Friday, August 01, 2003

At the Center of the Village

At the center of our homestay village there was a large town hall with peeling green paint and uneven, chipped concrete steps that led up to its barn-like doors. The building was on stilts - heavy concrete columns - and weeds had overgrown the area under the building so that they tickled your feet as you walked along the edge. The hall was bordered on one side by the Wesleyan church; when the sunlight was just right, the church's garish stained glass windows cast patches of primary colored light on the thin strands of grass that attempted to cover the dirt yard. On the other side of the hall was the road that ran through the town. There wasn't a single vehicle on the small island, so the road was for pedestrians only - of the two and four-footed kind - and the worn grass had become matted in the places where feet fell most frequently.

The hall was not just at the center of the village, it was the center of the village: the single building, half the size of a basketball court, from which life in Nuapapu took shape, grew, and emerged. During the day, the women of the islands gathered to weave together, sitting cross-legged, bending their stooped shoulders over the two or three yards of wide, straw-like strips of dried plants, nimbly weaving both new mats and new stories. The mats might eventually be placed under a bridal bed, at a graveside, or rolled in the corner until needed for extra sleeping space. The stories would undoubtedly be unrolled later that day, and again the next, and the next after that. Stories, like mats, never grew old in Nuapapu. The joke you told on the day of your arrival would haunt you until the day of your departure.

At night the town hall became the haunting grounds of the village's men. They also sat cross-legged, in a rough circle, with the minister or town officer presiding as the host. Together they drink kava, a powdery Polynesian drink made from ground roots that has a mildly numbing effect, like drinking a shot of puddle water laced with Novocain. While the women weave during the day, the men work in their bush plots, planting and harvesting the root crops that provided the greatest sustenance of their diets. At the end of their work day they sleep a few hours - restless sleep under the family's mango tree or on the floor of a breezy house - and then go to the town hall, where they drank kava until the early hours of the morning. Between rounds of kava passed in polished coconut shells, the men sing traditional Tongan songs that told of the beauty of the islands, bravery in battle, and their pride for their homeland. A young Tongan man, Lomi, known as the local artist, musician, and barber, plays a scratched guitar and selected songs from a notebook where he has written the words to each tune. On alternate pages are Lomi's drawings: ink reproductions of traditional Tongan patterns, intertwined flowers and hearts, the occasional big-breasted woman.

As a woman in Tonga's conservative society, I never left the doors of my two room home after dark, unless accompanied by my husband or on a quick trip to the outhouse. But during the day I was free to roam the village, watching the children jump rope, the older boys play rugby or tease stray dogs, the men mend a boat "Almost finished, be done tomorrow," I was told during my first week in the village, and during my last).

From their perch in the town hall, the women watched all this too, and would call out to me each time I walked past. Sometimes I would climb the uneven stairs, slip my sandals off at the door, and join the women sitting cross-legged as they wove tan and darker brown strips into a new room-sized mat. Light from the uneven clapboards drew pin-stripes on the splintery floor as the women talked and worked and laughed together.

Young mothers took breaks from their work to breastfeed their children, completely unembarrassed to unbutton their faded shirts in front of others. One woman, Oleveti, would entertain us, stopping in the middle of a row of weaving to dance to the Tongan music that played on the radio. She'd encourage me to dance too, and my feeble attempts to mimic Oleveti's gracefulness would make the women double over in laughter so hard their foreheads nearly touched the wooden floor. I tried to use my new Tongan vocabulary on the weavers, and this too would make them laugh, though they would also compliment my attempts. "Poto aupito, 'Emipa. Vave aupito." Very good, Amber. Very fast.

It was here, at the center of the village, that I realized just how soft my hands were. Even in Tonga, my fingernails were white, my cuticles trimmed, and my hands uncalloused. The weavers had strong hands, roughened from the scratch of the dried plants pulled continuously through their hands as they wove. Their knuckles were raw from hand washing, in cold water and with abrasive soap, the laundry for their family of five, or eight, or ten. Their arms were tanned and strong, from carrying water, children, and laundry. They spent their days laughing and talking, but also working, harder and more physically than I have ever attempted.

Several trees were visible from the window of the little house where I stayed: a mango tree with a table and three mismatched chairs underneath, a small flowering bush, and a few others that seemed to produce no fruit or flower. One morning I awoke to find bows of white fabric tied to the tree limbs, and each bow holding several strips of a long green plant. Slowly, using gestures and the few Tongan words I knew, my homestay mother, Lolei, began to unravel the mystery of these decorations. There were lines under her eyes as she spoke, and she didn't need to tell me that this project had kept her awake all night. Though she was in her early forties, she looked much older. A lifetime of compromising sleep in order to care for her family of eight children had left her prematurely old, though still beautiful.

Hanging in the trees to dry were panderas leaves. There were tiny red cuts on Lolei's hands, damaged in the all night effort to prepare the leaves for drying. Her work had began the day before, when her oldest son, Makoni, had returned from the family's bush plot with a bundle of panderas on the back of the family's horse. Lolei and her neighbor Marieta, who was my official Tongan dance instructor, spent the night preparing the leaves by pulling out the prickly spine of the plant. I had seen this operation occurring the night before. The table under the mango tree was piled high with plant leaves, and the women moved carefully so as not to puncture their bare feet with the panderas spines.

In the South Pacific, the nighttime constellations don't do battle with city lights, and on a full moon the sky is sometimes so bright I often felt I could have read in the outhouse just by the light of the moon. Under this bright sky Lolei and Marieta had worked all night, first removing the spines and then carefully wrapping the panderas together into large, flat rolls about 14 inches in diameter.

In Lolei's kitchen, a concrete and wood shack set a few steps from the central building where the family slept, they built a fire in the elevated fireplace and carried water from a rain tank 50 yards away to fill a large metal pot whose sides were charred into a black, sooty mess. The pot of water was placed on two metal rods that were suspended above the flames, with the roll of panderas inside. As I slept peacefully in my house nearby, and as the men started their second or third round of kava and songs, Lolei and Marieta brought the water to a boil, waited until the leaves were tender, and then removed them from the pot to cool.

While the leaves cooled, Lolei took an old skirt - a cream colored brocade fabric that must have come from a church donation box - and tore it into strips two inches wide and ten inches long. With these fabric strips at her side, she carefully unfurled the panderas rolls and separated each individual leaf, covering the mango tree table with the sticky wet leaves.

Each leaf has two layers which must be separated, like pulling apart the layers of a two-ply toilet paper. With their fingernails, their teeth, and sometimes the small paring knife the women shared, they would dislodge one side from another, slowly easing the sides apart so that neither would rip. Only one side was useable for the weaving, the other was discarded in a tangled mess on the trampled ground under the table. Then the good sides were bound and hung in the trees, using a long stick to loop the fabric bow over a small branch of the tree.

The overly sweet, chlorophyll smell of the boiled leaves, along with the scraps from the discarded sides, was still noticeable in the courtyard when I leisurely roused myself from bed and saw the leaves drying in the trees. As they dried over the next few days, they began to create a gentle rustle noise when the wind brushed through them. Their presence seemed a little ghost-like, dried specters of Lolei and Marieta's hard work and bruised hands.

One day I returned from language lesson and the panderas leaves were no longer in the trees. On the table under the mango tree was a pile of rolled leaves, now dried and the color of a wheat field. The rolls were eventually moved to the house for storage, becoming a tan-colored playground for the geckos and spiders that lounged in every corner.

Lolei and Marieta's work-sharing is one of the aspects of daily life in Tonga that can quickly become so common the beauty of it is easily overlooked. Men share work in each others bush plots, making their labor merrier by the good natured joking that travels with them. When a widow needs assistance, the men work in her plot in exchange for a meal for their families, presented to them in baskets woven from the green leaves of a coconut tree. The women share household items - sending young children to the neighbor's house to retrieve the family knife or pitcher - and household work too. In the Fale Langa, the weaving house, women bring their own mats on alternate days, working on their neighbor's on Monday and their own on Tuesday.

The rolls of dried panderas leaves sit in a pile in the town hall. They're pushed aside at night when the men come to drink kava, but during the day they are moved so they are close at hand. One woman, sitting in a plastic yard chair whose legs have been cut off so that the chair's seat is directly on the ground, unrolls the leaves and takes them, one-by-one, in her hands. With a triangle shaped piece of metal, she scrapes the leaf to make it more pliable, running the triangle up and down the length of the strip several times until the leaf becomes almost soft. These leaves form a pile around her legs, and the weavers grab them, or send children to grab them, as needed.

With their own metal scrapers the weavers slice the leaves into strips. The thinner the strip, the finer the weave, the higher the value of the mat. Quick, coarse mats called papas are woven with one inch strips for every day use. Fales, room-sized mats whose edges are later trimmed with multi-colored yarn, are usually woven with strips that are a fourth or an eighth of an inch wide. Very special mats for funerals, weddings, or gifts to nobles and royalty are woven with strands that seem as thin as a hair.

The weavers sit on the floor, with their crossed legs on top of the already completed portion of the mat. Large stones from the ocean's edge weight the mat down so that it doesn't slip as the weavers move across its length. Their fingers fly deftly, lacing leaves in and out of other strips, inserting new panderas and trimming edges so the change is unnoticeable. With skill, the women insert darker colored strips of panderas, colored with all-natural dyes, and create intricate patterns along the edges of the mat. Each one is different, reflecting the patterns that woman learned from her mother or grandmother and will teach her own daughter. After school, little girls come to watch their mothers weave, making their own school-girl projects with scraps of panderas leaves while they tend their younger brothers and sisters.

There, in the center of their village, the women weave together the traditional foundation of Tongan life. These mats are a sort of currency in Tongan society, and the accumulation of them indicates wealth as surely as a large home or livestock does. When given as gifts, they are a physical reminder of the family's best wishes to the recipient, a blessing pronounced upon the bride and groom or visiting guest. The mats are also practical parts of daily Tongan life; they are rugs, beds, chairs, decorations, and clothing, and, when desperate, can be sold as a source of income.

My soft hands attempted weaving on more than one occasion, and with the help of several women I completed a kiakia, a decorative belt Tongan women wear to church or work. The pattern was simple - the first pattern a little Tongan girl would learn - but I felt proud as Lolei tied the kiakia around my waist. She was proud of me too, in a mother hen sort of way, and squeezed my hand with hers when she finished the knot. Then she smiled, turned, and entered her house. It was early in the morning and her work-worn hands had many more tasks to complete before they could rest.