Making Siapo

1. Peeling the bark

small plantations of mulberry trees
are tended like growing children

pruned and nudged into alignment
they sprout straight toward heaven
without branches or strange notions
to mar the finished product

when village babies toddle into walking
saplings from the same birth-moon
are cut or bitten around the butt

the bark stripped from them
like clothing
peeled from wet bodies

determined pulling
some grunting and wrestling
finally accomplishing the deed

siapo = Samoan tapa (bark) cloth

2. Peeling the bast

the bark is rolled around a hand
flattened and subdued

soft and pliable
a knife prises the bast
from the coarse outer bark

I’ve seen women do this
with a Madonna smile

hair softly drawn back
lava-black and piled high
fixed with plastic turtle-shell combs

they sit
legs to curled to one side
wielding knives from ample hips
illuminated by tropical flowers
sewn quietly into dresses

bit by bit
inner and outer bark
are peeled from each other

if the bark were a mouth
it would be screaming by now

bast = soft inner bark

3.  Scraping the bast

I’ve mistaken the pouring of water
over a sloping board
for a wash day

then realized the board
accommodated strips of bast
and siapo was in the making

sometimes an old canoe suffices

it is an inclined surface that is required
running water
and something sharp
shells or bamboo or a knife

that can scrape away
remnants of the coarse outer bark
that eluded the bast peeling

clung stubbornly to its soft inner flesh

4. Beating the bast

the dull thud of a beating
churns my stomach
triggers adrenalin
my legs pump a getaway
out of any door or window

but the fight has gone from bundles of bast

it’s been pressed out with excess water
by deftly applied shells and open palms

the bundles submit to wooden anvils
are evenly beaten
by grooved and smooth faces

there’s a rhythm to it all

and when it’s over
sheets of cloth are stretched out
on mats or mown grass
weighted down with stones
left to dry like parchment

5. Dying siapo

dye is made from candlenut trees

the shoots of coconut palms gathered
in woven baskets with turmeric roots

dried and powdered mountain clay
mixed with seeds and the sap of plants
sought by hurricanes uprooting the coast

and the cut trunks of towering bananas
shading clusters of ripening fruit


my hair’s the colour of siapo
whiffs of white peeping through
with random smudges of grey

blotted by immersion dying
the free-hand painting of highlights
the rubbing of youthful promise
into an aging scalp

my great-grandmother
wrapped herself in siapo
in the days when whalers plied
antipodean coastlines for loot

she was a taupou
escaped and bore a child to a man
old enough to be her grandfather

sometimes when I’m combing
anti-frizz emollients into my hair
pulling it back and up into a bundle
to fix with plastic turtle-shell combs

I think of Fiapaipai
her fall from grace
the village curse
my own life

and smile or weep
depending on the day


taupou = village virgin

Serie (Cherie) Barford is a performance poet of Samoan, Celtic, Scandinavian and Algonquin Indian ancestry. She was born in Aotearoa in 1960 and grew up in West Auckland on the Te Atatu (the dawn) Peninsula. The headland opened out to the Waitemata harbour, mangrove swamps, bush-clad hills and farmland. City-sprawl eventually tarsealed roads, installed footpaths and gobbled up orchards and farms. It was a poor part of town, but she didn’t realize that at the time. Serie regards herself,

‘…. as both a Pasifika woman and a syncretic being — one who is forever reconciling opposite tendencies and worldviews resulting from generations of relocation to the antipodes.’

Serie’s mother migrated to Aotearoa from Samoa in the 1950’s. Her grandfather was a child POW on Motuhe (an island in the Waitemata Harbour) during World War I and was an adult POW during World War II on Sommes Island (in Wellington Harbour). He was in hospital at the same time as the Japanese POWS who were hospitalized after the Featherston riots and could communicate with those who spoke the Chinese he’d learnt from plantation workers in Samoa. Serie grew up knowing that the stories she heard in her community were not always valued or told by teachers at school or university and were hard to find on bookshelves in libraries or shops. This has affected her choice of subject matter and writing style. Different stories are told differently. She tells stories that are not usually found in mainstream New Zealand culture.

Serie completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Auckland and also acquired a Diploma in Teaching. She was a secondary school teacher for almost 20 years then managed the Waitakere Adult Literacy Centre for four years. She now works in the field of Adult and Community Education in Waitakere City (West Auckland) and is a member of Te Roopu Matua, the governing body of Waitakere Adult Literacy Inc.

Over the past three years Serie has divided her time between her family in Aotearoa and her partner who’s working in the Loyalty Islands. She has completed a poetry manuscript entitled Tapa Talk which she hopes to publish in the near future and has several pieces in an upcoming anthology of new writings from the South Pacific, to be published in July through the University of Canberra. Her current work in progress is a collection of short stories.

Barford comments: ‘I wrote “Making Siapo” after watching a woman involved in the process of creating siapo sitting with her legs curled to one side. Her posture is what caught my eye and gave me the seed material for the poem. Women usually cross their legs when they sit on the ground and are involved in this activity.’

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