A few years ago I was living and working in the small island nation of Samoa. The Independent State of Samoa, or Western Samoa, to distinguish it from it’s American cousin.
I was living with a local family, the Malakis, working as a journalist for the Samoa Observer and trying very hard to learn the fa’a Samoa – the Samoan way of life. And I did a pretty good job if I do say so myself. It’s definitely tough learning how to tie your beautifully handcrafted lavalava and how to husk a coconut, not to mention how to siva like a graceful Polynesian princess instead of like the plastic hula girl toy on the dashboard of your car.
Samoa is the kind of place that wears its culture on its sleeve. Tourism is relatively low there, despite having beautiful weather, landscapes, beaches and people, so foreigners are few and far between and palagis (white people) stand out in particular. Everything that is done in Samoa is done with fa’a Samoa in mind and it is one of the only places I have travelled where the culture is so strong and so visible in every way. And with a culture that features the always impressive fire dancing, an almost co-dependent relationship with island music and a humble and always respectful manner of carrying oneself, it definitely does seem a shame to let that blend away with the phenomenon of globalisation.
In my first few weeks in Samoa I fell in love with this idea of the Samoan way of life. Of beautiful Polynesian dresses, and island music; of taking things in island time and learning my way around the Samoan sense of humour. My Samoan father, Dr Malaki, taught me everything he – and possibly anyone ever – knew about Samoa, about the history, the culture, the myths and the legends. I can assure you, I knew all about Maui long before Moana hit the theatres.
I was still young when I moved to Samoa; fresh out of uni with all the knowledge and no idea. Samoa was just a short flight from my home in Australia – short enough to be a weekend trip for some of you seasoned weekend break Europeans – but to me it felt like I was lightyears away from my home and everyone I loved. I, and the other Australian girl living with the Malakis at the time, became a real part of our Samoan family; like adopted daughters, they worried when we weren’t home when we said we would be, celebrated our front page stories and comforted us when the homesickness hit. Taking all these huge steps forward in my life without my family and friends around to support me, the Malakis filled that space, as only Samoans can, by cramming as many people as they can in there and leaving no room for sadness.
So when tragedy struck, and we lost our chief (our matai in Samoan); Dr Malaki, I wasn’t the only one adrift. Grief exists in all cultures. Emotions are a universal human constant. But often it’s culture that dictates how we manifest and handle those emotions.
The Malakis were broken, there’s really no other way to describe it. Crumbling from within the family had to find a way to hold themselves together long enough to plan and execute a traditional Samoan funeral with all the inherent cultural nuances whilst still upholding their Catholic beliefs.
Christianity is strong across most of Polynesia but arguably nowhere more so than Samoa. There are anthropological studies and theories drafted as to how both Christianity and traditional culture have been able to co-exist and thrive in Samoa, but without going in to too much detail the general conclusions are this. When missionaries first arrived in Polynesia their task was to take the local, native religion and replace it with Christianity – or whichever religion they had brought with them. It was a successful colonisation technique, perfected mostly by the French. But when the missionaries arrived in Samoa they quickly found that there was no native widespread religion for them to replace. For the Samoan people didn’t worship any religion – not, if you’ll excuse the pun, religiously anyway. The Samoan people worshipped their fa’a Samoa; their way of life. They worshipped their matai system, an island democracy considered quite advanced by the missionaries. They worshipped their society, and since the adoption of Christianity wasn’t going to affect their ability to do that, it was accepted with very little concern. The two belief systems could work side by side happily, or, as was the case at Dr Malaki’s funeral, inside and outside.
Samoan funerals usually last around a week and include both traditional cultural rituals as well as religious services. Throughout this week the body is displayed quite openly and friends and family members are encouraged to come and say goodbye, to hug, kiss and take pictures with the deceased. There is a traditional service, usually held around halfway through the week where anyone who knew the deceased are invited to eulogise. These services can last for as long as necessary depending on how well respected and loved the deceased was. Dr Malaki’s traditional service went for over 9 hours.
The next day all the furniture from the top floor of the house was removed and that night Dr Malaki returned to the house to spend his last night with his family, watched and prayed over by a rotation of priests accompanied by church choirs. Outside, the family were hosting the traditional Samoan exchange of goods. The Malaki’s large backyard had been turned into one part food hall, one part butcher shop and one part earth oven (called an umu in Samoan), all joined together by a large staging area covered by Samoan fine mats. On either side of the mats were rows of seats facing each other; one side for the family and the other for the attending villages. Seating was specific – the village chief in the middle, his orator to his right and the other village matai’s filling the remaining seats. Village after village arrived at the house, offering fine mats, tapa cloth, clothing and food. Every item was displayed clearly to both sides of the staging area before a counter offer from the family was given. This process lasted for 12 hours, from 6pm to 6am when the sun rose and it was time for Dr Malaki’s body to be carried to his childhood village where he would be buried.
The cultural complexities of the Samoan funeral are deeply rooted in their history of cultural continuance that has withstood missionary arrivals, civil war, and the dividing of the archipelago into American and Western Samoa. I could write this article for days and never be able to fully articulate just what it all means. But I guess that’s the point. Culture encompasses all that we know about the world from our particular point of view at a certain place in time and in geography. It gives us lessons in how to manage our societies, how to mark the passing of time, and how to grieve for lost loved ones.
As travellers we know the importance of respecting the environments in which we find ourselves. We know not to vandalise property and to not litter, or steal pieces of heritage sites. But the importance of respecting culture is something different. Culture encompasses all that a native citizen is. It is their outlook on the world, their unique point of view, the result of long histories, usually marked with violence, colonialism or dispossession that has led them to build the society that you stand in today. Respecting culture is not about loving the dance style, or the patterns of the clothing although those things are good too. Respecting culture is about honouring the people you meet, the people who came before them and the people who will come after.