By Paula Tagivetaua

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, June 26, 2011) - At Naikeleyaga on Kabara, Fiji, I asked to meet a mataisau - traditional wood carver.

We were on the island of the mataisau and I wanted to see one in action and hear their story.

Chance favoured me as the old man Apisai Sesewa asked, said one of the mataisau was in the vakatunuloa and went to call him.

That is how we met Laitia Vakayatuyatu and he told me their story.

"I am happy you wanted to see me," he said when we were introduced. "I have been wanting to tell our story."

I wondered, what story?

As far as I was concerned or knew, if you were from Kabara, you were of the mataisau clan and could carve a tanoa, build a house or Fijian canoe and other wooden artifacts but little did I know that there is a story separating the tanoa carvers of Kabara from the other wood carvers.

The story of the tanoa carvers is the story of Laitia Vakayatuyatu and members of his clan - the Lemaki claan who are originally from Manono in Samoa.

I was intrigued when Laitia started telling their story.

I did not know the tanoa, as I came to know it as the big wooden bowl or container where the yaqona [kava] is mixed in, was originally from Samoa.

This was interesting.

"We brought the tanoa from Samoa to Fiji," Laitia said.

He took us to his shed by the beach - a derelict wooden house with the walls gone and only the roof to provide cover from the sun and rain.

In the shed was an old refrigerator which Laitia opened and pulled out a half-done wooden tanoa.

It was a small one, enough for a small mix - two or four bags of grog, depending on how strong you want it.

The shed was full of amber wooden chips which I knew were from the vesi tree.

Were there many vesi trees on Kabara, I asked and he said Kabara was full of vesi trees, as if the gods had graced the island with the hardwood specifically for carving artifacts because of their strength and durability.

How come the tanoa came from Samoa?

The Lemaki is a tokatoka - family clan who were brought in to be the mataisau for the Tui Nayau in the days of old.

"The king of Tonga a long time ago heard about the special skills of our ancestors and asked for our ancestors to carve wooden tanoa or komete for the him in Tonga," Laitia said.

So, from Samoa, the tanoa carvers from the Lemaki clan went to Tonga and cut tanoa for the king of Tonga.

It was at Tonga that the Tui Nayau then heard about the tanoa carvers and asked the Tui Tonga if he could send one of the tanoa carvers to come and carve tanoa for him.

That is how the Lemaki clan found their way to Fiji and brought with them the tanoa from Samoa via Tonga.

"Our grandfathers were the original mataisau for the Tui Nayau clan.

"They settled at Tubou on Lakeba but after a while, they asked the Vuanirewa clan to move elsewhere and ended up at Kabara.

"The leader of the Lemaki clan, Josateki Wainiqolo, is in Tuibou.

"When something comes up and the mataisau is needed to do something, word goes to our leader and he delegates the task to us.

"When the Tui Nayau wants a house, canoe or tanoa built or carved, he summons our leader and we are told what to do and we do it.

"We are the mataisau of the Tui Nayau, nobody else."

Laitia said at the moment, small tanoas were good business and buyers come from Suva to the island and buy it from them, take them back to Suva where they are polished and varnished and sold to tourists and locals in handicraft stores.

"In one day, I can finish 10 small tanoas like this," he said and I found it incredible that he could accomplish such a feat but I believed him after I saw how fast his hands were in chipping the half-done tanoa and how skilful he held the small axe or tool he was using.

"I am used to it.

"I have been doing this all my life.

"My children have been taught and can do the job.

"When we came to Fiji, we changed out style and only had four or six legs on a tanoa.

"In Samoa, a tanoa would have eight or 12 small legs," Laitia said.

There I was at Naikeleyaga on Kabara in the presence of a master tanoa carver of tanoa and knowing for the first time that the tanoa we mix grog in originated in Samoa.

You hear and learn new things in new places you go to.

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