Talk to your neighbour

By Enid Westerlund

A few days ago, I went to the court house and saw many people waiting for cases to be called before the Land and Titles Court. The registrar set the tone for a mediation that I was listening to. I commend him for opening with cheerfulness and encouragement though it was past his lunch break. He could’ve kept to the time and enjoyed his lunch in his air-conditioned office. He encouraged the families to discuss amicably about what had transpired and to remember the upcoming holidays because everyone just wants to celebrate the end of a very challenging year. He also encouraged everyone to voice their concerns during this time so there is clarity and understanding.  

The first side began with humility in asking for forgiveness about the events that resulted in mediation. The lady sounded remorseful and apologetic as she only wanted the best for her family. However, the opposing side spoke in a punishing tone set by the powerful matai. He refused to offer hope for the family and his decision was final. The registrar continued writing his notes and calmly waited for all sides to be heard. 

Again, the family pleaded with the matais offering an explanation about the history of how they came to stay on the land and how their own grandparents faithfully served the sa’o in the past. So faithful and long was their service that even their grandparents, parents were buried on the land. They, themselves grew up there and now raising families of their own. Even though it is customary, their sense of belonging was deeply rooted in the land and continued pleading with the matais for a more lenient decision. 

A second matai presented a more peaceful, forgiving approach. He apologised for the first matai in sounding too harsh, making a quick decision as it wasn’t his to make alone. He acknowledged the family’s contribution to the village and also explained that there are protocols in place for such situations. Usually there is a discussion between Pulenu’u, inspection committee and the head of the family before a final decision is handed down. In addition, he reassured the family that their committee will advise the sa’o accordingly and all should be happy in the end. The family can keep on living peacefully on the land and any issues can be resolved. 

I realised a few things after listening and noting down arguments from all those concerned: 

1. Clearly, there is a lack of communication between both sides as there was no previous meeting between the family and matais. I assume that the newly appointed village committee do not know this family well and have no working relationship. A letter was delivered to the family for mediation after only asking a few questions and a single inspection. 

2. The accused did not listen to sound advice and ended up in mediation.  This whole fiasco would’ve been avoided if the family leader heeded advice from a concerned neighbour. They broke the law and failed to abide by lease conditions.

3. Today, it is crucial that any dealings must be in written agreement. A legally binding contract makes the court’s job so much easier. There will be no argument about who said what to who. The family lived on the land well before any legal agreements were made and before Samoa became independent! They even built their houses before the first written agreement in 1994?  

4. The registrar or mediation officer was very experienced in dealing with sensitive issues. He was a brilliant conductor making sure both sides reached a calm wave in the end regardless of how stormy and violent the mediation began, this for me was wonderful to watch. This meant he was well trained, well versed with our ways but more importantly his customer service was top notch. He may not be a cashier or a sales person, but his calm voice was enough in persuading both sides to reach an agreement.  Sold! 

In the end, there were a few smiles and hand shake exchanges. Communication is always paramount in families. Proper communication will avoid arbitration whereby misunderstandings can be sorted out well before you take your neighbour to court.  The only people that benefit are the lawyers and their bank accounts when you spend your days in court. If you don’t lose financially, you will lose sleep, valuable time, even good relationships spending hours arguing in the courtroom. It’s better to use your time on more productive things like growing cabbages and cucumbers in the garden. You’ll be outside with nature, a great de-stressing activity and growing your own food.  

Land ownership is a highly sensitive topic where old men who rarely speak raise their voices above everyone to be heard by the Court judge, where young men beat their chest filled with fire to retain their land and passionate women stand up for their future. When we leave Earth, our descendants only take over stewardship of the land so nothing really belongs to us, they belong to God.  

We all have the power to influence decisions in our family whether we are the eldest or the youngest, whether we hold a matai title or not. Elders, youth and children can all contribute to family development. We have the power to speak positively over our own lives and those around us. Sadly, we also have the power to destroy and speak negatively, to influence decisions and persuade others to be at odds with their neighbours. Most of the tensions between families, friends and neighbours come from simple misunderstandings that can be easily resolved with civil discussions. 

Once that’s done, then both sides can decide to practice humility or the opposite.  Pride won’t solve anything; in fact, it only makes things worse. Imagine if the repenting family began mediation with no apology, if the court officer/registrar didn’t listen to both sides and the matais refused to budge? That day would’ve ended badly for both sides. As we spend this Sunday recharging for next week, remember to talk to each other. It may help with a few burdens you’re currently carrying.

By Enid Westerlund

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