What Does A Polynesian Canoe Mean to a South African?

Several days ago, Hōkūle’a made landfall at Richards Bay, South Africa. This is the first of several stops in the country where so many significant stories of the Worldwide Voyage will be told. Upon arrival, Hōkūle’a crew were greeted by community members of all different backgrounds. Among those who greeted the crew was Romeo Njabulo Ndlovu, a young Zulu man and an intern at Roving Reporters – where a group of student-journalists who are committed to honest and high-quality investigative journalism in South Africa are mentored. The following entry is Romeo’s take on his connection to a canoe and culture from the other side of the world:

Romeo Njabulo, a young journalist with the Roving Reporters in Durban, South Africa (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Romeo Njabulo, a young journalist with the Roving Reporters in Durban, South Africa (Photo by Daniel Lin)

Greeting Hōkūle‘a

Last Monday, I was lucky enough to get an invitation from a company called Sea-Quests to come and welcome this historic canoe officially for the first time in Africa. I went there with a goal of writing five profiles of the crew members and also writing a news article. There, I saw a very unusual type of a boat, something I have never seen before.

When I read on the internet that Hōkūle‘a does not have a compass or any navigation instruments on board I thought that they were bluffing but I was fascinated after seeing for myself that indeed there are no navigation instruments.  I also picked up that the earth means more than I can even begin to explain, judging from how happy the crew members were to meet us after a long time at sea encountering harsh weather conditions.

A group of young Zulu men welcomes Hokule’a to Richards Bay with some local-style singing and dancing (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Crewmembers of Hokule'a and escort vessel, Gershon II, listen to greetings by community leaders and Zulu elders. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Crewmembers of Hokule’a and escort vessel, Gershon II, listen to greetings by community leaders and Zulu elders. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

These expeditions take a lot of time, with no guarantee to the crew that they will get back home safe at the end of each leg. I also sensed a high level of respect of the Polynesian ancestors and culture by just looking at how proud the crew members were when talking about the story of Hōkūle‘a and nearly losing all the ancient knowledge to Westernisation. They also spoke passionately about the fact that they have this canoe now helping spread their message of taking care of the earth and sharing their story of fighting for their own identity in their homeland.

It took great skills, drive and determination for those who built Hōkūle‘a, doing so from a mere painting. It also had me thinking, especially as a young person who thinks technology and the modern ways of living are the only way. I thought: there are people who ditched all that technology and opted for methods which were used by their forefathers – that shows the respect and gratitude they have for those ancestors! It also inspired me to go back to my roots and see which forgotten cultural methods which were used by my ancestors that can be useful in taking care of the planet.

What South Africa Can Learn From Hawai’i

Today, South Africa is still far behind from many other international countries when it comes to nature conservation and I think that we could learn a lot from the Hōkūle‘a about how Hawaiians stood for what they believed in when they decided to build this canoe the traditional, ancient Polynesian way.

Daniel Lin and a young Zulu man deep in conversation on board Hokule'a, sharing stories of their different cultures. (Photo by Romeo Njabulo Ndlovu)
Daniel Lin and a young Zulu man, both the same age, sharing stories and laughs on the decks of Hokule’a. (Photo by Romeo Njabulo Ndlovu)

South Africans should strive to be disciplined, committed towards our beliefs, and respectful to our precious Earth. We can learn new ways of taking care of our land, much like how the Polynesian Voyaging Society has been doing for the past 40 years. We also have ancestors who were wise and who had ways of living that did not destroy but complement our planet.

South Africa can learn that it is possible to travel around the globe sharing a message of change that each country and its citizens can understand. It does not have to happen all at once but visiting and engaging with one city or port at a time will add up. Our biggest challenge in South Africa is that we are very diverse, we have 11 official languages and each of these cultural groups has different beliefs from the other. One thing we could learn from Hōkūle‘a is the unity they displayed in Richards Bay. Members of the crew have different traditions, backgrounds, are from different countries, but have this one common goal of traveling the world and teaching us to take care of our planet which is awesome.

– Romeo Njabulo

(Courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society)
(Courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society)


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Meet the Author
A photographer and National Geographic Young Explorer, Dan has spent his career trying to better understand the nexus between people in remote regions of the Asia/Pacific and their rapidly changing environment. Dan is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the Associated Press, and the Guardian. He believes firmly in the power of visual storytelling as a vessel for advocacy and awareness, which helps to better inform policy makers. In 2016, Dan started the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative seeking to empower the next generation of storytellers from the Pacific Islands. Additionally, Dan is a crewmember for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a Fellow of The Explorers Club, and a member of the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas. He received his Masters Degree from Harvard University