At eight this morning I attended Tuvalu’s independence celebrations. From the Maneaba, a covered meeting place next to the airport terminal, I sat in shirt and tie watching a parade of seamen, police, and schoolchildren perform a short parade. They assembled in formation on the runway, which because of limited land space is Tuvalu’s only large area of asphalt. Tuvalu has been independent since 1978, before which it was part of the British colony known as the Gilbert and Ellice islands, named after the first Europeans to land there.
The Prime Minister made an address in Tuvaluan. Occasionally he used the odd English phrase: the first few lines of the Lord’s prayer; something about the dawn of a new era. I may have been mistaken but i’m pretty sure I heard him refer to ‘the great economist Joseph’. After the speech the Prime Minister inspected the police and seamen, who wore naval uniform. Loud speakers belted out ‘When the Saints go Marching In’, played on a keyboard to an oompah-loompah beat. Several women fanned themselves in the heat.
We stood for the national anthem. Everyone sang note perfect, and the sound was distinctly unlike the dirge into which God Save the Queen normally degenerates. I felt emotional. This wasn’t the macho willy-waving of a North Korean military parade or the smug grandeur of Britain’s royalty. There was none of the brash jingoism of powerful states. This was the quietly self-congratulatory display of a benign group of people with no army, who have been dealt a difficult hand in a globalising world.
It is a battle that has yet to be won. The Prime Minister spoke in the present tense: “Fighting for separation and freedom from our colonial masters is not always an easy task for a small and very vulnerable country like us”. Tuvalu hopes, like a lot of small states, one day to run its own affairs without aid handouts. Trade liberalisation in other countries is making its exports less and less competitive abroad, and the economy is faltering. The country is suffering the ill-effects of global warming, something to which it didn’t contribute. Some predict that Tuvalu will disappear within the next half-century as the sea level rises.
An official read a series of messages from other countries. Taiwan’s President, Ambassador and Minister of Foreign Affairs all separately sent their congratulations (they give Tuvalu a lot of aid because it is one of the few countries to recognise Taiwan as an independent nation). Next came notes from neighbouring Kiribati, as well as Korea and Germany, followed by a message from Hilary Clinton. There was nothing from the UK.
This is a tiny nation, struggling amidst globalisation, and trying to assert its identity. I don’t normally set much store by words like pride and dignity, and i’m not a nationalist, but I could see that after 80 years lumped into an enormous colony named after two 18th-century English sailors, self-determination is a valued prize.