Emma Kruse Vaai
Deputy Vice Chancellor, National University of Samoa

Eau le inailau a tamaitai—this Samoan adage explains the capability of women to achieve their goals in any domain through singularity of purpose and collaborative efforts.

The saying originates from an ancient story from times when men were responsible for weaving the roof thatching of houses. According to the story, women were once called to help. However, when they came to assist, they not only mastered the art of weaving but also surpassed the men’s ability, and the women completed the task ahead of time.

The revival of weaving processes for traditional Samoan fine mats was partly made possible by a group called Women in Business Development. Following a series of devastating cyclones, these women worked to create economic opportunities in rural communities through skills training in small business and quality assurance. They sought to create opportunities and to revive interest and skills in creating Samoan cultural objects such as traditional mats.

Although mats were being made and used in cultural exchanges, their quality suffered as the weavers tended to push for quantity rather than quality. As the quality diminished, the presentation of large quantities became commonplace and a single finely woven mat was so outstanding that it was referred to as tasi ae afe or ‘one among thousands.’

Low-quality mats woven with coarse pandanus strands are dull and have a rough texture, unlike a traditional fine mat, which has a weave and luster similar to fine linen. This high-grade quality is the result of selecting the right pandanus leaves that will later be soaked in the sea, boiled, dried, smoothed out, and polished before being slit into threads for close-knit weaving. When the weaving is completed, the mat is ceremonially bathed, anointed with oil, and publicly displayed with pride by the women.

The revival of fine weaving was made possible by locating master weavers who were willing to share their knowledge and expertise. The Women in Business Development set up teaching sessions in different villages. As weaving skills were revived and strengthened, a sponsorship scheme was established in which weavers are commissioned to weave and are paid weekly as the mat is woven. Such weavers, who were mainly from villages and rural areas, were provided with a regular income that allowed them to further develop their budgeting skills and family financial planning capabilities. This represents a twofold victory in sustainability in that a traditional skill was revived and practiced and a regular income was provided.

The Samoan fine mat was and still is for exchange during special occasions, such as births, marriages, deaths, and investiture of chiefly titles or religious ordinations. In traditional dancing of the highest order for both men and women, they are dressed elegantly in a fine mat that is wrapped around the body.

Another social event where the fine mat is held in high regard is during an ifoga, an event for conflict resolution where an offended person or party is approached by the offender who asks for forgiveness. The fine mat acts as a shield when covering the offender as he or she kneels in front of a victim or victim’s family to express remorse.

The mat can diffuse a volatile situation when there is a strong possibility of retribution. When and if a victim’s family accepts the apology, which is expressed through speeches, they remove the fine mat from the offender, and thereafter further presentations and communication ensue. Such traditional verbal exchanges pave the way towards peaceful coexistence.

On occasions when cultural presentations and exchange of fine mats are required, men or women are orators speaking on behalf of their families and villages. More often men are the orators whilst women unfold and present this work of art in a manner befitting of its high quality and value as well as the occasion itself. The fine mat symbolically weaves families, villages, and all Samoans together because in its presentation, the Samoan language of oratory accompanies it to reiterate and reconfirm traditional genealogical links that enable Samoans to identify themselves within a village and a family in Samoa.

Having been used and valued throughout the ages, Samoan fine mat weaving is a part of Samoa’s intangible cultural heritage. It has survived because it is still relevant and valued by Samoan society for its continued utility in social exchanges.