The question of culture

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Mata'afa Keni Lesa

Let me say this at the outset. The Samoan culture is the most beautiful culture in the world in my eyes. As a proud Samoan, I wouldn’t have it any other way – warts and all. 

Why? We are Samoans. Our culture – whether we agree with some aspects of it or not – is part of our beings. It is who we are. And if you understand the essence of Samoan culture enough, you’ll know why it is beautiful. 

Our culture thrives on honour, love, respect and the principle of reciprocating alofa with alofa. It is about caring for one another, placing others above yourself. To an extent, one can argue that it is a Godly culture because the emphasis is always about honour, love and respect. These are the core qualities that make our Samoan culture so beautiful in my opinion. 

You might disagree but that is okay. This is a free world where everyone is entitled to their own views – as long as they are expressed responsibly without hiding behind fake names with the idea of hurting someone – or a group of people. 

So why are we talking about culture today? Well, last month, a story published on the front page of this newspaper titled “Misguided pride bleeds country dry” got the attention. The story featured a matai, Molio’o Petelo Peters, who spoke out against the impact of cultural practices, starting a conversation we must continue.

 “Many people are struggling; people are trying to make ends meet. Our own culture is bleeding us dry with things like funerals,” he said. “Many people go to funerals nowadays with the mindset of profiting or getting something out of it knowing that the hosts have too much pride to reject.

 “People come with small gifts and then leave with a box of tinned food which is worth more; some don’t even come with gifts and just want to gain from the struggling hosts. This is not love, this does not show love at all especially in situations of funerals when the family needs all the love they can get after losing someone.”

He added: “We need to make changes in the way things are happening in Samoa; everyone knows the struggle of hosting gatherings for funerals so we need to think about our future generations.

 “Our children will grow up with the same struggles we are facing now if we do not make a change.

Molio’o made many valid points. But what do others think?

The Director of the Center for Samoan Studies at the National University of Samoa (N.U.S.), Leasiolagi Dr. Malama Meleisea, said it’s true that cultural “activities” have become far too expensive.

  “I say the word ‘activities’ because our culture is not necessarily an expensive culture but I feel that our people are making it more expensive and there’s lots of reasons why,” he said.

 “One of which is of course pride and to become honoured (mamalu) or equate honour to whatever you give and therefore people think that the more you give then the more honour you will receive. 

“I don’t think that should be the case. People are trying to buy honour with money and that is one of the problems we have; that people’s dignity depends much more on other things.

 “So the notion of our culture adopted over the years that the more you give then the more honour or respect you will receive; I think it’s a very misplaced one.”

According to Leasiolagi, there is no one to blame but ourselves.

 “I think that what we have now is what we’re sowing from our own values in our culture. What I mean by that is that we don’t have anyone else to blame but us,” he said. “People tend to blame culture for what’s happening in the culture not knowing that they are the ones instigating what we have now. So I think the issue of honour and pride needs to be changed soon.”

Wonderful point. And we couldn’t agree more.

But is an expensive culture really a bad thing?

Not necessarily, according to the Dean for the Faculty of Business and Entrepreneurship at N.U.S, Seve Folototo Seve.

“Cultural activities definitely stimulate the economy; that’s how the economy ticks,” Seve said. “Big cultural activities where families, big organizations, churches and villages spend a lot of money really help the economy because they are putting money in the businesses, the businesses are able to employ people and pay taxes to the government and that’s how things roll.

 “You know those taxes help the government pay for essential services; G.S.T. is what helps pay our “pensioners pension scheme; it gives people jobs to earn wages to feed their families.”

But that’s not all.

“Most of our family activities; we get a lot of help from families overseas so there’s money coming in and helping the economy; so it’s generating cash injections.

 “Not only do they send money but they also travel from there to here; a lot of them will hire rental cars and all of that so that means more money into our economy.”

Then there are the social benefits.

 “It does bring family members together,” Seve pointed out. “That’s a way of reuniting families; cultural activities, like everything else, have its own set of challenges but it also has some good in it.

 “I don’t think cultural activities are bleeding our country dry; no one has been shot so to speak from not contributing to family activities.”

Well Seve has got a point there, doesn’t he?

The reality is that for years now our culture, when it comes to fa’alavelave has been the target of fierce criticisms.  The focus of such criticism, as highlighted by Molio’o and many others, is about abuse and exploitation motivated by foolish pride and vanity. 

They have a point. But does that mean our culture is bad? 

To answer that question, let me quote from a paper delivered by the Head of State, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi a few years ago, dedicated to the victims of the 2009 Tsunami. Titled “O lē e lave i tiga, o le ivi, le toto, ma le aano (He who rallies in my hour of need is my kin),” the Head of State touched upon the issue of “Family faalavelave and social stigma.”

Said His Highness Tui Atua: “In Samoan the word fa’alavelave literally means an interruption.  It speaks of an interruption to the family’s usual schedule.  Families would have to reorganise their day or week in order to rally family members for enough resources to meet their faalavelave obligations.  In earlier times faalavelave made it possible for the burden of resourcing large family events to be shared.  The belief was that participating in faalavelave were acts of reciprocity.  In the ideal these acts were manifestations and demonstrations of family love and bonding.  They personified the best of family loving. 

“Samoan custom and usage finds the quid pro quo principle relevant in this context.  There is a common saying – ‘A e iloa a’u i Togamau, ou te iloa foi oe i Siulepa (literally meaning, if you do me a good deed in Togamau, I will reciprocate in Siulepa)’.  The reciprocal performance of the custom or duty implicit in the cultural imperatives of faalavelave is not to be motivated only by what one can receive in return.  Rather it should be motivated by the knowledge that if performed with the best possible motives then it will be reciprocated in kind.  

“The disparaging comments too often associated with faalavelave today are cries for reappraisal.  This is implicit in the discussion between a chief or matai of my family and his sister.  This matai, who lives in Wellington, rang up his sister, and said gently: “the faalavelave is now over; I suppose you had forgotten about your contribution?” She responded: “Look here dear brother, one of my principal prayers is: Dear God, call us to heaven before our children spurn what we ask for because there are too many faalavelave!”

“The tsunami has created the ideal context for reassessing faalavelave.  

“Sorting through the scale of destruction and the number of dead, dying and injured preoccupied the community so much after the tsunami that funerals of the deceased victims became very simple affairs. 

“The sheer number of decomposing bodies requiring immediate burial dictated the imperatives of when to hold the funeral, how, where and who should attend.  When driving past these funerals the absence of the village congregating in the falelauasi [funeral house] and of the Greek chorus which usually accompanied the procession to the church then to the gravesite, was poignantly conspicuous. 

“The paraphernalia that we have become accustomed to seeing at a Samoan funeral, especially one held in the villages, was so scaled down that one could not help but ask: how much of it do we really need? Will our funerals and their cultural imperatives lose meaning and substance if we gave to the grieving and demanded nothing or only accepted the bare minimum in return?  Would the dignity of the deceased and his or her family be undermined by simple but true gestures of reciprocity?

“Funerals are meant to provide relief (financially and emotionally) and do justice, i.e. dignify the memory and legacy of the deceased.  Instead Samoan funerals have become very expensive and stressful, with some families getting into grave debt financially, mentally and spiritually by the end of it.  

“The social stigma of losing face if family resources are found wanting is so great that family heads are willing to do almost anything to avoid it, including creating inter-generational debt. 

“The seeming ordinariness of the tsunami funerals, with the minimum fuss and bother that surrounded them, did not, however, lose any face by their simplicity.  Instead they gained in that they reminded us of what really mattered.  

“In this instance, rather than raging menace the tsunami chastened and cleansed.  We might say that it forced us to front up to our vanities and cupidity, violently shaking and unmasking us of the façade and exploitations that befalls status at funerals and making profane anything other than what is fundamental to the act of celebrating life and providing relief from sorrow and pain.  

“In a nutshell, the tsunami has forced us to ask – Are our families suffering because of our own misplaced and inflated expectations?  If the answer is yes, then we must take pause to sort out why this is so.”

Beautiful point and we could not agree more with His Highness Tui Atua.

But this is a conversation that should be ongoing with the idea of making the necessary changes where needed so that our beautiful culture is preserved and enhanced. What do you think? Share your thoughts with us!

© Samoa Observer 2016

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