Kato'aga: Rotuman Ceremonies

by Elizabeth K. Inia

Table of Contents


Part 1: Components of Ceremony

'Epa, Apei, and Päega: Ceremonial Mats
Koua: Earth Ovens
'Umefe: Chiefly Tables
Tefui: Garlands
Lolo: Anointing Oil
Mena: Turmeric
Mafua: Knowledgeable Elders
Fumarä'e: The Man in Charge
Etiquette and Manners
Numbers and Measurements

Part 2: Ceremonies

Death and Funerals
Birth Rituals
First Birthday
Hapagsu: Recurrence Prevention
Majau: The Power to Heal
Ag Forau: Farewell to Travellers
Mamasa: Welcoming Ceremonies
Installation of a Chief
Homage to Chiefs
Koua Puha
Ancient Marriage Rituals
Modern Marriage Customs

Rotuman Indigenous Spirituality

Birth Rituals

By Rotuman custom, a couple's first child belongs to the father's side, the second to the mother's side, the third to the father's side, and so on. Thus if the couple separate, or if one of them dies, the odd-numbered children go to the father's side, the even-numbered children to the mother's side. Only the first-born child is acknowledged ceremonially.

A couple who wanted to break the good news of the wife's first pregnancy to her husband's parents prepared a feast called forag'efe.[1] They prepared a koua and invited the husband's family and the village chief to the feast, which was primarily a family affair and therefore informal. [2]

The husband's father planted a taro garden called lag hao,[3] while his wife began plaiting an apei called mafuag ta for the 'oj'aki ceremony. The couple then went to the person whom they had chosen to be the child's namesake (sigoa).[4] The namesake also had to be prepared with an apei and food for the taktak'aki ceremony, which took place on the day after the birth of the child or soon thereafter. The woman's mother had to plait two apei, one called kakauag ta (or mä'lea) [5] for her daughter's first bath after giving birth; the second apei, called mafuag ta, was to wrap the baby in after its first bath.

When the woman's labour pains began, the fathers of the couple went to the bush to harvest food for the 'oj'aki ceremony. They pulled the plants from their lag hao and brought them, along with pigs, for baking in a koua. Older women from both sides came to act as nurses ('io ru). After the birth, some of these women attended to the mother while others attended to the baby. They rubbed mena mixed with coconut oil over the mother's body to keep her warm. They also applied it daily to the baby's navel after the umbilical cord had been cut until after the piece of cord that was left (about three inches) fell off. The father of the baby buried the placenta outside the back door. The piece of withered umbilical cord he buried at a beautiful spot, preferably someplace with a lovely vista. He planted a fruit-bearing bush or tree with the umbilical cord and made a wish that his child's life would be long and fruitful.

The nurses took the baby on their laps in turn. The baby was not to be laid down until after the taktak'aki ceremony. The father's parents brought the first koua, the 'ikou sasi (bundles of taro leaves cooked in tähroro, taro, and a pig), all baked to feed the mother and nurses. The second koua was the taktak'aki; it, too, was brought by the father's parents, this time accompanied by a chief and the baby's sigoa. They also brought an apei for the baby to lie on. The apei was spread in front of the midwife and the baby was laid on it. The food was then served and eaten in the usual ceremonial manner. The parents of the young mother presented the mafuag ta (apei plaited for the baby's first bath) to the taktak'aki party.

On the day of birth (ran fa'i), the father went to register the birth of his baby. The information needed included the mother's name, the father's name, and the date of marriage. If the parents of the baby were not married, the father's side had to be informed of the girl's pregnancy. If during the pregnancy the father or his parents occasionally brought baskets of food and fruits, it was a sign that the father was willing to register the baby's birth in the Registry Office; otherwise, the girl's father had to register the baby's birth under his own name.

Next came the 'oj'aki ceremony. Both sides contributed a koua to this feast. The father's parents brought their koua together with an apei (mafuag ta). The young father's parents prepared a päega. The chief, or a woman of high rank, who came as part of the father's parents' party, sat on the päega. The baby was brought and laid on his or her apei. The mafua then announced the feast of 'oj'aki, which was served in the usual way. The chief or woman, whoever was holding the baby, drank kava and started eating with the baby on his or her lap. After the first few bites, one of the nurses came to take the baby away. The päega, which was topped by the mafuag ta, was given to the mother.

When the feast had finished, the mother's parents' party presented the apei called kakauag ta or mä'lea to the father's parents' party, signifying that the new mother had bathed and was clean. In olden times, the mother was forbidden to leave her bed for 10 days. She was supposed to lie with her legs stretched out together and her hands by her side. This was thought to keep her breasts from falling and to restore her internal organs to their proper place. The nurses cleaned and fed her every day and applied mena mixed with oil until the 10th day, when she rose and bathed. The kakauag ta was hung to shield her from view as she bathed. The gift of the kakauag ta made it difficult for the girl's in-laws to criticize her in public.

If the couple's first child was stillborn, the 'oj'aki feast proceeded as usual, but the mafua pronounced: "Te'eiate' täla usia'afua, faknono te', fakte'aki te', suiag 'oro; tela'a ma 'i'in ta [number of baskets of food and number of pigs in the koua]" (Here are the chiefly foods, to feed the mother during the 10 days of her confinement, taking off the binding around her breasts; [6] [announcement of food]). This was followed by: "Koua 'af'aki te' [number of la, as at a funeral, and number of pigs]. Faktemasine te', tumuet, teran liam, teran saghul, paag riit, huar'akiag putut, kakau sasit, tela'a [number of baskets of food], 'i'ini [number of pigs], höt'akiag hafu [number of baskets of food, number of pigs, and the kava plant]." (The funeral feast [announcement of food], for the gravediggers, the fifth day, the 10th day, the restoring of walls, dismissing of the kava drinkers, bathing in the sea, [announcement of food], and the mounting of the tombstone.) [7] This announcement covered the usual rituals to follow a death, but in this case, because the infant was born dead, they were not performed. The mafua's announcement acknowledged these rituals without actually performing them.

Notes to Birth Rituals

[1] Customarily, newly married couples reside with the wife's parents, so they are part of the same household. back to text

[2] If it was inconvenient to make such a feast, they simply took a koua to the husband's parents, accompanied by a chief, and informed them of the pregnancy. back to text

[3] Because taro takes approximately nine months to mature, the garden had to be planted immediately if the corms were to be ready at the time of birth. back to text

[4] The sigoa might be suggested by the parents from among their relatives, or a friend or relative might approach the couple beforehand and make it known that they wish to be the namesake of the first child. Being a namesake involves multiple obligations toward the child throughout his or her lifetime and is a burden as well as an honour. back to text

[5] The term kakauag ta refers metaphorically to 'a bathing place'; mä'lea refers to a mat which one wraps around oneself while going to bathe and after bathing. back to text

[6] In the old days, after a woman gave birth, her breasts were bound in tapa cloth to keep the milk from flowing so she would have an ample supply to feed the baby. back to text

[7] In the case of a stillbirth, the fetus was buried in a normal grave in a cemetery, and a small stone (lei) from the beach was used as a tombstone on the fiso'a. back to text

To First Birthday