“Piipii ama, vaevae manava: Pacific balance and economic empowerment”

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Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi

I want to begin my opening remarks with a bold and perhaps provocative statement: the greatest challenge to successful democratic Pacific leadership in the current Pacific context is not climate change, modernisation or globalisation. It is, simply put, being ill-informed and/or unable to act constructively on matters of priority. 

To be able to appropriately manage the many challenges of modern Pacific life we must, as leaders, be prepared to build, endorse, promote and sustain a culture of civic learning and critical dialogue that can generate the kind of analytical tools capable of properly recognising our values and beliefs. This is the foundation of any true democracy.

Good leadership in today’s Pacific worlds is about being able to balance the politics of power that surround the formation of these tools and the biases that come with it.

This entails recognition of the multi-layered nature of politics and leadership. For many in our region this includes the balancing of our indigenous and/or traditional values alongside our Christian values and our economic and geographical realities. This is no small task to achieve. 

In many Pacific cosmogonies women are believed to be more attuned to the rhythms and drives of nature, including human nature. Women were believed to be endowed with the sacred gift of being able to grow and give birth to new life.

As the new life grew in its mother’s womb, the mother and her unborn child shared not only food and water, but also emotions and dreams. In other words, they shared everything; body, mind and soul. There is a sacred balance in this sharing. Anything that would upset this balance would impact, it was believed, on the health of the mother and the child, and their lives could be seriously endangered. 

In the Samoan context it was and still is the role and responsibility (the matāfaioi)of our traditional midwives or faatosaga to work with the expectant mother and her unborn child towards the successful birth and delivery of a healthy child.

Faatosagawere literally those who had the role and responsibility – most of whom were women – to help nurture the growth of the human seed in the womb; the word tō in the word faatōsaga refers to nurturing growth, and the word saga refers to the human seed.

A woman’s ability to share in the magic and mystery of growing and bearing new life was revered by our ancestors for its divineness. And this reverence was not limited to human females but extended to all that was considered female or feminine in nature and the cosmos.

Being female was therefore viewed not as a limitation on one’s ability to lead or to have access to power, but as a strength.

The most famous leaders in Samoa’s pre-contact history are women. Salamasina became queen and was succeeded by her daughter Fofoaivaoese, who was in turn succeeded by her daughter Taufau. Nafanua was an acclaimed war leader. 

After her death, she was deified as a god and towards the end of the 19th century, claimants to the highest leadership roles in Samoa sought her blessing whenever planning a military and political campaign for preeminence. This was clear validation of her paramount status and evidence of the reverence she commanded.

By this logic a Samoan woman was never prohibited or restricted by Samoan custom because of her gender – her femaleness – to any role in traditional Samoan society, including leadership roles. These were always available to her so long as she could demonstrate the ability to carry out the role well and had the support and love of her people. These were considered the more critical criteria and ought to continue to be so today.

 I recall a conversation I held over thirteen years ago with Tongan Reverend Aisea Moala. Reverend Moala now resides in Darwin, Australia, where he heads its first Tongan church. At the time of our conversation he was living in New Zealand.

We spoke about a saying that is commonly used by Tongans and Samoans when speaking about the need to find balance: that is, pikipiki hama vaevae manava in Tongan or piipii ama vaevae manava in Samoan. 

The first part of the saying piipii ama refers in both cultures to when one is in an outrigger canoe and in order for the canoe to move forward smoothly they must ensure they hold on to it in such a way that it appropriately apportions their weight to ensure the canoe can move without tossing its passengers.

The second part, vaevae manava, refers to the sharing of the womb and all the symbolism that that is meant to invoke. Manava is the womb; it is the place where life grows; it is where it is nurtured and cared for before it is born. It offers, if I may suggest, an apt metaphor for your forum today.

 Your forum’s overarching theme of “Women’s economic empowerment” raises interesting questions about how one might theorise, govern and manage the real-life gendered aspects of culture and economics. The word for economics and wealth in Samoan is tamaoaiga. It refers to the image of the providence of nature, in particular to the notion and importance of food.

The centrality of food in this concept is suggested by the claim that the word tamaoaiga derives from the phrase taumafa o aiga – taumafa refers specifically to food and more generally to resources; o aiga refers to families. In this sense the word tamaoaiga privileges the building and protection of food resources and alludes to a Samoan specific theory of resource management and/or economics. 

Deeply linked to this concept is that of matāfaioi or roles and responsibilities. In particular is the idea that such roles and responsibilities are negotiated and apportioned, and that one cannot receive his or her apportionment without earning it through actually doing the work and doing it well. These terms about responsibility, wealth and resource management were not gender specific. They did not privilege one gender over another. But they were and are culture specific and culture bound.

Empowering Pacific women economically and in their leadership roles is not only a shared regional responsibility but also a local, cultural and ethical one.

I end by reiterating the Samoan saying:  “E iloa le limalelei o le tufuga i le soofau – the mark of good state craft is shown in blending idiosyncrasy”.  Each of our Pacific nation states and their respective cultures are full of idiosyncrasies.

There is much celebrated diversity within.  Knowing how to blend these idiosyncrasies without erasing them, is akin to knowing how to balance the outrigger of state craftsmanship so that it can move forward with purpose and direction, taking all that is good and meaningful from the past and the present with them.

I wish your forum clear skies and smooth sailing as you move your conversations forward.  God bless and Soifua.

© Samoa Observer 2016

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