On the far-flung atolls of Tokelau the New Zealand flag flies high in the gentle Pacific breeze.

It is no visitor to those shores. Our ensign belongs as much to the inhabitants of those palm-lined islets as it does to us, some 3,000 kilometres to the south.

"Colony" is not a fashionable word these days, so Tokelau is, in the politically correct diplo-speak of modern politics, a non self-governing territory; it is New Zealand's last dependent.


She has not always been bound to us. New Zealand inherited the three atolls - Atafu, Fakaofo and Nukunonu - from the British in 1925. And in 1948 the territory, with its land mass measuring less than 13 sq km and never wider than 200m, was formally made part of New Zealand with the passing of the Tokelau Act.

One of Tokelau's oldest residents, 78-year-old Tuumuli Iafeta, has lived his adult life with the New Zealand flag flying over his homeland.

And during his lifetime he has seen the good and the bad of colonisation. And, like many Tokelauan, he says his dream is for future generations to retain their culture but move into the 21st century.

His forefathers were proud, he says through an interpreter. They were healthy people who did not need the help of the outside world.

"I enjoyed things more before, in the beginning. Our people were strong and healthy. The young people worked hard, fishing and bringing up children. We never needed money - we shared food out between us.

"Now our young people are getting fat, they drink Coca-Cola, and they like to have money. They want televisions and radios. Now we cannot survive without the help of New Zealand."

Along with the Coca-Cola comes the cash. The aid New Zealand gives to the fewer than 1500 people of Tokelau - $6.5 million in 1999/2000 - makes up four-fifths of its budget. Most of it goes into grants to the Tokelau administration to fund transport, education and health. The rest goes into scholarships, telecommunications, power, village development and sanitation.

Tokelau also receives United Nations development programme money and generates about $1.5 million itself from income tax, levies, duties, and selling off-shore fishing licences.

But the United Nations wants change. Several years ago it named Tokelau as one of 27 nations worldwide it wanted to see become independent by 2000.

We, too, are happy to help if our dependent chooses to be independent. With New Zealand's aid, Tokelau is working towards drawing up its own constitution and taking a further step towards independence by considering an act of self-determination.

Yet when it goes, colonisation will have left its indelible mark.

For Iafeta, one of the evils of modernisation has been the introduction of Western food.

While he sticks to a traditional diet of mostly fish, root crops and coconut, he says many people buy stock from the co-op stores which opened on each atoll several years ago. When the boat arrives fortnightly with goods from Samoa, basics such as frozen chicken are available, but so are soft drinks and cigarettes.

Although the life expectancy in Tokelau is relatively high - 67.8 years for males and 70.4 for women, according to the 1996 census - like other Pacific Island nations, the introduction of processed foods has coincided with the incidence of conditions like heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

Despite never having dental care, elders such as Iafeta have a full set of teeth. However, today children as young as 6 have rotten teeth because of the high fat and sugar content of Western foods.

That is the present for Tokelau, but the past has seen worse. As a little boy, Iafeta remembers hearing stories of the Peruvian slave ships that came ashore and captured almost half the able-bodied men on Tokelau. The 252 taken were sold at the markets in Callao in 1863 and only one returned home.

Most vivid, though, is his memory of seeing a palagi (foreigner) for the first time.

"I remember seeing a white man when I was 8. I think it was a delegation that arrived on the beach at Fakaofa from New Zealand.

"I was scared. I took off straight to my mother's arms, he was too white ... I thought he was a ghost or a bad spirit."

Yet Iafeta is philosophical about the present - "We cannot go back" - and recognises that education may be the way of the future for Tokelau.

Since the 1950s there has been one school on each atoll, but only one goes beyond Form Four. However, scholarships are offered at college and universities in Samoa, Fiji and New Zealand.

"My hope for the future is that the next generation of people will have the best of both worlds. That they will never forget our heritage, but can use their education for the betterment of our people," says Iafeta.

That betterment will not come cheaply. Although Tokelau is striving to assert its own identity, it also knows it has little means of supporting itself.

It wasn't always so. When the United States exploring expedition of Charles Wilkes called in at Fakaofa in 1841, he wrote in his log-book, "the natives appeared to survive on fish and coconuts."

Today breadfruit, taro and pigs have been introduced, but the strain of living under difficult conditions is still real.

Each atoll is literally built on coral rubble, so unlike other Pacific Island nations growing export crops is almost impossible.

More significantly, the tourist dollar is a rare visitor to Tokelau.

The nearest big island is Western Samoa, which lies 480km to the south. Without an airport only one or two hardy visitors are keen to brave the 32-hour boat ride from Samoa.

Once there, the island hospitality is renowned, but life is basic. There are no hotels, no bars, no restaurants. Tokelau is believed to be the last country in the world to get a phone service (in 1997), and the generators mean power is only on several hours a day.

Many families still cook on open fires and almost all use open "latrines" or toilets on stilts above the water.

Space is also in short supply and the villages are congested. The 1996 census found 123 people living on each square kilometre.

Fakaofa, one of the most densely populated, is so crowded that its population of several hundred pigs lives on the reef because there is nowhere else to put them. When the tide comes in, the animals swim or scramble on to the rocks. They are hand-fed by the families who own them and forage for shellfish, seaweed and fish.

Like neighbouring Tuvalu 1000km to the west, the atolls of Tokelau are gradually sinking at a rate of about 1cm a year and the highest point above sea level is 5m.

Meanwhile our flag still flies, though only over one non-Tokelauan.

Monsignor Pat O'Connor is the only palagi living on Tokelau.

As a Catholic priest living and preaching in Petone, Wellington, he says he "hardly knew Tokelau existed" until he was asked by the Archbishop in Samoa to look after the needs of the Catholic parish on the atoll of Nukunonu. He arrived in 1977 and has been there ever since.

Although Nukunonu is largely Catholic, each atoll has a different denomination because of the different doctrines of those other colonists - the missionaries - who arrived in the middle of the last century. Atafu hosts the Congregational Christian Church and Fakoafu has both Catholic and Congregational churches.

Monsignor O'Connor is somewhat of a novelty in Tokelau - not only because of his white skin but because he conducts all his services in Tokelau.

"It took me about two years to pick up conversational Tokelau, and within that time I was doing the services in the language. The people here are very proud of their culture and language, so it just seemed natural. A lot of the older people don't speak a word of English and many have never left Tokelau."

The village structure and strong-held religious beliefs dictate strict rules on each atoll, he says. Each family gathers at 6 pm to pray together, and a midnight curfew means everyone must return to their homes. Swimming is not allowed on Sunday, which is a strict day of church, feasting and rest.

Monsignor O'Connor loves the simplicity of life and the warm hospitality but says the isolation can be hard.

"You miss the variety of things to do that countries like New Zealand have to offer. The library, movies, visiting family - things like that you take for granted until you don't have them."

He says he keeps in touch with the outside world by listening to New Zealand, British and American radio stations, and in the last three years, since the phone system was installed, has been able to use the fax and e-mail.

Lise Hope Suveinakama is one of the new faces of Tokelau. She won a scholarship which enabled her to do her Sixth and Seventh Form at Wairarapa College, then on to Waikato University where she completed a Bachelor of Arts and a law degree.

Although many other Tokelau graduated from university before her, she was the first to be admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court in Waikato last year.

Married to a Fijian resident, also a lawyer, Jovilisi, and with a 10-month-old son, Alowesi, she made the hard decision to return to Tokelau to give her skills back to her people.

She says throughout her early schooling on Tokelau, she had been interested in the law and studying overseas.

"My teacher in Tokelau used to say, if you want to go to New Zealand where you can eat ice-cream all the time, you have to work hard and get a scholarship."

Although there is no need for a lawyer on Tokelau (there are three police officers but virtually no crime), Lise works as a senior policy advisory officer for the Office of the Council of Faipule, the island leader.

"I struggled at times during my law degree, not only was it hard but I was learning in a language that was not my first and was in a country that was foreign to me. My family used to send me coconuts and fish because the fish was so expensive in New Zealand.

"After all that hard work it was difficult to come home. I could have stayed in New Zealand, made money as a lawyer and gone to the movies, out to restaurants and gone to the gym, all the things I loved.

"But I am proud of my culture - I think that is what got me through law school. My people helped me become a lawyer and who I am today, and Tokelau is one of the most beautiful places on the Earth. I wanted to come home and put my energy into working for my people."

Tokelau will need her. When New Zealand's flag is lowered for the last time in these tiny atolls, the challenge will be to replace it with the standard of successful self-determination.