The mother of my vice principal passed away and so a few of the teachers at my school, the principal, and some of the village matai (chiefs) prepared to go visit the family to represent the village and the school. They decided to bring me so that I might experience more Samoan tradition.
We piled into two trucks along with about fifteen fine mats, a bolt of lace, a bolt of fabric and a huge wreath of flowers painted gold. We all wore traditional Samoan clothes: puletasi for the woman and ie faitaga for the men. When we got to the house we formed a procession. I was put in front, holding the wreath. Behind me, the others held out the fabric and the lace in a long line like a train. We waited for our turn. Important members of the family are entombed on the family’s property. Some tombs are rather grand in scale but most are a few slabs of concrete layered on top of one another pyramid-like. The tomb was open in front of the house and the inside lined with lace.
We entered the house and laid our gifts around the pusa oti (coffin). We then went back outside to sit facing the family. Here we presented our gifts of money and fine mats. In return we were presented with gifts of fine mats, tinned fish, money, fabric and a cooked pig. This exchange of gifts is very important and this procedure is followed by each family or group that visits the family of the deceased. There are church services in addition to this custom we just weren’t involved with it.
Everyone there (a good fifty people) thought it was quite hilarious watching a palagi (outsider) participate but, as always, they were extremely grateful that I was making the effort to understand the Samoan customs.
Once we returned to the village there is a consulting with the matai about how the gifts we were given should be split up. The Samoan culture is all about service to one another. You give and you receive. Everything you have you share. You always take care of your family and your village because they will always take care of you. The matai themselves are granted their title after proving service to their community. For large events such as weddings, funerals, and births families and friends give greatly to one another. The term for this is fa’alavelave (which also, funnily enough is the word for trouble). As Peace Corps Volunteers, we strive to become members of our community and so also participate in the fa’alavelave of our villages and host families.