Cousins help revive old tradition passed down many generations

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THE island of Vatulele has much more to offer than its red prawns and ancient rock paintings.

It is also home to some of Fiji’s most accomplished makers of tapa cloth or masi.

Two young people who continue the extraordinary discipline of masi making, passed down through countless generations, are cousins Apakuki Batirerega and Irami Naulumatua.

The Fiji Times caught up with the hardworking duo as they walked door to door selling their work of art in the heart of Suva City.

“We are trying to help a cousin of ours, who is attending school in Suva, this year,” Apakuki said.

“Money we get from selling masi will be used to buy his school needs such as stationery, shoes, school bag and uniforms.”

The Ekubu villagers believe supporting their teenage relative’s education could eventually go a long way in improving livelihoods and the standard of living in the village.

“Sending young people to school is important but without the means to support it, education would be a challenge. That is why we are braving Suva’s scorching heat to sell masi which were designed by our mums,” Irami said.

“My younger brother now works in the area of finance and his education was entirely made possible through masi sales, which every member of our family took part in. I plant masi and also help in the beating and drying process.”

Vatulele is a raised limestone island that lies to the south of Viti Levu.

It is prominent in Fijian history because of its extraordinary red prawns or ura buta (cooked prawns) which the islanders treat with great respect.

Islanders consider them sacred.

Legend records that anyone who tries to take them away will suffer a shipwreck.

Red prawns also appear on masi designs, denoting it is exclusive from Vatulele. As masi production goes semi-commercial on the island, all members of the family now take part in producing it.

Printing is exclusively done by women, while men, youth and children help in planting and beating.

The masi comes from the bark of the mulberry tree and is planted throughout the island. Once a masi plant is felled, its bark is stripped and clobbered on a flat wooden surface known as yatua using a pestle called ike (usually made from plants called qaro )

The beaten out bark is then pasted on a flat surface using water and left to dry in the sun (cere) before they are glued together (totovi) to make the desired size.

After this is done, stencils (X-ray films) and dye are used to print the plain bark cloth using a range of traditional motifs exclusive to Vatulele.

Ink or dye is extracted from the bark of trees such as mangrove.

This year, Irami plans to spend six months on a course which will help him find a job in the hospitality industry while Apakuki, who has dreams of playing professional rugby and representing Fiji one day, will continue pursuing the sport.

Apakuki plays for Nadroga’s U20 rugby team.

“I plant masi and sell printed masi as well. Money I earned in the past few weeks will be used to pay for my hospitality course fees,” Irami said.

“Masi is not only for earning money and making a living. By being involved in its production we also help revive a very old tradition that has been passed down to us over thousands of years.”

Apakuki and Irami also plant root crops and dive for fish to earn a living.

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