One way to keep yourself amused in Fiji is to learn how to make mats and baskets. First, you need to find yourself a friend! I found Vuli – a wonderful woman from Lau who was my neighbour at Koronivia. The Lauans are very clever at mat weaving.
If you want to ask someone to teach you to weave a mat, you can ask around the neighbourhood where you stay, and find out which ladies know how to weave. Offer to teach them something in return, like how to cook something, or if you are a gardener, you can offer to do some weeding in return. You should also buy all the materials (the voivoi, which is the dried leaves of a relative of the pandanus plant), plus some extra for them as a gift.
You should also know that it will take many sessions of several hours each to learn, and that you should bring food for morning or afternoon tea (crackers, bread and butter is always a good choice). You should also make sure that it fits in with their schedule. For example, many Fijians (including us) do not have hot water or a washing machine, so washing needs to be done by hand every morning for the family. This is big job, and normally not finished until about 9.45 am after the kids and husband have gone to work, or if the man is retired, after he has done his “farming” which is what they call planting and weeding in the yard or “compound”.
Also, it is very important to realise that most iTaukei (indigenous Fijians) people are Christian, and there is strictly no “work” at all on Sunday – this means no playing in the yard, no gardening, no cleaning, and definitely NO WEAVING, even though it may suit you, as to Westerners, no work on Sunday means simply that you do not go to your normal workplace, but pottering about at home is fine. Here, Sunday takes on a whole different meaning.
You can buy voivoi from any market – Suva, Nausori, or the smaller towns. It is usually $20 to $25 Fijian dollars per roll. Each roll has between 80 to 120 pieces. If you happen to travel to a smaller town like Rakiraki, you can buy a roll for about $15. Make sure you ask them for a roll which has all long pieces, or take your mat weaving friend with you (make sure you also pay their bus fare). There are also smaller rolls of the black voivoi which you need for the accent stripes, and they cost around $6 Fijian dollars. The black colour is made by boiling the voivoi in a special leaf (which to me looks like a mid sized shrub with little yellow flowers and very small leaves, but we think it is a weed and would normally pull it out), or failing the availability of the leaf, chucking in a pot with couple of batteries and water and boiling for a few hours.
It is a big time commitment, so be prepared to go on the first day thinking you are going to make a mat, but realising about two weeks later when you finally finish, that you have made a life long friend.
Weaving is done in rows (or roads as Vuli calls them). Voivoi is made by cutting the leaves off the voivoi plant, stripping off the thorns, then hanging in the sun to dry. Once dried, a mussel shell is used to scrape over and over and make each leaf smooth. Then they are rolled and boiled, and dried again. A very long process takes place before you buy it at the market. Once you get it home, it has to be unrolled, and sorted by size. You want to start the mat using the long pieces first. Then the spine in the centre of each leaf is cut out carefully using a small kitchen knife, and each half is cut into either two, three or four long strips, still joined at one end, depending on the fineness of your mat. The left side pieces are separated from the ride side.
Weaving is always done sitting down, so make sure that you are wearing something comfortable (and that will cover up your privates while you sit for hours with your legs spread eagled!) and be prepared for an almighty backache. Take a sulu (sarong) and wrap it around your lower half, and it works quite well.
Also be prepared that the ladies will be very surprised that you want to learn, and will want to do most of it for you, as at first they think that you just want a free mat, and don’t really want to learn. You have to persist in your own way and be really willing. It is not as easy as it looks!
The mat is started by placing two cut pieces crossed over, and starting to weave the cut strips, then another is added and so on until you have the length of your intended mat. At the beginning, for the first 10 weaves you also weave a piece back on itself to lock it in place. Once you get to the end of each row, you fold the second last piece over itself, and that makes the edge, and you weave backwards to start the new row.
As each piece is running short, you splice a new piece into the weave. Each piece of voivoi has a back and front with one side being smoother with less imperfections, but it is very difficult to tell, but you must learn as a few times during the weaving the mat has to be turned over and woven upside down. If you don’t do this, your mat will be crooked.
When you finally, finally get to the last row (the intended width of the mat), then you have to cut each small piece into half and weave it backwards on itself to create the side edge. This is very complicated, but my favourite part. The black accents are put in as you go, and only appear on one side of the mat. The process of weaving them through is something I tried but did not fully master, so Vuli did most of that for me. At the very end of all that a very fine plait is done to finish it all off.
After that, you have tea and crackers to celebrate, and you get to fold up your mat and take it home. Mats are the traditional floor covering here, and are used every day. It is a very poor home that does not have any mats, and a home of pity. Many iTaukei women do not know how to weave mats, so they buy them in the market for around $80 FJD. Considering a large mat uses about $75 FJD of voivoi, the ladies making them are really doing it for almost nothing. Mats are folded up and taken everywhere, picnics, church, family gatherings etc. They are also a traditional gift for weddings, funerals and important family occasions. Chiefly and important families have many many mats.
But for me, it started as a way to make our house a home, and learn something new. It ended after several weeks of spending hours a day with Vuli and her loving family (Metui, Koto, Vulisere and Tadu, Sukulu and Iliesa, Bula, Tua, Little Metui and Vili) as a loving friendship and being truly part of the family. Guests to our home are very surprised that I know how to weave, and I feel immense pride.
Here I am sitting on my first mat. I have since made a much larger one which covers the whole room, and we have been gifted many mats by friends. Now we have mats in every room, and we use them for sleeping, sitting and relaxing with each other and our friends and family. The smell of the mat when you sleep is very comforting. If you keep the mats nicely and take good care of them, they can last for generations, hopefully as long as the friendship formed between our two families – Vuli and me!