Ancestral heritage is all we have; it’s all we have left

Deeply concerned about the influx of foreign interests and the negative impact of violence on young people, a church leader mourned the erosion of Samoan values and the place of faa-Samoa in our lives. 

A matai recently shared a complaint with the Samoa Observer over what he calls abuses in cultural practices at funerals which have added economic burden on the aiga. 

I agree. In one of his academic papers, His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi talks about the place of the Si’i Alofa in our funeral traditions. It is meant to ease the burden on the grieving family he said. Maulolo Tavita also discussed these funeral traditions at great length with his panelists on his television show, the Faleula. The panel mostly, of who’s who of Samoan culture, concluded the most economic way is consistent with our ancestral heritage.

As tagata Samoa, our ancestral heritage is all we have, today our ancestral heritage is all we have left. To find lasting peace and joy within ourselves and with each other, we have to be honest with our ancestral heritage, our language and our culture. 

We won’t find peace and joy in the United Nations, Asian Development Bank or IMF; we won’t find it in China, America, Great Britain and France. We won’t find it either in a democracy, market economy, capitalism or even in the Bible. We can only find it in ourselves.

Growing up in Toamua (once renown for its marine resources)  like everywhere else in Samoa, attending church services on Sunday followed by council meetings of matai on Monday is a must, the faifeau demands it and the village council enforces it. In the village council meeting, the presence of the pulenu’u, a paid official government representative is unmistakable. Even if it’s an insignificant matai but as a government officer, village council accords him considerable honor and respect. The pulenuu sets the agenda, coordinates certain village events as liaison between people and the elected central government. 

The people, their community leaders and their government share a common purpose and responsibility: to steward, manage, protect and safeguard tagata Samoa and their treasured resources not only from outside undue influences but also from themselves. 

With your permission, I would like to share with you a couple of personal stories to illustrate my point. 

First, as a youngster, village matai had only permitted three denominations to take up residences in Toamua. They were the LMS (Congregational Christian Church) in Safune, the Methodist Church in Puipa’a and the Roman Catholic Church in Leusoali’i sometimes referred to as Satunumafono. 

I really enjoyed my mom’s church, the LMS, until one day my friends and I got good licking from the faletua (pastor’s wife) for a conversation we were having during practices for the fast approaching lotu tamaiti. My head happen to catch the very end of her long sasa stick that all of us had always feared. Almost immediately, some of my friends shed tears and stayed behind. I took off like an injured dog to the closest exit. It was the last time I had set foot in the faifeau’s house. 

The following Sunday I decided to join my father at services in Vaiusu where  the Roman Catholic Church was having mass. I decided to attend mass not because I liked it but simply out of disgust with the faletua’s conduct, “fa’asaua kele,” I thought. 

My decision to switch allegiance in protest got me an ear full with my mother, Auimatagi Meleseleisa Ale, “kou ke o fua i ga loku kou ke valelea ai,” she yelled after she became aware of my decision. “Ga o le ga! ge! gi go! gua! fa! fe! fi! fo! fua!, Ga o le pau a le ga! Soia kou ke valea!.” She was furious. After all she was a school teacher and a strong advocate of faa-Samoa; so there was absolutely no reason for me to utter a single word. 

Though I never told her about the incident that led to my decision. I was concerned a physical confrontation with the faletua could bring shame upon my family and could also have dire consequences for my father as a paramount village matai.

Second, another momentous incident occurred during an open class discussion with my Standard Four primary school teacher in Saina, the late Apineru Atoa of Tanugamanono, may God bless his soul. The discussion centered around  world history and the discovery of America.

“The history book is saying Christopher Columbus discovered America but it also says there were Red Indians already settled there when he arrived, so how can they (who ever wrote the history book) say Columbus discovered America?” Apineru asked as  everyone nods in agreement as curiosity runs wild inside my little head, makes sense we all thought.  

This pair of personal stories represent a microcosm of the reality in our society and the most pressing issue facing us, as tagata Samoa today. The issue in my opinion is control. Not control of freedom as in free press, individual free speech or freedom to choose one’s own religion. But control of our thoughts as indigenous people and  citizens in our own democracy.

Unlike an empire or dictatorship where public opinion does not matter, in a vibrant democracy such as ours in Samoa, public opinion does matter. But it also happens to be elected government’s biggest fear. It’s why PM Tuilaepa gets agitated and resorts to name calling when questioned. This brings me back to my mother. 

Her opinion like those of her fellow country men were critical to the success of missionary work. The missionaries were well aware of it. In fact they knew it long before even elected American democracy was even born. 

My poor mother’s resentful attitude towards the Catholic Church was deeply rooted in events that took place in Europe and the subsequent rivalry that followed early missionary work in Samoa between Catholics, strongly favoured by France and Protestants a favourite of England. This rivalry is articulated by Malama Meleisea in a collaboration with some of our nation’s best educators in his book, Lagaga: A short History of (Western) Samoa.  

A democratic government has a responsibility to inform us and be transparent. We have a right to know. But as in the cases of my two personal stories, government especially foreign government, uses its information machinery to do more than simply inform us. Too often government tries to win our hearts and persuade us to take a position regardless of its impact whether it’s good or ill as long as it serves its interests. 

In today’s age of modernisation and advanced technology, indigenous heritage like ours, is often dismissed as irrelevant. Yet as it has been for many years, our ancestors have never failed to breathe into our only promising source of economic life, Tourism and Hospitality. 

As tagata Samoa, our ancestral heritage is all we have, today it’s all we have left. To find peace and lasting joy within ourselves and with each other, we have to be honest with our ancestral heritage, our language and our culture.   


*Ropeti Ale can be contacted at [email protected]

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