The Waleï Festival - Next held: 14-16 August 2015
Festival is organised each year in Heo, a tribal village in the Saint-Joseph
District, on Ouvéa. It is the opportunity for the many guests to discover the
waleï, a tuber often called "sweet yam" which is the pride and joy of growers
in the north of the island.
Manu Aliki ("the chief's bird") is the name of the Heo women's association, which started the Waleï Festival. Every Thursday, about 20 women from the tribal village get together, organise a large market, do dressmaking and weaving and make damper. "All Ouvéa's leading products were promoted except the waleï," explains Véronique Watiligone, who chairs the association. "So we decided to set up an annual event at Heo to promote this tuber, which is mainly cultivated in the north of the island, and thus showcase the growers' work."
The first Waleï Festival was held in July 2009. It was a big success. With help from the Ouvéa local council and the Islands Province, the second took place in August 2010. Manu Aliki advances the funds; grants from the institutions enable the organising committee (about 15 people) to put on the event; and the profits from the three days of festivities are then redistributed to the women's association. The Waleï Festival is now part of the local calendar. A fine reward for the inhabitants of Heo tribal village, descendants of the populations that lived on the Beautemps-Beaupré islands before the missionaries arrived...
Throughout the three days, numerous groups of dancers, singers and musicians appear on the giant stage, and on a sand rectangle at the foot of the podium. Invited by the committee, some artists have come from Lifou or even the Grande Terre, New Caledonia's main island. The organisers have also planned numerous activities that give a sustained pace to the festival: competitions for woodcutters armed with tamiocs (machetes), basketweaving with coconut-palm fronds, the election of Miss Waleï Mother, a demonstration of how to make damper (from wheat flour, yeast, salt and water kneaded in a cement mixer, then cooked in a pot on the coals from a large coconut fire), peeling and grating these same coconuts, and also visits to a waleï field nearby or the sandalwood distillery. At each activity, the Manu Aliki women, in green mission dresses, don't hesitate to dance at a furious tempo in the midst of the visitors.
Come and eat!
Concealed behind coconut-palm frond curtains, 25 coloured stands represent the tribal villages of the north of Ouvéa. Their names are Lalo Bonu Heo ("beneath the coconut palm trunk"), Morea, Cap Kennedy, Harizona, Kana Iny Mötr ("the land where we live") and Tramomötr, from the name of the waleï's prickly root. All take part in the cooking competition. A panel of examiners, made up partly of visitors, goes around the stands, tastes the food prepared, and makes notes. On the menu are savoury tarts, chips, bougnas, cheese-topped dishes, meatballs or minced fish, all based on waleï. The Lau Waleï ("the waleï leaf") stand-alone offers 15 different dishes! Behind the microphone, Jean-Marie accompanies the members of the panel of examiners. This "voluntary leader" shouts, remonstrates and injects atmosphere. "I consider that it is part of my custom work." Other stands sell the fruits of their labour: oranges, pumpkins or, like Teouta tribal village, mud crabs. And then, of course, each stand exhibits its biggest waleï: tubers that often weigh over three kilos.
Home stays with local residents
The objective is also to unite around this event all the tribal villages in the north of Ouvéa: Heo and also Takedji, Gossanah, Mekili or Weneki. Each year the organisers offer about 100 tourists three-day discovery packages including the return airfare from Noumea, accommodation with local residents for two nights and breakfast, and the return transfer from Hulup Airport to the place of accommodation. The visitor can thus discover the traditional lifestyle of the Loyalty Islanders and absorb a new culture. For their part, the people who offer hospitality to their guests take the opportunity to demonstrate the authentic welcome offered in this type of tribal accommodation.
Destination Loyalty Islands (the DIL) takes care of promoting the Waleï Festival, in close consultation with the organisers. On the site, its stand is never empty; the visitors rush there to take part in the many activities offered over these three days. The choice is varied: the standard tour of the island by minibus for those who have never set foot on Ouvéa or trips on the lagoon to the wild and beautiful Southern and Northern Pleiades islets. The traditional introduction to the iconic Lekiny Cliffs, by glass-bottom boat or on foot if low tide allows, or else a little walk in the Ognat Forest (the north-east tip of the island) looking for the very green and endemic Ouvéa parakeet. More novel is the Nimek hike, three hours return from Saint-Joseph to the extreme north of the island where there is a surprising shark nursery...
The waleï is commonly called "sweet yam". While it is sometimes found on the Grande Terre and attempts have been made to plant it on Maré and Lifou, this tuber basically grows on Ouvéa. It is very widespread in the north of Iaai where it has a far more flattering reputation - floury, very sweet and not at all fibrous - than that grown in the south or centre of Ouvéa.
Seven varieties of waleï are found. The most common are the Sina (with white flesh), the Maingué (mauve flesh) and the Bolok (a kind of large Sina). There is also the Winia (originally from Yaté), the Kayiha (mauve flesh and a slightly rounded head), the Waniohotr (small and rounded) and the Katifala (recognisable by its very long stem).
The waleï grows particularly well in the clay soils with sandy particles that are characteristic of the north of Ouvéa. It is harvested in June and July. The bulk of the crop is eaten or reserved for custom ceremonies (births, marriages, deaths) where the waleï is used to support the yam (it is placed beneath it). The rest is used as seed for the following harvest. Planting is done in August and September and the seeds are placed at a depth of 10 to 15cm. Each little waleï, warmed by the sun and watered by the rain, will give a cluster of half a dozen tubers of good size nine or ten months later. Mulching (with coconut-palm fronds or pandanus) keeps in the moisture, limits weed growth and stops the sun from burning the leaves. While the waleï is grown in the same way as the yam, it is far less fragile and far more resistant to bad weather and disease. Moreover, it needs very little maintenance.
The waleï is still today a staple food on Ouvéa, particularly in the Saint-Joseph District. Used in a bougna, fried (cut into cubes, rounds or chips), boiled in water, with cheese topping, braised or creamed, it is eaten every day in many ways. The elders used to eat it after boiling it in water in its skin ("Omughnyn" method), a tradition which has survived. It can also be tasted "Toulou" (grilled in its skin), "Sosolo" (grated), "Chalachala" (cut into fine slices, sprinkled with coconut milk or dusted with grated coconut, then wrapped in cordyline leaves), "Cidreuina" (wrapped in bush hibiscus spinach and braised) or "Dodong" (cooked in its skin in a traditional oven). But there are many other ways of preparing it.?