The Tumunu Tradition

Qualified Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: JoAnna Haugen

Marshall drove his truck up under the tree cover and parked in the shade.

“This is it,” he said. “I’ll be back to pick you up in about an hour.”

I hopped out of the truck’s cab and my two travel companions jumped from the bed.Marshall backed down the dirt driveway, and we were left standing in front of a small, open shack with the words “Rising” and “Boys” painted in white; a red sunshine was painted between the words.

Rising Sun Boys was one of several tumunus spread across Atiu, an island in the Cook Islands with a population of only 450. Despite the lack of infrastructure that most people take for granted (there hadn’t been a dentist on the island for nearly five years), there were several bush pubs to keep the island’s inhabitants occupied.

We walked into the pub and greeted the blurry-eyed elders seated against the far wall. We found open bench space opposite them, and sat down between two men strumming on guitars and the husband of one of the three chiefs on Atiu. I surveyed the scene: Our other three fellow travelers were already settled in and laughing with each other while the musicians provided background noise in the form of local songs. The man next to me hummed along.

In the middle of the open room, a man with a bushy mustache wearing a white tank top served up the local brew. He opened the lid of an over sized bucket that used to hold sealant, dipped a small, hollowed-out coconut into the mixture, then handed it to someone in the room. That person tipped back the shot and handed it back. Again, the lid to the bucket was opened, the man dipped the homemade shot glass into the brew and the next person was given the communal cup.

And then it was my turn. I’m not one to take shots in a bar, but who was I to say no to this local concoction as all of the locals leaning against the back wall watched. I tipped the coconut and a warm liquid that tasted like sour wine drained down my throat.

My neighbor took a shot, and then the coconut continued on its way around the room. The man next to me, the husband of the chief, told me that he used to work for the local health department, and that he had been the one to hang the “no smoking” sign in that very tumunu. He pointed at it, then told a few of the guys in our group that it was okay to light up if they wanted to. I watched the small coconut make its way around the room as the musicians continued to play and the buzz of conversation filled the hut. My turn came again and I took another mouthful of the brew.

No bush brew is exactly the same from night to night, and most of the tumunus have their own concoction. At Rising Sun Boys, it was simply a mixture of orange, sugar, malt and hops left to ferment for only a few days. The sun dropped a bit toward the horizon and the shadows outside the hut grew longer. Inside, a single light lit up the room. I tipped back another, and the men holding the guitars began plucking out the first few notes of “Que Sera Sera.” We linked our arms at the elbows and busted out the vocals, swaying back and forth to the familiar song.

Somewhere in the middle of the lyrics, I was handed the coconut again and took yet another drink of the bush brew, vowing to start accepting the coconut every other time it made it’s way around to me. The song ended and another local tune began. I looked around at everyone in the room. Eyes blurred and everyone laughed.

“You must be quiet,” one of the musicians said. I hadn’t noticed this new song had ended and the man serving the drink was tapping on the container with the end of the coconut. “This is part of the tradition,” the musician explained. Every night the bar man stops the drinking, people bow their heads for a brief prayer and then everyone is given the chance to say what’s on their mind. On this night, we went around the circle introducing ourselves. Each of us said who we were and, inevitably, thanked everyone there for opening their homes to us (quite literally; I was staying at Marshall’s house), and for welcoming us to their country. The musician spoke on behalf of all of the islanders, telling us who they were and how they fit into the local community.

And then, without a pause, he picked up his guitar again and began to play. The lid to the bucket was reopened, the coconut was dipped into the liquid and it resumed its path around the circle once again.