Page last updated at 12:52 GMT, Saturday, 26 July 2008 13:52 UK

Harmony thrives in Pacific isolation

It is one of the world's most remote islands but has a community spirit that is almost utopian, reports Huw Cordey from Anuta in the Pacific.

Anuta is the smallest permanently inhabited Polynesian island

Sailing from Santa Cruz, in the eastern Solomons, it took us five days to reach Anuta.

It was one of the most tedious journeys I have made, the continuous pitching of our small yacht making it impossible to either read or write.

So it was with some relief when the speck of land that was Anuta finally appeared on the horizon.

Harbour master

But as the island grew larger, the question of how 300 people could live on such a tiny and isolated piece of land loomed even larger.

An outrigger canoe, paddled by two men with another bailing, came to meet us.

The bailer introduced himself as Joseph, who said he would look after us while on Anuta.

He told me he was the island's harbour master, though this is something of a misnomer as the island has no harbour.

Indeed the anchorage is so poor that our boat had to leave a few hours after dropping us off.

It is also a job that does not exactly have Joseph rushed off his feet.


We were their first visitors in two years.

For a moment though, the feeling of isolation was overshadowed by Joseph's T shirt which was emblazoned with the words "Planet Hollywood, Las Vegas".

It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast between two places.

Las Vegas, the capital of excess, and little Anuta where even a mirror is considered a luxury.

But while Anuta's remoteness may have severely limited the quantity of consumer goods the island's isolation has forged a community spirit that would be very hard to beat.

Island harmony

The Anutans have their own word for this, "aropa", which means love and compassion.

It is an ideology that is applied to almost everything they do.

You can see it at work in the way food and tasks are shared, but it goes further than this.

Bizarrely they even adopt each other's children.

Joseph's oldest daughter was adopted by a couple who gave him their son in return a few years later.

When I asked Joseph about this, he simply said that it was not an issue as Anutans saw children as communal.

What was important was that everyone who wanted a child had one.

So if a couple was childless for any reason they would be perfectly entitled to ask another family member or friend if they could have their next child.

Both mother and father have to agree but requests are seldom refused.


Aropa also extends to outsiders.

During our two-week stay we had at least one meal in every one of the 24 households.

Anuta's isolation has meant that few visitors ever return

Sitting on the floor of each hut we were served communal dishes of fish and glutinous puddings of taro or manioc, all wrapped up in forest leaves.

The meals, prepared by the women, were virtually identical from one hut to the other, but this was all about aropa, affection through sharing.

Anutans see a strong similarity between aropa and Christian teachings like "love thy neighbour", a fact that made the work of the first Anglican missionaries rather easier than I imagine they thought it would be.

Ukulele habit

Twice a day the sound of a conch shell summons the faithful to church. Or to put it another way, everyone. Individuals may backslide for the odd service but attendance is so good it would be the envy of any British vicar.

Once inside the church women sit on the left, men on the right, apparently for no other reason than that is what they have always done.

Anutans are very protective of their traditions.

All the decisions on the island are, for instance, still made by a single, unelected Chief.

We worry about our children getting in with the wrong crowd, taking drugs, drinking, teenage knife crime, Anutans worry about their kids playing homemade ukuleles

When I asked Joseph what the biggest changes have been in the last 20 years he said "young people playing ukuleles".

Was this a problem? I asked rather jokingly.

"Well," he replied more seriously, "before the ukuleles the younger generation would dance every evening. Now it is rare."

I got the same response from at least half a dozen other adults.

As trivial as this sounds it does make one think about our own, supposedly advanced, society.

We worry about our children getting in with the wrong crowd, taking drugs, drinking, teenage knife crime. Anutans worry about their kids playing homemade ukuleles.

Few return

On the day we left, a group of men came onto our yacht and with little notice broke into their farewell song, "Sorrow come to us."

One of the chorus lines was: "Sorry we will never see your faces anymore." It was enough to bring a lump to my throat.

The lyrics had a point however. Anuta's isolation has meant that few visitors ever return.

But then this is probably just as well. The beauty of the Anutan way of life comes from the relative absence of outside influence.

In the end it was easy to see what the island's 300 people saw in the place.

As a hardened traveller I do not say this lightly, but the Anutans were the most harmonious and hospitable people I have ever met.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 26 July, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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