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What You Need To Know

Tuvalu, formerly known as the Ellice Islands, is a Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean, about midway between Hawaii and Australia, lying east-northeast of the Santa Cruz Islands (belonging to the Solomons), southeast of Nauru, south of Kiribati, west of Tokelau, northwest of Samoa and Wallis and Futuna and north of Fiji. It comprises three reef islands and six true atolls spread out between the latitude of 5° to 10° south and longitude of 176° to 180°, west of the International Date Line. Tuvalu has a population of 10,640 (2012 census). Situated in Oceania, the total land area of the islands of Tuvalu is 26 square kilometres (10 sq mi).

The first inhabitants of Tuvalu were Polynesians. The pattern of settlement that is believed to have occurred is that the Polynesians spread out from Samoa and Tonga into the Tuvaluan atolls, with Tuvalu providing a stepping stone to migration into the Polynesian Outlier communities in Melanesia and Micronesia.

In 1568, Spanish navigator Álvaro de Mendaña was the first European to sail through the archipelago, sighting the island of Nui during his expedition in search of Terra Australis. In 1819 the island of Funafuti was named Ellice’s Island; the name Ellice was applied to all nine islands after the work of English hydrographer Alexander George Findlay. The islands came under Britain’s sphere of influence in the late 19th century, when each of the Ellice Islands was declared a British Protectorate by Captain Gibson of HMS Curacoa between 9 and 16 October 1892. The Ellice Islands were administered as British protectorate by a Resident Commissioner from 1892 to 1916 as part of the British Western Pacific Territories (BWPT), and then as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony from 1916 to 1974.

A referendum was held in December 1974 to determine whether the Gilbert Islands and Ellice Islands should each have their own administration. As a consequence of the referendum, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony ceased to exist on 1 January 1976 and the separate British colonies of Kiribati and Tuvalu came into existence. Tuvalu became fully independent within the Commonwealth on 1 October 1978. On 5 September 2000 Tuvalu became the 189th member of the United Nations.

Population

11,097 (2016)

Languages

The Tuvaluan language and English are the national languages of Tuvalu. Tuvaluan is of the Ellicean group of Polynesian languages, distantly related to all other Polynesian languages such as Hawaiian, Māori, Tahitian, Rapa Nui, Samoan and Tongan. It is most closely related to the languages spoken on the Polynesian outliers in Micronesia and northern and central Melanesia. The Tuvaluan language has borrowed from the Samoan language, as a consequence of Christian missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries being predominantly Samoan.

The Tuvaluan language is spoken by virtually everyone, while a language very similar to Gilbertese is spoken on Nui. English is also an official language but is not spoken in daily use. Parliament and official functions are conducted in the Tuvaluan language.

There are about 13,000 Tuvaluan speakers worldwide. Radio Tuvalu transmits Tuvaluan language programming.

Currency

Tuvaluan dollar. The dollar is the currency of Tuvalu. From 1966 to 1976, Tuvalu officially used the Australian dollar. In 1976, Tuvalu began issuing its own coins for circulation, although these circulate alongside Australian coins and Tuvalu continues to use Australian banknotes.

Religion

The Congregational Christian Church of Tuvalu, which is part of the Reformed tradition, is the state church of Tuvalu; although in practice this merely entitles it to “the privilege of performing special services on major national events”. Its adherents comprise about 97% of the 10,837 (2012 census) inhabitants of the archipelago. The Constitution of Tuvalu guarantees freedom of religion, including the freedom to practice, the freedom to change religion, the right not to receive religious instruction at school or to attend religious ceremonies at school, and the right not to “take an oath or make an affirmation that is contrary to his religion or belief”.

The Roman Catholic community is served by the Mission Sui Iuris of Funafuti. Other religious groups include the Seventh-day Adventist and the Bahá’í with, respectively, 1.4% and 1.0% of the population. According to its own estimates, the Tuvalu Brethren Church has about 500 members (i.e., 4.5% of the population). The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has about 50 members (0.4% of the population).

The introduction of Christianity ended the worship of ancestral spirits and other deities (animism), along with the power of the vaka-atua (the priests of the old religions). Laumua Kofe describes the objects of worship as varying from island to island, although ancestor worship was described by Rev. D.J. Whitmee in 1870 as being common practice.

Health

The Princess Margaret Hospital on Funafuti is the only hospital in Tuvalu. The Tuvaluan medical staff at PMH in 2011 comprised the Director of Health & Surgeon, the Chief Medical Officer Public Health, an anaesthetist, a paediatric medical officer and an obstetrics and gynaecology medical officer. Allied health staff include two radiographers, two pharmacists, three laboratory technicians, two dieticians and 13 nurses with specialised training in fields including surgical nursing, anaesthesia nursing/ICU, paediatric nursing and midwifery. PMH also employs a dentist. The Department of Health also employs nine or ten nurses on the outer islands to provide general nursing and midwifery services.

Like many South Pacific islands obesity is a major health issue where 65% of men and 71% of women are overweight.

Heritage

The traditional community system still survives to a large extent on Tuvalu. Each family has its own task, or salanga, to perform for the community, such as fishing, house building or defence. The skills of a family are passed on from parents to children.

Most islands have their own fusi, community owned shops similar to convenience stores, where canned foods and bags of rice can be purchased. Goods are cheaper and fusis give better prices for their own produce.

Another important building is the falekaupule or maneapa the traditional island meeting hall, where important matters are discussed and which is also used for wedding celebrations and community activities such as a fatele involving music, singing and dancing. Falekaupule is also used as the name of the council of elders – the traditional decision making body on each island. Under the Falekaupule Act, Falekaupule means “traditional assembly in each island…composed in accordance with the Aganu of each island”. Aganu means traditional customs and culture.