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Tobolar: the first Coconut
Historically, Marshallese culture has been passed on orally from generation to generation and written communication has been relatively recent. Because of this oral tradition, there can be variations in stories. There are several variations of stories about the first coconut tree in the Marshall Islands. Here is one version of a story about the first coconut, Tobolar, and his family
Long ago in the Marshall Islands, there were no coconut trees. Without the coconut tree, food was scarce, the sky hung low and the people lived uncomfortably in the hot, shadeless, sun.
A woman named Limokare was a wise, good woman from Alinglaplap. She was the sister of a prominent Irooj, Irilik and she gave birth to two sons. The older son was a normal human child and she named him Lokam. The younger son she named Tobolar and he was different. When he was born, he had no arms or legs, just a round, hard green shell with a face on the end (like that seen on coconuts). The neighbors came to see Tobolar and thought Limokare was a little crazy to keep the baby.
The mother gave Tobolar extra attention and Lokam became jealous. Lokam was always complaining to his mother that the younger boy did not deserve so much attention as he was useless and could not help them, but the mother did not listen. Lokam became frustrated and moved away to live with nearby relatives. However, he returned often to visit.
One day the younger brother asked his mother bury him outside her window. “But why, my son?” asked the mother. Tobolar responded, “Perhaps, my brother is right. I will never be able to look after you as much as a son should, not being the way I am. If you will bury me outside your window, however, I will become useful to you in countless ways.” So the mother reluctantly buried Tobolar outside her window.
One day, the mother saw a small, green sprout. “Tobolar is coming, “ she said. It was a leaf, folded around itself, and she opened it carefully. “It looks like the wing of the flying fish.” So she named that part of the tree drirjojo because drir means sprout and jojo is a flying fish, As each leaf grew, she gave it a different name, and the people of the islands still use these names today. People came from all over the atoll to visit the coconut tree. They called it “ni” which is still the Marshallese word for coconut.
The sprout became a coconut tree and the mother found many uses for its various parts. From its fruits, she ate and drank. From its fronds, she built a hut and wove mats. From its roots, she made medicinal concoctions. With its seeds, she was able to plant many more coconut trees.
Lokam was no longer jealous of Tobolar. He also enjoyed the gifts from the coconut tree, and he boasted about his brother. “We kept him and we cared for him and we planted him. Now the rest of you may have Tobolar’s children and grandchildren. They will be your food, your drink, your oil, your clothes, your wood and your houses.” He would look all around, to be sure that people were watching him and say, “Don’t forget, I’m his big brother.”
Today, copra is a major commodity for the Marshall Islands and different copra products, such as body oil and soap are produced for commercial uses at the copra plant in Majuro. The copra plant is named in honor of the first coconut, called Tobolar.
(Adapted from: Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, 2004)