The Samoan custom of contributing towards important family events is designed to show solidarity and relieve financial burden in times of need, but many New Zealand-based Samoans are finding the cost is taking a toll, writes Teuila Fuatai

Home for me is New Zealand. My parents, both born and bred in Samoa, settled here when their eldest child, my older sister, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth. The move ensured Saleima received clinical care not available in Samoa. It also meant living here and raising her, and eventually two other children (myself and my younger brother) away from their parents and most of their family members – a tough prospect for a couple grounded in family and village life that offered the type of support seemingly irreplaceable away from Samoa.

In almost every way, my childhood has been different to theirs. I didn’t go to school with my cousins, I didn’t attend church as often as they did, and my Samoan is nowhere near as fluent as it ought to be. Despite this, fears about the lack of a family support system proved unfounded.

Juggling three children, including one who was severely disabled, wasn’t easy. We managed with the help of cousins, aunts, uncles and friends. When Saleima died aged 14, those people filled our home and celebrated her life with us. In keeping with Samoan tradition, fine mats and monetary gifts were also exchanged.

Fa’a Samoa – which broadly translates to the Samoan way – encompasses all these things. It is about love and service to family at significant occasions like the death of a loved one or the assigning of a matai title, as well as in daily life. The exchange of fine mats, money and other types of gifts at big occasions, known as fa’alavelave, not only honours tradition and shows respect, it also acknowledges the significant burden those at the centre must shoulder. That outward display of love and solidarity is something that gives strength even to a 13-year-old mourning her sister.

Fifteen years on, and numerous fa’alavelave later, my enthusiasm for the practice has changed thanks to the amounts of money being handed over. Contributions, which can often total in the thousands of dollars, are causing significant financial strain for families, detracting from the traditional cultural values associated with fa’a Samoa.

In 2016, a survey of 400 Auckland Samoans predominantly aged 19-35 on attitudes towards fa’alavelave found many participants felt contributions had spiralled out of control. Coordinated by Robyn Lesatele, an Auckland University Pacific Studies and Law student, her research undertaken for the survey showed contributions could reach up to $10,000.

Survey participants reported families had been forced to take out loans to meet financial obligations, while others said the practice had become too materialistic with too much emphasis placed on the amount of money being exchanged, Lesatele said.

A narrower study by Waikato University psychology researcher Dr Byron Seiuli looked at Samoan cultural practices at family deaths. It also highlighted the strain placed on those responsible for organising a fa’alavelave. The pressure to “respond generously” to contributions, which occurs as part of the reciprocity practised under fa’a Samoa, was a “double blow” for those already struggling to deal with the death of a loved one, Seiuli wrote.

Furthermore, New Zealand-born Samoans also said “seeing their parents and extended relatives become stressed by financial commitments, or struggle to supply material resources to enact cultural requirements” made them doubt the value of contributing towards fa’alavelave.

Auckland couple Jeremy Tiumalu, 29, and Juanita Fuatavai, 28, understand the pressure families often face when contributing towards fa’alavelave. “When I was young, it kind of annoyed me because I knew my parents used to give quite a bit,” Tiumalu said. “Mum and Dad didn’t have a lot of money back then, and they’d still try and give a lot.”

Juanita Fuatavai and husband Jeremy Tiumalu. Photo credit: Juanita Fuatavai

While excessive contribution amounts were unacceptable, understanding the reciprocal nature of fa’a Samoa and how it impacted fa’alavelave was important, Tiumalu said.

The couple, who have an 11-month-old son, said the “alofa” or love shown through monetary gifts at their 2013 wedding furthered their appreciation of the practice.

“It was completely unexpected. We saw first-hand the outcome of our parents’ dedication to family. They had been giving for so long [to fa’alavelave], and when their siblings and cousins came to our wedding, they gave what they could,” Tiumalu said.

Leading Pacific writer Maualaivao Albert Wendt, who holds a paramount matai title in his family, said everyone viewed fa’a Samoa, and the customary gift exchange at fa’alavelave, slightly differently. The 77-year-old, who currently lives in New Zealand but was born in Samoa, highlighted some of the difficulties people faced in their own families.

“Even within branches of [my own] family, I get annoyed at the matai when they make demands on the members of the family by enforcing contributions.” When more powerful members within families expect people to contribute more than they could afford, that is not fa’a Samoa. “It should be practised fairly for everyone – you contribute what you can afford. If you don’t have fine mats [and money], you can bring food or you come and help at the fa’alavelave, he said.

University of Otago student Fuluiole Lelaulu, 22, believed more discussion between individual family units would help stem spiralling costs associated with fa’alavelave. Lelaulu, who grew up in south Auckland, said her mother and father’s families approached contributing towards fa’alavelave quite differently.

On her father’s side, she and her siblings – all of whom were older than her – would determine how much to contribute after discussing their family’s relationship with the person at the centre of the occasion, and how this could be appropriately reflected through a monetary amount, gift of fine mats or mix of both.

Her mother’s family, who were heavily involved with their church community, tended to involve her less in discussions, with contribution quantities mostly decided by members of her mother’s generation. Families at her mother’s church also contributed towards the fa’alavelave of other members of their congregation.

“I’ve witnessed families struggle in the church,” Lelaulu said. “They would have to fork out more than they could afford to give to fa’alavelave, even for families that aren’t related. It kind of made us become distant from our culture and church because money was involved a lot, and it wasn’t healthy.”

Lelaulu said families and churches needed to address the amounts being given towards fa’alavelave, as well as the frequency and extent of which people were contributing. “The fa’a Samoa is about loving unconditionally and giving unconditionally, which is great. But if there is a fa’alavelave for someone who isn’t well-known to members of your family, then it is unrealistic to expect large contribution amounts that should be reserved for close relatives”, she said.

Money is only one aspect of what happens at a fa’alavelave. “What I love about it as a young person is being there for my family and being able to serve. While I will always contribute when asked, that’s what I take pride in.”

Like Wendt, Tiumalu and Lelaulu, participating in fa’alavelave is part of who I am. It is a custom I was brought up around, and a way of cementing my link to an invaluable family support system. In outlining the difficulties caused by expectations around fa’alavelave, Seiuli also noted that “the reciprocal performance of customs is motivated by the knowledge that if performed with the best motives, then they will be reciprocated at some point in time”. Understanding that participating in fa’alavelave is supposed to reinforce the Samoan family system, rather than encourage unmanageable expectations that weaken it, is fundamental to the custom’s sustainability – for my family, and all young Samoans.

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