The coconut tree is known as the “tree of life” and many legends in the Pacific Islands are about how they began. The tree is a vital part of their societies, and without coconuts, most of the tropical islands in the region would have remained uninhabited for both people and animals. In past posts we have seen how the coconut began in the Cook Islands and Tonga. This next legend show us how the coconut tree was introduced in the Marshall Islands.
Debolar, The First Coconut
Likileo is a place on the ocean side of Woja Island in beautiful Ailinglaplap Atoll. In Likileo, there once lived a good woman named Limokare, who had several children. She had no idea that one of them would become famous.
Her first child, a son named Lokam, looked much like other boys. But when her second child was born, all the people of the village came to see, for it was a very strange baby indeed. It was a coconut. Small and green, and with a clever little face that had eyes, nose and mouth, but still- a coconut!
The mother was pleased with her baby. She named him Debolar. No one had ever seen a coconut before, and the people of the village admired the odd little baby. All, that is, except his elder brother, Lokam, who didn’t like him at all.
“Why do you keep that queer-looking thing?” he said to his mother again and again. “Kill it, and throw it away.”
“No!” cried the mother. “Debolar is my baby, I love him.” She gave him milk, and he drank until his little belly grew full and round. If there is a person who doesn’t believe that Debolar could drink milk, let him look inside a coconut. It is filled with milk.
The mother gave Debolar the best of care. She wove him a little basket. She used koba, or bamboo, which was of great value in those days. It didn’t grow in Woja Island but sometimes came drifting in on the tide. Limokare put the baby in the basket and hung it up. She rocked him and sang him to sleep.
Lokam, the elder brother, thought that was very silly. “I won’t be a brother to such a thing,” he said. “I don’t care to be in the same house with it.” After a while, Lokam went away and found another home.
Debolar grew larger and larger. Soon, he learned to talk and to understand what people said. In that way, he found out that Lokam was asking their mother to get rid of her baby. “Don’t listen to that brother of mine,” said Debolar to his mother. “He’ll never be of much use to you. I’m small, and I look odd, it’s true. But I’ll be valuable some day. I’ll make you comfortable and happy. Just wait and see.”
“Don’t worry my son,” said Limokare. “I’m not going to throw you away. You came into this world for a good reason.”
“And so I did,” replied Debolar. “I came into this world to be eaten and worn and used.”
“Eaten, my poor child!” exclaimed his mother. “And worn! And used!”
One day, he said to his mother, “The time has come for you to bury me under your window.” The window was made of thatch. It swung out, a little way from the ground, making a shelter.
“Bury you alive, my poor little baby?” she cried.
“Yes, alive,” replied Debolar. “I’m not going to die. I will live. I’ll come back to you and stay with you always.”
“How can you come back, and how shall I know you, my child?” asked Limokare.
“I’ll be a tree,” said Debolar.
“And what’s that, my son?”
“Wait and see,” he said. “I’ll be very small at first, and I’ll need your care. But I’ll grow, and I’ll have many parts. Every one of them will be useful. And I’ll have dozens of children and hundreds of grandchildren.”
The mother buried the coconut baby under her window, as he had told her to do. She looked there many times a day. The people of the village didn’t believe that she would see Debolar again. “He’s gone forever,” they said.
“And so much the better,” said the elder son, Lokam. “You did right to put him into the ground. Just let stay there.”
One day the mother saw a small, green sprout. “Debolar is coming,” she said. It was a leaf, folded around itself. She opened it carefully. “How beautiful! It looks like the wing of the flying fish.” She gave the little coconut sprout a name, drirjojo. The word drir meant “sprout” and jojo meant “flying fish.”
People came from far and near to see the first tree in all the world. They called it ni, which became the Marshallese word for “coconut.”
The little tree became tall and beautiful and strong. It grew away from the window, high in the air. At its top grew waving leaves that made cool shade for Limokare. She often sat beneath them and wove mats from them. The tree was a great blessing to her. It gave her many useful things.
The elder brother, Lokam, no longer wanted Debolar to be killed. He also liked the gifts of the coconut tree. He boasted about his brother. “We kept him, and we cared for him, and we planted him,” he said. “Now the rest of you may have his coconut children and grandchildren. They will be your food, your drink, your oil, your clothes, your wood and your houses.” He would look around to see if all the people were listening. Then he would say, “Don’t forget, I’m his brother.”