10 Dec Blame it On Fiapoto? Fia Palagi? Or Fa’a Samoa?

Someone who didn’t like what I had to say in one of my newspaper columns, sent me a message. He said, “A Samoan woman shouldn’t be saying those things. Ask your father what you should write and what you should say. He’s a matai and very knowledgeable in our fa’a Samoa. He will tell you what you should write about.”

I had to laugh. This critic obviously doesn’t know my father. Yes, my Dad is a matai and ‘very knowledgeable’ about many things. But he’s never told me what to write or what to say. In fact, he’s the reason why I’m able to say most of the things I do. He taught all of his children to question, critique, think for ourselves, speak out and speak up. Why? Perhaps it came from his science teacher background, this emphasis on researching, figuring stuff out, testing and trying ideas and beliefs before accepting them? Perhaps it came from being married to a strong, confident woman who is his equal in all things? Or maybe it came from having lots of fiapoto children and he gave up trying to make us #JustListenAndObey – rather he decided to go with it and try to guide the fiapoto’ness as best he could?

I’m sure there have been times that he’s wished he hadn’t encouraged us to speak out as much as we do. He certainly doesn’t agree with everything I write. But he’s never condemned me because of my opinions, or told me to stop writing them. Rather, he’s been my earliest example of how to engage with others respectfully even when you don’t agree with them. My father also modelled the importance of making room for the voices of the smallest and the least among us. There were six of us children and he would always insist on seeking the opinion of the youngest. As a big sister, it annoyed me how he made us listen to the littlest. “She’s so disrespectful Dad!” I complained. “You need to make her listen to me cos I’m older.” But his reply was always, “Just being older doesn’t make your opinion more important. Be patient with your sister. It’s not easy to be the youngest. You all keep trying to make her be quiet and she has to fight harder to make her voice heard.” His encouragement of her voice probably helped her to be the fabulous lawyer that she is today. (And she still doesn’t listen to me and I still get #BigSister frustrated…)

It wasn’t until I grew up and became a parent, that I realized how rare my father’s parenting style is. Only until I had my own children did I find out how difficult it can be to encourage questioning and critical thinking  – when lots of times, all you want from them is TOTAL OBEDIENCE! Because it’s easier. And you’re tired, stressed and sick to bits of them all.

Only until I was a teacher in a Samoan classroom did I encounter the struggle to get students to think outside the box, engage in vigorous debate, and challenge long-held paradigms – when many of those students had never been encouraged to do that at home. Why is it so rare? Too often I think we confuse fear with respect. We think our children have to be scared of us or else they won’t listen and be willing to learn from us. We think our youth have to be threatened and strong-armed into obedience. Many times I see us discourage questions, debate and discussion – even amongst adults. Especially when those questions and critiques come from someone younger, or from someone who is a woman. We say its le fa’aaloalo, disrespectful. We even say it’s fia palagi. But is it really? What does leadership mean in a Samoan context?

I’ve seen my father serve his family as the matai. For him, it was never a title bought with a hefty financial payout that then guaranteed he would get the best cut of meat at a fa’alavelave and instant deference. No. For him it means a lifetime of service, a responsibility to watch over, counsel, support and guide his extended family. For him, being a matai means you are the first to give, to work, to organize. The first to care. I don’t often see that kind of leadership in the matai titles these days that are mass dished out to fifty people at a time.

As a kid, I’ve sat outside a few of my Dad’s village council meetings. Everybody gets to talk and share their ideas and opinions. Even the lowest ranking matai. Yes, they use eloquent language dotted with lots of lengthy proverbs and flowery descriptors to get their point across but it’s a debate and discussion all the same. Just a very respectfully expressed one. Decisions are made via consensus. I know many aiga make key decisions the same way, allowing space for even the youngest voice to speak. This kind of leadership and decision-making is not a ‘palagi thing’. It’s very Samoan.

I see now that perhaps, my father raised us the way he did BECAUSE he is a matai and ‘very knowledgeable’ about our Samoan traditions and heritage.

But sadly, there are many who use their matai title, age, seniority or even their gender – to silence others and assert their power over them. Like when a man rules over his wife and children with authoritarian brutality, using fear and intimidation to control them, simply because he’s a man and ‘o a’u o le ulu o le aiga’. They blame it on tradition and culture. They say it’s fa’a Samoa. Or they look to the Bible for backup. They reject talk of ‘human rights’ and gender equality, as being foreign concepts brought upon us by fia palagi folks. (And by fia poto writers who need to listen to their fathers better.)

We must examine what we call ‘traditional’ and ‘fa’a Samoa’ and stop blaming our culture for Samoa’s gender-based violence and abusive relationships. Yes some of our traditions are harmful and hurt women (and men). But some of our traditions are a rich strength that uplift and empower individuals and families. Culture is a living, ever-changing thing and as such it doesn’t remain constant. I love this quote from Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie – “Culture does not make people. People make culture.” We must ask, what hurts us? We must have the courage to ask the difficult questions and the strength to do something about the answers.

We can model our family communication on the pattern practised by a Village Council.  Communication that is inclusive and welcomes difference, that seeks consensus after much discussion. We can teach our youth how to ask questions, challenge ideas, and discuss differing viewpoints with respect, honesty and openness. We can model leadership in our families, churches, schools and communities that is like the #oldSkool definition of what it means to be a matai – where we understand that a leader is someone who serves.

Our culture is not a stone box meant to contain us. It is not our master. Our culture is sinnet woven of many strands and like sinnet that was used in traditional construction to make everything from houses, to boats to shark traps – it is literally that which holds our community, our families together. It’s meant to strengthen and support us. Not harm, suppress and oppress. We can choose what we weave into it. For me, I choose that which has been a strength to me from each of my different ancestries of Samoan, Maori and palagi. That which is harmful, I set aside and refuse to weave into the upbringing of my children.

I’m grateful for my parents and all they taught me. I consider it a privilege to be the daughter of a Samoan matai who is ‘very knowledgeable in our fa’a Samoa’ –  (even if he did neglect to warn me that not everybody would appreciate it when a Samoan woman writes and says whatever she wants!)


  • edna

    love this piece of writing! Agree to the fact that some people always blame the faasamoa… but I’ve been saying all along all these years, it is not the faasamoa… it is people’s pride, and greed for power that causes them to act the way they do.

    December 10, 2015 at 6:28 pm
  • Matthew

    “the #oldSkool definition of what it means to be a matai – where we understand that a leader is someone who serves.”
    This needs to be highlighted, underlined, printed into flyers, and placed into every Samoan person’s mailbox.

    I wish I could write more articulately but when I think deeply about this problem of ‘elders’ (i.e. fatcats) deciding what is and what isn’t acceptable (behavior/words/clothing/speaking out) my brain has an anger eruption until I give up and decide not to write anything at all.

    December 10, 2015 at 8:17 pm
  • IsobelHarker

    Lani expresses a wonderfully healthy attitude encompassing the ‘respect’ that is so much a part of fa’aSamoa.

    December 11, 2015 at 10:48 am
  • Eveni Tafiti

    Thank you Lani for sharing. Thank you father for his parenting style. He was a science teacher when I was a student at CCWS. Your mother was one of my elementary school teacher.

    December 13, 2015 at 11:14 am
  • Sam

    Keep asking, keep questioning, and keep writing.
    I am with your father…that is the way of the faaSamoa.
    I’ve always believed the culture, even the faaSamoa was meant to serve with open respectful dialogue. Keep asking and keep writing.

    December 14, 2015 at 8:04 pm
  • Anonymous

    Splendidly read! Unfortunately not all will have a heart that has the ‘faautautaga’ essence. It comes in a package meaning to say a parent can allow their children/young people to write/say/critique how they please, given they also feed their children on how to portray it in a manner that is respectful. I applaud your father of his parenting skills but it’s also evident he has taught in a way which allows you to do this with ‘tofa and faautautaga’.

    January 1, 2016 at 5:49 pm

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