Le Tofā Taofiofi: The Wisdom of Restraint

By Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi 10 December 2017, 12:00AM

Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Tupuola Tufuga Efi 

Chairman of the ‘E Leai se Gaumata’u na o le Gaualofa Trust’

Keynote Address for the Launch of the Mana Moana Pasifika Leadership Programme, Leadership New Zealand, Fale Pasifika, University of Auckland, 8 December 2017

Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. 

Let me start by thanking Leadership New Zealand and especially Sina Wendt-Moore and Dr. Karlo Mila, and the Centre for Pacific Studies, University of Auckland, for the invitation to join your inaugural proceedings and for the honour of speaking tonight.

Sina and Karlo have asked me to speak about Pasifika leadership and my aspirations for Pasifika peoples. In addressing this I have decided to focus on the Samoan concept of the tofā taofiofi, the wisdom of restraint. 

It is a concept I am sure has its equivalent in other Pasifika cultures.

The tofā taofiofi or the ‘wisdom of restraint’ is one of those ‘easy to talk about but hard to do’ leadership principles. Knowing not only when to restrain oneself from doing something or saying something, but also how to restrain oneself, assumes many things. For one thing it assumes the ability to master leadership qualities such as humility (loto maualalo; aga malū), humour (tausua malie), respect (ava; faaaloalo), courage (loto tele; loto toa), integrity (fua amiotonu) and cultural competence (le agavaa i aganuu). I mention these in no particular order and note that this list is by no means exhaustive. And, they are qualities best realised when operating in harmony. 

Practising the tofā taofiofi is difficult because of our natural instincts. During times of both stress and vanity we tend to retaliate negatively, especially when personally attacked. But the mark of a good leader lies in his or her ability to practice the tofā taofiofi notwithstanding.

I wish to tell two stories to illustrate the different dimensions of the tofā taofiofi. The first story I’ve told a few times now, so if you’ve heard it before please pretend you’re hearing it for the first time. 

This is the story about my great-uncle Tafā. One day, Tafā, a matai in his village, decided that he wanted to press suit with the pastor’s daughter. He said to the aumaga (or the untitled men’s guild of his village): “Tomorrow I will go to the pastor’s house to press my suit with the pastor’s daughter”. As was custom, the aumaga would prepare a meal to await his return.

In the morning Tafā went to the Pastor’s house to press his suit. He was greeted by the pastor and his wife, and he made his wish known to them. The pastor responded, however, that unfortunately it was not for them to make the decision, rather Tafā would have to ask their daughter directly. They sent for her. When she came Tafā made his offer of marriage, and to his surprise, she refused. 

He continued to press his suit with her from 10 o’clock in the morning till 3 o’clock in the afternoon. When it became clear to him that she would not change her mind, Tafā had to work out how best to redeem himself. He knew that the aumaga were waiting for him and he would have to tell them something that would help him save face. He decided to opt for an unusual course of action.

He thanked the girl, the pastor and his wife, then strolled to the rock fence that surrounded the pastor’s house, climbed the fence and then stood at the top. He then turned his back to the pastor and his family, all of whom were still watching him, bowed in the opposite direction, raised his lavalava and then called out: “Hey, take a look and tell me what time it is!”

When Tafā reached the house of the aumaga, the leader of the aumaga asked: “How did it go?” Tafā responded: “Pity me, the girl turned down my offer of marriage”. Tafā then regaled his response to her rejection, at the end of which he and the aumaga then chanted:


Ua leaga, ua malaia!

(It is bad, it is cursed!)

Ua taea, ua leaga!

(It is shit, it is bad!)

Faamoe ia o le toa,

(Put the penis to sleep,)

Soia le toe malaga!

(Let it not travel again!)


Leaders have to find ways to be able to laugh at themselves. Humour is a good stress coping mechanism; it helps to deflect tension and embarrassment. It is also context and culture bound. 

I see courage in what my great-uncle did. I also see a search for self-respect. In the indigenous Pacific context, a gesture or a metaphor can go a long way to making your point stick.

For example, one year, while I was still in the House as a member of parliament, I engaged in a debate on money laundering. I used an old saying to describe the effect of money laundering.

I explained that laundering money was the act of trying to clean bad money by putting it through the washing machines of our ‘off-shore’ banks and then after they were washed making them available for use (i.e. no longer considering them bad money).

I wanted to make the point that no matter how often one cleans bad money it will always be bad money. I decided to use the old Samoan saying for meaning and effect. I said: “E te fiu e uu le tae puaa, e pipilo a”, meaning, “No matter how often you perfume pig-shit, it will always stink like pig-shit”.

This describes a lot of the neo-colonial tactics imposed on our indigenous cultures today. My elders were a lot more comfortable with this kind of straight shooting talk, than what seems the case today. 

My second story is more directly about leadership, family leadership. Sustaining good family leadership depends on good family bonding. 

In the village of Faleasi’u I am, as Tupua Tamasese, a tama-sā. This means that I play the role of arbitrator in times of family disputes. The role and status of tama-sā is given to he or she who holds the tama-a-aiga title, that is, in Faleasi’u the title of Tupua Tamasese.

Culturally this title is given considerable rank and status in the families, villages and districts to which it belongs, and so is afforded certain chiefly rights and powers, with corresponding duties and responsibilities. 

While Samoans do not inherit titles in the same way that European aristocracies do, my grandfather and my father were both Tupua Tamasese and therefore also tama-sā. During their time they lived a lot of their lives in Faleasi’u and so had close relations with the people of Faleasi’u.

This was not the case for me. In my father’s and grandfather’s cases when disputes arose and they had to arbitrate they did not have to explain their role as tama-sā, and tama-a-aiga, it was understood that they were arbitrator only.

That they were feagaiga; pae ma le auli. That they only presided over disputes and looked for ways that would ‘iron and make smooth’ (pae ma le auli) the issues to ensure balance and harmony. Theirs was not to take or impose or seek favours.

Theirs was to find peace and justice. In many ways, their role was and is akin to that of our contemporary court judges.

A recent court case raised the issue of my role as tama-sā within my Faleasi’u family. In this contemporary setting I found that because of my lack of bonding with them I had to take the time necessary to share with them so that we could gain trust in each other.

I found that a court-decision in your favour does not make you their tama-sā in their eyes. This could only come about by sharing time, experiences and knowledge, together. 

A lot of what I took for granted as foundational knowledge in the faasamoa, I realised, was not known to many of them. This was because our experience of our family faavae or foundational principles were not experiences we had shared and learned together. And that was because we did not live together. This is a reality for many today. My understanding and their understanding of the role of tama-sā was therefore understandably different. 

I was struck by this when during the course of our deliberations I realised that they just wanted me to make a decision. They thought that that was what my role as tama-sā was. I explained that to do what was fair and right for them we had to work together. They had to help me understand what they wanted and why. They had to help me understand their issues.

The solution lay not in me telling them what to do, but in us working together to do what was fair, just and loving for them. It took them a while to believe that this was my role and that this was all I wanted of them.

Once I was able to convince them our discussions changed. They became much more conciliatory and warm, and I saw more than a glimpse of the kind of bonding that sustains families and gives support to family leadership.

If we cannot sustain this kind of family bonding and trust, then the foundation of much of our Pasifika leadership will fall apart. There is a Samoan saying e le tu se tama-a-aiga i se uaniu (a tama-a-aiga does not stand on a coconut frond). The message is that Pasifika leadership must stand on what is solid not on what will easily break.

I end by returning to the wisdom of restraint or the tofā taofiofi. This year has been one of the most challenging years of my life. Some of that has to do with owning up to the vanities of age. But a lot of it has to also do with the challenges of searching for the wisdom of restraint. 

As leaders you will face this time and again. And even if you decide against the wisdom of my great-uncle Tafā’s course of action, I hope you will find meaning in the enduring wisdoms of your respective family, village, and cultural faavae (foundations). 

Our Pasifika ancestors built these faavae on solid ground, and like our fale, were built to last. When what mattered to them was threatened, either by violence or skulduggery, they stood their ground. Our indigenous values remain alive today because of their courage to fight for what they believed in. That die-hard spirit is their legacy for us. We have a duty to uphold that legacy. 

For me the words of the Mau song: Tula’i Tamasese, matou te le fo’i, pe fefe, o Samoa uma e tatanu i lenei eleele (meaning: Tamasese stands: [so] we will not leave, we are not afraid, we are ready to die and be buried here), serves as my leadership mantra.

It implores my generation, and hopefully yours, to not forget their courage and sacrifice. I aspire for our Pasifika peoples and their/our/your leaders to know how and where to continue the legacies of our or your ancestors. And to know, through their or your tofā taofiofi, how to do so with love and compassion. Soifua.

By Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi 10 December 2017, 12:00AM

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