KIHNU ISLAND, ESTONIA —An island ruled by women sounds like the making of a movie sequel to the Lord of the Flies. But Kihnu Island, Estonia’s seventh largest at 7km long and slightly more than 3km wide, is a real place where women haven’t only kept a centuries-old culture alive, they’re also still living it.
“Kihnu women are strong and independent, and we take care of the human life cycle, church life and mental culture,” says Mare Mätas, my tour guide for the day.
I meet Mätas as soon I exit the ferry — it’s a roughly 30-minute ride from the Munalaiu Harbor near Parnu — and when she tells me she’s been dubbed the unofficial minister of foreign relations, I assume her costume must be part of her gig. She’s dressed in layers of striped skirts, a paisley top under her coat and a paisley scarf around her hair, her clothing a blend of reds, yellows and blues.
In this matriarchal society in which men go out to sea to fish and hunt for several months at a time, women oversee the island and keep traditions alive, starting with the clothing. Mätas’ costume is handwoven — weaving is an important task for women and come winter, every home is weaving — and a thin apron on the top layer differentiates married from unmarried women. Mätas admits she probably has 200 aprons she can choose from.
“If you’re a Kihnu woman, you need a lot of skirts,” she says.
So how does she pick?
Above: Local guide Mare Mätas models the local fashions and then shows off her driving skills, much to the delight of the tourists.
“It depends on my mood,” she smiles.
Visitors, or guests as locals call them, are welcomed on the island year-round (April through October is the best time, although if you prefer saunas and don’t mind darkness at 4 p.m., even reaching the island by ice road, winter might be your thing). And although you can rent a bike or come with your own car, your best option is a guided tour. My time with Mätas starts in an open lorry, essentially a truck with an open-air flatbed equipped with wooden benches around its perimeter.
We take the island’s main unpaved (and often bumpy) rode through lush forests and fields of green, passing hay bales and the occasional brightly coloured farmhouse. There aren’t many other vehicles, and the locals get around mainly by bike or three-wheeled motorbikes, which the women drive.
We stop at the island’s only school, which currently has about 30 kids whose lessons include the Kihnu language (it’s Estonian dialect, but even Estonians can have trouble understanding them at times), folk songs and traditional instruments like the fiddle. Once they’re ready for high school, kids head to Parnu where they live Monday through Friday. And after that?
“If you’re born here, you don’t want to leave,” Mätas says. “Otherwise, you’ll get homesick.”
First on the agenda is the Kihnu Museum where I immerse myself in the UNESCO-recognized culture. I learn how Kihnu people are dependent on the land and sea, the diet heavy in fish, seal meat, pies with pork and fresh vegetables like potatoes and cabbage, which is why everybody has a garden.
Above: The island's imposing lighthouse guides the local ferry, from whose portholes visitors get to see the baron landscape.
While there, I snack on dried apples, an Estonian traditional food that the Kihnu people have perfected, and stroll through the museum’s collection of Naïve art, an art form that began as artistic self-expression for the men of the island. Across the street is the only church, a Greek Orthodox, where everybody is baptized, and the community is so tight that it’s not uncommon for individuals to have 20 godfathers and godmothers.
Later, I climb the island’s lighthouse, and while it’s not a long flight, it’s steep and winding. Once at the top, I walk 360 degrees for views of the Baltic Sea. I even satisfy my beer-loving soul by purchasing a local brew, Kihnu Jonn, at the lighthouse shop.
“Homemade beer is our traditional drink because the wheat used to make the beer grows well here,” Mätas says, adding that beer plays an important role in every celebration from birthday parties to funerals.
Beer is also a meal staple, especially with fish and leib, an Estonian black bread served at every meal. I sample Kihnu’s version at lunch at the Abu Grill, the main cafeteria where I enjoy fruit salad, roasted potatoes and dill. There are also numerous fish dishes like Baltic herring and fish soup.
Dessert is a true treat. Roughly 15 women, spanning all generations, have gathered at a house of handicrafts to entertain us with their song and dance.
While we sit on benches covered by handwoven blankets, the women play instruments (Mätas’ 12-year-old daughter is playing the violin, while others play the fiddle or accordion), sing and dance. They dance the traditional wedding song and others, many of which are more than 2,000 years old.
“Because people have lived isolated on this small island for more than 600 years, they’ve been able to survive,” Mätas says.
This is obviously an island unlike no other, but if you’re seeking thrills, you won’t find it here.
“We don’t have shopping centres, special attractions for children, special restaurants or an active nightlife, except during some summer festivals,” Mätas says.
What you will find, however, is a culture that revolves around the simple things in life. And as I eat the last of my dried apples on the ferry ride back, I close my eyes and capture the peace I now feel.
Above: The island women weave garments and toys and bake local treats, which they sell to the tourists.