“Up to this time the vast Heaven has still ever remained separated from his spouse the Earth. Yet their mutual love continues—the soft warm sighs of her loving bosom still ever rise up to him, ascending from the woody mountains and valleys and men can see these mists; and the vast Heaven, as he mourns through the long nights of his separation from his beloved, drops frequent tears upon her bosom, and, men seeing these, term them dew-drops.”
—From “KONGA TAMA A RANGI,” the Polynesian tradition
relating to the origin of the human race
Just after sunrise, Solomone Lomu climbed the well-trodden path to Viatupu’s highest elevation, 45 feet above the two-square mile atoll. Sunrise had been glorious. A low bank of clouds split the rising sun into orange halves. Its rays turned the slowly undulating ocean to burnished gold.
An auspicious omen for this sad day.
How ironic, he thought, that the day of exodus followed Fiafia, Happy Day, celebrated on November 25 since 1887—the date the islanders made final payment on a $13,000 debt to a venal haole trader who had encouraged them to buy on credit and then demanded payment in full, or he would take the island.
Two New Zealand Navy transports were anchored to the west in deep water some distance from the reef. A steady train of converted amphibians motored in and out through crashing surf carrying Viatupuans to the waiting vessels. The navy had chosen not to use Asau’s wharf. It was more efficient for the amphibs to run up on Olosau beach and open their maws onto the sand.
Below him, along the beach north of Asau, families knotted together. Everyone was allowed two pieces of luggage. Men and women carried old suitcases or boxes. Most kids had backpacks. Each family had been allowed to ship some household goods.
Loading operations had begun early. And, though he wasn’t close, Solomone could see that many of the adults suffered from the aftermath of last night’s Fiafia. The navy actually had arrived a day earlier than expected, but agreed to give the islanders an extra day for the celebration—the last that 827 of Viatupu’s some 1,000 inhabitants would enjoy.
Remnants of the huge bonfire still smoldered on the beach. The party, both bitter and sweet, had stretched into the early morning hours. Countless roasted pigs had been devoured; gallons of toddy—fermented coconut milk—had been imbibed. Many had danced until they could no longer stand. And, if one had cared to look, couples could be seen all night melting into the jungle darkness beyond the firelight’s reach.
Solomone was the island’s ulu-aliki, high chief. Although the title was hereditary and ceremonial, he did have some influence over the te sina o fenua, Viatupu’s council of elders, more commonly known by the translation—“gray hairs of the land.”
Solomone was one of the few islanders with a college degree. After completing high school at the Island’s Motofuoa Secondary School, where he now taught, he received a scholarship to attend the University of the South Pacific on Fiji. Considering all the problems facing Tuvalu, his country, and Viatupu, Solomone knew he should have studied something that would help—agriculture, fisheries, marine science. But he didn’t have a scientific bent. Instead he developed a deep and abiding love for literature.
He watched as the line of islanders slowly snaked toward the landing site. The process would probably take all day. Some islanders who were staying picked through piles of clothing, furnishings and household items émigrés couldn’t take and were leaving behind for them.
A few years earlier, Solomone had been first to talk about the need to abandon the island, home of his people for thousands of years. Others, too, knew it was inevitable, but, as high chief, he felt it was his duty to lead the people to this realization.
Everything that could possibly be wrong was wrong.
It was well known that the submerged mountain upon which the atoll sat was slowly subsiding. This was true, as well, for the seven other inhabited islands that comprised Tuvalu. For millennia this had not been a problem. But the warming of the Earth and its oceans was killing the coral. They could no longer grow as much or as fast as necessary to keep the island above water in the long term.
The rising ocean level was also taking its toll. In recent decades, Viatupu had lost one-half square mile of beach front. As the island’s coral reef gradually became more deeply submerged, it could no longer provide as much protection from wave action that scoured its beaches. And, at times of particularly high tide, Asau’s wharf was almost submerged.
It’s fortunate, Solomone thought, that this area of the Southern Pacific is not prone to cyclones. A serious blow could wash everything off the face of Viatupu.
But, in the short term, fresh water was the major problem. The island’s several freshwater aquifers just below the thin layer of soil and vegetation had been contaminated by rising salt water percolating through the coral base. The water was no longer potable and the wells had been shut down. Island residents now relied on catch water.
But catch water was undependable, sufficient during the winter wet season, but in short supply in summer. Changing weather patterns also had reduced the amount of rainfall. On a couple of occasions, water had to be imported, a very expensive proposition made possible only with help from the central government on Funafuti.
Discussions about the subject at council meetings had been unusually argumentative. Many members were simply not willing to accept the necessity for evacuation. We’ll be fine for decades, they said. Who knows where this “global warming” is really going, others said. And evacuate to where?
Solomone had listened respectfully to all points of view. He knew the majority of the council was in denial and that it would take time to bring them around. He responded that it was important for Viatupu to be among the first to take this step. Many other islands throughout Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia were facing similar problems.
“Tuvalu, as you know, is listed as number eight on the list of countries that will be most affected by rising ocean levels. Many other islands will need to evacuate. We need to be among the first while there are still places willing to take us.”
He asked for and received permission to contact Global Relocation Services, a new NGO offering evacuation assistance to countries in the top 20 on the list of most affected.
“They will visit, evaluate our situation and make recommendations. If it comes to that, they will find and negotiate for a suitable place for us to go and handle logistics of the evacuation. But, initially, we will just talk,” Solomone said.
A month later, the NGO’s representative, a youngish woman from its headquarters in Los Angeles, arrived after an eight-hour trip on the almost-weekly boat from Funafuti, site of the country’s only airport. Lisa Markus had been in transit for 36 hours and was exhausted. She stayed with the Lomus and slept initially for 12 hours. For the next few days she struggled valiantly with jet lag.
Solomone was her primary contact and spent hours answering questions and escorting her around the island. Initially he’d taken her to the very spot where he was now standing. As she surveyed the island, she had a strange look. Solomone wasn’t particularly skilled at reading haole expressions, but it seemed to combine awe and sadness.
Without taking her eyes off the emerald waters of the island’s central lagoon, she said: “This is unbearably lovely. What a tragedy that the people who contributed least to the causes of the warming are the ones who bear its greatest burdens.”
She stayed two weeks and became a close friend of the Lomu family, adapting readily to the rhythms of island life. When the time came, she clearly wasn’t ready to go.
Departing loaded with fragrant leis and Solomone’s copy of Michener’s Hawaii, which she said she had never read, Lisa promised to complete her report to the agency within two weeks. Her recommendation, she confided, would be for the NGO to grant priority assistance.
The report arrived by email three weeks later. The school had satellite internet connection. He printed it, provided copies to each council member and called a special meeting to discuss.
Lisa’s recommendation for priority relocation had been approved. The agency offered to negotiate with New Zealand for emigration of up to 1,000 Viatupuans, virtually the entire population. It ranked the likelihood of success “high” because both Tuvalu and New Zealand were members of the British Commonwealth and there were ethnic and cultural links.
Discussion was contentious. Would relocation be voluntary? If so, who would want to go? Despite evidence to the contrary—steady out migration by the island’s young people—some “grey hairs” couldn’t believe the people would abandon their ancestral home. How would migrants make a living? And, a more practical question, what would happen to Motofuoa, the secondary school, and its 500 boarders from throughout Tuvalu?
“Would the government even permit us to leave?” asked Tamiela Umbari, apparent leader of the anti-evacuation clique.
Solomone listened until the issues had been raised. He had foreseen most, if not all, of the arguments and had answers ready. “Of course emigration will be voluntary. No one would be forced to leave who wants to stay. The island will support a smaller population for some time to come. It will, however, be more difficult for those who stay to migrate later when conditions dictate.”
He went on to recommend that a meeting of all family heads and single adults be held to obtain input about the proposal.
“But first,” he said, “I ask permission to authorize the NGO to negotiate with New Zealand to see if arrangements actually can be made. There’s no sense in talking further until we are certain the option exists and is satisfactory to us. In the meantime, I will contact the Departments of Interior and Education to discuss the possibility of mass emigration and what to do about the school.”
The vote was not unanimously in favor, but Solomone received the authorization he sought.
As a final thought, he said: “I know how difficult it is to keep secrets in our small, tightly knit community. But it would be best if we kept this to ourselves until the appropriate time to talk to the people. We don’t want to have to deal with rumors….”
He knew it was unlikely the proposal would stay under wraps. His greatest fear was that hostile counselors would spread disinformation among their constituents and begin lobbying against it. Can’t be helped, he told himself. But I do hate politics.
Shortly after, Solomone contacted Tomasi Malolu, head of the Tuvaluan Interior Ministry, and asked for a meeting. They were slightly acquainted. As a senior member of the island school’s staff, he was more familiar with Lemeki Ganilau, the education minister. For his convenience, the two meetings were set for the same day. Lemeki invited him to stay with his family.
The crossing to Funafuti was rougher than usual. A strong low-pressure system was moving into the area. I don’t care, Solomone thought, as long as it brings some rain.
Funafuti is the largest and most unusual of the country’s nine atolls. About one-square mile of land, parsed into 29 islets, surrounds the 100 square-mile Te Namo Lagoon. Most of Funafuti’s 5,000 residents are clustered on the eastern side of the island near its airport. The strip was built in 1943 by U.S. Seabees to serve as a base for B-24s raiding Japanese-held islands including Tarawa. By 1945, the strip had been abandoned and was developed later as a commercial airport. It was the airport that supported Funafuti’s position as Tuvalu’s primary island.
The meetings went well. Malolu praised him for his foresight. He said a report was being prepared by ministry staff considering the eventual necessity for the evacuation of all Tuvalu’s islands. But he was years away from going public.
“For all intents and purposes,” he said with apparent sadness, “this would mean the end of our country as we know it. I wish you weren’t considering unilateral action. It may raise the issue countrywide before the ministry is prepared to deal with it. But we are a democracy and in no position to bar our citizens from emigration if that’s their desire, even en masse.”
He asked to be kept informed and wondered if Solomone would consider consulting with the ministry’s taskforce as it planned for the country’s future.
He and Lemeki didn’t need to go to his office to discuss the fate of the school. They retired to the lanai after dinner the first night and had a long talk. Lemeki said it was important that the school remain in operation. There simply was no money to build another to absorb its 500 students. In addition, as Solomone knew, the ministry had recently spent thousands of Tuvalan dollars to upgrade the school’s solar-diesel power plant and its computer facilities.
The ministry, he said, would continue to support the school financially, providing jobs for faculty and staff that might stay. An effort would be made to provide suitable replacements for those who emigrated.
“I know it would be peculiar for students to greatly outnumber permanent residents for much of the year,” he said thoughtfully. “Education would become Viatupu’s sole industry, not that there are many others at present.”
The two laughed at the prospect of dealing with 500 adolescents as the island’s primary population.
Solomone realized he’d been standing for a long time. So he sat on the knoll and watched the soaring kites.
About 10 years earlier, a new headmaster for the school arrived with his wife and two boisterous young sons. They introduced the island’s kids to kite flying. Viatupu’s often strong and steady prevailing winds were perfect for kites. By the time the family left several years later, the kids were hooked. There was hardly a day in which kites weren’t flying somewhere.
Dozens now flew off the beach over the heads of boarding émigrés. Children who were remaining, including some from the school, had organized the mass kite fly as a tribute to those who were leaving. And, flying high above them all was Joeli Maraiwai’s enormous kite, the largest ever built on the island.
The story of its construction had become legend. Joeli had appropriated one of his mother’s muumuus to provide the fabric. Mrs. Maraiwai was a woman of some substance, so he had plenty of fabric with which to work. The kite’s split bamboo frame was eight-feet across. Though it was difficult to get airborne, when it took flight, no other kite could fly as high or majestically. And no other kite could match its beauty. The fabric was decorated with huge purple hibiscus.
Mrs. Maraiwai had taken Joeli’s transgression in stride. Even though it had been her favorite muumuu, she came to enjoy seeing it aloft.
Solomone watched as the kites were joined, as often happened, by frigate birds diving on them, flying between them. They were not aggressive; they just seemed to be playing. Below the aerial display, the line was appreciably shorter. It appeared the loading process would finish close to sundown.
Six weeks after Solomone’s return from Funafuti, he’d received the results of the NGO’s negotiations with New Zealand. They were amazingly generous. As a humanitarian gesture, the government had agreed to transport up to 1,000 Viatupuans with a moderate amount of personal goods to Wellington, the capital. There, free housing would be provided for up to one year. Job counseling, training and placement would be provided. School-age children would receive public education. Men ages 18-24, if medically fit, would be required to accept two years of service in the New Zealand military with salary and training opportunities. Those extending for two more years would be offered free university education.
He took this information to the council along with the blessings of the Interior and Education Ministries.
Solomone was happy to see the information diffuse much of the hostility. As predicted, the island had been buzzing for weeks about the potential for evacuation. In response, he had promised an island-wide meeting to discuss the matter just as soon as all the necessary information had been gathered.
The rumors actually had one positive effect. Islanders had begun to talk seriously about Viatupu’s increasingly precarious situation and to make tentative decisions about who might go or stay and under what conditions.
There was no building large enough to accommodate all meeting attendees, so the council arranged to conduct it out-of-doors. A speaker, amplifier and mic were borrowed from the school and lights were strung on poles in what served as Asau’s central square. About 250 heads of household and single adults were invited to attend. Expecting that many others would also infiltrate the group, it was made clear that only invited attendees could speak. Viatupuans were known for their volubility. Without some restraint, the meeting could have stretched into the next day.
After solving the inevitable feedback “screech,” Solomone ascended the small riser built for the occasion.
“We’re here tonight to decide the fate of our island,” he began simply. “This is probably the most important meeting ever held by the people of Viatupu. Thank you for coming. Once I’ve made my remarks, we’ll open the meeting for questions and discussion.
“There is no one here who doesn’t know that our island is in serious trouble. Rising sea waters have poisoned our wells. Catching rain is not a dependable source of fresh water. The rising waters are eroding our land. We are watching it slowly dissolve. The warming ocean is killing our coral. They can no longer offset the island’s subsidence. Our reefs no longer protect our shores as they have for centuries.
“This is the truth. It is a sad truth we all must face and accept. It is a truth that requires action.
For weeks I know everyone has been talking about what must be done. You all know that your council has been investigating evacuation of the island as one approach. Not everyone on the council agrees, and those who oppose will be given the opportunity to speak, but the majority recommends we take this unprecedented and almost unbearably sad course of action.
“It is the belief of a council majority that we must make this move as soon as possible. Before long, many other islands, those of Tuvalu and throughout the Pacific, will come to the same conclusion. We must find a place for our people while other nations are still willing to accept immigrants.
“And let me answer this question before it is asked. Relocation is voluntary. Those who wish to stay, and accept the fact that emigration will be much more difficult later, may stay. Our island will be able to support a substantially smaller population for some time to come.”
Solomone stopped and looked out at his audience, faces and names he’d known all this life. They were listening somberly.
He then explained the process the council had taken to reach this conclusion: the visit of the NGO representative, her report and the agency’s negotiations with New Zealand, the approval of the Tuvaluan government, the stipulation that the secondary school remain open.
He next outlined what New Zealand was offering. He was pleased to see a number of smiles when he completed the list. “If agreed,” he continued, “relocation would take place six months to a year from now, once planning is completed and those who are going can wrap up their affairs here. What you must do now is decide who is going to relocate. I realize this is a big decision, but we must hear from all of you in the next two weeks. Please inform your councilman of your decision, whether it’s stay or go.
“And, before I conclude, let me answer another question that’s sure to be asked. As I said, relocation is voluntary. But, with advice, the council has determined that a remaining full-time population of no more than about 200 would be best. You must remember that Motofuoa will stay open at government request and with its continued support. That means island population would swell to about 700 for much of the year.
“I know what a difficult, even terrifying, decision this is—one my family faces just as yours do. It is almost impossible to think that generations of friends and families who have lived, laughed, suffered and worked together will, in many cases, be separated forever. But I’m sure those who stay will keep Fiafia alive as long as possible, hoping all Viatupuans will be able to return to celebrate.
“The NGO representative who visited said something that I thought was profound. In so many words, she said it’s a tragedy that the people who have contributed the least to the warming of the Earth are the ones who suffer most. She’s right, of course. But blame and bitterness will change nothing. We must act.”
His fellow Viatupuans were unnaturally quiet. Solomone offered the podium to members of the council who wished to speak in opposition. To his surprise, there were no takers.
After a few easily answered questions from the audience and some brief discussion, the meeting adjourned. Solomone didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing.
Solomone stood to stretch his legs and wondered if his wife and daughter were still among the crowd of well-wishers. Adi and Felise were in the throng not only to say tōfā, goodbye, to lifelong friends, but to see the Lomu boys off. Emori and Teatao had decided to join the exodus. Solomone, who couldn’t abide long and tearful farewells, had said goodbye to his young adult sons the night before.
Solomone, Adi and Felise were staying. He’d accepted the position of temporary headmaster at the school. Felise would finish school this year and had just learned she’d earned a scholarship to her dad’s alma mater. The boys, who would have probably gone off island soon anyway, welcomed the opportunities offered in New Zealand. They’d decided to enlist in the navy together for the mandatory two years. If it went well, they’d consider re-enlisting in order to get free college.
The sun was settling into the sea. There were few émigrés left on the beach. Loading would be completed in the gathering twilight. The ships’ high-powered spots tracked the amphibs as they approached.
The bonfire had been relighted. Over the sound of the surf, Solomone heard snatches of suitably somber songs as people gathered around the dancing flames.
Two weeks after the big meeting, the council convened and each member reported the number of his constituents who would relocate. The tally was 827, a pleasant surprise for Solomone. It was well within the hoped for population limits.
Many families were going as a unit. In some cases, elderly islanders were staying because they were concerned about making the necessary adjustments or because they simply wanted to die where they had always lived. In these cases, a family member had usually volunteered to stay to help care for them. Once they passed, families would help the caretaker join them. Most young unmarried islanders readily accepted relocation as an opportunity to broaden access to the opposite sex, get work and an education.
But, despite the apparent advantages of relocation, a palpable sadness pervaded the island’s people.
Everyone knew the exodus marked the end of Viatupu as it had been known to its people since they arrived some 3,000 years earlier on large sailing outriggers from islands to the west. Of the 50,000 migrants out of Africa who had originally overspread the Earth, they were among the last progeny to settle permanently.
The 100,000-year-old migration from civilization’s African cradle had finally been completed, only to start once again.
Viatupu—one of thousands of fly specks in the 70 million square-mile watery vastness the world calls Polynesia—would slowly sink under the unrelenting waves, its people dispersed to new lives in what all hoped would be safer lands.
Solomone stayed on the hill long after loading was completed. He watched the lights of the two naval vessels carrying his sons and 825 friends and relatives sink slowly beneath the horizon.