Customs of Tuvalu

Marriage and Family

Mothers are very protective of daughters because virginity is highly prized in a bride. Some weddings are quietly arranged several years in advance by the families involved; otherwise, couples make their own choice.

The traditional competitiveness between the bride’s and groom’s families to provide the best and most food at a wedding feast is discouraged on some islands, either by prior agreement between the families about their respective responsibilities, or by a pastor sponsoring a group wedding of several couples and a combined feast afterwards. Celebrations can last for days. The newlyweds spend their first night at the groom’s family home and their second at the bride’s family home.

Most Tuvaluans are in some way related to each other. Each person knows everyone’s general kinship ties. Since one shares character and reputation with one’s relatives, one is also bound to share material goods. To be kaiu (stingy) is to be despised, and one can ask for goods from relatives without shame.

Households are shared by the extended family. The elderly are cared for by their children and often help raise their grandchildren. Grandparents are considered the most qualified to raise children and teach them how to behave in culturally required ways. All family decisions must be approved by the elders. Older men become more involved in community discussions, and elderly men make kolokolo (coconut fiber string) for use around the home.

Mothers are mainly responsible for disciplining their children, although fathers take action in cases of serious misbehavior. Women cook, feed the livestock, make household items such as mats and thatched roof panels, see to the needs of the family, and work in the pulaka (swamp taro) pits. Men fish, help in the pulaka pits, and are responsible for agriculture.

The typical fale (house) is a rectangular structure made of timber posts from matured coconut stumps, which support a pandanus thatch roof that covers a loose coral floor (concrete in some homes). The floor is elevated above a coral foundation and is made comfortable by rough coconut-frond mats under fine pandanus mats. The home is fitted with woven coconut-frond shutters that are lowered when it rains.


The Tuvaluan diet is comprised of pulaka, fuaga mei (breadfruit), futi (plantains or cooking bananas), cooked or raw fish, crayfish, pork, chicken, and such local vegetables as laulu (spinach). Many dishes are prepared in lolo (coconut cream). Tropical fruits like oolesi (papaya) and bananas are eaten. Foods are normally steamed, boiled, or roasted in a ground oven. Tuvaluans quench their thirst by drinking pi (coconut milk). Imported items such as flour, sugar, rice, salt beef, corned beef, and tea have also made their way into the diet and are popular among those who can afford them.

Tuvaluans eat three meals a day. Breakfast (kaiga i taeao, inuti) often includes a cup of warm, fresh toddy made from coconut sap called ssali kaleve. Toddy is collected twice daily by older boys and young men who are responsible for a few coconut trees each. Toddy is a primary source of vitamin C, especially when fresh. It can also be made into a syrup for cooking or fermented as an alcoholic beverage.

Meals are prepared in an umu (cooking house), a separate structure that contains an open fire. Meals may be eaten at home or sometimes away, such as when food is taken by women to a returning fishing party. All meals begin with a blessing. The midday meal (kaiga i ttuutonu) on Sunday is a major occasion with families eating together, sitting cross-legged on the mat-covered floor. Most food is eaten with the hands; a water bowl is passed around for washing before and after the meal. Neighbors share food, especially after a successful fishing trip or harvest.


Welcoming people is an important ritual in Tuvalu. When people first meet or when they arrive from another island or abroad, they shake hands and say, or are welcomed with, Taalofa! (“Greetings”). Relatives use a sogi (sniffing) gesture, in which they press their face to the other’s cheek and sniff deeply. They may do this on occasions when someone is leaving or arriving on the island, or as an affectionate way to greet children. If meeting after a long absence, old friends may slap one another on the back as they exchange phrases that show how close they are and how pleased they are to see each other.

Since most Tuvaluans see the same people often in the same day, they do not greet each other with “Taalofa!” but instead say E fano koe ki fea? (“Where are you going?”) or E aa koe na? (“What are you doing” or “How are you?”). Greetings may continue with inquiries about a person’s family and friends.

Titles and last names are not often used when addressing others. First names are known and used by almost all Tuvaluans. When speaking English, Tuvaluans adopt the English custom of using titles when appropriate.

Unannounced visits are usual in Tuvalu, and guests are always welcome. Sunday is a popular day for visiting, but any day is acceptable (especially if it is raining hard and no one is working). One would not normally visit early in the morning or around the time when people usually work or prepare meals. Friends sometimes drop in on one another, but it is mostly relatives who visit one another; daughters frequently visit their mothers.

Because the traditional timber-framed house has no permanent walls, only shutters that are lowered, visitors rarely need to knock to announce their presence. It is customary to first remove any footwear, and then to enter and sit down on the papa (pandanus mat). If a mat is not laid down, the visitor waits for one to be spread out. If it is necessary to walk past someone who is sitting or lying down, one says Tulou (“Excuse me”) to apologize for being above the level of the person’s head. One also says “Tulou” when reaching for something above another person’s head.

One sits cross-legged on the mat, although a woman may extend one leg to her side and tuck the other under it. Except during formal speeches in the maneapa (community hall; ahiga on northern islands), one might also stretch his or her legs out straight. Hosts normally offer guests fresh toddy, or share green drinking coconuts or tea. If it happens to be mealtime, guests are invited to eat. If a friend or relative passes by the house during mealtime, someone in the house might call out Vau o kai! (“Stop and eat with us”). The passerby will stop and chat briefly but does not normally stay to eat.

Very special occasions call for a fakaala (feast) in the maneapa, with food served on a tray woven from coconut fronds. The meal ends when the main chief is finished. It is followed by formal speeches, dances, and more speeches as hosts and recipients thank each other.


Popular sports in Tuvalu include soccer, basketball, cricket, and volleyball. Young people also play a traditional sort of volleyball called te ano. Movies are shown in those maneapa equipped with generators or electricity.

Tuvaluans enjoy dancing. Special occasions almost always include the traditional faatele or the more modern siva dance. Young people enjoy the more casual tuisi (“twist”) dances, which are popular fund-raising events. The faatele is a line dance performed by men or women (most commonly young women) wearing pandanus leaf skirts, greenery, and flower garlands. Dancers tell stories with their body movements and are accompanied by onlookers singing, clapping, and beating wooden drums made from boxes or biscuit tins covered with mats. The siva is performed by young women who dance and sing as young men play the guitar and sing.

Holidays and Celebrations

New Year’s Day in Tuvalu is rung in on 1 January. Easter is celebrated in the spring. On Funafuti Atoll, Bomb Day (23 April) commemorates the day during World War II when a Japanese bomb fell through a church roof and destroyed the interior; a U.S. corporal had directed 680 villagers out of the building just moments before. Queen Elizabeth II’s Birthday is celebrated in June, although her actual birth date is in April; the reason for the switch is said to be England’s notoriously unpleasant April weather. National Children’s Day in August features children’s sports and crafts. Tuvalu Day—two days, really, 1 October and 2 October—celebrates the anniversary of the country’s independence with dancing and a parade on the Funafuti Atoll airstrip. Hurricane Day on 21 October remembers the 1972 Hurricane Bebe.

The birthday of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, is a holiday on 14 November, and Christmas is celebrated on 25 December.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas