Island Blood

By Leon Panapa

In 2002 I cut my left lower leg on tropical coral whilst walking through a reef. The cut stung and it bled into the ocean. It hurt but I managed to persevere and manage the scrapes and cuts. It happened on the island of Tokelau, the birthplace of my grandmother.

The blood of the island Tokelau runs through my nana Ane, through my father Sam and into me. She told me she had cut herself on the coral that makes up the beautiful reef surrounding Tokelau many times as a child growing up on one of the remotest islands in the Pacific.

My grandmother Ane Munro nee Fakaofo was born on Fakaofo atoll, Tokelau. An island 150km off Samoa in the middle of the pacific the only thing smaller than the population there is the minute landmass that is engulfed by the ocean. Nana’s journey to where she is now is one of navigation, which becomes more curious as we grow older and show similar traits in our travels. The fruit never falls far from the tree or in this case the coconut never falls far from the palm.  Allow me to elaborate.

You see, my grandmother at eight years old was thrown aboard a boat from Tokelau to Samoa, where her new life would begin. Crying and wailing for her parents on the boat, nana was being sent to Samoa not only for a new life off the island but for my great grandmother’s sister’s sake who lived in Samoa and was married to a German man. It was there nana grew up working as a cleaner and a maid in the richest hotels on the island of Samoa.

At the age of 30, she was pregnant with my father and had heard of the opportunity in New Zealand. At the time NZ was immigrating swarms of pacific islanders to boost the labour force at the time known as the great Polynesian migration. Nana was no stranger to being thrown into the deep end so she boarded a flight to NZ with my father in her belly in search of new lands, new opportunities, and to blossom what her parents originally wanted for her when they boarded her onto the boat to Samoa.

Nana had little family in New Zealand but nothing hit harder than the cold winter months of July and August to someone who had lived in the tropical heat. My father was born and well my nana started life in New Zealand where she had her own alteration business on Karangahape Road in Ponsonby Auckland.

The move my grandmother made from moving to NZ paid off dividends. My father was athletic and took to the game of rugby league. It started off innocent as it could, only for fun and to make friends. Whoever would have thought he would go on to play professional rugby league for NZ and Tokelau landing him a career in the United Kingdom with wonder club, Wigan in Lancashire. I was still a young child when we left Nana in NZ to live in England but soon enough, she came to stay in the far north, tides away from Tokelau.

Nana has lived with my parents ever since. After my Dads career in the UK, we returned to NZ. This is where I enter the story, I was nine years old returning to NZ from the UK, and whilst mum and dad were working, nana looked after us kids a lot.

The strange thing is like nana, I too left my family nest in search of greater opportunity. At the young age of 17, I left Auckland, New Zealand and came to Brisbane, Australia. A hot and humid land where I pursued this brutal sport called Rugby League. My parents had bought the air ticket and I had little family here in Australia but the heat hit the hardest. Sound familiar?

It’s at this point where I think sometimes – Your ancestors live through you, and I keep thinking back to that cut I suffered from the coral in Tokelau when my family took nana back to visit. I was 13 at the time and there were times when strange things happened to not only me but to my father as well. My father was stung by a poisonous fish but it was not a lethal dose of venom, just enough to swell the hand. The sting was suffered whilst we were fishing in the lagoon, I was young and remembered the event well. Dad recovered ok though.

But it was the day after that when my incident happened. There is a hunting tradition in Tokelau where only the men go out into the lagoon and make a large circle. About 150m in diameter and about 50 men create a circle and each man has a stick. The men in the circle hit the water with the stick and slowly walk the circle slowly into the middle. They are herding fish into a centre where nets are to catch the fish. In Tokelau because the fish are so plentiful, catching them is not the trick, it’s collecting that is the hard part. As a young 13-year-old, I had gone along with older men and joined the circle. It was a treacherous event as the coral reef in low tide was full of obstacles. Walking in the hip-high sea level, navigating feet through sharp coral is not easy. Stonefish, lethal eels and poisonous coral all lay ahead not to mention the sharks that circled as well. It was at this time I felt the blood of the Island run through me. I slipped during the walk and fell into a pothole that had sharp coral attached. My blood inked the shallow water to which one of the local men, gave me a sudden look of concern. They helped me but told me I had to keep moving as if I kept still the blood would draw stonefish and sharks so we had to make haste. My leg burned and all I could think about was my nana. The Island is testing me, seeing if I have the strength like my nana to keep moving. I had to keep up with the men and achieve the feat of catching herds of fish. Eventually, I made it through the coral reef and contributed to the catch.

I healed well and the gathering of fish was a spectacle. I had never seen so much live healthy fresh fish before and the men who hauled the huge nets onto the harbour were strong and had huge shoulders. In my later years I would have dreams of these acts. Huge nets of fish sparkled and the fish were fluorescent in colour.

Nana was waiting for us when we returned and told me that was the island’s way of telling me that we must keep moving in order to survive. If we wanted to settle, we can always come back to the island.

Nana thinks about the island often now and now in her final days she lives with my father and mother in New Beith, Queensland she has lived life to the fullest. I and my sibling all draw strength from my nana, and although she has her secrets, we respect them.

Nana says one of her greatest and proudest achievements was being able to travel the world. From the smallest and remotest places on the planet, she traveled to the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, Hong Kong, the USA, and other pacific islands.

As Polynesians who live here in the great land of Oz, navigation seems to be in our genes, to keep moving. Nana has always said do it for your future. Our future is in our own hands but history leaves clues. Nana and I have so many parallels and I wonder is it because I had knowledge of her travels it motivated my own. And furthermore, will it influence my children? I will tell my nanas story to the next generation as the island of Tokelau taught me, keep moving through the coral, you will get cut but keep your eye on the catch it will navigate you through the hard times, there will be others there to help and guide you at times but ultimately keep moving until you get the catch of fish. That’s what I will be telling the next generation.

Malo ni nana Malo koutou Tokelau e!