Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Third Hawai’i Post – Customs that Connect

In Hawai’i (I’m using the spelling I saw there) Nkiru and I visited the Polynesian Cultural Center where we learned about the history and customs of many of the groups that make up the state today with its population of 1.3 million.

I loved seeing similarities between those cultures and customs I know from Africa.

Tattoo from Samoa

Samoan tattoo from Tumblr

Do you know where we get the word ‘tattoo?” I didn’t, but do now. The Samoan word for tattoo is tatau. According to the  Polynesian Cultural Center, “Early Englishmen mispronounced the word tatau and borrowed it into popular usage as tattoo.”

The Samoan tattoos remind me of the facial markings or scarifications given to children in Nigeria to show status or relationships. Though I’m glad I didn’t need to give my children these marks, I recognize that some aspect of tribal identity has been lost in Igbo and other Nigerian cultures today.

Did you know about the French influence in Tahiti? Of course – I remember South Pacific with its French planter. Tahiti today is “a cosmopolitan blend of ancient Polynesian heritage and French élan.” Tahitians learn English as their third or fourth language, after Tahitian and/or another island dialect, then French.

“While the overlay of French culture and influence is undeniable, the Tahitians still take great pride in their ancient Polynesian heritage,” I learned from the website. How similar this is to the French West African countries like Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast and Senegal. 

When I saw the demonstration of dances from Tonga, I thought of my friend Soraya from BCAC who had been a Peace Corps volunteer there. She described it as a nation of friendly people which is just what the Polynesian Cultural Center description says.

Dancing atop a double-hulled canoe in the canal at Polynesian Cultural Center.

Dancing atop a double-hulled canoe in the canal at Polynesian Cultural Center.

Seeing men and women dance so enthusiastically again reminded me of Nigeria and the dances I’ve seen at ceremonies and parties, and danced myself!

In Fiji there is a ceremonial drink called kava. The Nigerian equivalent is palm wine.

I already knew about kava from returned Peace Corps volunteers who served the drink at one of our reunions. Kava is made from the pounded root of the yaqona and is barely intoxicating in moderation. Palm wine on the other hand comes from the sap of the palm tree and is definitely intoxicating. 

We had dinner at the Polynesian Cultural Center. It was the Ali’i Luau, or the luau for royalty – stone fired slow-cooked, pulled pork Hawaiian style, honey-roasted sweet potato topped with coconut flakes – my favorites. Nkiru heaped her plate with steamed rice.

In fact she had rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout our visit! What customs have you encountered in your travels that remind you of other places you’ve visited?

On the Water at Waikiki, Grandmas Having Fun

painted toenails

Grandmas showing a recent American custom of colorful toenails. Mine are in the silver sandals on the left.

Surfing at Waikiki

Nkiru at Waikiki on our first morning.

I just had to include this shot of Nkiru surfing at Waikiki and the picture of the grandmas who wanted to show off their colorful toenails.

Apologies to my Facebook friends who’ve already seen this.

Update on Nigeria and Friends of Nigeria

I’ve been so full of news about Hawai’i that I’ve said nothing about Nigeria for days. So here’s an update.

A letter was mailed a few days ago to the President of Nigeria in Abuja and to the Nigerian Embassy in Washington by the Friends of Nigeria Board asserting our dismay at the law criminalizing homosexuality.

You can read a copy here:

“We have no illusions that it will have any immediate effect,” the FON President Greg Jones said, “but we felt obligated to speak out.”

This has sparked lively email discussion about human rights in other countries and implementation of human rights laws in the U.S. 

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.


  1. Thanks, David. Yes, it does remind me of Igbo, especialy all the vowels and short syllables. In fact, when someone tries to guess where my last name comes from, Hawaii is often the first answer.

  2. When you listen to the Hawaiian language, its vowels and intonations, doesn’t it remind you somewhat of Igbo? Anyone who learned to speak Igbo should have fun learning Hawaiian.