Restoring Women’s Weaving in Post-Disaster Vanuatu

The ICH Courier Online (Intellectual Cultural Heritage) recently posted an interesting article about the Pandanus Bank blong Mi program in Vanuatu to support resilience building, peacebuilding, and safeguarding of the ICH of displaced Ambaean weavers and artists.

In April 2017, Ambae’s Manaro volcano, Mount Lombenben, rumbled continuously, spewing torrents of volcanic matter and gas from its crater, covering the majority of the island in thick layers of ash, hampering water sources, and destroying vegetable plots and gardens. The government of Vanuatu ordered a mandatory evacuation of the island and the people of Ambae were forced to relocate to neighboring islands—Pentecost, Maewo, and Espiritu Santo—leaving their homes, animals, and crops behind. The impact was devastating. Schooling was disturbed, livelihoods perished, and many people struggled with trauma and the challenges of integrating into new communities where they didn’t have strong connections or access to land and natural resources.

Photo © Gina Kaitiplel, Further Arts

Six months into the massive displacement exercise, Further Arts partnered with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and UNESCO to conduct a post-disaster assessment of Ambae’s ICH. Working closely with the Ambae Council of Chiefs, representatives of which were largely displaced to Santo, we received their endorsement to support the documentation of community stories to safeguard cultural knowledge and practices.

At this time, we found that women overwhelmingly spoke about the loss of cultural heritage and practice, and in particular their weaving skills, in light of their living conditions in relocation camps. Their cultural heritage was at risk. In partnership with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, and with funding from the Peace and Conflict Studies Institute of Australia (PaCSIA), Further Arts was able to return to displaced Ambae communities in the following year to speak with community members and explore possibilities for how they could continue their weaving practices and transfer skills to younger generations.

Since 2018, Further Arts has implemented the Pandanus Bank blong Mi program to support resilience building, peacebuilding, and safeguarding of the ICH of displaced Ambaean weavers and artists. Rita Bill, Further Arts fieldworker in Santo, facilitated connections between the displaced communities and other communities in Santo to supply pandanus leaves to Ambaean women to continue their weaving activities in their temporary residence. More than twenty communities in Sanma Province donated rolls of dried leaves ready for weaving. We are indebted to the support toward this effort of key partners in Sanma, including the Sanma Council of Chiefs. Communities on nearby Malekula and Pentecost islands also contributed rolls of pandanus leaves.

With access to leaves, displaced Ambaean women were engaged and empowered to become more self-reliant, and their communal weaving activities became a force to build peace and bridge the divide between displaced and host communities. It has also been successful in diverting them from possible negative behaviors and patterns in the post-disaster idleness, such as crime, conflict, or gambling.

Pandanus in Vanuatu is one of the most highly valued natural resources. Weaving in Vanuatu is sustained through customary beliefs and value systems that dictate how one should handle pandanus leaves, when and where one should weave, and so on. Weaving is likewise a strong part of the Ambaean identity; it is essential to their traditional way of life in the post-disaster contemporary context, and is an important resource to support sustainable rural livelihoods.

Mats are used in all aspects of the lives of the people of Ambae. In South Ambae alone, we recorded over nine different types of mat, such as those used for traditional dressing, marriage, burials, blankets, trade, and other everyday purposes. Each tribe of Ambae have their unique mats and designs, of which they retain the knowledge regarding preparation, measurement, use, and value.

There are also traditional songs for specific mats that are sung by the tribes, and different materials are used to create designs and motifs, and to dye the mats. The unique patterns and designs of the mats are not given away freely by master weavers. Young weavers must earn the right to listen to stories of weaving and sing the traditional songs before actually learning how to weave a particular pattern. Efforts by local chiefs and communities are in progress to safeguard these customs, and ensure protection when passing knowledge to younger generations.

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