Legends, Traditions, and Tales of Nauru (Nauru)

Nauru Mapby Timothy Detudamo

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

In 1938, just as WWII was heating up around the globe, in a tiny island nation to the northeast of Australia, Nauru Head Chief Timothy Detudamo became concerned that the traditional oral stories of his people would be lost. Did he know his home island was about to be overrun by invading Japanese? This slim volume doesn’t say.

It does, however preserve the knowledge. As the title suggests, the book is split into 3 sections:


book coverThis section gives what could be read as creation myths or literal truth (religion), depending on your viewpoint. They include the origins of Nauru and the South Pacific, how the world was created by 7 giants out of a giant bivalve; how tribal divisions happened, how the first canoe and the first coconut tree were born, etc.

I particularly enjoyed the legend of the coconut, which concludes:

“Since the appearance of this strange tree on Nauru, its fruit, the coconut, has become the elixir of life. Coconut should be eaten at least twice a day, and it has always been recommended that it should be either taken or mixed with other food such as edano, etam, ebaba, edeto, and fish.”

Something to ponder, as I have a lot of health problems–is it because I am deprived of the elixir of life? I certainly don’t eat coconut twice a day. Maybe I should. And what are these Polynesian-language foods that aren’t translated in the book? (The publishers at the University of the South Pacific, publishing this book in English, should have known better.) Ironically, if you Google “edano”, you will get pages of results for Yukio Edano, a Japanese politician.

Traditional Culture of Nauru

Photo of island from the oceanThis section is non-fiction about the lifestyles of the Nauruans–appearances and dress, food storage, fighting, leadership, fishing, houses, childbirth, death, etc.

It was in this section that I learned that edano is a food made from pounded pandanus root. The pandanus tree is apparently very useful for fibers…it makes clothing and huts and weapons and all sorts of things. I still have no idea what it tastes like, although I’m imagining it as maybe a bit like the poi that native Hawaiians make from the taro root?

Asian websites (pandanus is popular in Southeast Asia as well) have this to say: It is:

  • the Asian vanilla
  • similar to coconuts
  • tastes like sugar cane/mango if you suck on the raw stalk
  • kinda banana-leafy, sorta grassy, a little bit nutty, and a lot like Jasmine rice–all at the same time

Confused yet?

Tales of Nauru

Pandanus fruitI’m not sure why this is a separate section, since these tales seem no different in story content or purpose from the first section, Legends. Some appear to be teaching tales, like The Clumsy Father Crab, in which a crab and a rat have a human baby. The rat goes off to gather women’s things and leaves the crab and the baby alone on the beach. The crab attempts to play with the baby, but in trying to pick her up, cuts off all her fingers with his pincers. The mother rat comes back and scolds him and he never touches the baby again.

I know I was supposed to learn something there, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Was this a tale to explain child abuse? That, to borrow a Western concept, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions? That men should listen to their wives, the dummies? That mixed marriages are hard on the kids? I just don’t know.

Another tale, Bagewa, is subtitled “How the Lizards, Insects and Fish Came to Nauru”–again, very similar to the first section in which we learn how many other animals came to Nauru (though not the crabs nor the rats).

It is interesting to me as a pet-rat fancier, how Nauru apparently had indigenous rats, unlike Hawaii, where they were introduced by white men and their ships.

Constructive Criticism

Chief Timothy on a Nauru stampThis book most definitely could have used an introduction. Context required, if you aren’t from Nauru. Maps, drawings, photographs, and an improved Glossary and footnotes would also have been nice.

Despite my slight puzzlement, in fact my sometimes utter bafflement, upon reading these stories, I’m glad I did. This is important cultural knowledge from the smallest island nation on earth (and the 3rd smallest nation period, if you count Vatican City as a nation, which I don’t, and Monaco, which I do). Thank you Chief Detudamo, for making sure it would not be lost.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go eat my daily coconut. Elixir of life, you know!


To read more about Nauruan history, it is currently being used as a shameful off-shore warehouse for refugees from countries like Iran, who are trying to get to Australia.

Also, check out the wonderful blog by a Hungarian writer, whose concept is similar to mine, and who also reviewed this book. Their blog concept is “Following Folktales Around the World.”

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