| A BOOK TO READ: THE BOY WHO WAS AFRAID
A couple of months ago I read a book which is a reader in primary schools in some parts of the Pacific. It is titled The Boy Who Was Afraid. It is interesting.
The book tells the story of a boy named Mafatu, a 15 year old boy from Hikieru, a small Polynesian island; he was the son of the Great Chief of the island but was taunted and teased by the other boys because he was afraid of the sea. The author of the book is Armstrong Sperry, an American who has studied life in the Pacific.
WHY WAS MAFATU AFRAID?
His fear of the sea may be the result of him and his mother pushed out to sea by a swift current when he was only three. The canoe that they were in capsized out in the open sea. They finally got washed upon the shore of an islet and the mother died while feeding the child with some bits from a cracked coconut.
When the boys go out fishing as all males about his age and older are supposed to do Mafatu does not because he is afraid of the sea; he would stay back and fix up the fishing strings, hooks, nets and spears. Because of that he was often made fun of.
THE ESCAPE AND SURVIVAL
Unable to withstand the jeers and taunting by other boys he left the island in the night in a canoe with a skinny dog named Uri and overhead flew Kivi, an albatross.
After days and nights of tossing in the sea without any land in sight, escaping Moana, the angry Sea God, and being pushed along by the current that has helped many a Polynesian sailor sailing westwards, he and the dog sailed into an uninhabited island with a volcanic peak that rose three thousand feet. The island had coconuts, breadfruit, wild bananas and wild pigs, a type of creature that his island, a flat atoll did not have.
His skills of making nets, strings, hooks and spears helped him survive. He made a spear, fish traps out of bamboo and hooks out of bones from a whale’s skeleton. He even made a knife out of basalt that helped him kill a hammerhead; the hammerhead had on many occasions stolen his fish from his trap and tried to attack his dog when he fell into the sea from a trip that they made out into the lagoon.
He killed a boar, cut it up and made an umu (or a mumu), a ground oven with hot stones, to cook the boar with wild bananas. He made a necklace out of the tusks of the boar, something that only one man on Hikieru had, and that was his grandfather who had ventured to the distant islands in Tahiti where men were said to kill pigs with nothing but a knife.
Mafatu also made himself a new canoe out of the great, tough tamanu tree (or tamano which is the famous calophyllum) for his return journey to Hikieru. The sail of the canoe he made from the leaves of pandanus tree. He even killed feke, the giant octopus when it attacked him when he dove down into the water to reclaim his knife which fell over his canoe on a trip out to the lagoon.
THE BAD MEN
The many accomplishments that he made he said prayers of thanks to the God of the fishermen, Maui. He believed that it was Maui who was his only hope at sea to thwart the designs of Moana, the Sea God, to end his life.
It was while on one of his walks to inspect the island that he realized the other side of the island was used for ritual purposes. He also noticed from the plateau at the top of the island that about 50km away to the east was another island, possibly the home of those who came for their rituals on this island. What he was fearful about was that the people who came to this island may in fact be the feared man-eaters of the east, stories about whom he had heard from other relatives at Hikieru.
On the day that he killed the feke, he was too tired to climb to the plateau to have a look to the other side of the island where the ritual place was – something that he did everyday.
The next morning he was woken up by thumping sounds and made his way to the plateau. There he saw that the men from the neighbouring islands were already starting a ritual with the thumping of drums. He barely escaped four men who tried to capture him. He fled to his side of the island, got onto the canoe which was set for the journey home, stocked with water in bamboo containers, poi of bananas and fresh coconuts; he manages to get the canoe into the water and paddled out before the men reached him.
The men ran around the island and got into their canoes and paddled after him; they were angry because their motu tabu (forbidden island) was profaned by a stranger. By then Mafatu and Uri were out of the lagoon and into the open sea.
The distance between the canoes of the man-eaters and Mafatu’s was closing rapidly; but Mafatu prayed to Maui:
Maui, e! Do not desert me! This last time – lend me your help.
The God of the fishermen may have heard his prayers and a wind puffed up and the crab-claw sail swelled smooth and taut and the boy used every art and skill he had to increase the distance between his vessel and the savage men.
The wind kept up and sure enough his canoe skimmed fast through the open sea, too fast for the savages to catch up with him.
THE JOURNEY HOME
It would be days and nights of sailing, with every container of water and coconut consumed to the point that he thought he just might never see his relatives again and share with them the evidence of things he had accomplished, a great canoe, a great necklace and stories that he would have told.
The wind also had stopped blowing and he was dragged on by the tide eastwards. Each day was hot and the heat burned him; and his nights were cool but were filled with anxiety. At night he could see the Southern Cross deep in the south and Mata Iki (Little Eyes) in another part of the sky; but the stars that he knew he would steer by were the three stars of the Fishhook of Maui.
One day in frustration the boy looks to the north-east and notices a light glow above the sea, something that sailors note that the lagoon of an atoll throw into the sky.
Te mori! Lagoon-fire!
The boy gasped.
At about the same time a flapping of wings caused the boy to look up into the sky and sees Kivi, his albatross friend, as it flies towards the glow over the atoll.
Ah, home! Hikieru!
The boy knew he was home.
A GREAT BOOK BY A GREAT AUTHOR
In not too many words let me say that this book is a great book written by Armstrong Sperry (1897-1976). Check who Sperry is on the internet, possibly wikipedia. Sperry’s grandfather was a sea captain and he loved the sea. Sperry also joined the US Navy towards the end of WW1.
The book notes, as you can see in my reviewing the story, how the islanders were very skillful and survived with the knowledge that they had.
The book also records the growth of a boy into a man, a man of courage. It was his surviving on his own, building his own canoe, fishing and hinting big, wild creatures that kind of sets him apart from what he was a few months earlier.
The book was sold in USA under the title CALL IT COURAGE.
The book also records certain skills which may be fast disappearing in many Pacific Island countries; it is good research material for those who are interested in traditional knowledge of fishing and making of fishing equipment in parts of the Pacific.
I will check to see what the stars Mata Iki and three stars of the fishhook of Maui are and may let you know later on.
The book I read was published by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd; most probably in 1961.
Armstrong Sperry is a professional illustrator and therefore the illustrations in the book were made by him.
Sperry published 29 books. Two of his books before he published Call It Courage in 1940 are:
Wagons Westward: The Story of the Old Trail to Santa Fe (1936), and Little Eagle, a Navaho Boy (1938).
The two books look interesting to me.
#In my next article I may tell you about another book written by another westerner who learned about the navigational knowledge and skills of the Pacific Islanders.