In support of Gasav Ne Fäeag Rotuạm Ta | Rotuma Language Week 2022, Curator Pacific Cultures Rachel Yates reflects on the acquisition of an ‘apei sala (white mat) and monuma (blouse) for the Pacific Cultures collections. Both koroa (treasures) were officially donated to Te Papa by Ravai Titifanue and family. Alongside members of the New Zealand Rotuman Fellowship in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, these koroa were handed over on Rotuma Day in May 2021 on our marae Rongomaraeroa.
Rotuma is a volcanic island surrounded by smaller islets to the north of Fiji. A place with a rich history and distinctive culture and language, Rotuma has been a political dependent of Fiji since 1881, though oral histories and its linguistic make-up points to key relationships with Tonga, Samoa, and Futuna and Uvea. As of May 2018, the population on the island is 2000, and estimations place the diaspora population at 50,000.
In 2020, the Ministry for Pacific Peoples incorporated Rotuma into the government’s Pacific language weeks initiative. We contributed by producing a blog with Rotuman community members and scholars (‘Rotuma’s kava ceremony’). The acquisition of the ‘apei and monuma reflects a continuation of this relationship, and helps document the stories of Rotumans living in Aotearoa New Zealand.
This white mat is made from sa‘aga (a species of pandanus) and is identifiable by the colour of the pandanus and its decorated edges. Historically, there were three grades of ‘apei. The finest ‘apei are armea, made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree; the ‘apei niau from hibiscus bark; and the most common form of fine mat, the ‘apei sala, is made from sa‘aga.
The designs and styles of ‘apei incorporate symbols and references specific to families and makers. It is customary for the family who the ‘apei is for to kill a pig and make a koua (a feast in earth oven) complete with fekei (pudding made from cassava starch, coconut cream, and sugar). This act gives mana to the ‘apei, and reflects its significance in the social life of Rotumans.
There are set protocols that dictate the way an ‘apei should be handled and used. When presented at ceremonies, women are responsible for folding the ‘apei into bundles in a way that shows its decorated edges, except for funerals where they are hidden. ‘Apei are never rolled when transported, they can be worn, and are commonly used for the purposes of päega. The päega is an elevated ceremonial seat for guests of honour at customary ceremonies including the appointment of togi (chiefly title), weddings, deaths, births, and for mamasa (visitors to Rotuma). ‘Apei are always featured as the top mat of the päega and are generally considered the most prestigious koroa at Rotuman ceremonies.
This ‘apei was gifted to Ravai on the island of Rotuma from a family who wanted to show their gratitude. Ravai took care of their daughter in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington for a number of years while she was a tertiary student at Victoria University of Wellington.
The monuma is a cotton blouse worn by women and recognised as the national top of Rotuma. It’s often worn when performing the tḁutoga, a traditional Rotuman dance. The tḁutoga has a distinctive formation, with rows of men on the right side, women on the left, and musical accompaniment provided by a group of elders who beat out the rhythm on a pile of mats. The elders also act as lead singers to the dancers.
This monuma was made over 20 years ago by one of Ravai’s extended family members for her to wear to community events.
These collections items are the first examples of ‘apei and monuma in the national collections and evidence of the ways in which culture and identity continue to be maintained and expressed.
Rotuma Day 2021
Due to the challenges of Covid-19, Rotuma Language Week celebrations for 2020 were online, and the community delivered the inaugural event virtually. The acquiring of this ‘apei and monuma felt like a timely opportunity to connect with the wider Rotuman community face-to-face. Working alongside Ravai and Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington-based New Zealand Rotuman Fellowship group, we organised a handover event for this koroa that also marked Rotuma Day 2021.
The evening event consisted of an official welcome by our iwi-in-residence Pou Tikanga Taharakau Stewart and April Nepia-Su’a who guided the ‘apei and monuma into the guardianship of the museum. Throughout the handover, we heard from Hon Aupito William Sio, the Minister for Pacific Peoples and Minister for Courts; Te Papa Board member Caren Rangi; and Rotuma community members Gabriel Penjueli, Eleana Enoke, and Ieli Erasito. We were present for ro‘ḁitu (prayer), the singing of Atumotu Helava la Kele (the national anthem), a moving performance of tḁutoga – and we even got to try fekei!
Fãiåk se’ea, Thank you!
- Bennett, G. (1831). A Recent Visit to Several of the Polynesian Islands. United Service Journal 33:198-202, 473-482.
- Hereniko, V. (1991). ‘Dance as a Reflection of Rotuman Culture, in Anselmo Fatiaki, et. al. 1991. Rotuma: Hanue Pumue (Precious Land): Suva: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.
- Hereniko, V. (1995). Woven gods: female clowns and power in Rotuma. University of Hawaii Press.
- Parke, A. L. (2015). Rotuma: Custom, Practice and Change. An Exploration of Customary Authorities, the Kinship System, Customary Land Tenure and Other Rights. Canberra, ACT: Coombs Academic Publishing