Foreword: Decolonising Personhood in Pacific

Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi Tuaefu

Foreword for Relational Self Book 


In the indigenous context we both mourn and celebrate death and dying.

Through a felt belief in the spiritual, in how it gives meaning to thoughts and acts of love and compassion – to alofa, aloha, aroha, ‘ofa – and to ideas and practices of nurturing life, indigenous peoples gain insight not only into what is profound, divine and beyond us – beyond our mortality – but also, to what is within us, to what is us, to our humanity. 

In our values and worldviews, our languages, customs and rituals, the spiritual is explicit and embraced into our lives, not hidden, feared and compartmentalised; it is revered and protected, not commodified for sale or tokenised for the advancement of power politics and greed; it is lived and embodied, rather than distanced and made abstract purely for intellectual titillation. The spiritual – the spirit-world – is family, is us.

This book celebrates without apology the fact that indigenous spirituality lives and breathes in our Pacific person and personhood. In so doing it celebrates what is core to indigeneity in the Pacific: to our names and to our naming; to our knowing, being and seeing; and to our identities and sense of belonging. 

Each of the eighteen chapters in this book offer food for thought about how we might language and mobilise a politics of decolonisation in and for the Pacific. One that can open our eyes to the damage that is being caused to the indigenous body politic by ungrounded philosophising and lazy theorising on the one hand, and by the politically and ethically ambivalent monoculture of neoliberal consumerism that our Island nations have knowingly and unknowingly bought into, on the other. Such a politics of decolonisation appreciates, as the authors of this text have said, that colonisation happens not only from the outside but also, and more damagingly, from within.

The hegemonic machine of neoliberal capitalism seeks to dominate, demoralise and divorce the spiritual from the physical and from the real in our globalised, secularised, digitised societies. It does so by getting us to think that it is indeed possible, reasonable and desirable, to separate or de-link our spiritual being from our physical or biological selves without serious consequences. 

Such de-linking promotes silo constructions of roles, rights and responsibilities, that finds the mind deprived of the soul and its nurturing and protective qualities. This de-linking promotes a compartmentalisation of rights, roles and responsibilities, that fall outside Pacific indigenous understandings of the va.

These secularised silos result from modern western theories of economic development that were first driven by racist greedy power hungry monarchs, but later became part of the normal business of clergy, merchants and statesmen, and more recently to be found in the common parlance of the common man. In other words, the power of neoliberal capitalism lies not in the tactics and technologies of monarchical government, but in self-government. 

Loss of customary lands, for example, occurs not just because governments take them by force or manipulation, but because Pacific citizens have become so disempowered or disconnected from their Pacific-ness that they truly believe either that they don’t need to fight for the customary or that the fight is just too hard, personally and collectively. 

Decolonising the Pacific person, the Pacific nation-state and the Pacific church is not about avoiding hegemonies or merely replacing one with another, but about better understanding these hegemonies, understanding what drives them, and understanding them in the aloha sense advocated for by Manulani Aluli Meyer, who says that: “Aloha is the spiritual ignition to knowing something...Ula a’e ke welina a ke aloha – Loving is the practice of an awake mind”. What such understanding offers is the reclamation of our soul as inseparable from all other parts of us; a soul that has been stolen and needs to be returned or restored.

There are two Samoan sayings that refer to the soul: “Ua segia le mauli” (meaning: either my soul or spiritual essence, or the soul or spiritual essence, has been stolen) and “O le alugaloa na i Sataua, o le malaga na ave e Mataulufotu o latou agaga” (meaning: there lie the wooden pillows of the travelling party of Sataua whose souls were taken by Mataulufotu). 

Both sayings speak to Samoan indigenous understandings of morality and the human soul or spiritual essence, and allude to the important role that stories play, from Hawaiian mo’olelo to Malaitan sili, in keeping our indigenous mauli and/or agaga inside and alive. The term agaga is more commonly heard than the term mauli as a descriptor for the soul in modern Samoan speech. 

Among other things, this demonstrates the influence of changing political, cultural and religious tides on indigenous languages and cultures: agaga, the more well-known term, is openly preferred for its Christian roots. There are subtle messages in this preference about the nature and character of continuity and change that are worth reflecting on as we attempt to decolonise our understandings of Pacific sovereignty, agency and personhood.

Like mo’olelo from Guåhan and many other Island nations, the mo’olelo from which these Samoan sayings belong, involve fish. When the Tui Fiti (Fijian Leige Lord) found out that Mataulufotu, the son of Fine and Sau from Savaii, Samoa, was able to retrieve and restore the soul of his daughter Sina and therefore bring her back to life, he gifted to them Sina’s anaeoso (the reddish-lipped mullet fish) to take with them back to Samoa. A reciprocal pre-colonial relationship between Fiji and Samoa, between humans and animals, humans and their environment, and life and death, is emphasised in this morality tale. By owning and retelling this story one is able to imagine, celebrate and pass on an understanding of personhood founded on context-bound relationships and values, both spirit-filled and spirit-led.

If anyone thinks that the Island Pacific is no longer vulnerable to imperial ego- politics, Pyongyang’s recent threats to attack Guåhan, and his chest-thumping ping pong sessions with President Trump and the UN Security Council, should leave no-one in any doubt that the Island Pacific still continues to be a military playground for the West and its enemies. 

The fear, instability, self-doubt, outrage and depression this outside hegemony causes, is matched only by the fear, instability, self-doubt, outrage and depression caused by the loss of a loved one to suicide. While the two contexts are obviously not the same, for indigenous peoples the turbulence caused is equally impacting and ultimately dealt with in the same way. With faith: faith in the goodness of humanity, and in the spirituality of love.

This book is timely. It exposes how our grip on our own search for how we should understand the many dimensions of our Pacific-ness is slipping, and offers a thoughtful conversation on how we can get better traction on it and really own it. If for this reason alone, this book has the potential to make a positive and lasting impact on the very people it was written for. Pacific peoples talking about decolonisation and personhood in deep and meaningful ways is one thing. Pacific peoples talking about decolonisation and personhood in ways that privilege the indigenous is, sadly, quite another in today’s day and age.

This book nuances a conversation for ‘talking indigeneity a la Pasefika’, and by doing so it remembers and honours our forebears. 

It is no accident that this book has come about through the leadership and partnership of Samoan theologian and scholar, Reverend Dr Upolu Luma Vaai of the Pacific Theological College, and Fijian educationalist and scholar, Dr Unaisi Nabobo-Baba, of the University of Guam. 

The indigenous Pacific needs our church and education sector leaders to be unafraid to speak truth, to share understanding, and offer opportunities for real probing learning. This takes courage and support, and a firm anchoring in our spiritual mau (message): in our faasinomaga (identity), tofā mamao (the wisdom of the long view) and faautaga loloto (the wisdom of the deep view). 

In other words, in the tofi (personhood) of our Pacific being. Enjoy.

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