NAURU: Interview with Elmina Quadina

I had the great fortune of getting in touch with Nauruan writer and teacher Elmina Quadina and got to ask her about life on Nauru as well as Stories from Nauru – her 1990 short story “A Plea For Help” really stuck with me, and has stuck with others, as one of the most emotionally moving piece of writing in that book. In the story, Elmina writes about her frustrations and challenges and lack of understanding about her hearing loss in her 30s. We chatted about the short story, how things have changed since then for Nauruans with disabilities, and she shared some great details about traditional food and dress on Nauru.

All photos are courtesy Elmina Quadina, and responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Writer and teacher Elmina Quadina

Tell me about Stories from Nauru, how did people respond to “A Plea for Help”?

I was just trying to raise awareness of what it’s like being with a hearing impairment, since l was not born with it but acquired it through later in life. Also to the fact of being made fun of and to think your own doctors think its nothing compared to other disabilities. Just imagining those born without it at all. Got me the guts to do what l did. Yes for sure once l opened up, l was sure surprised to find quite a number of my own people coming forward for hearing tests on the first day the doctors brought in some specialists after launching the book of Nauruan stories.

Making dough for Easter buns with her students

Elmina previously was a stewardess with Nauru Airlines, which included travelling all around the world, including to Japan, Taiwan, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. She is now a teacher at a special needs school on Nauru, which was established in 2002.

At this time I’m teaching pupils of special abilities. They can be a handful, but they are lovable. Myself now being disabled with my hearing impairment, it’s hard trying to catch up with the needs of my students. Though l try to the best of my ability to work with them together as one. Though l was not born with my disability. I have come to understand the needs of these children. There is nothing more important than showing them love and care. I am not the 30 year old but now l’ve turned 60. So don’t be surprised if l’m still on my feet. Hee!!! I guess I’m still young at heart.

What are some traditional Nauruan foods?

Well food to say may be quite different in the old days and how they cook them. But nowadays l guess we people become too dependent with money talk. So usually we buy tin food mostly.

But local delicacies are usually fish. Deep fish ocean fish and reef fish. Local delicacy is raw fish in coconut milk (tuna, bonito, skipjack, yellow tail or others). Octopus cooked in coconut milk. Or salted and dried under the sun. Sea urchins eaten raw.

Actually some Nauruans eat them but not me. I’d collect them for my cultural handcrafts. As you can see from one of the beauty pageants. Shells are used for necklaces, adornment on costumes. And other uses such as house decorations outdoor curtains etc.

Black terns are another Nauruan delicacies.

This is a hermit crab [picture above] that would grow much bigger and becomes a coconut crab. Why its called coconut crab is because it then can climb up a coconut tree to eat of its fruit.

Usually Nauruans are good divers as well. They wouldn’t leave the waters till they have acquired some good catch.

What’s daily life like on Nauru?

Well since this is a very small island. And Nauruan people have acquired more of the modern style of living. I’d say our regular days are just lazing about.

Daily life is just like any other people around the Pacific. Though nowadays gambling is a more fun way of spending the day, though these games are mostly played at any private houses.

Local handfans woven with the use of pandanus leaves, hibiscus fibres or now with modern resources available such as raffias.

Tribal weaving of mats or baskets is not allowed to be used with other tribes. This type of pattern [picture above] usually belongs to the lruwa tribe and cannot be used in any other tribal clans.

You might think Nauru should not be divided into tribes as it’s pretty a small island. But as you can see from our flag, we have the twelve pointed star which represents the 12 tribes. We are of a matrilineal society and our children each follow on with their mothers tribe. So, so far we have lost two tribes to the fact that these two tribes have only male children left and no more women to bare their offspring to continue the tribe.

Traditional costumes are made with our local resources. They are now usually worn during special occasions such as Angam celebrations or Constitution Day and or other such as birthday parties, etc.

Elmina also shared with me some tips and a further recipe to make really good coconut fish – I’ll be sharing that soon! A huge huge thank you to Elmina Quadina for sharing her story, her experiences, and these wonderful pictures.

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