. Rope from coconut fiber must be made – enough for the entire roof. Then the leaves are strung together to make a panel for the new roof. After a sufficient amount of panels are made the hut must be roofed.
Typically, one hut is roofed every week. That means that each household must have on hand either a few panels or some bundles of rope to donate each week. All the huts that were built while I was there were made by traditional means; rope held the joints instead of nails.
No one is exempt from these chores. Even if you have a paying job such as teaching school or some other government position, you must still donate to community service. This makes for a busy community. In addition to the community service there are religious obligations and those activities that some undertake to earn cash, such as making handicrafts and collecting copra. Handicrafts are the favored means to make money, but then not everyone is gifted with artistic talent.
During our four-week stay I saw three homes being constructed, two roofing’s, and the beginning of a new canoe. The men of the island put in new channel markers and moved the main men’s hut two meter’s closer to the sea. There was one community-wide feast for the anniversary of the death of the first Kapingamarangi Pastor and several smaller feasts for the completion of huts, roofing and new taro patches. There was also one excursion to another island to collect wood for repairing a men’s hut. That was only what we witnessed – and all in for weeks!
When I think of all the accounts of so-called “lazy islanders” it makes me wonder how well the speaker would fare in such a society. Account s of crewmen ship wrecked in the islands in the last century reveal that only a few were able to live well in similar conditions and usually it was by cunning rather than hard work.
I think the reason for this myth of the stereotyped lazy islander is that they go about their work in a playful manner. They smile instead of scowl when presented with a difficult task and chide one another until it becomes a contest to achieve the final goal. Their concept of time is altogether different from the Western concept and so to Westerners they appear to dawdle.
When placed in a foreign situation many times some islanders do not see the rewards of their labor straightaway and so lose interest. In their own culture they see immediate results. When they fish, they see fish. When they cut down a tree, they see wood. The simple truth is the islanders know how to make work fun – and if it is fun, why hurry?
One good example of fun was a picnic that was held as a celebration for completing a new taro patch. The work group consisted of young adult men and women from several households who “owned” the patch and would harvest it.
The picnic was held on a distant island in the lagoon and began in the late morning when several canoes laden with people, food and a large cassette player headed toward the island.
The day was a culmination of hard work and it seemed the young people played as hard as they worked. There was dancing, singing and general roughhousing. One game they played entailed one or two people walking on a stretch of beach, seemingly unaware of anyone. One person carried a stick about 15” long. The object of the game was for someone to get the stick to either end of the beach, sort of like American football. The trick was to surprise the holder of the stick and take it from him. It usually ended in a free-for-all with all of the players piled up on the end of the beach trying to get the stick. I marveled at their endurance, this game continued for hours.
While all of this rough-housing was going on, a few people were preparing doughnuts while others played their beloved card game, Spades. One group was singing accompanied by a ukulele.
Prior to all the activities everyone was busy with the preparation of the food for the feast that would do a Guam fiesta justice. They ate twice while I was there. Heaven knows they worked up an appetite! When I left at 2 p.m. in the afternoon they were still going strong.
Like the workers of the taro patch, the roofing of a house was done in the same boisterous mood, by another group of people. This work group was made up of about 30 men skilled in roofing.
The roofing begins after all the material has been counted and recorded in a record book held by the secretary of the group. A group of men at the base of the hut throw panels up to workers waiting in the rafters, who catch and place them on the frame. One person fastens the panel to the rafters and then the line of men advances up the roof and waits for the next panel to be thrown.
There are four groups of workers, one on each side of the pitched roof, and one on each side of the house. The goal is for the groups on the roof to meet at the top at the same time. It is truly wonderful to experience – panels flying everywhere accompanied by laughter, shouting and jesting. The excitement is contagious and appeared to spur the work along as the roof was completed in less than two and a half hours.
After the roofing, all the participants were treated to a meal at the hut owner’s expense. After the meal, the men got up and moved the men’s hut closer to the sea. They just picked it up and moved it!
In addition to the skills required for preparing a taro patch and roofing a hut, others have learned the art of canoe building; hut construction, shrimp and eel trap construction, and various other skills that are needed in the community. A person’s worth in marriage is measured by how many skills they have mastered. If one cannot do the very basics to sustain a good life, they will probably never marry. This community has no place for idlers.
While serving the community as a whole, this system also benefits the young who can join a group to learn necessary skills. There, he or she will have many teachers to choose from while making a worthwhile contribution to the betterment of the island.