O My Traditional Skills, Where Art Thou?

Having been a witness to, and sometimes a participant in the conduct and preservation of some traditional skills, I lament the atrophy that is currently besetting these skills. However, I hasten to add that for some skills, their time and utility have gone by the wayside. For others, there is time to reverse the rot if there are appropriate initiatives and collaborative efforts.

Three traditional skills I wish to discuss in this context, viz:  (i) construction and sailing of camakau, Fijian outrigger canoe; (ii) food preservation through davuke; and (iii) use of lololo for storage of yams.

There is no camakau in Dravuni today. The last one that was still sailing was in 2010 when the ‘Uto ni Yalo’ test-sailed to Dravuni one night before its major sail to New Zealand later that year (see Blog: “Uto ni Yalo night-sailed to Dravuni”). A picture in that blog places the camakau and the drua: Uto ni Yalo in very interesting contrast. That particular camakau however was the only one to be built on Dravuni after a lapse of a few decades.

The builder was  the late Jioji Kovelali and I believe that he was the last of the known builders in Dravuni. I recall when he asked me for permission to cut down a mango tree from our kanakana, family-owned block of land, at the church end of the village for the hull of the camakau.

Young male adults growing up on Dravuni today would have no knowledge of sailing the camakau. And that is mainly because of the long absence of camakau, which have been replaced by punts with outboard motors or launches with inboard motors. Growing up on Dravuni, I recall enjoying the sanction of the adults to sail the camakau within the lagoon in front of the village. These occasions were meant for learning the ABC of sailing. We would then graduate to running errands after appropriate lessons. On one occasion however, one of these errands resulted in the tragic loss of three young men, the youngest of whom was only seventeen. No body, nor any parts of the camakau were ever recovered.

The davuke is a generic term for a hole in the ground for preserving food stuff through a process of fermentation; essentially value adding. But it also refers to a grave (davuke ni mate) or a trough of a wave – davuke ni ua. For its more-generally used meaning, however, there is the davuke ni madrai, used for preserving foodstuff like cassava and breadfruit for making madra ni viti, (or bila) which is the Fijian ‘bread’ made from a fermented form of these foods. Fermented cassava, for example, is pounded and mixed (if preferred) with grated coconut and then cooked. There is also the davuke ni kora. This is not so much a hole, but a depression on the fringing reef near the beach where grated coconut is fermented to form kora. The grated coconut (with or without its lolo – juice or coconut milk, squeezed) is wrapped up in leaves and placed in a sack and left submerged in the depression of the reef. Rocks are placed on top for weights. The kora is cooked with fish, for example, as added seasoning.

In Dravuni, the davuke ni madrai is usually referred to in its shortened form, davuke. I recall on one occasion as a young lad having to help the adults making a davuke. It was after a hurricane and there was damaged cassava and breadfruit galore. I recall seeing the hole being lined with stones and leaves and sticks, and the foodstuff – peeled cassava and bread fruit, arranged systematically right up to the top of the hole. Systematic arrangement by mixing cassava and breadfruit was aimed to facilitate the occasional opening, or collecting of the fermented product of the davuke when needed. More leaves are placed on top and then buried with soil. The site of the davuke was on a flat piece of ground, a break in a gentle slope. This was chosen for its free-draining property.

Years later, on a request from late Mrs Susan Parkinson, a renowned dietician in Fiji and in the Pacific, my father put together a team (mainly of women) from Dravuni to make a demonstration davuke in Mrs Parkinson’s back yard garden. One or two women from that team are still living and they would be the right people to re-activate davuke making in Dravuni.

The lololo, aka  valevale, is a little specially-built hut in the food garden itself for storing yams after harvest. This is usually built in about February (vula isevu – month for offering of first harvest) or March (vula ikelikeli – month for harvesting). I had referred to such an occasion in “Romanticizing Village Life,” posted on 10.08.16. I recall seeing at least one lololo as a lad in the village.

Not many yams are grown on Dravuni today. A number of factors are at play here. Agronomically, growing yam is both labour and time-intensive. Given time use in the context of Dravuni’s economy today (see ‘Dravuni – Rural Village Economy,’ posted on 13.03.17), it would be difficult for an individual to revert to serious yam production, except of course if incentivized through solesolevaki, collective labour for individual benefit (see: “Collective vis-à-vis Individualistic Approach: Seeking Solution,” posted on 12.04.17). Solesolevaki could also be used for re-activating the making of davuke. In this specific case, however, solesolevaki usually results in collective benefit for the whole village.

 Traditional skills, like tradition itself, get modified over time. Very often, the factors that bring about these modifications are external, which impact the immediate environment within which the skills are practiced. In a situation like this very little can be done to reverse the loss of traditional skills.  Other times, factors are internal and the skill is not totally lost. In such a situation, stakeholders who seek a solution to make the situation good could turn inwardly to their own community, revisit their traditional pool of skills and reactivate those that will generate net benefits and which may be nearing obsolescence.