A last look at Tokelau

This article is more than 10 years old.

April 11, 1997, was a celebratory day on Tokelau, a 10-square-kilometer island 500 kilometers north of Western Samoa. There was dancing and feasting on each of the island’s three coral atolls in the South Pacific Ocean.

Tokelau had finally gotten a telephone connection. It was the last country on earth to do so.

Tokelau has approximately 1,600 Polynesian inhabitants. Its economy is subsistence, “fish and coconuts and that’s all,” according to Lindsay Watt, Tokelau administrator for New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its tropical weather is tempered by trade winds. It has neither an airport nor a port, and is difficult to reach except by smallish boat or private yacht.

Life before phones

There is no real need for telephones on a single Tokelauan atoll, as each holds only one village.

Inter-atoll communciation was a problem. Tokelauans talked among atolls, and with the outside world, using a noisy shortwave radio.

“We would have to program a time to talk to them. You would agree in one conversation that you would fire up the generator on that day [to power up the radio] . . . they have to bring in all the fuel,” says Jan Henderson, political consular for the New Zealand Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Making matters worse, there are dialect differences between atolls.

Islanders could visit one another personally, of course, but each atoll is either 50 or 100 kilometers from the others.

“They used to have running a little steamer between New Zealand and the three atolls. It took about a week. It was a rust bucket, really. They [also] just got in their canoes, which was dangerous,” Henderson says.

“This inter-atoll communication, it’s very exciting,” she adds.

Tokelau’s wiring was undertaken by Australian Telstra, with the assistance of village men who helped to lay cables and build the antenna foundations. The Tokelau system, consisting as it does of three satellite base stations, is now among the world’s most advanced.

Telephones usher in a new nation

Along with telephones, Tokelau will be acquiring some heady responsibilities. In 1994 it began the process of self-determination, including writing its own constitution.

Until now the territory has relied on New Zealand for administration and monetary assistance, including $1.03 million for the $2.7 million phone project.

Having telephones will help Tokelau to put its own government on the world stage. Each atoll currently has an elected leader called a Faipule, and the three Faipule form a Council. Each year the Council of Faipule elects a leader called Ulu o Tokelau. This year the Ulu is the Faipule of Fakaofo, Aliki Faipule Falima Teao.

Falima Teao was the first person to make an international phone call from Tokelau. He called New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger to thank him for assisting with the phone project.

Just when the rest of the world is moving away from such things, there will also be a new government-regulated telecom service, TeleTok (Telecommunication Tokelau Corporation). One of TeleTok’s important responsiblities is the cost structure for the phone service, which is essentially a nonprofit operation. It is hard to know what a call to Tokelau from the U.S. costs; AT&T has yet to recognize Tokelau’s 690 country code.

A brave new world

There are about 250 families on Tokelau, and each is eager to get a phone. “It’s proving very popular. The telephone directory is now two pages long,” Watt says.

After all, Tokelauans can now reach out and touch their diaspora of about 3,000 in the Samoas and New Zealand.

All telephone numbers are four digits long, and each atoll has its own exchange: “2” for Atafu, “3” for Fakaofo and “4” for Nukunonu.

No word on whether anyone in Tokelau has an Internet connection yet, although the phone system does allow for data transmission.

While wiring will bring great things to Tokelau, the rest of us phoned-, paged-, mailed- and beeped-out road warriors can now only dream of escaping to such an isolated spot. Incommunicado is farther and farther away.

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