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 Puha: A Chiefly Treat

Rotuman men made koua puha [1] only on very special occasions because they involved great mobilization of labour and resources. Only two times in recent memory has this special work been done: in 1979 when Tua'koi helped the Methodists of Savlei and Feavai to host the annual Methodist Conference, [2] and in 1996 when the Catholics celebrated the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Church on Rotuma.

The men made puha from the sweet tuberous roots of the ji plant (dracaena [Cordyline fruiticosa]). There are different kinds of ji: ji ne lala (red-leafed), fagfaga, fakasa, saufa (for making dance skirts), ji 'ura (broad reddish leaves and a red leaf stalk), ji rotuma (for telulu), and ji ne peje. Ji rotuma and ji ne peje have the best roots for puha. Ji rotuma is planted in the bush in tandem with papai because both take years to grow to maturity. It is easiest to dig down on one side of the ji plant, then push the whole plant over before cutting off the roots.

In preparation for the koua puha, pieces of coconut leaves long enough to cover the tubers were wrapped around them and plaited along the sides in the same manner as with a chicken to be baked in a koua. Owners marked their initials on the coconut rib.

Making the koua was the hardest part. It required many men; the whole village had to lend a hand. The men went to the bush for firewood, which had to be a hard wood such as pou (Flueggea flexuosa). The preparation of koua puha was similar to that of a big koua for a wedding feast, except that pou took more than 24 hours to burn and the stones used were bigger than those used in an ordinary koua. The men stacked the wood first, then they piled the stones on it. Before the koua was ignited, the men sang a ki. Then they called a chief or a prominent person to light the fire.

From the roots of young pou trees, they had to prepare long poles (kivei) for spreading the red-hot stones evenly; the ends of the poles formed hooks for moving the stones here and there. Each pole required a whole tree and was very heavy, so several men working together handled each pole. Groups of men who were related to each other decided the number of poles. Usually four poles were enough. Men from the same kainaga worked a pole together, those at the back pushing it forward to the hot koua while those in front let go their hands. If one of the men in front failed to let go when the pole was pushed forward, he might be thrown into the hot stones and fatally burned. That is why the men who worked a kivei ideally were closely related, for this was dangerous work and required much consideration for one another's lives.

The men dressed up in skirts of ji leaves around their waists and trunks to protect them from the intense heat. The men and women plaited titi (girdles) of ji leaves for the young and strong men to wear around their waists and across their chests and backs to protect their bodies from being scorched by the intense heat as they tended the hot stones of the koua. The men changed their ji leaf girdles to fresh ones when the dry heat discoloured the leaves. The men who were levelling the hot stones with the long poles wore several girdles around their bodies, thick enough to protect their skin from the heat.

After they spread the hot stones evenly, the men threw trunks of banana trees over them. They had to cover the stones thoroughly with banana tree trunks so that the puha did not burn. Then they threw the puha on top and covered them with layers and layers of banana leaves, sa'a leaves, papai leaves, and so on, followed by sand. The sand had to be laid on thick to keep the steam in. A koua puha remained unopened for three nights. During that period the men kept adding sand to stop the steam from escaping, because any vent that opened up could cause the puha to burn.

When it was time to open the koua, the men gathered and sang a ki as they had when lighting it, because the opening of the koua was hard work and required extra energy. It took one or two hours to open the koua puha and remove the puha, for the steam was still there, as well as some of the heat. Each family took their own puha to share with their relatives and friends. Each family's biggest puha was taken to one place as the fakti'toag ta (the chiefly allotment) to make the 'otai for the chiefs.

'Otai was a dessert made from puha, coconut juice, and the flesh of green coconuts that were husked, scraped clean, and cut in half. The juice was stored in a bucket or basin to be used for rinsing the shredded puha.

Each young man who was going to scrape the coconut had to put a ji leaf around his head to keep his sweat from falling into the grated coconut, and ji leaves around his wrists. He scraped each half with a coconut grater and the grated coconut fell into an 'umefe or suasua, a large wooden bowl for mixing fekei. A second young man peeled off the skin of the puha and, using his fingers, stripped off the flesh of the puha from the top end to a mark he had cut around the bottom end of the puha with his knife. He placed the strips of puha on top of the grated coconut in the 'umefe. Then the first man, who had grated the coconut, began squeezing the juice from the strips of puha onto the grated coconut. He dipped the squeezed puha into a bucket of coconut juice, and kept on squeezing the juice into the 'umefe until the puha was dry. He could tell that all the flavour was out of the puha by looking at the colour of the juice as he was squeezing it.

Meanwhile the second man had prepared the fujia, a ring made from a ji leaf curled around and fastened. When the stripped puha had been all squeezed out, the 'otai was ready to serve. The man who had stripped the puha cut up small sticks of puha from the remaining end. Then he held out an empty coconut shell to the first man, who used another coconut shell to scoop 'otai and pour it into the cup. The second man put a stick of puha in the cup (it could be used as a spoon and could be chewed afterwards). He placed the cup on a fujia and handed it to a young man who served the 'otai to the chiefs and guests.

The fujia was used only when presenting 'otai to a chief. A family 'otai did not need it.

'Otai tastes like caramel, or perhaps like chocolate with macadamia nuts, and the juice is a light chocolate colour that goes well with the grated coconut.

Notes to Koua Puha

[1] In Hawaiian language, the term for kouapuha is "kaimuki" or ka-imu-ki (the earth oven of the ti plant)—suggesting that Rotumans are not the only ones in the Pacific who know how to make it. back to text

[2] The people of Tua'koi, who are all Catholics, offered to make the koua puha. back to text

To Ancient Marriage Rituals