Wallis and Futuna is one of the South Pacific nations that was arbitrarily organized and created as a result of European colonialism. It consists of two groups of islands, the Wallis Islands and the Horne or Futuna Islands, which are 130 nm apart. West of Samoa and northeast of Fiji, these islands lie on the border of Polynesia and Melanesia but the inhabitants are distinctly Polynesian in appearance and culture. The people of Wallis are descended from Tongans whereas the residents of Futuna originally came from Samoa, which results in subtle differences in language, customs, and the designs used on tapa cloth.
The island groups also differ geologically, with Wallis defined as an "almost atoll" (fringing reef and lagoon with central islands of volcanic rock) and Futuna consisting of two volcanic high islands (Futuna to 400 m or 1,310 feet and Alofi to 800 m or 2,630 feet) which have relatively small patches of coastline reef. We did not visit the Futuna Group, in part because there is no sheltered anchorage, only a small harbor with a pier at the village of Leava that is exposed to wind and waves from the south and west. With a combined land area of 91 sq km (35 sq miles) and a population of about 4,500, all on Futuna Island, the Futuna Group has some dense woodlands, which provide valuable timber for export, and extensive areas of agricultural production.
In the center of the Wallis lagoon is Uvea (a.k.a. Wallis) Island which is 78 sq km (30 sq miles) and rises to a maximum elevation of 146 m (479 feet). This island is about twice as long on its north to south axis of 11 km (7 miles) as it is wide, and it is surrounded by 22 smaller islands, scattered throughout the lagoon. The population of Uvea is about 9,100 with most people living in, or near, the sprawling administrative and business center of Mata ´Utu, which is located about halfway along the east coast. Population pressure on the small islands has resulted in more natives of Wallis and Futuna living in New Caledonia, than in their home country.
In the nineteenth century, when many of the South Pacific islands were being grabbed by European powers, Wallis and Futuna were colonized by the French in the 1880s. In 1959, a referendum of islanders voted to change the community's status from a colony to an overseas territory of France. Islanders were given French citizenship and while some administration is directed through New Caledonia, there are also many direct links with France, from where teachers and government officials, such as Gendarmes, come with their families on two- to three-year tours of duty. Despite the administrative input and large source of income from France, most the real power on the islands is held by local kings, two on Futuna and one on Wallis. While we were unable to chat about this with anyone (our French and their English was not quite sufficient to cover politics), one of the Customs officials did explain to us that he was wearing a beautiful lei of fresh flowers to indicate that he was a minister in the government of the King of Wallis. In so explaining, he motioned towards the fale fono and palatial building on the waterfront, near the large Catholic church, so we gathered that they might be used by the King of Wallis and his government.
Buildings on the Mata ´Utu waterfront that we think house of the government of the King of Wallis
Other than the sale of timber from the Futuna Islands, the nation has few exports or sources of income. Copra from coconut palms used to be the main export but many palms were wiped-out by the rhinoceros beetle in the mid-twentieth century. Coconut palms are abundant again but most plantations had previously reverted to subsistence farming. The rich soil and tropical climate allow the prolific growth of tropical fruits and vegetables but almost all are directed to local consumption.
The sale of postage stamps to international collectors has been a significant source of income to several small Pacific nations such as Wallis and Futuna, Tuvalu, and Tokelau, and we saw the office that was the "Centre de Philatelique" next to the Post Office in Mata ´Utu. Whether this hobby of philately and the associated business of producing and selling exotic stamps will continue as electronic communications replace snail-mail, remains to be seen. With very little tourism (there are about three flights a week from New Caledonia and no regular ferries, just the occasional, small cruise-ship), the main sources of income for imported items are remittances from family members overseas and the largess of the French government. These sources are clearly quite generous because there are many four-wheel drive vehicles on the roads and most houses are built of cement with corrugated-metal roofs.
In some respects, the French influence appears even stronger on Wallis than it was in French Polynesia. I was a bit surprised when the Lonely Planet described life on Wallis as "where traditional life is played out behind plain, modern cement walls" but the observation actually seems quite accurate. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what seems so European about the island compared to, say, Samoa and Tonga, but some of it does relate to the rectangular, cement-walled house-designs. Cyclones have undoubtedly exerted and impact on these islands (e.g., Cyclones Evan, a category 4 in 2012, and Amos, a category 3 in 2016) and it appears that rather than importing prefabricated houses, as we saw on Tonga, the response has been to use more concrete. Although frames of unfinished or cyclone-damaged two-story buildings dot the villages, especially around the shoreline in Mata ´Utu, most houses have a simple, robust, single-story design that has very little Polynesian influence other than the brightly colored fabrics hanging in the windows and the occasional, fale-like open porch.
A very typical house with "...plain, modern cement walls"
As on most of the Christianized Polynesian islands, the village churches were usually the most ornate and lavishly supported buildings in Wallis. The difference was that they were almost all Catholic in Wallis rather than reflecting the range of Protestant denominations that had sent missions to the other islands. The Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) was most conspicuously absent and there did not seem to be the proliferation of church-associated educational establishments that created such a rainbow of school uniforms in Tonga and Samoa. Although there were some smaller churches with plastered and white-painted walls on Wallis, the largest were constructed of dark volcanic rock with white-painted mortar. This theme was continued inside resulting in a rather dark but cool interior although numerous windows (some small ones without glass providing cross-ventilation) helped to dispel gloominess. On entering the open door of the large church near the wharf in Mata 'Utu, we found quite a few dogs sleeping on the cool floor under the pews but they quickly took their guilty-looking departure when I showed an interest in them by trying to take their photograph.
Inside the Mata ´Uta Catholic church
Mata ´Utu did not appear to have a clearly defined town center nor, surprisingly, did we find a market with locally-grown fruits and vegetables. In the shopping center/mall about 1 km inland from the wharf, we found an ATM at the bank (maybe the only one on the island) and a large hardware store. There was a car/pickup truck dealer (including Ford trucks), a variety of small stores, and a large Super U supermarket. The latter was never open when we visited and there were many shipping containers outside, so we wonder if it had become the island's food-distribution center rather than a retail store. Small grocery stores were scattered through the villages and local produce was on sale in some of these but the main supermarket that we patronized in Mata ´Utu only seemed to have imported produce. Inevitably, imported items were expensive but there were reasonable amounts of most things.
We saw several snack bars, a few restaurants, and a couple of hotels on Wallis. There was a hospital with associated medical offices and a pharmacy in Mata ´Utu and quite a few hair-stylists scattered around the island. What surprised me most was that we saw at least four "Parfumeries". While I understand that perfumes are considered an important luxury in France, I was a little surprised that the Uvean economy could support this many specialist stores. One such place had a sign that included duty-free purchases, so perhaps the perfumeries provided a more genteel front to more diverse import businesses. We did not feel the need to purchase any perfume but, it will come as not surprise to hear, that we did avail ourselves of the other French treats of wine, grapes, cheese, croissants, and baguettes. Yum, yum!