Three generations keep siapo making alive in Palauli

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79-year-old Faamuli Salu paints siapo cloth with a sharpened pandanus fruit for a brush, and mangrove branch and charcoal for paint. Everything comes from the earth, she says. (Photo: Aufa'i Areta Areta)

To many Samoans, the art of siapo making may be a mystery. Many know the ingredients, but have not watched the magic happen themselves.

So when you leave Salelologa, make sure you turn right at a small, almost imperceptible brown sign just a 15 minute drive away from the wharf.

In a rectangle fale with colourful benches all around it, is Tamasailau Lemeulu. At 21, she believes she is the only person her age with the ancient skill of beating bark into cloth.

Ms. Lemuelu works alongside her two mentors, her mother, Faapito Lesatele, and grandmother, Faamuli Salu, who turns 80 in August. Both are hoping their young craftswoman will have children of own to pass the skill down to.

Three generations of siapo craftswomen: 48-year-old Faapito Lesatele, 79-year-old Faamuli Salu and 21-year-old Tamasailau Lemuelu. (Photo: Aufa’i Areta Areta)

The siapo craftswomen have been inviting tourists to watch them work since 1966. Ms. Salu’s brother made their screen print design boards, and he is too old to make more so the family will soon have to find new designs from nearby.

During a busy tourist season, they host two groups a day (except Sundays), and often take their equipment to hotels and resorts for in-house demonstrations.

School groups from overseas and family reunion groups are common, and Ms. Lemuelu said they usually make tens of thousands of tala a month from guests and sales.

“I am happy to take over because it’s our own business,” the young owner-to-be said.

“If you want take a rest, then we can rest. There is no one to say stand up, do this, do that, we can manage ourselves.”

But the future is looking less rosy. The global COVID-19 pandemic caused Samoa and the world to close its borders and halt international tourism and it has slashed this family’s wallet substantially.

In addition, several couples cancelled their wedding wear orders because they couldn’t travel to Samoa.

“This is the only income we have. During the lock-down we don’t have enough money because no tourists come,” Ms. Lemuelu said.

“If the lock-down continues there is nowhere else we can earn money from.” The family has not discussed what they will do if the borders don’t reopen to tourists within the year.

Ms. Lemuelu is unique for her ability to make siapo, not only in her peer group but even in her family. She is the only one of her siblings to learn the art from their mother and grandmother, watching closely all through childhood and then finally doing it herself.

Faapito Lesatele washes siapo cloth against a wooden board with a shell to remove excess sap, dirt and imperfections. (Photo: Aufa’i Areta Areta)