Samoa: Fine threads of tradition woven to life

By Dan Ahwa

Dan Ahwa meets a village celebrity who is keeping an ancient Samoan art alive.

Taumuli Salu keeps alive the Samoan tradition of fine-mat weaving in her village of Palauli Photo / Dan Ahwa
Taumuli Salu keeps alive the Samoan tradition of fine-mat weaving in her village of Palauli Photo / Dan Ahwa

Taumuli Salu's fingers manipulate the fine strips of pandamus leaf, weaving them into a traditional Samoan fine mat with an expertise born of decades of experience.

So fine are the fibres going into this mat, and so painstaking is her weaving, that she has been working on it for two months and it is only three-quarters finished.

That's because such mats - known as ie toga or Tongan mats - which are finely woven and decorated with a fringe of dyed chicken feathers and sometimes shells, play a hugely important role in Samoan culture, particularly in situations of customary gift-giving.

The ie toga are used as mats in the usual way, but they also represent wealth and prestige.

At funerals, for instance, fine mats are gifted to the family of the person who died. At weddings, fine mats are gifted to the groom's family for distribution to family members.

In Apia last year I had the opportunity to accept a title as matai (or chief) on my father's side of the family and, again, fine mats played an important role.

Much like a family heirloom, the fine mat signifies tradition and family in Samoa, and because of this they are highly valued. Some of the oldest fine mats have even been given their own names.

These days in Samoa, the art of producing a fine mat has become something of a lost skill. Which is why I was so eager to see Taumuli, an elderly woman who lives in the village of Palauli on the island of Savaii, who is keeping the mat-making tradition alive.

Mat-makers like her hold highly respected positions in their community, not only for their knowledge but also for the vital part they play in passing their skills on to the next generation.

I heard of Taumuli from the hotel manager at Le Lagoto Beach Resort, and decided to take the 40-minute bus trip to her village to get a rare glimpse into the making of an ie toga.

When I reached Palauli, it didn't take long to locate Taumuli's home. There was a sign that read "Siapo Making", directing visitors to Taumuli's open-style Samoan fale (hut).

Siapo (tapa cloth) is another key handicraft in Pacific culture, with distinctive brown patterns painted with bark dye, which vary from island to island. Just another trick up Taumuli's sleeve, giving her the added bonus of showing visitors how to produce two distinct pieces of handicraft.

When I arrived at her fale, a younger woman, most likely a daughter or family member, ushered me in with a smile and apologised - Taumuli had just put her siapo-making tools away for the day. But as she told me this, Taumuli sat inside the fale shouting, "Afio mai! Afio mai!" (Welcome! Welcome!)

I got the feeling that Taumuli never missed an opportunity.

Gratefully, I took off my shoes and entered the fale, and sat facing Taumuli and her daughter.

"She can show you some of the ie toga she is working on at the moment," said the girl, who proceeded to set up the weaving board and a partially completed fine mat.

Taumuli quickly began weaving the thin strips of dried pandanus leaf. While working, she explained that she had help with this mat from a couple of other women who dropped in from time to time to assist with the weaving - and catch up on village gossip.

"She needs to finish this in about two weeks as it is for a wedding in New Zealand," explained the girl, who watched Taumuli and occasionally helped straighten up the lines of the mat.

Taumuli, a bit of a celebrity in these parts, is in particular demand at the moment as the time approaches for giving out matai titles, resulting in several orders for mats.

I stayed watching the weaving for about half an hour, then decided I better let her have a break for lunch. Although there's no fee for this sort of demonstration it's often a kind gesture to make a donation, so I handed over 20 tala.

She thanked me and apologised for not having her siapo to show, too. "It gets very busy," she said in Samoan. "So I need to drink my koko Samoa (Samoan cocoa) every morning. It makes me quick."

Well, if it helps preserve the art of the ie toga, then I'll drink to that.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Virgin Samoa, the new national airline of Samoa, has regular flights from New Zealand.

Where to stay: Try Le Lagoto Resort.

Further information: See samoa.travel.

Dan Ahwa was assisted by Virgin Samoa and Le Lagoto Beach resort in Savaii.

- NZ Herald

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