Rimatara, The place where joy reigns
In the Austral Archipelago, the island of Rimatara reveals an authentic Polynesia anchored in traditions, joy and faith. This is a journey to a land a part: seductive, stunning, and unexpected.
Rimatara is an island at the end of the world in the Austral Archipelago. It remains under the radar, a place pulled straight from a postcard where community life still exists without the slightest allusions to folklore. It is a world of labors and lassitude. Life is tranquil, repeating itself to the rhythms of planting, fishing, artisanal creations, and faith (with the majority of inhabitants being Protestant). More than any other time of the year, May and the Protestant Me festival are an opportunity to learn about the Biblical rapports that the people have with the elements that assure islander autonomy. Six hundred kilometers south of Tahiti (374 mi), “confetti” appears in the electric blue immensity of the South Pacific. It is 9km2 (3.47 sq mi) and 8400 cm high (275 ft). The local people measure their highest peak in centimeters. There are three villages and 780 inhabitants.
Every May, Rimatara’s three villages—Anapoto, Amaru and Mutuaura—celebrate an important Protestant ceremony which lasts the entire month of May, called la Fête du Me (May Festival). It consists of reuniting all the inhabitants in the churches for communal prayer as well as to collect money to cover the expenses of the church. The inhabitants take part in services and vigils to the rhythm of citing verses from the sacred book, and himene, which are traditional polyphonic hymns. Each community takes turns to invite the other villages. The Me festival takes place over three weekends. To observe all the flurry of preparations for the Me festival, the best thing to do is tour the island and meet the locals and experience the magnificent deserted beaches. For the more athletic, a bicycle is all you need to climb the breathtakingly steep peak. It is possible to wrangle a scooter from a youngster in exchange for a few bucks, which will probably end up on the deacon council’s table on the day of collections.
The women who weave are true artists and the finesse of their work is unparalleled. In the taro fields, the men collect taro, the famous tuber that is a staple throughout all of Polynesia. “It is for the Me,” explained a young man who had just trimmed down about a dozen taro. This is his contribution to the festival. The Austral islands are the main food supplier for French Polynesia due to their numerous fa’a’apu, which is the Tahitian word for a farmed plot of land. Its more temperate climate allows for the cultivation of many fruits and vegetables to be exported to Tahiti and the islands, providing income for all the residents. The small western coastal road appears from around the bend of a coconut plantation. It borders the lagoon. The beach is long. The sand is pure white. The calm air is charged with sea spray. Stunning coral formations with worn bases peek through the clear water of the lagoon. At the end of this beach is the Bay of Virgins, where allegedly, young maidens bathed during the time of the chiefs. It is true that this natural pool is extremely inviting. In this place lay the imprints of natural serenity where time slides through your fingers. Light is dissipating quickly. It is 5pm. Night is imposing itself already.
There is a hub of activity on the quay where everyone met up, but no one lingers very long this time since there is still so much to do to prepare for the Me festival. The main meal is an important detail. The confection of the meal calls for all skilled hands on deck, from agriculture to fishing and artisanal design. Each community hosts a meal to which inhabitants must donate all their knowledge to satisfy their neighbors’ appetites. Most of the food is cooked in a Tahitian underground oven. This traditional oven contains volcanic stones heated with coconut husks placed at the bottom of a hole dug in the ground. This ahimä’a, as it is known in Tahitian, steams the food under banana leaves and burlap for many hours. In Rimatara, each family must have a Tahitian oven at their home and add two large cuts of pork, a packet of tiromi (taro paste), and two packets of po’e (mashed fruit or tubers mixed with starch and baked in the oven). After cooking all night, fish and hogs wrapped in banana leaves are brought out of the oven and taken to the meal site.
The deacons and the pastor start counting right away. Soon the money adds up. Then it is the adults’ turn. The women in the center of the room are dressed in their best, rivaling the world of haute couture! Hats and colorful dresses are in competition due to their beauty and creativity. It makes one wonder if the elegance of Rimatara’s red larikeet doesn’t inspire the women as they create their gorgeous colorful designs made of pandanus, feathers, pearls, and other multi-hued materials.The men are seated behind the women on benches that line the walls of the church. They add their grave baritones. The rhythm of the songs juxtaposed with the money collection becomes more intense. A rainfall of bills tumbles onto the deacons who double up their energy to keep up with addition and multiplication. Each verse is in cadence with the fall of bills. It is a strange sensation. On one side, there is a boundless energy filled with good humor, songs, and reciting verses so enthralling that it gives goose bumps. On the other side, serious and austere, the men of faith are counting the money offered to the church. The contrast is striking, but the church has to support its congregation. Feast and collect…that is the Me!
As the plane descends, a mutoi (Tahitian word for a community police officer) lights two fire pits. No one has a choice about the matter, and everyone must undergo this purifying ritual. Whoever steps foot on Rimatara must “pass by the fire” and cross through the smoke rings in order to leave any bad energy, or mana, behind before entering the island. Welcome to Rimatara where traditions speak to you as soon as you arrive. Performed through special authorization—fire pits on an aerodrome are not a common occurrence—this tradition only applied to those who arrived by sea prior to 2001, as Rimatara was the last island in French Polynesia to become equipped with an aerodrome. Here, you will not find luxury hotels or a plethora of excursion companies. To take a trip on the ocean, you must kindly ask a fisherman to take you. This facet of French Polynesia experiences life in a natural state, no facades, just simple pleasures and perpetual contemplation. It prompts visitors to explore local life and to realize that work here is sacred, literally as well as figuratively, just like the warm welcome extended by the locals.
A communal life
Life on Rimatara is still very communal. Inhabitants share daily tasks and know the ins and outs of each role that makes up communal activities. Each person is skilled in the cultivation and harvesting of taro, coffee, pandanus, and noni… Fishing is reserved primarily for men, who always bring back an abundant catch from these fish-filled waters. The island does not have a big lagoon, so fishing occurs in the deep sea from magnificent outrigger canoes, which to this day, are still carved from tree trunks in the same way as in ancient times. Outrigger canoes returning to the beach after having surfed through the small pass offer a scene that reminds visitors that time indeed stands still, and that how things happened a hundred years ago would indeed not be so different now. Incidentally, three fishermen are returning with a giant yellow fin tuna with bright red flesh. The fish, divided into pieces, will become part of the Sunday meal that will be after Sunday services. This is a contribution to the Me. While the men are at sea or in the fields, women braid pandanus strands. The leaves are visible drying throughout the island once they are chopped down in the fields. Rimatara, like other islands in the Austral Archipelago, is renowned for the excellent quality of its basketry and arts and crafts: hats, bags and peue (pandanus mats).
Preparing the Me…
At sunrise, the song of the magnificent red larikeet of Rimatara awakens those who are still luxuriating in the bungalows of La Perruche Rouge family inn that carries the same name as this endemic bird. A pleasant little family establishment, Aline spoils us. She is the extraordinary cook who loves to have visitors experience local fare with her own personal, creative touch. We readily listen to island stories before going to our beds, which envelope us in a quilt, a rare nighttime treat in French Polynesia. Nights can be cool under the 22nd Parallel…but before becoming the name of an inn, the red larikeet, with its splendid jacket, has been the symbol of this island. The inhabitants are proud of this fact, and a campaign to protect the bird is underway with the support of the Manu association based in Tahiti. The goal is to not allow any black rats onto the island, which are devastating to birds. These rodents scavenge for eggs and climb up trees where the larikeets have their nests and decimate them. For the moment, none of these ravaging rodents has managed to get through airport security or past the harbor. The ship Tua Pei just arrived from the neighboring island of Rurutu, a vital link between the islands. It came to get copra, which is an important production of Rimatara.
It is the last Sunday in May and the inhabitants of Anapoto are hosting the two other villages, Amaru and Mutuaura. From the communal kitchen where men and women are busy, you can already hear the first songs resounding from the church. This year, in order to attract young people who have a hard time being motivated for religious gatherings, the village of Anapoto decided to be innovative through accompanying traditionally a cappella himene with the guitar. The ceremony starts with children bursting into songs in rhythm to a woman waving a wand as if conducting a symphony. After each collective song, the children, very diligent, take turns reciting a verse from the Bible before placing a bill on the council of deacons’ table. Bills vary between 500 and 10,000 CFP. Mothers carry the smallest tots to the table and put a bill in their hands. It is a sight to see the detached expressions on the children’s faces as they take the bills as if playing a game, or the others who seem afraid as they approach the officials’ table.
After four hours of ceremony, the believers make their way to the feast. The meal doesn’t last long. Everyone leaves the table to prepare for the evening prayer vigil. Aline, who runs La Perruche Rouge inn, explains that, “Once upon a time, the vigil lasted all through the night!” She is a little nostalgic for this time in which the zest of the inhabitants had more fervor. Once night fell and we arrived at the church, we were wondering how it could have been before! The inhabitants of each village had changed into different clothes. All together, some wore red and black, or red and white, or purple and lilac. Men and women kept the same disposition and the vahine (young girls) of each village all wore the same hats they had made during the past few weeks. The prayer vigil colors change every year. Creativity is the heart of tradition! It will almost be midnight and within the nocturnal sweetness of the beautiful May weather, the big Me festival is over. It leaves a feeling of a life of authenticity and simplicity comprised of faith and traditions that will be perpetuated for a long time to follow in these faraway and isolated islands of the South Pacific.
Un peu d'Histoire
Without a doubt, Rimatara was populated by Polynesians around the 10th and 11th centuries. The first European to mention the island was Captain Samuel Pinder Henry in 1811. Two Protestant missionaries established a mission on the island in 1821. At the time, the dynasty of the Temaeva king and queen oversaw the lives of the inhabitants. This dynasty was one of the last holdouts of the French Polynesian islands, and it took until the beginning of the 20th century, in 1901, before Rimatara ceased to be a kingdom. Queen Temaeva V relinquished her power for the benefit of the French colonial administration. As such, Rimatara was also the last island annexed by France. In April 2007, the inhabitants of Rimatara very generously offered 27 Rimatara larikeets (scientific name Vini kuhlii) to the people of Atiu in the Cook Islands so that the birds could be reintroduced. This bird, valued for its red feathers that the people of Atiu used to make pare kura (royal headresses of the Ariki), disappeared from this island a long time ago. To celebrate this event, and according to Polynesian tradition, the grateful people of Atiu composed a series of songs and dances in honor of this occasion. These songs and dances are a reminder of the unwavering ties between Atiu and Rimatara from this moment forward