Vusama’s barren saltwater wells

Seawater is trasferred from the matoji to huge pots for cooking. Picture: . Photo: UNDP Fiji/Zainab Kakal

Despite its endless fight for clean drinking water, Vusama Village is regarded as Fiji’s original salt making community.

Thousands of years ago, before the arrival of the first white man, ancient women of Vusama were preparing salt in places adjacent to mudflats called maqa within the mangrove forest located on the outskirts of the village.

Over time, salt became a trade commodity and traditional i yau ( item of value) and Vusama not only rose to prominence but eventually became the traditional custodian of salt making in the province of Nadroga-Navosa.

But unfortunately, salt cooking knowledge and skills were lost for more than five decades until the United Nations Development Programme helped to resurrect them in 2019.

“Right now, salt-making is still practised in places like Lomawai but that age-old tradition started here,” Vusama’s chief and turaga ni yavusa, Ratu Sakiusa Nagata said.

“As our women got married into other villagers, they took with them this tradition and continued to practise it in their new home. That is how the knowledge of salt-making spread to other coastal villages.”

The recent revival of salt making in Vusama Village was part of a UNDP funded Fiji Ridge to Reef (R2R) project in 2019 where a total budget of $US7,387,614 ($F16,384,119) was allocated.

The four-year R2R program was implemented by the Fijian Government though the Ministry of Waterways and Environment and the initiative was introduced in six catchment areas including Tuva catchment where Vusama Village is located.

But the COVID-19 pandemic and a host of problems struck the cottage initiative down, even before it could emerge strong and stable.

And the great initiative to revive salt-making on the coastline has today suffered death and has become part of history once again.

A few days a week, tourists from nearby hotels visit Vusama Village eager to taste genuine Fijian hospitality and enjoy its natural environment.

Watching women prepare salt would have been a great tourist attraction to provide another stream of revenue for the village.

But inadequate water, poor sanitation and poor roads intricately work to discourage the initiative and as a result, old saltwater pits remain unattended and salt-making knowledge and skills are again slowly disappearing.

The Sunday Times team was invited to inspect the dilapidated site of saltwater pits called matoji and used fireplace.

To get to the place requires a short walk from the village to the mangrove swamp.

Unlike, the salt wells of Lomawai Village in the district of Wai, Vusama’s matoji are located kilometres from the village.

The area is marked by used fireplaces, charcoal remains and pottery pieces.

The shards suggest that Vusama’s salt preparation area was a busy place in times of old.

“This is the very spot where salt-making knowledge is believed to have started from,” Vusama’s former village headman, Saula Nadokonivalu said.

“Our women were the first to engage in salt making and through them, the knowledge reached other villages along the coast.

“But unfortunately, other villagers continue cooking salt while we have stopped doing what started on our oil. Through support we could revive it again and make use of the knowledge we already have.”

Mangrove forests on the outskirts of Vusama, not only act as natural barriers and food nursery.

They help protect the salt pits and give saltwater the right salinity.

In the olden days, villagers would take salt as a gift during a solevu (special traditional gathering) or traded them for other food produce or traditional artefacts that other villages specialised in.

Preparing salt was labour-intensive and was largely done by women.

Firstly, special circular wells or pits were dug to a depth of at least six feet.

Dug out sediment was piled along the circumference of the rounded well to help protect the brine inside and keep away rubbish and high tides.

The digging continued until seawater rose from the bottom of the pit.

Sometimes, women tasted the seawater to ensure it registered the right saltiness.

Some records say cooking of salt was an activity done during special times of the year, especially around the time when the mudflats were at their driest.

Once a brine well was filled up, it could supply seawater for several years of salt making before it ran dry again.

In the olden days, women dressed up in special costumes to prepare salt and appease the deities associated with the activity or the vanua.

Special chants were sung by the men while women dipped their pails into the well to collect brine.

Women would stir the hot brine while dressed in skirts and remained topless.

“Cooking salt takes one whole day or even two,” said Vusama village elder Asivurusi Naivalulevu.

“When I was small, our mothers spent most of their days at the cooking site. Children gathered there as well so it was a busy place to be and it involved the whole village.

“Women would cook, men would fetch for firewood and children would do other things. It brought the whole village together.”

At the cooking stage, mangrove firewood was used to supply the fuel needed to keep the furnace firing non-stop for at least 24 hours.

When brine started boiling, it demanded constant stirring and careful attention until seawater evaporated, leaving behind salt crystals.

Salt was then put into moulds and allowed to stand and dry further.

Then the moulds were removed before solid salt blocks were wrapped to preserve moisture.

Lastly, special baskets using the stripped inside parts of young mangrove aerial roots (tiri) were woven into baskets to store the salt.

What Vusama needs is a modern kitchen and furnace to boil seawater and a regular supply of clean drinking water to make cleaning up and washing easy.

The latter is a challenge the village has faced for many decades as everyone depends on carted water from town and wells.

A new building would mean women salt makers could boil seawater during periods of heavy rain without getting wet.

They could also better store their baskets of salt.

Assistance in this area would greatly enhance productivity and livelihoods, create jobs especially for women, increase family income and put in place environmental and social safeguards for the protection and conservation of mangrove forests.

“Because of our ongoing water problem we cannot make salt-making sustainable and we cannot showcase that aspect of our tradition to our
tourists,” Mr Nadokonivalu said.

“Water is needed to ensure the kitchen is in a hygienic state, those cooking are clean and cooking utensils are washed.

“Without proper water supply it would be hard to revive our salt making tradition. Who known, it might be lost too from us.”

Until another salt making revival, the Vusama’s saltwater wells will remain barren and forgotten, a reminder of a time long gone.

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