Savu and Rai Jua Revisited After Ten Years

The beauty and delicacy of the Savunese women and their textiles

The last time I visited the small islands of Savu and Rai Jua was ten years ago with a group of textile enthusiasts who joined us aboard the Perintis, a buginese schooner designed to bring small tour groups to the outer islands. I have vivid memories of the rich culture we saw: the gorgeous women and their textiles, the delicate dances and enchanting traditional songs. Making the trip to Savu and Rai Jua in May this year was like returning to a dream, as I have carried the memory of these islands in hopes of returning to deepen my understanding.

Ten years ago when we approached Savu by sea, I was amazed to watch the flat strip of land on the horizon grow closer and closer without any indication of sizeable elevation. This time I came by air and was fascinated to see a different perspective of the landscape. Most of the land appeared to be brown and bare with only a few river valleys supporting rice production. What I did notice was the round tops of the lontar palms that seem to ring many small compounds and gardens across Savu.

Approaching Savu by air

Men will manage between thirty and fifty trees, climbing in the morning and evening to collect the liquid

On this trip I was to learn how integral these lontar palms (Borassus sp.) are to people on both Savu and Rai Jua in their daily and ritual life. Families rely on the sweet water that is tapped from the male inflorescence of the palm for their daily sustenance. Men manage between thirty and fifty trees, climbing in the morning and evening to collect the palm liquid. While the men begin to tap the trees in March to feed their families, the official season does not start until April when a community’s cultural leader performs a series of complex ceremonies to open the season which is then closed in October.

The amount of liquid that can be collected by the tapper from each tree is dependent on the sharpness of his knife. Every time he climbs he slices off the scar that formed over the previous cut. By making particularly thin slices he increases the number of times he can shave off the end of the inflorescence before he uses it up, and therefore increases the time over which the liquid flows.

Carefully cutting the end of the male infloresence

Palm water being cooked down into a thick syrup

During July and August the flow from the inflorescence is increased with the heat of the days and the harvest of liquid becomes more than a family can drink in a day. To store this nutritious drink, it is collected and cooked down in big pans on open fires by the women until it thickens into a syrup.

The syrup is poured in earthenware pots that vary in size from two to sixty liters. The large pots are stored in the kitchen and are an important source of nutrition for the family throughout the year. The minimum amount of syrup a family needs to sustain itself from October to February is two hundred liters. We were served young coconut with palm syrup and fresh harvested peanuts while visiting one of the weaving groups-I can’t remember eating a more delicious dessert!

Large thirty liter earthenware pots storing the palm syrup

Beautiful basketry used for collecting palm liquid

Lontar palms have multiple uses for the people of Savu and Rai Jua. The young leaves are cut and then dried and made into the thatching for the tradtional house as well as the walls. Hats are made from lontar, as are betelnut baskets and baskets used for collecting vegetables from the garden. The basketry used for collecting the palm liquid is generally called haik. There are various sizes ofhaba depending on the use. Threads of Life has begun to buy many of these woven palm items as they are beautiful as pieces of art!

The lontar palm is utilized in every aspect of life, including in the weaver’s work. Textiles reflect the importance of the lontar palm for the Savu and Rai Jua people through their motifs. Take a look at the textile that my colleague Wenten is wearing around his neck as he stands next to Getreda, a master weaver from Rai Jua. Notice the zigzag motif that is stacked one on top of the other: this is representative of the wooden handle of the haba that is shown in the previous slide.

The zigzag pattern on the textile that Wenten (right) is wearing represents the handle on the haba or basket used to collect palm wine

Ibu Adin with an Ei Pudi Wodattu textile on her shoulder. The white circles represent lontar blossoms

Getreda’s daughter helps her mother with the tying and weaving of textiles. Take a look at the Ei Pudi Nga Wodatuindigo textile on her shoulder. The white tie-and-dyed circles on the cloth represent lontar blossoms, another reminder of how integral the lontar palm is to the culture.

Ina Hale Nakuji Beni is a member of the Hawu Miha weaving group from the traditional compound of Nadawawi on Savu. She ties a strip of lontar palm around the top edge of her indigo dye pots, explaining that it is used to evoke blessings on her work and to insure that the dyeing process is not disturbed.

Lontar strips are wrapped around the edge of the indigo dye pot as protection

I am struck by the incredible connection that the people of Savu and Rai Jua maintain between their culture and their natural environment. I feel that it is this level of integrity that makes their textiles so attractive.