Discovering Ongalewu

The island of Nassau lies 90 km South of Pukapuka. It is an oval-shaped sand bank that sits nine meters atop a coral reef foundation. Half-a-kilometer-wide and one-kilometer-long, it takes less than an hour to circumnavigate the island.

Only eleven kilometers below the equator, days and nights here are almost exactly twelve hours long. The daytime temperature remains a comfortable 27 degrees Celsius year-round with cool trade winds. “Lots of matangi (wind) and much cooler than Pukapuka,” says Willow William one of the island residents.

The surrounding reef is 90 to 130 meters wide, and shipwrecks stand out as part of the island’s history. The cargo ship Manuvai ran aground on the reef in 1998. Over the years, the waves washed the remains of the Manuvai into the middle of the island. The sight of the rusted ship amidst the sand and coconut trees leaves a chilling reminder of the dangers of the sea. In 2016, the cargo ship Moana Nui got a rope stuck in its propeller and the waves pushed it onto the reef, close to the harbour. The community’s aluminum fishing boats must pass through a narrow passage in the reef and under the looming stern of the Moana Nui to make it out to sea. Her silhouette serves as a warning to ships and sailors.

Visiting explorers named and renamed the sandy islet after themselves, until finally in 1835 an American whaler, John D. Sampson named the sandy land after his boat, the Nassau and for some reason this name stuck. The original name of Nassau, however, is Te Nuku-o-Ngalewu. This name means ‘Land of Ngalewu’, after the Pukapukan who used to manage its resources. People from here affectionately call it “Ongalewu.” Poti Maeva, who grew up here, composed a well-known song called ‘Nassau-Ongalewu.’ The song talks about the longing one has for their island home.

Originally a motu (islet) of Pukapuka, Nassau used to function as a copra plantation. For six months, people migrated here to gather, husk, and dry coconuts. Then they returned to Pukapuka for six months to let the resources replenish. This rotational migration went on until a group asked the island chiefs of Pukapuka if they could stay, and they did. Today, Nassau supports a healthy fluctuating population of around eighty souls, with over half the resident’s children.

The Island Administration in Pukapuka supports Nassau and the two consider themselves “sister islands.” Pukapuka is the “big-city” and Nassau, the country. Pukapuka has an air-strip while Nassau can only be reached by cargo ships. In 2004, Nassau got a telephone system, and internet which intermittently breaks down for months at a time. In 2012, Nassau received solar panels and the entire island now has freezers, grass-cutters, and televisions. There is only one Sky TV satellite in the center of town. In the evenings, women gather together in the open-air cement building to watch Korean Soap Operas.

A majority of the houses have a palm-thatched roof and plywood walls with louvre windows; a mixture of the old and the new. “Nassau is more like Pukapuka forty years ago,” says Poila Poila the school principal. With a few modern conveniences, Nassau maintains a slow-paced communal way of life.

On Nassau, everyone works together. A large, Japanese brass bell gifted from one of the fishing ships, calls people to gather on Nassau. “First thing every morning the bell rings,” says Mama Lita Malo, “and the leaders announce the day’s work.” Those without a government job contribute to the working bee for a few hours. The day’s work might include weeding the taro patch, clearing coconuts, dividing uto (sprouted coconut), burning rubbish, fishing together, or cleaning the sandy roads. After the day’s work, the bell rings again at three for sports.

From Monday to Thursday, the entire island participates in volleyball, cricket, tennis, and traditional stick throwing games, well into the early evening. Volleyball remains the most popular, and the women hit the ball easily wearing a uniform of purple skirts and white t-shirts. “In Nassau, we play sports every single day,” says a proud Mosela Manila. The loosing sports team usually has to fish for the winning sports team, thereby providing food for the next day. “Nassau teaches you how to be social and get along with everyone,” shares Apanita Lu.

If the weekdays are reserved for sports, the weekends belong to Church. The island has a Catholic Church, a Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and a Cook Islands Christian Church. The majority belonging to the Catholic Church, but everyone gets along. Once a month, the Churches hold an inter-denominational service. Papa Topetai Neiao, one of the Church leaders, learned old Dutch songs from a visiting Catholic priest. A Dutch sailor on the cargo ship KWAI could not believe it when he visited Nassau. “Papa Topetai knows Dutch songs that came from my grandparent’s generation,” says the ship’s engineer, who goes by the name Bengineer. “Nassau is my favorite island for its community, hospitality, and singing” he says. On Sundays, the whole island sounds of joyous A cappella hymns.

Papa Topetai also has the only bar on the island with a hand painted wooden sign that reads ‘Las Vegas Bar.’ “We don’t really serve anything,” he laughs. “I’ll give a friend a free beer if the boat just came in.” The island regulates alcohol. It does not allow the making of homebrew, a potent concoction of fermented yeast, sugar, and flavoring. It also limits alcohol orders to one bottle per person and one case of beer per person. With the boat only coming twice a year, this means only two bottles or two cases a year. “It keeps the island peaceful,” says Papa Topetai, “no fighting and no trouble.”

Nassau has no bank. “We have BCI bank books,” says Poila Poila the school principal, “but family in Rarotonga or Pukapuka hold our bank books. If we need to order cargo from Rarotonga, they do it for us.” The island itself does not use money. It functions as the original Polynesian commune. “We always share the food,” he says, “the rice, the flour, the sugar, the uto, the taro, and so on.” Twice a week, if not more, the whole island eats together. After the sports, the loosing team feeds the winning team. The men fish and the women cook pots of uto (sprouted coconut). To support a system without money, Nassau is highly organized and egalitarian. The island sees its people, community, and environment as its riches.

Years of fertilizing with leaves and coconut provides rich planting soil. People have managed to create plantations of breadfruit, papaya, wet taro, dry taro, and bananas. The small population means that there is an abundance of coconuts, known as the “tree of life.” Crayfish lobsters, coconut crabs, sea birds, and other delicacies abound. Luckily, a fresh water lens provides the island with an abundance of well water. People in Nassau know how to conserve their resources and how to survive by relying on the land, the sea, and one another.

Only the most intrepid of travelers make it here. To really get to know Nassau, one has to live here and learn the art of spending evenings taking in the wind.

Arriving in the late afternoon
My home - my castle
Children eating sugar cane
St Teresa Catholic Church
Papa Topetai Neiao
The KWAI awaits our departure