Kato'aga: Rotuman Ceremonies

by Elizabeth K. Inia

Table of Contents


Part 1: Components of Ceremony

'Epa, Apei, and Päega: Ceremonial Mats
Koua: Earth Ovens
'Umefe: Chiefly Tables
Tefui: Garlands
Lolo: Anointing Oil
Mena: Turmeric
Mafua: Knowledgeable Elders
Fumarä'e: The Man in Charge
Etiquette and Manners
Numbers and Measurements

Part 2: Ceremonies

Death and Funerals
Birth Rituals
First Birthday
Hapagsu: Recurrence Prevention
Majau: The Power to Heal
Ag Forau: Farewell to Travellers
Mamasa: Welcoming Ceremonies
Installation of a Chief
Homage to Chiefs
Koua Puha
Ancient Marriage Rituals
Modern Marriage Customs

Rotuman Indigenous Spirituality

'Epa, Apei, and Päega: Ceremonial Mats

'Epa refers to pandanus leaves from which the midribs and jagged edges have been removed. The leaves are dried in the sun for at least a week, then rolled into coils ready for plaiting into mats. There are three types of 'epa:

Agrua—floor mats approximately 20 feet long by 7 feet wide. When presented ceremonially, they are folded in half, then rolled up lengthwise to form rolls 10 feet long. This exposes the folded edge (faua) indicating the full length of the mat.[1] Because of its length, two women must carry an agrua for presentation. A bride-to-be needs 10 agrua for her farao, or floor mats.

'Eap ma 'on faua—floor mats approxi-mately 12 feet by 5 feet. They are folded in half, with one edge folded in about a foot, then rolled like the agrua from the fold to the edges, forming rolls of about 4 feet. Each 'eap ma 'on faua is carried by one woman. For funerals, 'eap ma 'on faua are rolled in the same way as agrua, forming rolls 6 feet long.

'Eap hapa—sleeping mats approximately 6 feet by 5 feet. They have pandanus fringes on both ends as decoration (nowadays women embroider the edges with colourful wool in place of fringes). 'Eap hapa are rolled lengthwise to form 5-foot rolls exposing the fringes on both ends.[2]

In recent years, a new type of pandanus was imported from Fiji; it is known as 'eap fiti. The leaves of this plant are broader, softer, and easier to plait. Mats made from these leaves are called 'eap hap fiti. They are less durable than mats made from Rotuman plants, and some people consider them to be of lesser value because they are of foreign origin.

Apei: White Mats

Apei are mats made from same kind of pandanus leaves as the agrua, but they are processed differently. The green leaves are dipped in boiling water for about two minutes, then coiled one by one and put in baskets to keep them from shrivelling. After a short while, the leaves are uncoiled one at a time and the back parts ('ar'ara) removed with a sharp shell or the lid of a tin can. This process is called rag sa'aga. The shiny part of the leaves (sa'aga) are tied together and pressed down in sea water by placing on them stones heavy enough to prevent their being washed away at high tide. They are left in seawater overnight and are taken out before sunrise. The seawater is drained off and the leaves are put in tubs of fresh water for approximately 12 hours. When taken from the tubs, they are loosely coiled around the hand, and, with the two ends pinched together, shaken down into a curly spiral to keep them from shrinking. These are placed on fan-palm leaves with all the ends toward one side. When all the coils have been shaken into spirals, their ends are loosely tied (talia) in pairs using the 'ar'ara. The pairs are strung about six inches apart and the 'ar'ara tied to one another to form a long rope of spiraled sa'aga. These are either hung on a line to dry or are laid out on stones or white sand. After a couple of days the 'ar'ara is removed and the spirals are sunned for another day to dry the ends. When thoroughly dry, the jagged edges are removed from the sa'aga and the darker leaves are separated from the lighter ones. Separate large coils (hula) are now made of the darker leaves (hual kele) and lighter leaves (hual fisi). Both types are cut into narrow strips about 3/8 inch wide using a needle (in the past an 'asi shell).

When the apei are plaited, the lighter strips of sa'aga are woven on top of the darker ones. The smallest apei measures 12 feet by 5 feet. The edges are decorated with wool (in the past with red feathers) and each woman creates her own design so that people can recognize who has plaited a particular mat. When an apei has been completed, the family must kill a pig and make a koua that includes fekei (pudding made from cassava starch, coconut cream, and sugar). This gives mana to the apei, imbuing it with a life that makes it sacred. Thus an apei is, as Vilsoni Hereniko has put it, "a woven god." [3] When a woman refers to an apei she has made, she calls it her is käkä'e (tips of her fingers).

When taken to a ceremony, an apei is folded (not rolled) in half, then folded with ends tucked in until it forms a bundle about 2-1/2 by 2 feet. At all functions except funerals, women carry the bundles with the decorations showing. At funerals apei are folded in bundles so that the decorations are hidden. Apei are the most important items at Rotuman ceremonies. When a chief goes to a function, he must be accompanied by an apei (and usually by a koua). [4] At a funeral, mats are carried with one end in the palm of one's hand, while the other end is grasped by the other hand (apei'aki).

Päega: Ceremonial Seat

A päega is a seat of mats prepared for the central figures in certain ceremonies, such as the bride and groom at a wedding; the first-born infant at his 'oj'aki; or the person(s) coming to Rotuma for the first time, or returning home after the first time abroad, at their mamasa ceremony. First a mat (usually an 'eap ma 'on faua or an 'eap fiti[5]) is laid down to cover the floor. On top of this are placed several agrua, folded so they are large enough to seat at least two people. Next come several (usually five to ten) 'eap ma 'on faua folded about the same size as the agrua. These are covered by five to ten 'eap hapa, spread so that their fringes are hanging down covering the folds of the mats below. On top are spread one or more apei. This completes the päega, although nowadays a piece of silky cloth about two yards long is used to top off the seat to protect the apei from dirt or food stains.

For a detailed account of mat making on Rotuma, see Faiav Ne Rotuma: Rogrog ne mou se 'eap fak Rotuma [Skills of Rotuma], by A. Williame (Suva, University of the South Pacific Fiji Centre, 1991).

[1] If the fold is not exposed to view, one cannot tell by sight the actual length of a folded mat. back to text

[2] Because mats are plaited lengthwise, beginning and ending with the long sides, these working edges are regarded as the 'ends,' while the short sides are regarded as the widths. back to text

[3] See Woven Gods, by Vilsoni Hereniko (Honolulu, University of Hawai‘i Press, 1995). back to text

[4] At a wedding, the district chief must bring an apei of his own (carried by the ‘a su, or chiefly representative), but at other functions someone more intimately involved may invite a chief and provide his party with an apei (which must be carried and presented by his wife, daughter, or other close female relative). back to text

[5] 'Eap fiti used for this purpose are called agrua fiti and measure about 7 by 5 feet. They are favoured for this purpose because of their colourful woolen fringes. back to text

To Koua: Earth Ovens