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Old canoes make a comeback in Fiji

    By Kezia Holm. March 21, 2012 - 2:05 pm

Normally, developing new technologies is the answer to helping an economy grow, but Fiji has discovered a way to bring an important but outdated piece of its tradition back into the modern world.

Before the emerging of European boats, the canoe used in Fiji, called a camakau, was a vital part of sustaining society, according to a recent story in the New York Times.

“They were the ocean liners, the 747s, the Internet, the telephone,” said B. Gregory Mitchell, a marine biologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California and founder of the Pacific Blue Foundation, told the Times. “Canoes were everything.”

These canoes were used for trading and traveling as well as defending and fighting against other tribes.

This changed drastically in the 19th century when European boats were seen as more efficient and more modern than the camakau.

However, these modern boats have a drawback. They come at a price that many Fijian people struggle to meet.

Modern fishing boats costs anywhere between $25,000 and $30,000 to maintain and last only a year while the traditional camakau will cost between $3,000 and $5,000 and will sustain through about five years.

“If you look at life on the islands, we do not have much money or resources, so paying $15 a gallon to go fishing or to travel to sell your crops – that is a lot of money,” said Joji Marau Misaele, mechanical engineering teacher at the University in Suva and designer of the current camakau prototype, told the Times.

Traditionally, the camakau has one hull in the body, an outrigger and a triangular sail, which will contribute to cutting down the costs to the locals due to the absence of petrol for it to run.

Before its reinvention, if the hull were to fill up with water the canoe would capsize. It was not designed to hold any water within the boat.

Today, the canoes are being recreated with Styrofoam or empty plastic water bottles to make the boats more buoyant.

This style also recycles a product that is produced and thrown away on a massive scale around the world, adding to its environmental friendliness.

There are estimated to be only 30 to 40 people in Fiji who still have the practical skill and experience in building the traditional camakau.

Misaele hopes to teach others who have forgotten this piece of their culture how to make the canoes out of the renewable resources that are found within their own lands.

The first step in this process is testing the prototype for seaworthiness against a traditional camakau from Suva to Beqa Island.

Misaele has also received a grant to open a camakau carpentry class at the university and will hold workshops for neighboring islands that have also lost the canoe-building tradition.

“I want this knowledge to be taught to younger generations so they can keep the traditions alive,” Misale said in the article.

These canoes are a current hope for its promoters to reduce energy consumption by people in Fiji, provide locals with an inexpensive and reliable form of transportation, keep local traditions alive and possibly create a fresh source of tourism income.

One Response to Old canoes make a comeback in Fiji

  1. Chrissy Wei Reply

    January 8, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    Interesting story about the comeback of the traditional camakau in Fiji. In some cases, ancient custom and tradition triumphs over technology and advancement.

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