Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Family Structure

The aiga (family) is very important in Samoa. Samoan families can be very complex and often involves several layers of extended family. You can have many people living on the same family compound and trying to figure out who belongs to whom can get confusing. You can have grandparents, their kids, and the kids’ kids, as well as adopted kids from other families and cousins who come to live with the family as well. I still don’t really know what kids belong to what parents. Here is my attempt to explain the family structure.
Each village is made up of 20-40 households, all extended family. Each family has a matai (usually the father of the family, sometimes a woman is a matai) who is the head of the family. Each matai title belongs to a certain family line and is passed down generation to generation as new matai titles are bestowed upon worthy individuals. The matai is responsible for money, land, and everything which goes on in the family. Sometimes everyone lives under the same roof, grandparents down to the grandkids, and the matai takes care of everyone under his roof. Other times, a family founds a new household on part of the family land. Not every household has a matai, but there is a matai responsible for the family. Sometimes there is more than one matai in a household, usually a father and son. In this case, the father is the head matai of the family, responsible for all of his kids and the son is only the matai of his family. The son, although a matai, still answers to his father’s matai position.
If your family has a visitor come and stay with your family and that visitor does something wrong. The matai of the family is punished for the wrong doing. Sometimes the punishment is money, a certain number of pigs or chickens, fine mats, or pisupo or canned sardines. If the crime is severe enough, the family could be banished for what the visitor did. The matai is the one who is supposed to control what goes on in his family and if a visitor does something wrong, he is punished.
Even though technically all the families in a village are related the relation may be several generations up the family tree. Strong competition can exist between families whose bloodlines are tied way up the family tree and the relation is not as strong as say a sibling relation. The matai takes care of his nuclear family first, then his extended family in the village, then the extended family not in the village. Even if you live in another village or even overseas and there is a need for you (or your money), you must help your aiga. Samoans living overseas have more freedom when it comes to everyday life, but the duty is always to the aiga back in Samoa.
Now that is just the matai system. Within the household there is the hierarchy as well. As I said earlier, the matai is the head. The matai’s wife is responsible for the everyday running of the household. The kids each have their chores as well. The girls are responsible for the laundry and help take care of the kids younger than them. The boys help with the plantation and making the umu or oven made with hot stones. If a person is not directly in the family, like a wife of one of the older children, he or she is low on the hierarchy and main job is to serve the family. In a Samoan household, you can have just a nuclear family, adopted kids who are distant relatives, cousins, etc. Families can get really complicated and are huge so figuring it all out takes a while.

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