Jeff Evans witnesses a rite of passage in Niue, and learns how traditions can hold a community together
When I booked my ticket for Niue I hadn't planned on ridiculously early wake-up calls - nor did I expect to be in the thick of the action when a couple of dozen pigs were dispatched. But here I am, six days into my two-week stay on Niue, witnessing a fascinating slice of traditional life in Hakupu Village.
My plans had been pretty loose: explore the island, take in a spot of fishing and indulge in a bit of swimming at the famed Limu Pools. But all that was put on hold as soon as I found an eye-catching event buried deep in a handout from Niue Tourism: "Traditional Hair Cutting and Ear Piercing Ceremony."
As I later learn, haircutting and ear-piercing ceremonies are regarded as rites of passage for Niuean children, so I'm hoping to find out more about this slice of 21st-century village life.
My first priority is to introduce myself to Kyria Kulatea, who readily agrees to allow me to drop in on the family from time to time over the coming week to witness preparations. But before I can exit, Kyria's brother Patrick suggests I join village members at a family taro patch on the opposite side of the island early the next morning.
I'm assured that I can't get lost, but I'm more than a little sceptical.
Despite my misgivings I find my way, and when I arrive at the end of the bush road the first rays of light are showing. There are already about 30 men congregated and ready to get into their work. Even though the work proves to be monotonous and backbreaking, an area three-quarters the size of a rugby field is cleared in a couple of hours, while back at Hakupu the women have been busy finishing off the last of 200 large woven baskets that will be used to distribute food after the ceremony.
The community's efforts to harvest a huge amount of taro and to weave baskets are impressive, but what I have witnessed today is only a tiny portion of the work that has gone into preparing for the festivities. Planning for events such as this start a year out, when planting dates are set to ensure that enough taro will be ready for harvesting. The long lead-in time also allows invited families to save the cash contribution each will present to the hosts as part of the event.
The morning of the ceremony is another early start for everyone involved. When I arrive at the Kulateas just after 6am the men have already started to butcher the two dozen pigs set aside for the day, and the women are putting finishing touches to the Tuatea Hall.
A little later in the morning, as the guests begin to arrive, I spot a few inquisitive tourists among their number. They are soon befriended by locals and the day's events are explained to them. Outside, the taro, pigs and whole wahoo and tuna, along with boxes of frozen chicken that are displayed on a makeshift stage for all to see, will soon be apportioned into 139 piles - one for each family that has donated cash.
The donations range from $50 to $1100, with each amount recorded meticulously so the Kulatea family will be able reciprocate the donation in kind when it is their turn to support a family hosting a haircutting or ear-piercing ceremony. For today, though, the idea is that the thicker the envelope, the bigger the pile of food to be allocated.
As the men go about their business outside, the ceremony starts inside with a prayer by the local minister before a series of speeches are made by various family members. Finally, Helena's ear piercing is completed by an aunty and Sikipa's hair is cut, lock by lock, by family and friends.
It's all over in a couple of hours, speeches and all, and soon everyone is outside waiting patiently to collect their food. As the last of the food is loaded into the back of a couple of vans, I take a minute to reflect on the past few days. It has been a wonderful privilege to witness the community co-operation involved in this ceremony, and one can only hope that this aspect of Niuean culture is never lost. I've heard that ceremonies and traditions like this are part of the glue that holds communities together, and I can see why.
It's been a privilege to join the local community during such a special time. On a personal level, I feel I've made a connection with the island and its people. I feel part of the wider community, a community that has come together to support and celebrate an important milestone for two children and their family.
It has been, I decide, a special few days.
Getting there: Air New Zealand runs a twice-weekly service from Auckland to Niue, crossing the dateline along the way.