Ou taka kofea?| Where are your sandals?

This week to celebrate Tuvalu language week 2014 we have shared a few highlights from our collection on Instagram including a pair of taka (reef sandals). In Tuvalu taka were more than a fashion statement, for some they were a necessity.

Tuvalu is a low-lying island group made up of four reef islands and five true atolls. The highest point of Tuvalu is 4.6 metres above sea level which makes the island group extremely vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels. Tuvalu translates as ‘eight standing together’ which refers to the eight islands: Nanumea, Nanumaga, Niutao, Nui, Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Funafuti (capital), and Nukulaelae. The ninth island Niulakita, has only been inhabited only since the 1950s, by people from Niutao Island.

Fishing is one of the main subsistence activities in Tuvalu and is one of the country’s major exports. In earlier times fishing represented a whole way of life and involved the whole community. An account from the 1960s, recorded that adult men would partake in the more difficult ocean canoe fishing such as catching bonito fish or netting flying fish by torchlight using tae sasave (flying fish net). This model tae sasave is made from sticks that have been bound together with sennit. The net is made from fine twisted and knotted sennit fibre.

Model Fishing Net (Flying Fish Net), Tuvalu. Gift of L Geursen, 1991. Te Papa

Model Fishing Net (Flying Fish Net), Tuvalu. Gift of L Geursen, 1991. Te Papa

Women and children were also involved in gathering seafood although they were generally restricted to the less difficult task of reef fishing and collecting shellfish.

Fishing was definitely an art in Tuvalu with each island having several tautai (fishing experts) who inherited knowledge and methods from their fathers and in turn taught their sons and other men on the island. This pool of knowledge was extensive and included the production of specialist equipment including frame nets, hooks, traps and shooting devices. On the island of Nukufetau 47 methods of catching 112 families and species of fish was recorded.

In addition to fishing equipment protective wear such as woven pandanus leaf matali (eye shades) were created to protect fishermen from the sun. Another interesting fishing accessory were the hand woven taka (reef sandals) .

Reef sandals, Tuvalu. Gift of L Geursen, 1991. Te Papa

Reef sandals, Tuvalu. Gift of L Geursen, 1991. Te Papa

Taka were made by men although they were worn by both men and women when fishing on the sharp-edged reefs. The sole of the sandal is made from plaited kafa (coconut fibre cord) and fixed to the foot by lengths of rolled kafa that wrap around the toes, foot and ankle.

Diagram showing how Taka (reef sandals) are worn.

Diagram showing how Taka (reef sandals) are worn.

German anthropologist Gerard Koch notes in The Material Culture of Tuvalu that it was not necessary for everyone to own their own fishing equipment and that borrowing between neighbours was common. In this situation it’s easy to imagine that a missing pair of taka would not have been cause for alarm rather a simple sign that someone had gone fishing.


Besnier, N. (1999 ). Tuvaluan: A Polynesian Language of the Central Pacific. London: Routledge.

Koch, G. (1961).  The material culture of Tuvalu. Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.

2 Responses

  1. Phillip

    Really interesting article! thanks.


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