The name “Wallis and Futuna” would strike a blank expression with most people in the Anglophile world. This is a remote French territory in the South Pacific that not even many French people know about. Having a long-winded official name does not help either. I arrived here without expectations but not only saw Wallisians celebrating an important festival with their king, but also explored an ancient Tongan fort and a perfectly round extinct volcano crater lake after a muddy drive on unmarked tracks.
Wallis & Futuna (“W&F”) is a French overseas territory less than half the size of Singapore and inhabited by 15,000 people of mainly Polynesian origins. The territory comprised of three large islands, Wallis, Futuna and Alofi, the last being uninhabited since the 19th century. Today, W&F is a staunchly Catholic country governed by the French through the hereditary kings of Uvea on Wallis, and of Alo and Sigave in Futuna and Alofi islands.
On a full moon day, I flew to Wallis, the largest island in W&F, from Noumea via Air Calin, the airline of New Caledonia. Wallis and Noumea are 2011km apart, and Nadi, the international airport of Fiji lies between the two. Two of the thrice-weekly Air Calin flights between Noumea and Wallis stops in Nadi for an hour, before continuing the journey to Wallis. With French Government subsidies, an one way flight on the vital Noumea-Wallis route, which is also W&F’ only airlink to the outside world, costs about the same as a return flight between Nadi and Wallis, which is one-third the distance en route from Noumea to Wallis. When planning for this journey, I tried multiple permutations of flight arrangements and eventually settled for an one way ticket from Noumea to Wallis and a return ticket between Wallis and Nadi, though I did not intend to utilize the return leg from Nadi back to Wallis.
At Noumea Airport, I met Lee Abbamonte, the American globetrotter I met earlier on the Honiara-Nauru flight. We would spend the next three days exploring Wallis together. The flight flew over the stunningly beautiful atolls, reefs and islands of Fiji. Most passengers were either or French civil servants or Wallisians and Futunians returning home from New Caledonia. There are 30,000 Wallisians and Futunians working in New Caledonia, and their remittances to W&F are amongst the most important sources of income for the territory.
We flew over mostly cloud-covered Futuna Island but could see neighbouring Alofi Island clearly. 17th century Dutch visitors reported that the islanders were so friendly that the king even placed his crown on the head of a Dutch offer. Friendliness , perhaps does not pay. After a heavy storm that devastated the vegetable gardens of Futuna in the early 19th century, the king of Futuna commanded his warriors to get food in Alofi. A 1845 missionary reported that this was as good as going for a human flesh hunting trip. All the islanders of Alofi were slaughtered in one night and eaten up by the Futunians. The conquerors did not settle in Alofi, though they turned the island into their vegetable gardens, tended by visiting farmers. What a pity. I would have thought they might do better if they had kept some of the captured Alofians alive and “farm” humans for food over time. I guess hunger got over them and they gobbled all the food in one buffet seating. Gosh – what disgusting cannibalistic thoughts of mine.
In 10 minutes, we crossed the 240km that separated Wallis from Futuna. What a beautiful lush green island surrounded by impressive reef. The airport was small and it has Polynesian style rooftop. Immigration was easiest so far – the young French gendarmerie stamped my passport with a smile. No questions asked at all. Customs also easy despite having the largest customs declaration form I encountered so far.
Before I knew it, we were out of the arrival hall, only to be confronted not only with the tropical humidity but also with a mass of people waiting for arriving friends and family, many with the brightest flower garlands ready. I scanned around for representatives of Moana Hou Hotel who were supposed to pick me up, but didn’t see any. Neither were there any taxis in sight. I asked around but few Wallisians spoke any English.
The French people waiting at the airport – mainly French civil servants and NGO workers - however, were friendly and spoke some English. A few offered to drive us to Mata’Utu, the capital of Wallis & Futuna. On his Port Vila-Noumea flight, Lee had gotten to know the French manager of Banque de Wallis et Futuna, the only bank on the island (and subsidiary of Paribas), who was also on the Noumea-Wallis flight, and this kind gentleman, who was keen to practice his English, gave us a lift to Mata’Utu.
Wallis is a world of difference from New Caledonia. Whilst New Caledonia has the infrastructure of a developed country, W&F looked like what it is, i.e., a Third World country. The airport looked aged and paint was peeling off. The roads were narrow and had potholes. The few houses we passed looked deserted and a little decrepit. The only reprieve was a few Catholic churches and shrines we passed, which looked well-tended though somewhat eerie with red and purple paints on the statues of Christ on the cross (yes, lifelike blood oozing from his wounds) and the saints.
The airport was located at the north of Wallis, abt 6km from Mata’Utu, and we travelled on a straight road south to a round-about (yes, guarded by a Catholic shrine – statues of Christ and Mary), then turned eastwards to Mata-Utu on the coast. The whole island looked sleepy, deserted and was nothing more than a huge hot jungle with a few scattered dwellings.
Mata’Utu – capital city of W&F. What an exotic name! The sort of name that ranks alongside Nuku’alofa, Antananarivo and Ouagadougou as places an intrepid traveller has to go solely due to the exoticness of the name. That aside, however, to call Mata’Utu a city or even a town was a joke of sorts. This tiny collection of buildings scattered across two cross streets was more a hamlet than anything the image a “capital” would convey.
Most buildings in Mata’utu have gardens and large compounds. The roads were lined with palm trees, coconut trees and various tropical plants and bushes. The Lonely Planet mentions a shopping centre which we found to be an one storey complex which included a supermarket, a few shops and a bank. In fact, at first glance, we thought it was a motor workshop with a large vehicle park.
Hotel Ulukula, which was recommended by a friend of Lee, was described as a new hotel with a pool in the Lonely Planet, but we found an unappealing set of two long tin roofed buildings, surrounded by an overgrown garden. It looked more like the old farm buildings of yesteryear rural Singapore than a landmark hotel in town.
There were a few bored looking French gendarmerie in muscle-revealing singlets and dark glasses watching TV and reading magazines at the reception. We asked the sluggish receptionist if there was any room. (People here moved and reacted slowly, which was hardly surprising. If they work as fast as people elsewhere, they would probably run out of things to do very quickly.)
Hotel Ulukula did not have any spare room but they rang Hotel Moana Hou which had spare rooms. The whole process was somewhat confusing not only because we could not speak French and they could not speak English. At times, they walked away and we did not know what was happening. Eventually, a boyish looking French gendarmerie who spoke some English (with a fair bit of cute Gallic accent) came by and told us that someone from Hotel Moana Hou would come over soon.
A lady from Moana Hou drove here and said she went to the airport but did not see me. This was somewhat odd, given that I was the only Asian tourist at the airport at that time. Whatever the case, we were driven to the hotel (room cost XCF 9,500, abt US$95) by the sea. Pretty spot where we could see two green islets offshore, with a sandbar with coconut trees in between – what a classic magery of a tropical island paradise. The sea was a shade of purple, followed by light and dark deep blue in the far horizon. The receptionist could only spoke basic English and she asked us to wait for Cherrie, a New Zealander with family links with the island.
Cherie, who has been living in Wallis the past 2 years teaching English, stayed for a short while to help us with translation. The hotel internet was down. The downtown cybercafé might be closed today and tomorrow for holidays but would cost US$7 to US$10 if it was open. In fact, most shops and many eating places (of which they aren’t many) would be closed the next two days, for the island was celebrating the feast day of St Pierre and St Peter.
We wanted to rent a car and were initially told that the car could not be rented the next day for it was a public holiday. We then explained that we wanted to rent for 2 days and would return only on Wed, so there was no need to return the car tomorrow when the agency was closed. This satisfied them and so we agreed on a US$50 a day deal for 2 days.
We were shown the car – what a wreck it was! A much battered Citroën that should have gone into the junkyard years ago. It looked as though it had gone through a gun battle. Its back window had a crack across it; paint was peeling off and dents everywhere. No sensible chap would have taken it over if not for the fact that the sign-over form was a simple one-pager for one to fill in the name and carries no terms and conclusions (which could mean either having no terms and conditions, or god forbid, any T&C the lessor might demand).
Anyway, we were assured by the fact that no deposit or credit card numbers needed to be handed over. Moreover, we were told just to leave the car at the airport when we leave Wallis – just leave the key at the engine starter. Don’t hide it, okay? And of course, yes, the car would not be locked. Welcome to Wallis! The degree of trust reminded me of Nauru.
We returned to Moana Hou to check out our rooms. What US$95 rooms! Almost bare pigeonholes with no toiletries provided. The internet was down and there weren’t any TV. The air-con in Lee’s room didn’t work and he managed to change rooms only after repeated chasing of the reception. But what choices did we have on a small island with four hotels that cater only to stranded expats and hardly any tourist?
Worse was to come with dinner. The menu was rudimentary, with scarcely anything more than US$20 pasta. What pasta! Just badly cooked sauce over plain carbohydrates. No ingredients – not even a few token shrimps for this island in the middle of the ocean. In fact, the hotel proudly told us they have a young chef from France. A failed chef from cuisine academy exiled to the South Seas? It was worse – we met the smiley young man and his girlfriend who worked as the chambermaid at the hotel – we realized that this was no failed chef; but a young man from Marseilles backpacking the world, fell in love with this godforsaken island and decided to stay a few months moonlighting as a chef!
Lee said he could cook nothing but even he could prepare better pasta. I finished the plate of pure carbo, for I was concerned there might be nothing tomorrow, given the public holidays. Elsewhere in the world, public holidays are the best time to make money. In the French-speaking world that treasures leisure more than work, we might only have Fijian butter cookies for meals instead!
Wallis & Futuna, even though a French possession like New Caledonia, has few immigrants. In fact, I have not seen any Chinese or Vietnamese in Wallis, although I have found them in almost every French territory I have been to. Even French citizens might find it difficult to settle here. Everything is protected for the locals in W&F. And of course, gastronomically, this meant very bad food.
At the post office, I had a conversation with a rare Wallisian lady who spoke English. When I told her about my 2-month 15-country journey through the Pacific, she joked, “Beware of cannibals.” Reminded of the cannibal past of many Pacific peoples including the Wallisians, I asked, “So are you one?” “Depends on how tasty you are,” she said, and we both laughed.
The Polynesians inhabitants of Wallis Island call their island Uvea. In 1767, the English explorer, Samuel Wallis, became the first Westerner to arrive here, and the island was renamed by later French colonial authorities Wallis. Ostensibly a French overseas territory (the so-called collectivité d'outre-mer), the French government has adopted a light-touch approach to the governance of W&F. The three traditional kingdoms of the islands continue to play an important role in the actual day-to-day running of the territory.
Officially, the territory is governed by a High Administrator appointed by the French President. The High Administrator is assisted by a Council of the Territory whose members included the three kings and three members appointed by the High Administrator on the advice of the Territorial Assembly. Sounds like a complicated mix of a republican and monarchial potpourri. So who runs Wallis and Futuna, I asked Marianne, a French expat I met in Mata’utu.
“Good question,” said Marianne. W&F has little resources to offer and it’s too remote for the French to be over-bothered. In practice, much of the administration was left to the locals – this meant the traditional kings, the Church and local politicians. The French government merely dishes out subsidies and salaries to keep the locals happy as French citizens, and the local authorities pay lip service to the French state, who are the paymasters.
Local laws and traditions dictate that all land transactions and new businesses have to be approved by kings, who have their own cabinet of ministers. This gave the kings substantial power over the territories they rule. In fact, I was told the stocky, bald gentleman seen strolling around the Moana Hou Hotel compound in island-style sarong was not only the owner but also the Minister of Law of the distinguished Kingdom of Uvea, the largest of the three kingdoms of W&F. This is the guy you go to first to get any property lease approved. Local politicians have little prestige, except for those endorsed by the royal families, and they pay their dues by playing ball with the kings in the Council of the Territory. All work together to squeeze more funding from the taxpayers in Paris, Lyon and Toulouse.
Don’t forget the church. Ever since the Catholic missionaries arrived here and converted the former cannibals, the locals have built grand cathedrals and churches all over the island, and have piously supported church services, rituals and feasts. The King derives legitimacy not only from traditions and history, but also from his role as the patron of the Church. In return, the Church promotes loyalty to the traditional monarchy.
In summary, the French taxpayers foot the bills for W&F’s civil servants and monarchies, who work together to get as much money as possible from the French state; With the funding, the kingdoms pay their due to the Church, which confers legitimacy and respect on the kings. The kings also endorse friendly politicians, who return the favour by upholding the traditional system of governance. Hence, everyone is happy – the French taxpayer pays all the bills, but the amounts needed to support a tiny territory of 15,000 inhabitants are but pocket change to mighty France, which probably spends more on a Bastille Day celebration in one year.
It is a cosy system where those in the right places end up with lots of money. Uvea, the largest kingdom, has merely 10,000 inhabitants split between three districts on Wallis Island – Each district has its own royal family which historically took turns to assume the throne. When Tomasi Kulimoetoke II, King of Uvea for 48 years, died in 2007 and a family member was declared king by the Uvea Council of Ministers, civil war almost broke out and the other two districts threatened to secede. The French Government had to rush gendarmerie to Wallis to prevent an all out tribal fight between angry islanders in this remote island paradise. Obviously, the spoils of kingship are more than spare change to individuals, though peanuts to the French state as a whole.
I asked about the bored gendarmerie we saw at Hotel Ulukula. They were here due to a strike among public utilities workers that has affected public street lights. The reason for the strike seemed muddled but roughly went along these lines: the head of the islands’ electricity department has ordered payment for solar panels recently bought from a company which was incidentally owned by his wife. Having learnt the facts, the accountant refused to pay, which then triggered a political crisis and the strike.
And there is corruption. Recently, it was found that meant for schools were used to buy two luxury apartments at the Baie des Citrons in Noumea. The well-connected culprit was jailed but since he was the only accountant in charge of bursaries for local university students, he was released every weekday morning so that he could work in his previous office after which he returns to jail at night.
Wallis and Futuna, a small territory less than half the size of Singapore, but with a long name and split between three kingdoms. 15,000 people ruled by the French central government, a partially elected local government and three royal courts complete with their own councils of ministers. As Marianne complained, “Small islands, many governments; everyone wants control; so everything has to be compromised so that all gets part of the spoils. That’s why nothing ever gets done in Wallis and Futuna.” That explains the potholed roads, the dilapidated buildings and the general atmosphere of decay and lack of development.
But the people aren’t particularly concerned, Marianne explained. The territory is neither rich nor poor. Most of its residents either work for the state, fish or work in their own fields. And many receive money from their relatives working in New Caledonia. An eleven year old told her a few days ago, “This is paradise. I want to stay here all my life.” Marianne added that some Wallisians felt intimidated by the “big city hustle and bustle” of Noumea and came home after just one year working there. But Noumea, with only 100,000 inhabitants, would be what some of us would consider a quiet suburban seaside resort masquerading as a city.
And the powers in control of W&F aren’t keen on developing tourism or attracting investments here. Status quo as a sleepy, remote French territory with few outsiders hanging around might be a better option for some, so that nobody would notice the comfortable division of spoils by the many stakeholders here.
How about the 30,000 Walisians and Futunians in New Caledonia? There is no more land here for them; so they wouldn’t be able to return at all.
I have been told that smaller, even quieter Futuna has friendlier people than Wallis – notwithstanding the Lonely Planet warning about islanders not exactly welcoming to casual strangers. I was momentarily tempted to visit the island but the Lonely Planet guide warned that the winds are strong and flights often get cancelled. Even if one manages to get to the island, there is no guarantee of a return flight per scheduled. Given my tight Pacific schedule, the risk of getting stranded was not something I should risk. Besides, I recall what happened to the people of Alofi a century ago…
Imagine this conversation. Someone asked where’s your neighbours. Er…I haven’t seen them around because we ate them last week.
I had a strange dream that night, of ordering Kuala Lumpur-style fried Hokkien flat noodles in dark source in a restaurant in an unknown foreign location. The noodles did not arrive or was diverted to another guest. I was terribly upset and almost murdered the chef. Don’t get me wrong – I only wanted to kill him, not to eat him in memory of the former inhabitants of Alofi Island. That must be either the effect of the full moon, the lousy pasta, pent-up desire for Asian food or all of the above.
The Pacific peoples love dog meat. A French expat in Wallis told me that he noticed he hadn’t seen the neighbour’s dog for a week. This dog would always bark when he passed the neighbour’s home. He asked his neighbor casually one day, and was told that the dog was eaten, notwithstanding that the family had kept it as a pet for a few years. No choice, as he was told, they have to eat the dog now while the meat was still tender. If they had waited too long, the dog meat would have become too tough to make decent stew. Yes, as he was assured by the neighbor, that they did miss the poor dog but that’s life. What was more important, said the neighbor, was that they really enjoyed her meat that day and now she was inside them.
I was woken up by the mocking squeak of a bright green bird, which flew away from my window ledge the moment I saw it. Lee was still asleep in his room. It’s the feast of St Peter and St Paul today and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Good Hope next to the Royal Palace would host an important early morning mass. I walked along the beach road, admiring the cool early morning breeze and the sight of coconut trees hanging over pristine fine sand. Crystal clear turquoise waters, fisherman returning from their dawn catch, clear blue skies.
Pious Wallisians were arriving at the cathedral in their SUV’s, and the so-called Sunday best. Men in their colourful lava lava – the Polynesian word for what people elsewhere call sarong – often with an additional woven copra mat tied around it for an additional layer of formality. Women in white dress with formal Victorian hats. Others were more casual – they came in bright flowing dresses, heads crowned with simple tiara of flowers. A cheerful lady carrying a smiley baby waved to me from the doorway of the Oceania magasin opposite the cathedral.
A huge Maltese cross stood between the solid blue-volcanic rock towers of the cathedral. This is also the royal insignia of the Kingdom of Uvea, which has since then become the national symbol of all W&F. Next to the cathedral is the Royal Palace. The French tricolour and the W&F flag – the Maltese cross in a field of red with the tricolour to its top left corner - fluttered in the gentle breeze.
The large but hardly imposing palace, too, is made of native blue volcanic rocks, like most of the churches and key public buildings on the island. I wonder if I should take off my hat as I walked past – the previous king had insisted that passersby dismount from their bicycles while passing here. More seriously, this was the scene of events that shook the island in 2005 – the grandson of the same king fled here after he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for drink-driving that caused the death of a pedestrian (- yes, accidents do occur in sleepy Wallis) on New Year’s Eve. He hid there for four months before the king succumbed to French pressure.
The church service began. Priests and deacons marched in with their flowing robes; crosses, chalices, lamps and Jesus’ flesh and blood in the tow. Bells tolled. A mourning family turned up with a coffin in their Toyota pickup, decorated with solemn black and purple colours. The coffin was unloaded, with the families knelt beside it in silent prayers. Minutes later, they carried the coffin into the cathedral. Funeral music stirred the church-goers.
A riot erupted in my stomach and I strolled back to the hotel for breakfast. Now it’s time to explore the island.
Humidity creped in by mid-morning, as we drove across the island. It’s a holiday and nothing was open. Shops (not that there were many of them), offices, cafes, video parlours – all shut. And there were few people on the streets too. Where have they gone to? Probably the churches, for it’s the feast day of St Peter and St Paul. We heard there would be ceremonies in the north and headed there, though we hardly know where to go.