My Tuvalu Diary: Documenting A Culture

There was nothing glamorous about this trip. But oh my goodness was it worth it. It only lasted two weeks, and in those two weeks, some days were so difficult, but every day was an adventure, an experience, and a chance to grow. 

It was the biggest test of my confidence I have ever faced in my life. I had to overcome self-doubt and insecurity in order to do the job I came there to do. After all, this project was not about me whatsoever. It was about the people of Tuvalu and telling their story. 

At the end of 2018, I was invited by Professor John C.P. Goheen to accompany him to the South Pacific Island country Tuvalu. I introduced the project in a previous article that can be found here. Flash forward to May 2019, and Kaitlin McMurry, Jake Pieczynski, Goheen and I were packing our bags to take off.  

Tuvalu is a country comprised of nine islands, with a population of only about 11 thousand people. It is primarily polynesian, and almost impossible to find on a map. It is smack-dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.

The night before I left I felt so nervous that my stomach was completely upside-down. I felt nervous about being disconnected from the world for two weeks, but I also knew that it was something I needed. The other reason I was so anxious to the point of sickness was because I sacrificed so much for this project and invested so much. It has to be the best work I’ve accomplished so far (not to put too much pressure on myself or anything). 

Planes only land a few times a week in Tuvalu’s capital, Funafuti, so we had to plan our travel accordingly. It took four planes: Chicago to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Fiji, then to smaller airport in Fiji, then Tuvalu.

As soon as our fourth plane landed in Tuvalu’s capital, Funafuti, our assigned groups of Tuvaluan youth, who were going to help us with this project, were waiting for us. They immediately adorned our heads with leis and flower crowns. It was both exciting and overwhelming. Stepping off the plane felt like stepping into an oven. The temperature of Tuvalu is typically in the high 80s- low 90s with 100 percent humidity. That was something I, unfortunately, did not get used to.

Kaitlin McMurry and Annie Raglow after landing in Funafuti, Tuvalu.

The airstrip serves as the “town center.” After all they only clear the strip a few times a week! There is no security whatsoever. During the day, it is a road. In the evening, it is where people congregate to play sports and socialize. At night, it is where young people sneak off for dates. When the strip is cleared, everyone stopped what they were doing to watch us land. 

We were invited to a government meeting the next morning, where we could introduce ourselves to government officials. At the end of the meeting, our liaison, Tao, brought in a cake for us. Goheen got to cut the cake, then Tao passed it around so everyone could take a piece with their bare hands. They then proceeded to raise their cake and give us a toast. 

One woman said, “Unlike wine or champagne, we toast with cake.” 

Then it came time to meet our team members. The four of us each got a group of Tuvaluan youth to mentor. The whole point of the project was to allow them to tell their story; we were just giving them the technology, platform and education to do so.

Tuvalu is facing severe consequences of climate change. Rising sea levels, saltwater intrusion, soil erosion, cyclones and more face the country. It may not exist in 50 years. It may not be habitable even sooner than that. 

I could sense everyone in the room getting very uncomfortable when Goheen said they perhaps cannot die here. It’s clear they want to be able to die here. 

The Tuvaluans had surprised faces when I announced that not all Americans believe in climate change. On this island, you can stare climate change right in the face. 

At night, one of my team members, Lili, took me out on the town with the rest of the team. We casually made an appearance at her cousin’s wedding, where Lili filled up a plate with food, plopped a raw fish on top, then carried it with her on a motorbike to the beach. There, I ate raw fish with my bare hands. 

Let me tell you: “island time” is no joke. If my team said they would pick me up at 9:30, they would show up at 11.

Annie Raglow on the back of a motorbike with a member of her team.

After briefly teaching my team how to work our video cameras, our first serious shooting was getting B-roll at the pig pens. Let me say once again, not a glamorous trip. Pigs may be cute, but they do not smell nice in that kind of humidity.

Annie’s team shooting the pig pens in Tuvalu.

This isn’t to say there were no amazing moments. For example, we could not believe that our team members had never been night swimming on this tropical island. So one night we all went to the beach after dark and had a blast. 

Oh my goodness the stars. No picture could do it justice. The water was so warm. Shockingly warm. 

The trip was quite humbling. After all, I was working off of two film courses worth of video experience. This, of course, showed. But I had to remind myself that it was still an incredible honor that Goheen saw potential in me to invite me to join the project in the first place. 

A Tuvaluan elder weaving in her backyard.

I will always be grateful for this trip and opportunity. I will forever cherish the memories of riding around on motorbikes with my team, listening to island music, eating raw fish and coconuts, wearing traditional skirts called sulus and giving this island a voice that it so badly needs.

Now, we are in the post-production process. That is an entire can of worms in itself. Four people in different locations with hundreds of hours of footage is not easy to coordinate. As I am studying abroad this semester, I will continue to log my footage and transcribe all of my interviews (those of you who have transcribed interviews know how tedious this task can be). 

I have greatly appreciated everyone who has asked me about my experience because being the storyteller that I am, I have so many amazing memories to share. I cannot wait to see what becomes of this project, and I know full well that our work has only just begun.

The Tuvalu Dollar.