The word 'Tumunu', translates as coconut trunk. It is the word given to a barrel caved out of the bulbous base of the coconut tree and also the name given to the gathering called the tumunu. The tumunu is a two-century old Atiu tradition. Set in the jungle, the tumunu is the meeting place for expressing ideas, singing songs and solving problems, all washed down with the mighty bush beer brewed of course in a tumunu barrel.
Shortly after Captain Cook put Atiu on the Admiralty Maps, whalers came to exploit the abundant whales in the south seas. Captain cook also demonstrated the value of fresh vegetables in combating scurvy so the whalers often called on Atiu for food and drink. The whalers, needless to say, were not totally content with water and coconut milk and an active industry developed making bush beer out of oranges. Very quickly, this new brew replaced the traditional kava as the preferred drink and bush beer schools started everywhere.
The missionaries were not pleased. It was the devil's brew. The missionaries mobilised a massive police force and the woman and those poor fellows that liked their drop were hunted down, fined or made to work on the roads. A common fine was 10 yards of coral rock and lime wall. Miles of these walls can be still seen in the villages. The bush beer schools responded to their persecution and developed into very secretive closed member groups called tumunu. The tumunu survived the centuries of persecution. Women were excluded. Ceremonies adopted religion. After all Jesus turned water into wine. The tumunu thrived.
In 1985 the tumunu was still illegal. It was still in the jungle. The church was now tolerating it as the Cook Islands government had changed the dry law, and the era of 'The Bond Store' had started. Anyone over the age of 18 could buy bottled beer. The government was in the business. 1985 was the year the Atiu tumunu changed. It gained official recognition. The Minister of Police and a visiting ambassador from West Germany went to a tumunu for a night's entertainment under police escort. The tumunu emboldened, moved out of the jungle and into the villages.
It was a bad move. No longer was the tumunu a tight-membered group. Passers by on the road were hailed in and joined for a drink. Wives cursed their men drinking, singing and having a good time while they worked around the home. The structure of the tumunu was beginning to collapse. Grudgingly, the person brewing saw he was supporting a lot of casual drinkers. He and his family suffered the cost and one by one the tumunu began to die.Finally, in March 1987, the church, missing the signs of the tumunu's demise, had had enough. The policed prosecuted the tumunu in the villages for brewing. The church inadvertently saved the tumunu. They moved back into the jungle again and thrived.
There are six tumunu on Atiu - Te Poonui, Sunrise, Aretou, Vanilla, Amos and Vaitamina. There have been more but with the decrease in population the number dropped from eleven to six. Each tumunu meet at different times and days of the week. Aretou Tumunu, for example, meets at dusk every evening except Sunday when it meets after church. Other tumunu meet only certain nights and others meet any old time. Aretou is the most popular with visitors.
A typical tumunu session will start with a few rounds of the cup (a small coconut shell cup smaller than the volume of a wine glass), then a rap with the cup on the tumunu barrel will signal the time for the evening devotion. A prayer to god will be said and a lecture on how to take the happiness from the barrel, home, will be given. After this, it is forum time, when anyone can speak. Visitors are expected to speak and introduce themselves. All members of the tumunu contribute to the next brew so it a good idea to take along a bag of oranges or bag of sugar each as your contribution. If you are unable to do this, a $5 contribution will suffice.
The tumunu is an experience not to be missed. You meet the local people on a personal basis; you hear the music and songs of Atiu and above all, have a really good time.
A special event in the tumunu calendar, sponsored by Atiu Villas is the Tumunu Tutaka. This happens on the second Friday in December and is an inspection of all the tumunu by the local health department and 9 visitors to Atiu. The tumunu are judged for cleanliness, attractiveness, music, decor, friendliness, tradition and visitor appeal. If you are on Atiu at this time it is very likely that you will be roped in to be a judge. Accept. It is a real experience and one you are never likely to get again. The winning tumunu for 2005 was Te Poonui. This tumunu has a streetlight, off-street parking, carvings, electricity, shower, toilet, tile floor, fan and telephone. Its all in the jungle and looks native. This tumunu must be seen and experienced.
Stop Press: The winner of the 8 December 2006 Tumunu Tutaka was Te Poonui Tumunu again, but with Aretou Tumunu a very close second.
WARNING: 10 cups of the tumunu are good. Don't waste your holiday talking to the porcelain loudspeaker. More than 10 cups and you are really on your own. We do not know how good your liver is. You can limit the number of cups you have by missing a round. Raising your hand in a stop sign does this. Another technique is to indicate you wish to have small cups by showing a small vertical gap between your thumb and index finger. The men of the tumunu recognise the smaller drinking capacity of women by giving women visitors half measures.