Fa’amatai system, measina and understanding who we are

On the front page of the Weekend Observer of 01 February 2020, a story titled “Matai titles being devalued, says historian” was published.

The story in question featured the views of Historian, Professor Leasiolagi Dr. Malama Meleisea, who is a well respected academic in Samoa and the Pacific. According to Leasiolagi, the practice of bestowing a single title on multiple people, which he termed “title-splitting”, has become so commonplace it is in effect cheapening the fa’amatai system.

It’s a legitimate point, one perhaps many Samoans are thinking but are reticent to express an honest opinion publically at least for fear of being criticised. And understandably so. In Samoa, matai titles are sensitive matters. Unless one has a direct connection to a certain title, many people tend to avoid the subject altogether. Which means that whatever individual families decide to do with their titles, that is totally their business.

But as a nation, as a people, there is reason to be concerned. Which is why Leasiolagi’s courage to address the elephant in the room so to speak is commendable, especially given the popularity of the trend where families are opting to open up titles among multiple family members.

To understand the issue, there are a couple of critical questions we need to answer. Firstly, is it wrong? The answer is no, as long as proper cultural, familial and legal procedures have been observed.

Is it culturally appropriate? And does this cheapen the fa’amatai system?

Everyone will have an answer and there will be different point of views depending on the circumstances. We stress circumstances because every case should be considered on its merits.

The truth is that every family is different and every family will have their reasons. Besides, there is the aganu’u (culture) and there is agaifanua (traditions pertaining to one’s environment). This is critical to understand so that we don’t all brush everything with one pain stroke.

Going back to the question of whether the bestowal of multiple titles cheapen the fa’amatai, the answer is yes if you are looking in from the outside, especially through the lens of honour and status. It does appear that anyone can have a title and we’ve seen it. In some instances, we’ve seen one title being bestowed upon more than a hundred people in one go.

What’s more, the frequency of this happening has also increased tremendously over the years, especially during the Festive season where title bestowal ceremonies have become as normal as Christmas presents.

“Title-splitting has diminished the status of the tiles concerned," said Leasiolagi. He referred to an incident 45 people were bestowed the same title recently. He said the Pastor in the village noted that since he has been in the village during the past 30 years, he must have blessed more than 700 holders of the same title.

Leasiolagi said it was clear from the pastor’s tone he was asking the village and the family to reconsider the trend.

"I agree with him,'' he said. “This multiple holding of titles has devalued the overall significance of the matai titles and the fa'amatai as a system. This issue requires very serious attention of the leaders and policy-makers.”

Leasiolagi is correct. But he might have forgotten that the Government has already expressed concerns about this issue. Back in 2016, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sa’ilele Malielegaoi said exactly the same thing that the practice was devaluing the titles, hinting that the Government was looking at legislating the practice with the idea of curtailing it.

“It’s worrying, especially when you consider the importance of the matai title,” Tuilaepa said. “When there are a lot of paramount chiefs (matai sa’o) in a family, it’s like a boil that’s been infected. One would suggest (ways to develop the family) and someone else would start waving up their rights as paramount chief.”

Tuilaepa has a point. In fact, the Government has already made some changes to the laws – including the introduction of the legal age for someone to become a matai, in an effort to do this. Given Leasiolagi’s concerns and what’s happening today, the Government obviously has not been very successful at making the point. But then you can’t expect the Government to fix this problem.

Matai titles are measina (treasures) that belong to individual families. We’d hate to get to a stage where the Government will tell families what they can and cannot do with what is rightfully theirs.

But the concerns being expressed are legitimate points. We believe this country needs to have an informed and educated conversation about such matters, especially when it comes to Samoan culture with one on the need to evolve and adapt. We do not want our culture and traditions to become irrelevant simply because they are stuck in the past.

We are in 2020 and when it comes to culture, matai titles are not the only measina we have seen being cheapened. The fact is a lot of things have changed – including attitudes towards matai titles. So we cannot view the change of attitudes towards matai titles in isolation. There is a need to consider the full picture in terms of culture and changes and how we can preserve our measina.

We need to think about the intricacies and nuances of our dances, language, art, tatau, va tapuia, and so many other things that are uniquely Samoan. The faamatai system does not operate in a vacuum.  It is when we learn to understand, value and appreciate what all these things mean to us that we will know how valuable our faamatai system is and how we can preserve its integrity for the unborn generations of Samoa.

Have a wonderful Tuesday, God bless Samoa!










Bg pattern light


Subscribe to Samoa Observer Online

Enjoy access to over a thousand articles per month, on any device as well as feature-length investigative articles.

Ready to signup?