Friday, January 4, 2008



One of the hardest Samoan customs to understand is Fa’alavelave. This is the required gift giving assessed on people for important occasions like funerals, weddings, births, etc. This custom originated when Samoa was a purely agricultural society when locally produced food and crafts were given to honor these special events. The custom has now escalated to almost obscene proportions causing financial hardships on families who can least afford to contribute, many going into debt so as to not lose face. It is the Samoan form of “Keeping up with the Jones” gone mad.

What is puzzling is many Samoans understand what is happening and are resentful of the custom, yet feel trapped in what they consider a deeply Samoan tradition. To a large extent, the influence of wealthier Samoans living overseas keeps pushing the gift giving stakes higher. In this competitive society, no one wants to be outdone.

The family we live with has just given the biggest pig and last boar for the Fa’alavelave of the recently deceased pastor. It is put on a truck collecting slaughtered pigs and cows to be divided among the funeral guests, most of whom are well off and live outside the village. Other people we know gave their last livestock with little hope of replacing them.

The fa’alavelave system almost insures people are unable to save or even think about their future when they may be asked to contribute. Whatever they now have can quickly disappear when called upon to give to the next fa’alavelave.

Searing Hair Off a Boar

Truckload of Animals Going to Fa'alavelave


Teri said...

I'm with you, dad. This one is a little hard to digest let alone understand. I do respect and honor the idea of many cultural traditions. However, what's going on now seems to bear little resemblance to what I suspect was the original spirit behind the tradition.

Assuming the practice of Fa'alavelave originated out of a real need for the community to feed or otherwise help provide for a recently widowed person, newly married couple or new parents, then it seems to me that something has now gone terribly wrong with the system. How can good people continue to participate in a process that has become so obviously inequitable?

Simply because it has always been done this way is not a good enough answer. It hasn't always been done this way! Even if we use the word progress to describe the increasing number of wealthy Samoans living overseas, how can they be allowed to continue artificially raising the bar on the value of required "gifts"? Who is in charge anyway?

Taking from the poor to give to the rich? I'd even go as far as to call it the poor voluntarily giving to the rich because they don't recognize the other very real choices available to them. Now admittedly, I may not be understanding the concept of saving face within the Samoan culture. I can only hope it means more than some temporary discomfort or embarrassment.

Even as I write this, I see my own deeply held values staring back at me. Our individualism, self determination and right to speak out in Western culture is non-negotiable. In the Samoan theocratic-autocratic society, are there any who will risk bucking the system in the name of real change?

Unknown said...

Happy New Year, Nick! I understand you were hoping to be in the last time zone to welcome in the New Year! From the pictures it looks like you are enjoying an island paradise.

We've enjoyed a couple evenings with Marvelous Mary, but many are vying for her time. She will be returning to you and Iva, relaxed, energized and more beautiful than ever. Apparently she can't wait for a big homecoming meal of mutton flaps and turkey tail cabbage soup. Yum Yum.

We discussed My Samoan Chief at the Semsches Wednesday night over a delicious meal of sloppy joes, salad and French silk pie. The book was a good choice. We were all quite amazed that basically things haven't changed in the 50 plus years that Fay Calkins arrived,--except people bring home their bounty from feasts in aluminum roasting pans rather than hand woven baskets.

I was most intrigued by the author herself--I can't imagine showing up 7 months pregnant in 1950 on an island in the middle of the ocean. What a story--I hear you've met her daughter, who still lives there.

I agree with Teri's comments regarding the Fa'alavelave and the expected (demanded) gifts. I've never been one to put emphasis on the concept of "tradition"--I think people often over value that and it leads to disappointment from unfulfilled expectations. The only family tradition we've had was to take a picture of the kids on the front steps on their first day of school. And that green bean casserole for Thanksgiving. Definitely a "must have".

I'm afraid this is turning into more of an email than a blog comment, so I'll sign off. We think of you often and wish you the best in your Samoan adventure.


braley515 said...

Hi Nick & Mary,
As I sit here in Mombasa, I know how hard it is as a westerner to sit by and watch the people you admire and respect dig themselves a bigger hole. But, a few hundred years ago us 'europeans' were making the same mistakes. We didn't have a set of wise westerners to guide us. I see your dilemma, as you hate to see them struggle, but i also see how useful you can be just to create an open environment for discussion of how they can instigate their own changes, without anyone losing face. It will happen, just not as fast as us Americans are used to seeing changes implemented.
I have just been a witness to the Kenya presidential elections and all the aftermath. They, too, struggle with how to be 'in' 21st century global politics, when they are still at the basic tribal levels in many of the day to day subsistance tasks. We think we know a better way, and perhaps we do. But as we know, living on the vicarious advice and info of others has never been a human strong point - 1st world or 3rd world. Give them the sounding board that they need, and they will make their own changes when their culture is ready for it. (Hope i don't sound too preachy!)
lots of love, Laura