Tuesday, April 14, 2009


The everyday dress for a Samoan in a village is a t-shirt and an ie (pronounced e-a). An ie is nothing more than a few yards of brightly colored, patterned cloth. Ies can have turtles, kava bowls (wooden bowl used for mixing ava), flowers, or other designs on them and sometimes are hand painted. There are many different ways to tie and ie as well. Most of the time, the men will twist the ends around each other and tie in front or wrap the ie around the body and roll the top down as a sort of belt, while women usually wrap the ie around the body and tuck the ends in on the sides or tie a knot on the side. For more formal occasions, there is the ie faitaga and puletasi. Men wear the ie faitaga, a solid colored kilt made of higher quality material than a regular ie, has pockets, and also ties differently than a regular ie. This is worn with a button down shirt, usually patterned and bright. The puletasi is the Samoan woman’s dress. The top is fitted and the bottom is an ie lavalava, or long skirt you tie on. Again, it is brightly colored and patterned. I have one with turtles, one with breadfruit, one with flowers, and one with a more traditional Samoan pattern. I wear a white puletasi, complete with a really cute hat (pic to come later…it’s something you want to see, trust me), to church every Sunday. To me, the puletasi is really hot and uncomfortable. This is mostly because the lavalava is really long and goes from my ankles up to my chest. I usually roll it down some and that helps a bit, but it is still uncomfortable to me. Most villages have strict rules on clothing in the village. Most villages do not allow women to wear shorts while in the village center, an ie must be worn. Shoulders must also be covered for women. Men have more freedom in clothing, they can wear whatever. Villages have strict rules on hair as well. Most of the time, men are not allowed to have long hair or long beards. Women must have their hair in a single braid or in a bun. They let me wear my hair in a ponytail except when I am with the choir. Most of the dress requirements go back to the days of the Christian missionaries who came to Samoa and saw a bunch of people with basically no clothes on. Kinda funny how now palagi are the ones with little clothes on, wearing short shorts which cover not much more than the rear end, tank tops, and bikinis. Oh how times have changed in the palagi world! Apia is much more relaxed than the villages; I wear shorts there all the time. At first I didn’t, but when I see some Samoans in really short shorts, I think no one would take offence at my normal length shorts.

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.

Village Structure

The village is “nu’u” in Samoan. The nu’u is all extended family and everyone is related to some degree somewhere up the family tree. Each village has a chunk of land reaching from the mountains all the way down to the reef. Some of the land belongs to each family, while other parts, like the reef, are communal property. There is a very complex structure in the village. At the top of this hierarchy is the faife’au, or pastor. He is top dog in every Samoan village. Everyday people send him food and whenever there is a fa’alavelave he gets a huge chunk of the goods. Next on the totem pole is his wife. After them comes the matai, or chiefs. There are two kinds of chiefs, ali’i and tulafale. Ali’i chiefs are high chiefs while tulafale are orator chiefs. Tulafale are responsible for knowing history of the village and family, as well as being the spokesman during a fa’alavelave. All matai belong to a fono or village council. Even within the matai there is a hierarchy. You have the highest chiefs, which can include both ali’i and tulafale, and then a series of lower matai. The highest chiefs are top dogs when it comes to running the village. If you want something done, you go to them. When at meetings you will see the highest matai sitting in the front of the fale doing all the talking and the lower matai sitting at the back not really saying anything. Any decision made in the village is made trough much discussion and total consensus. It is sometimes frustrating to be at a meeting where the conversation revolves around a small detail that seems insignificant, but because total consensus is not reached the discussion goes on until everyone agrees. This is just the way it works.
Next are the chiefs’ wives. You have the faletua (high chief’s wife) and tausi (orator chief’s wife). Again there is a hierarchy here too. The wives of the highest chiefs have the most power and are the officers in the women’s committee (a women’s group made up of most of the women in the village, regardless of which hierarchy group they belong to). Again, in meetings the wives of the highest chiefs sit in the front and everyone else in the back. Moving down the hierarchy you come to the aualuma, or daughters of the village. They have a special rank since they were born in the village. Their duties are taking care of the village, especially when guests come. From this group comes the taupou. The taupou is the village virgin who mixes the ava during ceremonies and matai meetings and also dances to open and close a fiafia (celebration involving dancing). The aualuma get a lot of respect in the village. At their to’ona’i (meal after church) they always have prepared food, rather than canned goods, and the taule’ale’a send over food.
Next comes the taule’ale’a, or untitled men. These men are the “malosi o le nu’u” or strength of the village. They work really hard. They are the ones who serve the matai during meetings, go to the plantation, and do the work for the village. In Samoa, there is a phrase “o le ala i le pule o le tautua” which means service is the way to power. This means the taule’ale’a work really hard and eventually their service is rewarded and they become a matai. You also have the female version of the taule’ale’a, or wives of the untitled men. They don’t have much power at all and serve the women much like the taule’ale’a serve the matai. Their hope is their husbands work really hard so they can become a chief’s wife. People who are not from the village are really low on the hierarchy scale; being from the village is always better than being the spouse of someone from the village. Kids are lowest, they have no power.
And then there is me…I’m not really sure where I rank but I know I get a lot of respect, usually more than I feel I deserve. I get taken care of really well and usually they have me sit in a position which shows they respect me and think of me highly. If I eat with one of the women’s groups, they sit me with the higher ranking women and at to’ona’i with the matai I sit next to the pastor’s wife. It is nice to be respected, but most of the time I don’t feel I deserve it, makes me even more self-conscious than I already am being the only palagi (foreigner, usually referring to a white person) in the village. The village structure is interesting to try to figure out and if you can successfully figure it out and learn how to work within the structure you can be a very successful Pisikoa (Peace Corps Volunteer).

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cultural Notes - Fa'alavelave

I seem to write about a lot of stuff, but don’t fully explain things in terms you guys back home can understand. So I’m sorry about that, I’m going to try to do a better job of that in the future. I’m going to write a little bit more about the culture of Samoa to give you all a better idea of my life here.

Fa’alavelave means to disturb or trouble. Fa’alavelaves are anything which causes a disturbance of daily routine in the village, but usually refers to big events like weddings, funerals, church openings and church gatherings (such as the meeting of all the Congregationalist pastors in the district, which held in my village a few months ago). These fa’alavelaves are cause for much preparation; pigs and cows are slaughtered, cases and cases of pisupo (canned corned beef) and tinned fish (sardines) are bought, fine mats are given, massive amounts of food is cooked, and much money is exchanged. My fa’alavelave experiences have been funerals. Here is how each went: The day started early in the morning when I boarded a bus headed to Apia to pick up the body from the hospital. This means I woke up at 4:30 am because we were told the bus was coming at 5 and the head of the choir was walking around the village hitting a piece of bamboo, which calls the chior to assemble. Since this is Samoa and there is a little thing called taimi Samoa, the bus didn't actually come until 6 or 6:30, which means we all stood around wanting to go back to sleep for and hour or so. When we got to Apia, there was a small service at the hospital, and then we came back to the village. We were given food at this point (enough for me to make two meals out of). Then there was a service at the church, which involved singing, relatives giving eulogies, and the pastor talked as well. We then went to the house and put the body in the grave. When the body is lowered into the tomb, everyone crowds around to get a good look. Here in Samoa it is more common to bury your relatives in graves in front of the house rather than in a public cemetery like in the States. Land in Samoa is not like it is in the States. You don’t buy it (except sometimes in the Apia area); your family just owns it and it is passed down generation to generation. Many generations of a family have lived on the same plot of land for many years, so burying your relatives in front of the house is a way for generations to remember their family. There are a few cemeteries in Apia, but when in a village you will see tombs in the front yards of houses. Next was more food and exchange of gifts. During the giving of these gifts of money, pisupo, tinned fish, fine mats, pigs and cows, there is a delicate balance of exchange. First, the host presents the gifts to the other party. Then the other party gives back a portion of the gifts. These exchanges can go on a few rounds. Since everything is communal and everyone in the village put in to the pot of gifts, the gifts are further divided among the families in the village. Usually, the higher matai get the most and best since they rank high in the village and probably gave the most and best stuff anyway. It is really interesting to watch the presentation and exchange of gifts. Every case of pisupo is carried out individually, each bill of money is given individually, and every fine mat is displayed, all while an orator chief is yelling out the gift being given and ceremonial phrases.

Fa’alavelaves are an interesting part of Samoan culture and a lot of time, money, and effort goes into having one. The whole week leading up to a fa'alavelave is really busy for the village; decorations are put up, money is spent on gifts, food is prepared (usually people stay up all night cooking for the fa'alavelave the next day), etc. Luckly, I don't have to do any of this. All I have to do is show up and everyone is happy.