Otu Motoï – Bora Bora’s “Motu of Circumcision”

In a meeting of Bora Bora’s Municipal Council just last month (May 2016) it was moved by councillor Ato Tinorua – to whom I am grateful for the details that follow –  that the public space along the waterfront at Vaitape Quay currently known as ‘Place Motoi’ revert to its original name of ‘Place Tu Vavau’. To other than the youngest members of the local community the change held a particular significance, a significance lost on those from outside but nonetheless a fascinating story.

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fruit-race-crowd

Historically Tu Vavau was a place of gathering, a place of great oration aimed at ‘bringing together’ the members of the 8 districts that made up Bora Bora. At that time, a time before the construction of the current Vaitape Quay, there was a small motu (islet) just off the sandy shores of Vaitape situated around the area on the western side of Vaitape’s large & prominent white marquee. The island was known as Otu Motoï, local jargon/dialect meaning “Motu of Circumcision” & it was here that the island’s boy’s would come to be circumcised.

Circumcision was very much a right of passage into manhood for a Tahitian & the operation was eagerly pursued by all boys upon attaining an age of around 8 years. In times gone by it was held that women would not look at an uncircumsised male because he was not a ‘real man’. A boy once circumsised was held to ‘have had his fire rekindled’ & he could thenceforth take a man’s role at ceremonies.

Women were not permitted to attend. The boys would line up on the motu where their foreskin would be drawn back before a piece of bamboo, though sometimes coconut, would be placed around the head of their penis before the foreskin was wound back over the bamboo then cut with a sharp instrument – at the time usually a razor-sharp piece of coconut shell or of split bamboo. The operation was technically superincision as the foreskin was cut in a single cut from front to back & not ringed around & removed (circumcision).

The skin would fall to the side to be wrapped in a cloth filled with the pollen from certain local flowers. After the operation the boys would bathe in ‘the river’ a water source that today can be found behind the Maison de Presse beside the Gendarmarie. The cloth would need to be reset daily to avoid the penis ‘warping’ & after around 1 week the boys would literally hobble back to class but all supporting massive smiles!

The area where the operation was performed with such regularity quickly & quite logically became known as Place Motoï. It is clear, however, that certain more pudic members of society were not happy with such nomenclature & the area surreptitiously became known as Place Motoi (the French trema – the 2 dots over the ‘ï ‘– being replaced with a traditional ‘i’) which subtley, but effectively, changed the meaning of the name to ‘Place of the Ylangylang’ a large tree found throughout the islands with a yellow flower offering a wonderful scent.

Those from Bora Bora know that Tu Vavau has never had Ylangylang growing extensively there. There was in fact a large number of Flamboyants (Poinciana) the last of which can be found in front of the Gendarmarie. Alas the flamboyants were cut down by Alan Gerbault to make way for a soccer ground.

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Others, in particular TripAdvisor, have erroneously referred to the site as Place Mutoi mistakenly linking the name to the Municipal Police (‘mutoi’ in Tahitian) whose headquarters are there.

A ‘cutting point’ with a difference to consider when next in Tu Vavau.

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