Best northern New Caledonia experience ever with Brousse O’thentik

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Looking for a bit of the “back of beyond”, marooned on a desert island, with only a knife, matches and a little salt and pepper to get you by? Have we got the adventure for you!

A few weeks ago, we ventured back up to Poindimié for a long weekend. It’d been a while since we’d been up north, and we missed it – the crashing waves at night (and the niggling feeling, “Will we be swallowed up whole in our slumber?”), the fresh air, the friendly people, the break from everyday life. With the aim of doing some geocaching and discovering the Poindimié area a little more, off we flew on our next island adventure.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Casting about for something to do on our first full-day visit, our hotel (Hotel Tieti) advised against visiting the waterfalls (nearly all dried up due to a drought), but suggested a walking adventure or a tribal visit. We opted for a bit of both with Alain, of Brousse O’thentik. Though we had visited the Oua Tom tribe 18 months before, this visit was as instructive, if not more so. Unfortunately, we were unable to meet the chief (and faire la coutume – offer our gifts, show respect and ask for permission to visit his lands), but Alain spent all morning with us explaining many of the Melanesian traditions and customs (and showed us the lands anyway (leaving the gifts with the chief the next day), ending with a lesson on making bougna and properly throwing a fishing net).

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

In the north, the tribes live very simply. Ernest (the chief), had for example, only just purchased a kitchen stove (as you can see in the photo). Retired, he and his family had lived for years with an outdoor fire to cook their food. No electricity, no warm water, no running toilet, no washing machine (and he is considered prosperous, as he is a chief and owns quite a bit of land, which he cultivates with bananas, root vegetables, coconuts, etc.), a visit puts our lives into perspective. No books, no toys, one mattress, one hut where the four family members sleep, a hose for a shower, no refrigerator, no car, but organic food (he uses natural, rather than chemical, pesticides), access to fresh fish and a strong community.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

We were very impressed to learn more of Kanak law during our visit. The Kanaks have their rules and punishments in addition to the French law, and to my mind, they are much stricter. Alain gave us an example. Recently some youth stole the pastor’s 2 pigs. According to Kanak tradition, the pastor is a highly respected member of the community. Any harm to him or his property is gravely punished – the only more highly respected member of the community is the chief. Just after the 2 pigs were stolen, the 200 members of the tribe were summoned by the chief: he pressed them to identify the guilty parties (or to come forward). Eventually, 2 young men came forward. They were publicly beaten within an inch of their lives.  Alain tells us they were right to come forward early, for it they had not, if they had ever been found out, they would have been banished from the tribe. To regain their place in the tribe, they would have had to replace the pigs, repay the pastor via work or other ways, request forgiveness of the pastor and the chief and the community, and make an offering to each member of the tribe. Alain explained that rather than face banishment, youth (and adults) go away to work to be able to repay their debts and rejoin the tribe – as being ostracized results in much harder lives (homeless, without work, no support, hungry, etc.).

Having learned so much with Alain, we decided to spend another day with him the next day. Brousse O’thentik provides cultural visits in the north in an “a la carte” fashion. If you want to go biking and learn how to fish for shrimp, Alain will take you. If you want to go hiking up the mountains for an incredible view of the lagoon, he’ll take you (and you’ll learn about all the plants on the way). Is canoe-ing and net fishing your deal? He’ll take you. How about doing stand-up on wooden rafts or discovering the waterfalls or discovering the countryside on a horse? Alain and his brother offer all of these visits at reasonable prices – and he is not only professional, but funny, personable and a fountain of knowledge. Does he do these visits in English? He assures me he’s been working on his English. If you speak a bit of French (even if only a little), my guess is you’ll be able to communicate and you will learn a lot from him (he has a pedagogical, hand-on approach, which accompanied by gestures, will make sudden sense in context – throwing a fishing net, climbing, doing stand-up, cleaning fish, etc.).

So what’s this adventure I’m talking about?

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Well, before the adventure (and the one I have for you), I am somewhat ashamed to say that I didn’t know how to:

1. Fish with a net

2. Make a meal on a desert island.

Many of you may be experts in the field, but fishing and cooking with nothing are not among my skills – well until now. We had a survival course of sorts during our one-day outing with Alain to Ilot Tibarama the next day.

We met Alain at the dock at 7:45am with protective shoes, bathing suits, sun protection, snorkeling equipment and plenty of water. He provided all the rest (breakfast, lunch supplies, a few wooden bowls, chopsticks, a net, more snorkeling equipment, table, coffee, water, lemonade, matches, salt and pepper, a knife or two) and off we went to a sliver of an island (I like to think of it as “Gilligan’s Island”), 5-10 minutes away by boat.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

When we landed, we off-loaded the boat and said goodbye until 4pm that afternoon. Things stored away, off we went around the island in search of fish (which Alain taught us to look for, not on land or in water, but from the tops of trees). Parrot fish dine on coral and when eating in shallow waters, their beaks dip down and their blue tails stick out of the water – this is what we were looking for. We were also looking for schools of sardines. Unlucky at 8am, we collected coconuts and wood for later.

Back at “camp”, Alain taught us to clean some fish he had brought, in case we were unable to catch any ourselves (we did later that day, but after lunch). They had been caught 2 days before on another outing. Cleaned fish, we chopped it up for Tahitian salad, which is a raw fish salad. Table installed in the water on the beach, we chopped and seeded cucumber, chopped a carrot, sliced half of an onion, squeezed a lemon, and checked and double-checked the fish for bones.


Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Then, we learned how to make coconut milk. Alain cracked open the big coconut exterior (this is bigger than the coconut you are imagining – it is its exterior). You want the brown coconuts for this, not the green ones – and you’ll need to make sure that when you shake them, you can hear liquid sloshing about. Once he had the coconuts out, he cracked them in two with a machete – best to do with a very sharp knife or a hammer at home. This is the hardest part done. Then, we grated the coconut flesh into a bowl. Finally, we put the flesh into a tea towel and squeezed it over another bowl – out came the most delicious coconut milk you have ever tasted in your life! Who knew?

Having “cooked” the fish in lemon juice, we now added the carrots, onion and cucumber, and added the coconut milk last of all. Et voila! Tahitian salad!

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

We then set to grilling fish on the fire in papillottes (wrapped in aluminum), made with the wood and fronds we had gathered, and shortly, everything was ready. Tahitian salad, freshly grilled fish, another salad prepared by Alain, lemonade, water, and my, it was the most delicious meal made fresh we’d ever had.

The afternoon saw more fishing adventures, and this time, we learned how to catch parrot fish with a net. Having spotted schools of parrot fish, Alain went gingerly out into the water and placed a huge net around an area. When he gave the signal, my husband was to make a lot of noise splashing his hands in the water and shouting, to drive the fish into the nets. My son was to throw rocks to scare the fish into the direction of the nets, and I, wearing white, was to run up and down the beach waving my arms (apparently white – moving quickly – can be picked up by the fish and scares them as well). What a sight it was! A communal effort, and after several tries, we caught 4 fish and threw a 5th one back. We replenished the stocks and would feed another family.

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris

With time at the end, after coffee, for some snorkeling in pristine waters, the day was one of our best yet. Our little Robinson Crusoe experience had taught us some new skills, brought us together as a family, and made us a new friend. We learned even more about Kanak traditions and customs and walked away the wiser in body, mind and spirit!

If this sounds like something you’d like to do – an all-day outing on a desert island, learning about life in New Caledonia and gaining some survival skills – or if any of the other activities mentioned above strike your fancy, do contact Alain at Brousse O’thentik (email: | mobile: 97 59 69). Tell him I sent you!

Photo Julie Harris

Photo Julie Harris


France returns skull of New Caledonian chief

This post is reproduced in full from The History Blog here: France returns skull of New Caledonian chief.

Return-ceremony-Great-Kanak-Chief-of-La-Foa-district-Berge-Kawa-150x100After 135 years, the skull of High Chief Ataï from the Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia has been returned to his homeland. In a ceremony on August 28th, France’s Overseas Territories Minister George Pau-Langevin gave the skull to Bergé Kawa, a chief in his own right and a direct descendant of Ataï. This is a righting of a wrong that has been very long in coming.

Captain Cook was the first European to encounter the main island in 1774. He named it New Caledonia because the cliffs of the east coast reminded him of the Scottish Highlands. French explorers mapped more of the archipelago, Bruni d’Entrecasteaux in 1792, Durmont d’Urville in 1827. British Protestant missionaries arrived in 1840 and with the discovery of sandalwood the next year, British merchants followed. French Catholic missionaries came in 1843. Religious conflict ensued with the Catholics ultimately coming out on top. New Caledonia was formally claimed as a French colony by Admiral Auguste Febvrier-Despointes in 1853, and two years later all land on the main island was declared property of the French state.

Outside walls of Canak prison before 1906The French used it as a penal colony for the second half of the 19th century. An estimated 20,000 prisoners were transported to New Caledonia between 1864 and 1897, including 4,000 or so deported for their involvement in the Paris Commune and 100 Algerian insurrectionists. Most of them were put to work in the nickel and copper mines. While French authorities sent foreign laborers and settlers to the archipelago, they took indigenous people out. Many of the Kanak (a general name given to people from a wide variety of different tribes and clans with almost 30 mutually unintelligible languages) were enslaved or coerced into forced labor in Australia, Fiji, Canada, India, Japan, Malaysia and Chile, to name a few.

The ones were remained were in barely better straits. In 1864, convicts who were deemed worthy were freed and given land grants. More than 100,000 hectares of the richest farmland were deeded out to former convicts. In 1868, an order was promulgated forcing the indigenous people onto reservations, moving them inland close to the mountains where the land was barely arable. Many were made to work the plantations and ranches of French settlers without pay.

Engraving of Ataï published in French magazine "Le Voleur" on October 4th, 1878Under these kinds of pressure, it’s no surprise that conflicts exploded. Small revolts began in the 1850s but were quickly suppressed by overwhelming French force. It all came to a head in 1878. A drought in 1877 had taken a huge toll on the cattle, so the governor granted ranchers grazing rights on reservation lands. The stock were let loose on fallow fields, but there weren’t any fences. The cattle just walked on over to the farmed land and ate the yam and taro crops that were all the tribes had to live on. Already displaced from lands which defined their identities and to which they had a profound religious connection, the Kanaks couldn’t tolerate having what was left of their livelihoods threatened by French cows.

High Chief Ataï of the Petit Couli tribe sought out the French governor. The chief poured out a bag of soil in front of the governor and said, “This is what we had.” Then he dumped a bag of rocks out and said, “This is what you have left us.” The governor replied that they should protect their crops by building fences. Ataï responded: “When the taro eat the cattle, I’ll build the fences.”

Violent clashes ensued, with Kanaks attacking settlers and tribal leaders being imprisoned in retaliation. Ataï realized that localized revolts would go nowhere. He created an alliance between multiple tribes to fight the French. In June of 1878, the allied tribes launched an attack on troops and settlers. Their guerilla warfare was so successful that the French commander called for reinforcements from Indochina.

In August, Ataï and 500 warriors besieged a fort the French had built in La Foa on the southwest coast. At first the siege appeared to be going well for the Kanak side, but then the French managed to make a deal with Gelina, the High Chief of the Canala tribe, dividing the Kanak forces. Then the reinforcements from Indochina arrived. At the end of the month, a motley team of French regulars, convicts, former Communards who were promised their freedom in return for fighting on the side of a government they had once fought against so passionately, former Algerian rebels in the same position, and Kanak warriors from the Canala tribe surrounded Ataï’s army.

Louise Michel, 1880On September 1st, a detachment of French military encountered the chief, his three sons and his bard (the French anthropologists called him a “sorcerer”) Andia on the way back to the Kanak encampment. A Canala warrior with the French identified the chief from his shock of white hair. Communard hero Louise Michel, aka the Red Virgin, who had taught school during her New Caledonian exile and who was one of the only Communards to side with the Kanak, seeing in them the same struggle for liberty that she and her comrades had fought for, described the scene thus in her memoirs (pdf):

The traitor Segou faltered for a moment under the look of the old chief, but then, wanting it all to be over, he threw his short spear at Ataï and it pierced the old chief’s right arm. Ataï raised his axe in his left hand as his sons were shot down around him, one killed and the others wounded.

Andia lunged forward crying out, “Tango! Tango! (Cursed! Cursed!),” but he was shot dead instantly. Then Segou moved in against the wounded Ataï, and with his own axe struck blow after blow, the way he would have chopped at a tree.

Ataï fell, and Segou grabbed at his partially severed head. He struck him several more blows, and Ataï was finally dead. Seeing Ataï fall at Segou’s hands, the Kanaks unleashed their death cry in an echo to the mountains. The Kanaks love the brave.

Engraving of the heads being given to the French, 1881The war would claim 1,000 Kanak lives and 200 French. Enslavement, disease and war took a terrible toll on the Kanak population. There were about 70,000 indigenous people living on the islands of New Caledonia when Cook arrived in 1774. By 1921, there were only 27,000 left.

The heads of Ataï, Andia and Ataï’s adolescent son were all severed, as was one of Ataï’s hands. Ship’s Lieutenant Servant received Andia’s head and Ataï’s head and hand from Segou and sold them for 200 francs to Dr. Navarre, a naval doctor. He packed the remains in tin boxes filled with phenol and shipped them to Professor Paul Broca, founder and president of the Anthropological Society of Paris (SAP). According to the minutes of SAP’s 396th meeting held on October 23, 1879 (Page 616 here), they arrived in a “perfect state of conservation. They emit no odor and we hope that the brain, even though they’re still in their skulls, will still be good for study.” Professor Broca:

Atai's skullThe magnificent head of the chief Ataï draws the most attention. It is very expressive; the forehead is especially very beautiful, very high and very wide. The hair is completely woolly, the skin completely black. The nose is very platyrrhine, as wide as it is high. The hand, broad and powerful, is very well-formed, except for one finger that is retracted due to an old injury. Palmar creases are similar to ours.

Andia’s head gets the same treatment, although it’s worse in some ways because it seems he suffered from some form of dwarfism so there’s a lot of gross talk about how savages see deformity.

Ataï death maskChief Ataï’s head was cast in bronze by Félix Flandinette, after which it was stripped of flesh and that brain they were so keen to get a look at, and the skull was kept with the SAP collection of skulls in the Faculty of Medicine in Paris. In 1951, SAP’s skull collection was transferred to the Musée de l’Homme where they’ve been kept in a cabinet for decades. Ataï’s death mask has been on display, but Ataï’s and Andia’s skulls never have been.

Nonetheless, their treatment as specimens was and is deeply offensive to the Kanak. It has played a part in the consistent tension between New Caledonia and France even after the 1998 Noumea Accord, which granted some measure of autonomy to the territory along with the promise of a referendum on independence by 2018.

“These remains bring us back to our own reality: we are two peoples, two cultures which have never ceased to clash with each other and still clash today,” Kawa said [at the return ceremony].

“We were ravaged by the French state. It is therefore up to the French state to give us back our property,” he added.

Citizens of the world

By order of Napoleon III, France took possession of New Caledonia on 24 September 1853. Treated as a day of grief by the local Melanesian population for many years, the day has more recently been transformed into a national holiday, “Citizenship Day”. This day is meant to include all New Caledonian citizens, including the Melanesians (or Kanaks), the Caldoches (or Europeans) and the Metros (those from metropolitan France).

This year’s festivities have been bereft of pre-event stress and tension.

In Bourail, just days before the event, Citizenship Day was cancelled after 6 months of planning. 8 million francs (67,000 EUR) had been budgeted for the host of conferences, debates, dances, sporting events and tastings lined up with participation from all over the island. It was cancelled due to a request from the local Kanak population to raise the Kanak flag over the town hall for Citizenship Day. Debate has been bubbling on this issue – some feel that the Kanaky flag does not represent all of New Caledonia, but a part. As the name and flag of the country is a controversial issue at the moment, the mayor felt it best to cancel the event and to discuss these issues calmly and outside the context of Citizenship Day.

Meanwhile in Nouméa, again just days before the event, the town hall informed the organisers of a project called “Tribe in the City” that their project had been rejected. The 150 Years Committee had planned to build 9 huts in the city centre, next to an important Kanak monument, Mwa Ka; to bring the tribes to the city, if you will. Though the project had been previously accepted, the town hall reversed their decision just 1 week before the huts were to be ready, on grounds of security and urbanism regulations.

“The hut, that’s at the (heart of) the Kanak Constitution. To tell us there will be no huts, is to tell us they don’t want Kanaks in the city.”

You can imagine the tension in the air that day. After a few more days of negotiations, it was decided last Friday that the project could go ahead, under certain conditions (that the huts would come down at the end of September rather than remain permanent fixtures; that security and urbanism rules would be respected; that no alcohol would be sold on the premises, etc.).

Huts in the cityAs it turns out, the huts are just down the hill from us. We were able to watch their day-to-day progress as they went from piles of logs to skeletal structures to habitable huts in just a few days. Melanesians worked through the night, starting on Friday afternoon.

On the left, you’ll see their progress on Sunday.

By this afternoon (Monday), we counted 8 of the 9 huts more or less ready (8 representing the 8 aires coutumieres and 1 representing the communal house). Though they were delayed by the town hall decision (and many said they wouldn’t be ready), they were!

The final touches were going up on the roofs of a few and the walls were going up on another, as we visited this afternoon. Women worked on weaving the palms and men built the rooftops. Workers were surrounded by Melanesians singing and cheering them on. Children running in and out of legs, adults seeking food from the many booths, it was a welcoming, warm and festive air.

To get a feeling for the tribes in the city today, watch this short video:

We asked ourselves where the other Europeans were, why they weren’t here, participating in this rare cultural exchange. Pablo, our 6-year-old also asked about the Kanaky flag, which was flying from almost all of the huts. Wasn’t that the issue in Bourail, he asked. We later read that the mayor was to raise the French flag in the square with the huts as well. I suppose a compromise had been reached, and both flags flew.

As we visited Mwa Ka, the Kanak monument pictured at the top of this post, we stopped and spoke with one of the Melanesians and her 9-year-old son. She explained some of the imagery in the totems and remarked that the Europeans never came to experience their culture – only the foreigners did. She said her son was hoping his school friends would come by, but his friends are European, and they hadn’t come, she explained. I could tell that he wanted to play with his friends (though there were many other children there) and though proud of his culture, was disappointed. I realised today, again, looking into his eyes, that it starts young, the “invisible barriers“. So many divisions in schools, both primary and university; so many divisions in the streets, in homes, in lives.

And yet, we are citizens of the world, mixed and mixing, moving across continents and cultures. She asked our nationalities. When she learned that my husband was French and that I was American, she smiled and said New Caledonia was the meeting place, the middle ground, where our New Caledonian son had been born. Yes, I nodded my head. We are citizens, all, of this place, and the point, she said, was to “vivre ensemble”  (live together).

If you look carefully at the visual history painted on the pirogue/boat at Mwa Ka, you’ll find at the end of the Kanak history, “vivre ensemble”. It seemed to me, today, spending just a little bit of time with the Kanaks (kanaka means “human being” in Hawaiian), that they are much, much wiser than they are being given credit for.

Storytelling and discovery at the Centre Culturel Tjibaou

By an unexpected turn of events, we were privy to an old Kanak story this afternoon. The Centre Culturel Tjibaou was free and open to the public as part of the Journées du Patrimoine (or “Heritage Days“) and as it was a cloudy, rainy day, we decided to go along. One of my absolute favourite places in Nouméa, I was keen to share it with my husband and son (who’d last been when just weeks old).

Little did we know various events had been set up for both adults and children at the Centre.

Our first stop was a storytelling session with the lovely Melanesian man pictured left. He loved his story and entreated us several times to listen carefully. It was a story for the young and old alike. The story was about two birds, one who worked hard and one who enjoyed flying above the mountains. It was a cautionary tale about the importance of working hard. At the end, he explained that for the children it is a story about the importance of working hard at school, to get qualified, and go on to university, to aim high and accomplish much. If they didn’t work hard, they would be empty-headed like the bird who did nothing but flew over the mountains. This of course struck me as odd, as my own time is so far away from having to encourage children to go to school and work hard. I also do not think children are tabulas rasas, or that we have to fill their heads with knowledge (rather I think we should be encouraging them to discover all that they already know, but call me crazy).

My husband was verily relieved when I did not disagree with our storyteller.

The other part of the story was for adults – he explained that we too have to work hard, all of our lives. How curious, I thought. My culture is so consumed with reducing stress and overload. And here was a culture pushing us toward it. (But as one spends time here, one begins to understand the whys and wherefores of this Kanak story.)

After the story, we were treated to a guided tour of the permanent collection. This was magnificent! We were not allowed to photograph the pieces (to protect the artists’ copyrights). There was a beautiful exhibition wall that came alive with light, sound and colour (called My Garden) along with stunning totems and sculptures. A sizeable and enchanting collection that I plan to revisit again and again. We were then taken behind the scenes, where we saw the storage areas, the temporary exhibition areas, the transition areas, the exhibition build areas and the receiving area. We had no idea that the centre had such massive and complete exhibition areas underneath it!


We then went to visit one of the other stunning parts of the Centre – the Kanak “cases” or living areas. We  loved them – for their beauty, size, simplicity and symbolism. Each case has certain plants at its entry, each pole inside is carved. Each case has a cooking area and mats for the tribe members to sleep on. We are looking forward to visiting the tribes in the north during our stay here to see more of this up close. We have so many questions – and I have so much research to do! If any of you out there are deeply familiar with the Kanak culture or can point me in the direction of more information, I’d love to hear from you!

And thus ended our visit, but we plan on going back this week or next to learn more about the Kanak traditions and customs. Do stay tuned …