The minute I stop working, I become restless
10:00 Talamoni has gone fishing and Sulu is gathering firewood with a school friend. Vitoli sits cross legged, caressing Galuola; all his severity has melted away, and he displays only love for his grandson. By tradition, his son’s children belong to his family, so it was important for Vitoli that the child not be raised by anyone else.
11:30 Marao embroiders a pillow for Sulu to take back to boarding school, while Vitoli fills buckets with rainwater for his chickens from his 1,000-gallon storage tank. “The minute I stop working, I become restless,” says Vitoli, coming back to sit beside Marao. “But a few minutes after I start again, I want to rest.” His wife has taken out her old, rusty sewing machine and Vitoli helps her get it started. Vitoli lives up to the Tuvaluans’ reputation for being adventurous travellers. He left his home island of Nukulaelae with his father in 1936 to go to Kiribati and Phoenix Island; and again, during World War II, to go to Canton Island to work as a driver for the Americans.
Then he worked in the gold mines of Fiji and on Christmas Island for the British, who were doing nuclear testing. By then Vitoli had married Marao, the sixth woman in his life. Only the children they have had together have survived. If his other children had lived, Vitoli would have 14.
In 1961, Vitoli came backhome to care for his aging parents. He would have lost his right to the land and to the title of matai (as the oldest son) if he hadn’t returned. “Without land and today without an education, you just can’t live,” he says. As the matai, Vitoli is responsible for the distribution of the 10 plots of land scattered throughout the country to all his family members. The land has been passed down through generations of individuals and family groups, and ownership is very complicated. Land establishes a family’s status. Village gossip has it that Vitoli’s isolation is due to a family fight over land distribution. Vitoli doesn’t talk about it.