Thursday, January 22, 2015

Understanding the transformative value of Tongan women’s kau tou lālanga: mobile mats, mobile phones, and money transfer agents

By IMTFI researcher Charmaine 'Ilaiu Talei

A kau tou lālanga  in Kāmeli, Neiafu Vava’u,
Tonga. Photo: C. ‘Ilaiu Taleidd caption
Kau tou lālanga is a group of Tongan women who collectively weave one another’s fine pandanus mats to barter and sell. Their prime customers are Tongan women living in diasporic communities around the Pacific Rim. Our research has determined two business negotiations of kau tou lālanga: firstly, to weave per lineal foot, also known as ‘iate, and secondly, to weave towards a ‘gathering’, or kātoanga. An ‘iate negotiation starts with a customer, usually a local person, making an order to a collective to weave one or two mats—only a small quantity. The second negotiation, kātoanga, is a gathering between a number of weavers from a collective and a group of customers, who are mostly Tongan women from overseas. Before a kātoanga, the parties involved negotiate the large number of mats to be exchanged, the sum of cash for the order, and the date and venue of their gathering is also agreed upon. Kātoanga agreements reach higher annual returns than ‘iate negotiations.

Tongan mats, or fala, are part of a wider system of customary gift exchanges within Tongan society. In this customary sense, Tongan mats are cashless forms of value storage. Such value is traditionally activated during a Tongan occasion, such as funerals, weddings and birthdays. A traditional gift from guests to hosts or vice versa could consist of tapa cloth and several types of fine mats. Thus, fine mats—the products of kau tou lālanga businesses—are highly prized items in Tongan material culture. For this reason, this work is part of a wider discussion of gifts of exchange studied by anthropologists: Adrienne Kaeppler (1999), Phyllis Herda (1999), Ping-Ann Addo and Niko Besnier (2008), and Fanny Wonu Veys (2009). However, their analyses exceed the purposes of this blog.

A participant displaying her mats (fala hinehina)
for a kātoanga with her United States of America
based Tongan customer, Tongatapu, Tonga.
Photo: C. ‘Ilaiu Talei
The Kingdom of Tonga is located in the South Pacific (20 00 S, 175 00 W) and is an archipelago of 169 islands stretched throughout 747 square kilometres. The main central island is Tongatapu, where the capital Nuku’alofa is located. Three fieldwork trips were conducted within the project timeframe. A total of eight weeks in two remote islands groups: Vava’u and Ha’apai. Being remote islands they generally have less access to a wider range of cash making opportunities in comparison to the main island. Vava’u and Ha’apai are also mat making epicenters. The fieldwork sites in Vava’u include the rural village of Leimatu’a and Kameli in Neiafu town. In Ha’apai, the sites include the rural villages of Fangale’ounga on Foa Island and Pukotala on Ha’ano Island, and finally, the urban village of Pangai. These village sites were selected based on existing contacts and referrals of where to best find kau tou lālanga groups. A total of 24 participants were interviewed over the course of three trips, 14 from Vava’u and 10 from Ha’apai. Some 20 were sole weavers and all were women and 4 acted as trading agents, of which 2 were men. 

The first objective of this research was to understand what is the transformative value of kau tou lālanga in Tonga and secondly how mobile phones and money transfer platforms help to achieve this transformation. The transformative value was first defined by the authors at the project’s conception as, ‘the potential to move away from an uncontrollable financial situation to a position where one can manage financial challenges with confidence’. The findings have refined and elaborated on this statement.

The first survey investigated (a) motivations for joining a kau tou lālanga (b) understanding one’s financial role in their family and (c) what one spends their profits or wages on, the survey attempted to shape an initial understanding about the transformative value of kau tou lālanga. Preliminary findings show that paying childrens’ education fees, maintaining one’s home through utility bills, feeding dependents and donations to church offerings and supporting village fundraisers are reasons why participants weave and join kau tou lālanga. The three top reasons ranked in order are (1) to pay household utility bills, (2) to pay childrens’ education, and (3) to make church donations. 

It became clear after the first survey that the original definition was limiting the emotional motivations of the weavers. For this reason, the interviews of the second fieldtrip included asking weavers why they chose to do this business and in other words what value they see in this kau tou lālanga? Their responses certainly highlighted that it is not about creating a huge savings account but instead creating a sense of personal satisfaction when one has met the needs of their families. The outcome of providing therefore embeds value into what they do as weavers.  

Our final fieldtrip allowed us to present back a summary of their responses. They were asked to vote yes or no if they agreed with this statement as accurately describing transformative value of kau tou lālanga and why they choose this business. All the weavers present at all presentations answered in confidence ‘yes’ to this statement of transformation. Translated into English:

The transformative value of this business for you as a weaver is not about receiving money to spend or save, but being enabled to financially satisfy the needs of your family, at the time of need and every time of need. Importantly, it is from this position that you gain emotional and mental confidence. It is for this significant reason why you choose to weave and partake in the business of mats.

Moreover, this study broadens our focus on transformations that take place because of the business of kau tou lālanga, such as socio-cultural changes in the role of female weavers in their families. Traditionally, mats have been considered the woman’s domain in Tongan society and it was shameful for a man to dabble in women’s work. Evidently, the financial appeal of the business has normalized the dual-gendered activity of making mats and has helped to remove the male shame of helping, especially when many hands do make the work easier. Undoubtedly, kau tou lālanga is changing the female weaver’s role and consequently others in her family and within the wider Tongan society.

In answering the second objective of this project, the findings reveal that there is a technology knowledge gap for older members of collectives, who are also the leaders and decision-makers in the group. This gap delays business innovations like mobile money and the use of banking applications to facilitate transactions. The very establishment of kātoanga negotiations stresses that weavers and customers alike still prefer to transact face-to-face, so customers can thoroughly check mats before closing a deal and weavers can count their money before releasing the mats. In this way money transfer agencies have not displaced the practice of kātoanga, which explains why money exchange platforms were less important for some collectives and less used by such weavers than what was first assumed. 

The transformative value of kau tou lālanga has been an invaluable investigation because now we can begin to understand the ‘livelihood’ of Tongan weavers; revealing how kau tou lālanga affects the weavers and their dependents but also how weavers shape this business to achieve their customary and financial goals. 

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