I MET HER mother first. Emi was head of the typing pool in a government department where I worked and, in those days, before everyone had a PC on their desks, the senior typist determined the order that work was completed. Emi was the most powerful woman at head office. She was someone that you needed to get alongside if you wanted to get your typing done promptly. As a junior staff member, my strategy was to start work early, take my handwritten correspondence up to the typing pool first thing, and ingratiate myself with the senior typist.
Emi was an early starter. Her first order of the day was a cup of tea and completing the Dominion Post crossword puzzle. By the time I arrived with my typing, only a few clues remained unsolved. Sometimes Emi would ask me to help her with a word or two. Our friendship grew, and my typing was completed in good time.
I had not realised that English was not Emi’s first language. She looked to solving crossword puzzles as a daily discipline for building vocabulary. While Emi was boss of the typing pool, she had many other roles, including matriarch to her Samoan family and the voice of New Zealand to her homeland. Each week she would prepare a bulletin of local news in the Samoan language to broadcast it to Samoa over the short-wave service of Radio New Zealand. She did this for twenty-five years. Emi lived in two worlds: Samoa and New Zealand. She was a bridge between the two, and eventually she would invite me to cross that bridge.
My family were South Island farming people of Scottish stock. I had moved to Wellington after my marriage had failed, working full-time and caring for my three children by myself. Times were tough and I had lost my bearings. It must have shown because later on I learned that Emi and the typing pool had given me the nickname ‘Tragic’.
In later years Emi would claim that she was the matchmaker who brought her daughter Winnie and I together. Arranged marriages are a Samoan tradition. At the heart of the fa’asamoa, the Samoan way of life, are lands and titles – and they offer places of belonging and identity. In the old days, parents would work to build political alliances between families and villages through strategic marriages. Perhaps Emi thought that the tragic palagi who helped her with her crossword puzzles would be a suitable match for her daughter?
Winnie worked on the same floor as me. I sat up and really noticed her when she arrived one afternoon dressed for a Samoan meeting. The community worker’s jeans and denim jacket had been discarded for an elegant puletasi and a flower in her hair. A vision of the Pacific in a dreary office.
Soon after, I was asked to talk about accountability at a staff training workshop. I was hoping to impress Winnie. I outlined the theory and practices that managers could use, and I thought that I had done all right. But after the session Winnie took me aside and gently told me that I could choose to be accountable. Whereas for her, accountability was not a choice. She said that she was accountable to her family and the Samoan community for everything she did or said.
I was deflated that my presentation had been shot down with a smile by the woman I fancied, but relieved that Winnie had not embarrassed me publicly. Later I would learn more about the importance of relationships and reciprocity in the Pacific, the sacred space between people that must be respected, and accountability. I had started my voyage into the Pacific.
A DECADE AFTER we met and had married, Winnie was bestowed the matai title Luamanuvao. Samoan chiefly titles are bestowed at a saofa’i (a titling ceremony) on individuals chosen by the elders of the family. As the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter of her line, Winnie had the bloodline for this high title in Emi’s village, Vaiala. But Samoan chiefly titles are not determined solely through inheritance and birthright, as in the primogeniture of the British Royal family. O le ala i le pule le tautua, (The way to authority is through service) guides selection. Potential matai must have the requisite genealogy, but must also have served their families well and have demonstrated leadership and wisdom in village and family affairs.
There are two kinds of matai titles: ali’i and tulafale. Ali’i, are known as sitting chiefs, deriving their authority from sacred origins and aristocratic lineages. Tulafale are talking chiefs or orators, holding the genealogy of the aiga, and acting as the voice of their ali’i at ceremonial occasions. While the tulafale may be doing all the talking the ali’i calls the shots. Raised eyebrows and other subtle non-verbal signals determine the direction and outcome of meetings. Under the surface of oratory a subtle discourse of power is often at play.
I soon came to understand that Samoan society is a complex hierarchy with a place for everyone, and everyone in their place.
On first meetings Samoans do not ask your name. They inquire of strangers: ‘O ai lou aiga?’ (Who is your family?), ‘O fea lou nu’u?’ (Where is your village?). People are identified according to their place of belonging and links with aiga, ancestors, titles, and place, rather than with personal status or achievements.
Winnie, Emi and her husband, Ta’atofa, had gently introduced me to the Samoan world. The orator, Ma’ilo, would deepen my learning about identity and place of belonging, and help me find my place.
Nu’uiali’i Mulipola Ma’ilo Saipele, the senior orator of Vaimauga, told me that knowing who you are and where you belong may be the difference between life and death. These are his words:
‘Tupua Mataafa ia Sina o lologo ma fa’atausala o le Ifi tele. That’s the joining together of the connections of the country of Chiefs and Orators. Tuiluluma ia faatausala o le Ifi tele, o la ta nono’a ma la ta soa’a, Tui Manu’a le ia tama ia la talanoa o lana fetaupea’i po’o va i lagi, nofo si aitu ia va i lagi, o manu, tui tau ia manu, o fainu’ulasi ma ua le galu, Tuitele ia Uale galu, o folo o le La, Sina atalaga ia Folo o le La, o le Ia Manaia ma le teine o Le tutu’u, Galumaifele ia Letutu’u, o Gauifaleai, Malietoa Laauli ia Gauifaleai o Lenatoitele, Manua o le Sagalele ia Lenatotele o Vaetamasoali’i ma Atomauga o le Tuitoga. Tuiae selenato ia Vaetamasoali’i o Tui a le tama alelagi. Tuitamaalelagi ia Vaetoifana, o Salamasina, le Tupu o Samoa mai Saua e o’o i Falealupo. That’s our Queen, Salamasina is the Samoan Queen from Manu’a to Falealupo. She held the four titles: Tuiatua, Tuiaana, Malietoa, ma Vaetamasoali’i.
‘That is the genealogy of the whole body of our country. I give it to you for your information. If you know those addresses, you know the in and out of the fa’asamoa. If there is anything happens somewhere… For instance; if you come over there and are driving a car that hits someone, then the only thing they must do is try to kill you. But once you know these things, then you say: “How about spare me for a few minutes? I come from…” Then you say where you come from, then you repeat those things I told you, once you mention Malietoa… Patu is the one who comes from the Malietoa line, once you mention Malietoa Laauli, then Patu will be there too and that is your safe side. People will stand up and say: “If it was without that, we would kill you.” But now it’s finished, thank you very much. Quite safe. That’s why I determined to give it to you for your information.’
IN MA’ILO’S BILINGUAL recitation of gafa (genealogy), as in many utterances by skilled orators, the sub-text carries the intended message. Winnie is Patu’s niece. Luamanuvao is the matua (parent) of the Patu title. As I am married to Luamanuvao I am also connected to Patu, and through that link to the gafa that connects all Samoans.
As I look back now, and ask myself what have I learned over the past two and a half decades of living and working in the Pacific, I keep coming back to Ma’ilo’s words. ‘You are not a stranger, you too are connected, you have a place of belonging.’
Ma’ilo’s words jolted me. I had always felt an outsider, coming from those cold islands in the south. I knew my family history but for years struggled to understand where I fitted into the Pacific.
Ma’ilo posed an existential question – a question of belonging. He was telling me that I could not stand apart as an outsider. Everyone has a part to play – we are all connected.
The structure of Samoan society is set out in a fa’alupega, the list of matai titles and ceremonial greetings, recited when chiefs meet. Formal greetings acknowledge the title, rank, village and connection between those present linking them with their mutual ancestors. The fa’alupega has been committed to print but is still principally an oral record, held in the memories of tulafale, and subject to debate and revision. Political boundaries between the independent nation of Samoa and the United States Territory of American Samoa are ignored in fa’alupega. These recent political divisions are seen as ephemera when compared to a record that links living people with Tagaloa and the other Polynesian Gods of creation.
Luamanuvao’s village, Vaiala, is one of several villages of the sub-district of Vaimauga, part of the principal district Tuamasaga, on the island of Upolu. Most villagers live in a communal household unit (aiga, extended family) of three or four generations. The village does more than provide its residents with a place to live; it provides a place of belonging for resident and non-resident aiga. And palagi (Europeans) married to aiga have a place too.
Emi and Ta’atofa were part of the Samoan diaspora. Many from the village have migrated to New Zealand, Australia, and the US. While a Samoan family may be dispersed globally it remains connected to its village – the place of belonging.
Emi was the eldest of her line. Patu, the high chief of Vaiala, her younger brother. They were always on the phone to each other. Although she lived in New Zealand, Patu would consult with Emi about lands, titles, and important matters relating to the Aiga Sa Patu. In important decisions, a high chief must consult with and defer to the views of his sisters.
One thing that it took a long time for me to understand was that the brother-sister relationship is the primary relationship in Samoan society. It is stronger than the bond between husband and wife. The girls and young women belong to the aualuma – the honour of the village. O le teine o le ’i’oimata o lona tuagane (a girl is the pupil of her brother’s eye), describes the closeness of the relationship between brother and sister. It is a brother’s lifelong responsibility to protect his sister and he must do what she asks.
I saw this played out in my own family. Luamanuvao’s first responsibility would always be to her parents, brother and his children. Her brother would always look out for her. She would care for her brother and his children. When we married Luamanuvao warned me: ‘You are not just marrying me. You also marry my family, my village, and Samoa.’
For Samoans, the fa’asamoa is all pervasive, part of everyday life, high occasions, life and death, the centre of their being. The fa’asamoa is used as noun, verb and adjective. Metaphorical expressions are frequently used to explain the nature of the fa’asamoa.
MA’ILO described the fa’asamoa, the Samoan way of life, to me in an extended bilingual monologue:
I’VE NOTICED THAT the discourse on the fa’asamoa in the village of Vaiala appears to operate on two levels. A cover story, subscribed to by all villagers, represents the fa’asamoa as an unchanging, traditional way of life existing today with unbroken links through the ancestors to the ancient gods of Polynesia. A second story speaks of the changing role and adaptations that the fa’asamoa had made since the coming of the papalagi and the major changes occurring today including the Samoan diaspora.
Our branch of the family is based in New Zealand and Luamanuvao has the responsibility of leading and maintaining the fa’asamoa. We regularly return to Samoa for important events: funerals, weddings, saofa’i, maintaining our links to both worlds.
Emi and Ta’atofa left their villages and made their home in Wainuiomata, a dormitory suburb of Wellington. They retained their village links throughout their lives, contributing to village projects, providing remittances to village-based aiga, and maintaining relationships with Samoa-based family. When they retired, we built a family home in Vailima on the hill above Apia and they spent their last New Zealand winters in the warmth of Samoa.
When Emi died the chiefs and orators from Samoa came to New Zealand and the wider family gathered to farewell her. As we celebrated her life, many stories were told of her journey from Samoa to New Zealand and her contributions to both. Emi, Ta’atofa, and Ma’ilo, who told me ‘the things I ought to know’, have passed on.
The cyclone early in 2013 knocked down the large mango tree that shaded the house we built for Emi and Ta’atofa. It’s cleared the view. These days I sit on the deck, gaze out across the Pacific, and solve crossword puzzles with Luamanuvao.