Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Samoan Material Culture


The outer elements of the roof framework consist of the thatch rafters, 2 to 3 inches apart. As only every eighth rafter or so is used for tying the thatch to, their close setting emphasizes their use in strengthening the roof structure and adding ornamentation not only in themselves but in the extra sennit bindings round the purlins.

The thatch material consists of the sugar cane leaves (tolo) for the superior houses, and of the coconut for others. Pandanus leaves (lau fasa) are said to have been used in the remote past.

Different kinds of sugar cane are recognized, but the fatu, with narrow leaves and a dark skin, was used for thatch. The leaves are collected (fua) by women and carried in large bundles strapped to the back (fafanga). The leaves were stripped with the sheath part that enclosed the cane still attached to the leaf. In the village they are sewn together (sui) over light rods of cane (u) or the stem of a creeping plant (lafo). The leaves are pinned together with dry coconut leaflet midribs (tuaniu), the hard butt end acting as a needle point. The sewing of thatch sheets is done by a working bee of women relatives. Handy (14, p. 9) records that in British Samoa extra labor is employed at a rate of one pound sterling per hundred sheets.

The rods range from 3 feet upwards. Large leaves may be used singly but small ones are placed together in twos and threes with the same surfaces facing in the same direction. (See fig. 51.)

The cane leaf is lau tolo while a thatch sheet of cane leaf is referred to as lau. Though lau is the general word for leaf, lau, as applied to thatch, definitely means sugar cane leaf.

Coconut leaflets, stripped from dried leaves and attached to rods, are used in good houses only when sugar cane is not procurable. Misa's large house at Ofu was thatched with coconut leaflets owing to lack of sugar cane on the island. The leaflet butt ends are doubled over the rods, and pinned with dry leaflet midribs in the same way as sugar cane.

All cooking houses' and canoe sheds are thatched with plaited split leaves called lau pola. Here nature has supplied the rod in the form of the leaf midrib, and also attached the leaflets to it. The check technique of the plait will be be described on page 169 under "Plaiting." Plaited coconut sheets are not so waterproof as the pinned leaflets owing to spaces between the leaflets, but to obviate this, more are put on. They save labor, and are quite good enough for houses that are not lived in.

page 61

The thatch (atofanga), derived from the verb ato (to thatch), works upwards in rows or sections. Assistants place the sheets in position from outside while the thatchers from the scaffolding inside lash them successively with continuous sennit braid along the upward course of every seventh or eighth thatch rafter. Thatching commences on the middle section without waiting until the framework of the ends is finished.

Figure 51.—Pinning thatch sheets of sugar cane leaf:

Figure 51.—Pinning thatch sheets of sugar cane leaf:

a, with the sheath distal and the leaf midrib to the right, the blade is seized about 6 inches below the sheath junction, or ligule, and the sides pressed together so that the leaf is doubled longitudinally. The sheath end (i) is passed under the rod (2). b, The left hand holds leaf blade and rod together while the right hand doubles the sheath end down over the rod with a twist to the right; c, a strip of leaf (3) is doubled horizontally around the end of the rod and encloses the first leaf (1) against the sides of the rod; d, the second leaf (4) is placed against the rod to the right of the first, but the blade naturally is behind the sheath part of the first leaf; e, the blade of the second leaf (4) is lifted up on the right to clear the obstructing sheath (1) and then twisted to the left over it; f, the sheath of the second leaf is then doubled down over the rod (note that the second leaf has passed around the fixation strip (3) and in turn fixes it against the rod); the midrib pin (5) butt end first, is passed along from left to right a little below the rod and, parallel with it, passes in front of the first part of the first blade and behind its doubled-down part. Before it reaches the leaf midrib it is pushed through from the back. As the first part of the second leaf is in front, the pin naturally passes along behind it. It passes behind the second part of the second leaf (4) and is pushed through from the back before it reaches the leaf midrib. The right hand guides the point of the pin from the back. The succeeding leaves are added similarly. They continue on the bare rod after passing the ends of the fixation strip. The fixation strip having been fixed itself to the rod, encloses the first strip in a loop and prevents it working out to the left over the end of the rod. Owing to the twist of the two parts of the leaves, those on the right can not slip past the first leaf. The fixation technique is simple, but very important. g, The rods range in length from 3 feet upwards. At the right end the last leaf must be prevented from slipping over the end. The leaf (6) has been fixed to the bare rod (2). The last leaf (12) is then doubled over the right end of the rod. A fixation strip (3) is doubled around the end of the rod to enclose the last leaf. The leaves (7) and (8) are then added, and by passing around the fixation strip (3) fix it in position. Leaves are added until the gap indicated by the arrow head is filled in. The last leaf (12) is thus effectively anchored in position and in turn prevents the others from slipping" off. (Note the pin 5.) Fresh pieces of midrib are used as the others run short. The sheath ends of the leaves are pushed back to the surface away from the worker. This rougher surface forms the outer surface of the sheet.

page 62

Ladders (atolau or apefa'i) are used to place the higher thatch sheets in position. They are also required for attaching the roof ridging. The name atolau (ato, to thatch, and lau, thatch sheet of sugar cane leaves) shows the association of ladders with thatching. They consist of two long poles with cross rungs like European ladders. They differ, however, in their extreme narrowness. One seen in Manua had an outside measurement of 10 inches across the side poles which left only 4 inches between them. The barefooted Samoan, however, does not push his foot right through to stand on the instep, but rests on the ball of the foot with only the toes through. The rungs are lashed on either side with sennit braid. A ladder seen in Savaii had three poles. The rungs were lashed to each bamboo pole. After fixing one end of the rung, the sennit was carried across to the middle pole without cutting it, and similarly to the third pole. (See Plate I, B.)

Figure 52.—Points of thatching needles:

Figure 52.—Points of thatching needles:

a, notch defining the point 0.2 inches deep and cut obliquely outwards to form hook for catching the sennit braid; b, straight notch 0.3 inches deep; c, oblique notch 0.2 inches deep forming a distinct hook as in a. (See Plate III, A.)

Thatching needles (lave lau) made of any hard wood are used. (See Plate III, A.) Notches are made behind the points to form hooks for picking up the braid. The point of interest in the Samoan implements is the round section of some of them, and the shallow nature of the hooks. (See fig. 52.)

Figure 53.—Half-hitch thatching method:

Figure 53.—Half-hitch thatching method:

a, the base line represents the wall plate and (3) the thatch rafter. The line of the upper edge of the first thatch sheet is shown by (1) and the second sheet by (2). The braid is first tied around the thatch rafter with a running noose at (4), then passed over the sheet to the right of the rafter. The needle is thrust through the sheet close below the upper edge on the left of the rafter and hooks the braid through from the outside to pass under itself on the inside. On pulling taut it forms the half-hitch (5). Details are shown on the second sheet (2). The needle (6) pushes the sennit braid to its left (7) and then passes through the thatch sheet. b, The braid end is passed over the sheet on the right and the right hand hooks it over the needle on the outside as shown in the view from the outside. c, The needle pulls it through to the inside. The half hitch, already formed, is merely tightened into position on the rafter, as in the first sheet. As each sheet is added higher up the same technique is continued. When the braid runs short, another piece is knotted to it.

page 63

The sennit braid used is not coiled into working hanks owing to the whole length having to be pulled through the thatch sheet. There are two methods of fastening by half stitches (fig. 53), and by overhand knots (fig. 54).

Figure 54.—Overhand knot thatching method:

Figure 54.—Overhand knot thatching method:

a, completed knot (5). The needle (6) is twisted around the braid (7) in two movements. b, The needle is placed against the left side of the braid and held point downward with the right hand, while the left hand holds the braid taut upwards; c, the needle then takes a turn around the braid in the direction of the arrow; d, the needle is thrust through the sheet on the left of the rafter; e, the braid is hooked over the needle from outside as before and the braid drawn through to the inside. On hauling the braid taut on the rafter, the knot results as shown on the first sheet. This is continued upwards as in the half-hitch method. The preliminary twist with the needle saves much time in making the knot. The method is simple if the side of the braid to which the needle is applied is remembered.

The overhand knot is the firmer method. For rethatching the house, the half hitch method allows the sennit to be easily removed, and thus used again.

The thatch sheets are placed transversely across the thatch rafters ('aso) with the rod edge above and the rough surface with the sheath ends to the outside. The first row is attached close to the eave batten. Each row as it proceeds upwards overlaps the preceding row, and thus sheds the rain.

The first few rows are generally very close together. The closest spacing is when the rods of the upper sheets press against those of the lower. This is termed taolafo from tao, to press down, and lafo, the rod material. A slightly wider spacing is where the level of the pin presses against the rod below. This is taotuaniu (from tao, to press and tuaniu, the leaflet midrib sheet pins). These terms, however, are especially used in overlapping the ends of the sheets on the same horizontal row. From the close spacing near the eave batten, the rows gradually space out to two or three inches, and continue so to the roof. The spacing of the sheets depends on the thatch material available. The closer the sheets, the more impermeable the roof to rain, and the longer the life of the roof; the greater also is the quantity required.

The thatchers inside work upwards on the same thatch rafter. Several thatchers have to work together as the lashing goes up on every eighth thatch rafter or so. There may be three men to lash one strip of thatch. The overlap at the ends is also attended to. The upper edges of two adjacent sheets are never on quite the same level, as the rod part is put above or below the other in order to make the necessary overlap ride easily. The men all work on the same row, and the strip or section is carried up to the ridgepole. Handy page 64(14, p. 9) states that a row from the eaves to the ridge is called an ine'i lau. The overlapping of thatch sheets is fa'asua'i, and the ends of the sheets where they overlap each other, is su'enga, also ululau. In commencing another strip or section of thatching, the leaves of the sheets already fastened have to be lifted up to allow the ends of the sheets being added to overlap without confusion.

Thatching paddle. A special paddle-shaped implement (alai) is used. Thatching paddle is an appropriate name for it, as ordinary canoe paddles are often used when the special implement is lacking. The typical thatching paddle (alai) figured in Plate III, C, is made of a heavy wood. The blade is sharp edged, and slopes evenly back to the handle. One surface has slightly more transverse convexity than the other, and is slightly concave longitudinally. The tip is formed into a blunt point by the meeting of the blade's curving side edges. The handle is round in sections and its end is cut off square.

When the first sheet is being placed against its corresponding horizontal row, the blade of the alai is inserted under the leaves of the sheet above, between the leaves and the thatch rafters. The leaves are lifted up and the new sheet placed in position with the necessary overlap to the outside of the fixed sheet.

From the method of sticking the alai in amongst a mass of leaves already fixed has originated a saying in Manua. A person wishing to intrude with a speech in a gathering of people when it is not his turn according to social etiquette, does so by likening himself to the alai. He quotes first as his justification: "O lea tu le alai." (There will stand the thatching paddle.) The respect which Samoans have for such figures of speech enables the intruder to unburden his mind.

The ridging is attached after the middle section of the house is completely thatched on both sides. The ridging as a whole is taualunga, but the plaited coconut leaf sheets which are used as covers are termed fa'atafiti. The fa'atafiti sheets are made of single whole coconut leaves and two half leaves, plaited together so that the whole leaf midrib is in the middle line, and the split midrib some inches away on either side. The middle midrib is placed on the upper ridgepole, 'au'au lunga, and the split midribs hang down on either side parallel with it. Wooden pins are passed through from side to side above the split side midribs and below the upper ridgepole. This is termed susu'i. The ends of the sheets are overlapped, and more than one layer may be used. The upper ridgepole thus keeps the ridging pins in position, and the split midribs keep the sheets from working up over the pins. The pins must be long so as to project well on either side. The leaflets from the edges of the roof sheets hang down and overlap the uppermost rows of thatch.

As the framework of the end sections are finished, the thatch is put on page 65in the way described, but of course there is no ridging. The thatch sheets are worked round to follow the curve of the framework. When closely examined from the inside, the overlapping end rows look somewhat irregular in parts. The general effect however is pleasing owing to the eye being deflected to the curves of the purlins, the regular effect of the parallel thatch rafters, and the evenness of the sennit lashings.

The junction between the middle and end sections is the last part to be thatched. This junction is called the pepe. When a house reaches this stage, it is well on its way to completion. In Savaii this stage is called lau-a-imoa and is used in conversation to denote the advance made. The origin of the term is described in the following folk tale.

Tradition of unfinished thatch

Alo-maunanae was the son of Nai-saafa, high chief of the Amoa district in Savaii. His mother was Sina-mata-imoa, who had a rat's head. (The term imoa means rat.) Alo married Meto-tangi-vale, daughter of Punga, who lived at Leuo between Puapua and Le Alatele. He met her through a dart throwing competition, which is another story.

Owing to Meto's natural importunity for a house after their union, Alo approached his parents. They referred him to Imoa-ita (Savage rat) who, however, refused to act as head builder. Alo thereupon cursed him, saying, "For your discourtesy to me, may you die by the wayside and be trodden underfoot by the passersby." (Dead rats lying by the roadside in Samoa are the result of an ill advised refusal by one of their ancestors.) Imoa-sina (White rat) accepted the commission and commenced building with his rat carpenters. Alo's mother told him he was on no account to move or make a sound in his sleep while the house was being built. The framework of the house was of toa (ironwood) and the thatch of 'ula (red feathers). All was completed except the thatch at the pepe junction when Alo moved in his sleep. The startled carpenters immediately left the work. Hence the saying, "lau-a-imoa" (the thatch as the rats left it).

In spite of this small omission, the house was evidently a good one for it is quoted in another saying when speaking of a good house, "'Ua o le fale na i Amoa, e pou i toa, ae lau i'ula." (Like the housei n Amoa, the posts were of ironwood and the thatch of red feathers).

The life of an ordinary roof of cane leaves is 6 to 7 years, but a well-thatched roof, 8 to 10 years. Old thatch is falu lau. When the thatch becomes so old that the roof leaks, the house is rethatched (ulu). It is often done in sections where the leak occurs, and the roof has a patchy appearance. To thatch over old thatch is fatu'ulu.

The last process in thatching is cutting the ends of the leaves level over the eaves (tuluiulu). In important houses, the builder came back to do this after the taufale's party had completed the thatching. The builders left after the completion of the framework of the second end section. The cutting of the eaves, however, was part of their duty as recited at the final payment feast. The part under the eaves is termed pa'usisi.