By Mere Taito

In the field of forensic science, I am intrigued by ‘traces’ left behind in crime scenes by both perpetrator and victim that cannot be easily seen or understood by the naked, untrained eye. Trace evidence includes items such as hair, fluid and object transfer, bodily fluids, fibres, tool marks, and impressions created by moving objects such as vehicles (tyre marks) or the human body (finger and footprints). In a somewhat parallel way but without the violence and gore, I have been thinking about the traces of the dormant practice of Rotuman bark cloth making and its use dispersed across Rotuman consciousness and memory over time. I contemplate the residual marks of this practice and wonder where they might be camouflaged and hiding in plain sight.

I do not go far before I find ‘impressions’ in our language. In my personal copy of A New Rotuman Dictionary (1998) which is a single bound volume of Maxwell Churchward’s archival 1940 Rotuman-English Dictionary and An English Rotuman Wordlist compiled by Inia et al in the 1990s, I find our word for bark cloth: /uha/. We can metathesise and shorten /uha/ to /uạh/. We also make distinctions between the thickness of bark cloth. Thicker bark cloths are /uha/ and thinner versions are /reureu/ (pg. 298). We also have names of trees from which bark was stripped and pounded: /jala/, /mạsi/ and possibly /armea/. One of these varieties of trees, must be the common Mulberry but I do not care to know which one because I much prefer knowing the trees by their Rotuman names. In Elisapeti Inia’s (2001) much loved text Kato’aga: Rotuman Ceremonies, I discover more evidence of uha use. As a pre-Christian birth ritual practice, lactating mothers bound their breasts with uha to prevent milk loss and overflow; and before the arrival of mosquito nets, uha was draped over sleeping areas to shield human flesh from the sharp sting of a drilling proboscis.Farther away at the Alexander Turnbull library in a folder numbered MS Papers 0060-054, are Arthur Maurice Hocart’s highly organised fieldnotes on Rotuma written in 1913. There is uha ‘splatter’ here too. In entry 5013, Hocart writes:

Fig 1: Hocart’s notes on uha: entry 5013

The entry begins with what seems to be the word /hạ’u/ ‘clothes’. There is a tree name /F vau/ which could possibly be /favrau/, a name identified by another exploring European, Gordon Macgregor in 1932. However, rather than ‘tie things’, the bark of the /favrau/ is described by Macgregor as a source of dye juice for painting uha. Howard’s unpublished paper ‘The Arts of Rotuma’ has a more detailed account of Macgregor’s (as well as other European explorers such as Lesson and Bennet) uha observations, but for now, I am stuck on Hocart. His description of ‘women’ /hạina/ as the makers of uha in the past tense ‘used to’ is a code-switch construction of English and Rotuman. He also uses the short form of /uah/ and what seems to be an accompanying verb: ‘teŋ’? or maybe ‘tag’? I am still not sure so I read the sentence out loud:

Women used to ‘teŋ’/ ‘tag’ uah.

It works. There is something familiar about ‘teŋ’/ ‘tag’. I have come across this word before but in a different form. I race back to Churchward’s 1940 dictionary entry on /uha/ and find this usage and translation on pg. 340 (eureka!):

/Iris tȧg uah/
They are beating out native cloth. 

I consider the exciting possibility that /tȧg/ is a verb specific to the hitting, knocking, and beating of bark cloth. I dig further and find /tȧg/ nestled under the word /tạgi/ on pg. 319. It is a verb to mean ‘to hit, beat, or knock’ an object like uha but not necessarily only uha. I am disappointed. I do not get the confirmation I was hoping for. Still, the verb-noun collocation of /tȧg uạh/, the dyeing of uha, its functional rather than ceremonial uses, and the central role women played in its making revs up my brain and I find myself re-imagining, and re-constructing vicariously, the practice of uha making through the writing of the digital and visual translingual poem ‘Uha by proxy’. The interactive audio version of ‘Uha by proxy’ can be accessed here.

A thing, or person in a ‘state of proxy’ is a stand in; a surrogate substitute of the ‘real deal’, which like the work of ‘trace’ in a forensic science context, re-tells the silent story of an encounter that has taken place within a specific time-frame. My re-construction of uha practice involves, at the outset, establishing a strong visual presence of textured bark cloth throughout the poem (Fig 2). To achieve this, I take a photograph of a piece of ngatu (Tongan bark cloth) that was gifted to me by a relative and upload the image as background across the poem’s 6 digital pages. To clarify, I do not actively seek out the ‘ngatu type’: it just happens to be the only bark cloth I have in my possession.

Fig 2: Re-constructing textured page backgrounds by proxy through photographing ngatu

My vicarious re-imagining also involves marking the practice’s state of temporary suspension which I ‘rest in mid-air’ (Fig 3). Alongside this resting, I centre the role of women in /hȧn majạu ta/ ‘the woman expert maker’. It is her hand that holds the beating stick (Fig 3). It is her hand that will pound and flatten once the motifs have ‘crossed over into the memory of rain’. I also deliberately inject usage of /tȧg/, /uha/, and /uạh/. Because of its transitive nature, /tȧg/ takes on the causative suffix /- ‘ạkia/ to form / tȧg‘ạkia/ which means to ‘strike with’ and /‘ại tȧg uạh heta/ is the noun phrase ‘uha beating stick’(Fig 3). To confess, I initially reduplicated /tȧg/ to form / tȧgtȧg’ạkia/ but I had cold feet and flipped it back to / tȧg‘ạkia/. I send a stern note to myself: refresh your knowledge on Rotuman reduplication rules before committing to this form – or not. Despite this tension, uha-making contextual usage in ‘Uha by proxy’ is a way to prod these sleepy words awake and give them new life in a translingual digital poetic frame. 

Fig 3: Marking the state of ‘rest’ and contextual uha-making usage

To re-create the motifs (Fig 4), I draw from my memory of rain. I grew up in Fiji. ‘Rain bath’ is a thing in Fiji. In a good downpour, the sight of children standing under gutters and running through puddles with empty tires and rolling sticks is a common one. ‘A puddle stampede’ (pg 2 Fig 4) equates to child play and happiness. I also recall how my Mapiga (grandmother) Lily would make references to rain in the Rotuman language when we lived in Vatukoula: /uạs malolo/ ‘heavy rain’, /uạs jehjeh/ ‘drizzle rain’, /tạn kạlu/ ‘puddle’ and /tạn ma’ma’ạn/ ‘muddy rain puddle’. Like luminol, I spray these Rotuman rain words and memories on pages 2 and 3 (Fig 4) to reveal rain motifs of many colours, shapes and sizes.

Fig 4: Re-construction of motifs through the memory of rain

As with any re-construction, there is wait time before a time of reckoning and action. 

When the motifs have metaphorically crossed over, saturated and ‘all rained out’ (wait time) (Fig 5), the /hȧn majạu ta/ will strike a rhythm (reckoning and action) (Fig 6). 

Fig 5: Wait time

Fig 6: Reckoning and action

It is this rhythm and beat of /taktak   tak  tak  tak  taktak/, that calls the motifs to attention. It sends them to their proper places on the uha like a tight choreography (Fig 7).  It is at this point that the uha begins to re-form.

Fig 7: A tight visual choreography: the beginning of meaningful re-forming

Trace-ing evidence of Rotuman uha making through the archives and re-constructing the practice through a digital visual poem like ‘Uha by proxy’, has been intellectually and creatively stimulating. Of course, I have many unanswered questions about uha making, but I’ll shelve these for a ‘part 2’. For now, I boldly and unapologetically hope that this blog entry will catch the eye of a skilled Rotuman crafter who might want to take the first strike of the /‘ại tȧg uạh heta/. I’ll happily stay in my lane: stick to poetry.  

Mere Taito

About Mere Taito

Mere Taito (Malha’a, Noa’tau (Rotuma)) is a Rotuman Island scholar and creative writer (Poetry, flash fiction, short story) based in Kirikiriroa.

Her creative work has been published widely in anthologies and journals such as Landfall, Bonsai, and Best New Zealand Poems. She recently co-edited the anthology Katūīvei: Contemporary Pasifika Poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand (2024) with David Eggleton and Vaughan Rapatahana.

Her PhD studies at the University of Otago focuses on the contributions of Rotuman archival texts, digital creativity and authorship toward the writing of visual multilingual Rotuman poetry.