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

Koua: Earth Ovens

Koua are ovens, dug in the ground, in which food is baked. The term also refers to the contents of such an oven, to food that has been baked in an earth oven, and to meals that have been so prepared.
The first stage in making a koua is to dig a circular hole in the ground (nuj koua) large enough to contain all the food that will be cooked within it. Koua pits can range from small holes for families to enormous pits dug for grand occasions when many pigs and cattle are slaughtered and baked. A large koua may be lined with trunks of coconut trees (kakepo) to contain the wood and stones inside. Pieces of wood are then placed in the pit parallel to one another, on top of bundles of kindling wood, making a mound. Large pieces are put in first to form a base; smaller pieces are placed above. On top of the mound of wood, lava stones are piled up with big ones below, smaller ones on top. This stage is the koua fahua.

A sheath of coconut is shredded, lit, and used to ignite the kindling wood. While the firewood is burning, the men are scraping taro, papai(Cyrtosperma chamissonis), and other root-crops, as well as breadfruit, in preparation for baking in the koua. Pigs that will be cooked are killed; after their carcasses are turned on the hot stones to singe off their hair, they are scraped with knives (in the past, with seashells). Each pig's throat is slit open and its esophagus pulled up and tied with string to close off the opening before being put back in place. At the other end of the digestive track, a hole is cut near the anus and the bottom of the pig's intestines is likewise tied with string. If the pig is male, its penis is tied as well to keep urine from contaminating the meat. Then the abdomen is sliced open and the internal organs, from the esophagus to the intestines, are carefully removed and given to the women to clean in the sea. The carcass is also washed with sea water. After the gall bladder (hasu) has been removed, the liver (äfe) is kept to be cooked with the pig. If cows have been slaughtered, they are skinned and cut into pieces, which are then wrapped in plaited coconut leaves.
The fire is allowed to burn until the stones are red hot (koua mal'ia). Using long poles, the men spread the hot stones evenly and remove the kakepo and any piece of firewood that has not burned. Some of the smaller hot stones are removed and stuffed inside the pigs' carcasses together with their livers and the leaves of breadfruit trees to keep the steam inside (pitoi). If the stones are too hot, scrapings from the taro and the midribs of banana leaves are thrown over the hot stones before the food is placed there to bake.

Again using the poles, the pigs are placed first on the coals in the centre of the koua and turned belly down. Next the meat from the cattle, followed by the root-crops (papai, taro, yams, etc.) and breadfruit are placed along the margins of the pit because they do not require as much heat to cook. Some hot stones are placed on top of the food using 'ilehi (tongs made from the midribs of coconut leaves) in order to distribute the heat more evenly.

Once all the food is in place, the koua is covered with banana leaves and papai leaves thick enough to protect the food from sand, and to keep the heat from escaping. For small koua, sa'a (Macaraga sp) leaves may be sewn together using the midribs from coconut leaflets (no'o) to form a leafy blanket (lepa) serving the same purpose. Next old mats are put on top, covering the leaves. Finally the koua is covered with earth or sand. This stage of the process is known as koua lifo'ia.

While waiting for the food to bake, the men plait baskets (if for a funeral, la [a type of shallow basket] as well) and trays of coconut leaves to carry pigs to the feast site. If the koua contains beef, they also make a bier of wood to transport it. The women use this time to clean the innards (finäe) of the animals and wrap them in fan-palm leaves. They tie each wrapped bundle (telulu) with a string. These are then baked in a small koua prepared by the men. (These telulu are not eaten at the time of the feast, but are given to the women who cleaned the innards to take home.)

For funerals, koua are uncovered and the food removed after three or four hours, because the burial must take place very soon after death has occurred and the funeral feast follows immediately thereafter.[6] On other occasions, when time to prepare is greater, koua are allowed to cook overnight (as in fao te for weddings). A family koua, containing only a small pig, may be uncovered after only a couple of hours. The uncovering of koua is known as koua hue'kia.

Taro, a roasted pig, sugar-cane, and a kava plant constitute a minimal koua for presentation at a ceremony. Roasted chicken, corned beef, bread-fruit, fekei, watermelon, and pineapple are supplementary items to koua at big functions.

When time is ample to prepare for a function, the women plait tauga (closely woven flat-bottom baskets about a foot deep) from coconut leaves. These are used as containers (fono) to carry food to the chiefs. Men fill the fono with food and carry the basket supported in the palm of one hand, while the other hand holds the front edge of the basket. People use green baskets ('af jarava) for fono if they have no tauga.

[6] The requirement that a burial take place within 12 hours is a modern innovation prescribed by the Ministry of Health. In olden times the burial was delayed so that people from other parts of the island, who had to come on foot or by canoe, could attend. back to text

To 'Umefe: Chiefly Tables