I’m sure this is old news to anybody who reads my blog, or has heard anything about my Peace Corps experience, or talks to anyone who has heard anything about my Peace Corps experience – I live in the church hall. My fale hosts Sunday school, youth group, dance practice, meetings, weddings, funerals, the occasional bingo, pastor’s school, community works…you name it, it happens here. My fale also hosts receptions for visiting pastors. Fortunately for me, this is just a half day event and I’m not hosting long-term guests in my fale. It happened a lot when I first got here, then we went a few months without any visiting pastors, and lately it’s been happening again. Maybe once every 4-6 weeks. It’s a small fa’alavelave in the grand scheme of fa’alavelaves (quick definition, fa'alavelave literally translates as "disturb" and generally refers to big events like weddings and funerals), but it’s got all the makings of a traditional ceremony.
The morning isn’t so exciting. The pastor comes over around the time Sunday school normally starts. Sunday school relocates to the church building, and my fale is swept clean, mats arranged, rearranged, and rearranged again until the floor is acceptably covered. All the dishes are taken out of the chests they normally stay locked in, rinsed, and readied for tea. When the pastor arrives, breakfast is served. It usually includes egg salad sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, crackers with butter, something traditional like papaya soup or koko rice, and sometimes it includes cake or pie. And of course tea. Breakfast isn’t the big deal, it’s just the introduction.
After church, everyone reconvenes at my fale for a huge, traditional to’ana’i. This is when the real fa’alavelave happens. The guests (the people with the places of honor who are served food) include the matais, matais wives, Sunday school/youth group leaders, and other people who have some kind of important role in the church. The people who do the serving are members of the youth group and Sunday school, who are usually about my age and younger. The aualuma – the women of the church –arrange the food on plates and clean everything up at the end. I, of course, am a guest of honor, although I am always reluctant to accept that status. I always make a small attempt at helping with the chores (like laying out mats at 6:30 in the morning, rinsing dishes, or arranging food), but everyone else seems to know so much better what needs to be done and how it will look best. So I putz around and try to stay out of the way until somebody tells me where to sit.
The ceremony begins with a speech from the talking chief. The talking chief introduces everyone, thanks the guest for visiting, and calls out the gifts as they are presented. The standard gifts in a fa’alavelave include a sua (a combination of a drinking coconut, money, and cloth), a small gift of food (usually a huge can of corned beef and a package of crackers), fine mats, boxes of tinned fish, and a pre-determined amount of money called the pasese to cover the cost of travel (although it always covers much more than the cost of travel).
Then comes the meal. The guests of honor (whoever is visiting, the high chiefs of the village and their wives, me) sit in the main room of the fale, and the other important members of the church (Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, etc) sit out on the porch. The members of the youth group and Sunday school serve the food. Bowls of water and towels are brought out first so everyone can rinse their hands before eating. Then tray after tray after tray of food is brought out. Seriously, one guest of high honor (person sitting inside) gets enough food to feed at least a family of four. Even when I ai malosi (eat strong), you can’t even tell I’ve taken anything off my plate. The meal usually includes a mix of traditional Samoan food (taro, palusami, fish, etc) and palagi food (potato salad, egg salad, fried chicken with ketchup). The main guest is served first (in this case, the visiting pastor), then it usually goes to matais and their wives in descending order of importance. I’ve been around long enough now to have finally earned the status of being served last at these particular fa’alavelaves at my fale, but I am frequently served first or second at other fa’alavelaves. After the meal come more speeches. The main guest says a big thank you and apologizes for anything they might have done wrong, then a few of the matais say a thank you and a blessing in response. And someone always asks the guest if they know a good boy for the Pisikoa. My Samoan is good enough now that I can follow the gist of a fa’alavelave like this, and although I don’t catch everything, I’m usually aware of it when they talk about me and know how to respond appropriately (whether I should introduce myself or call someone else cheeky).
When we were PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) we heard a lot about traditional Samoan culture in our training and language classes, but I never really noticed the traditional culture in everyday life. Ya, everyone makes an umu on Sundays for the traditional meal, but what about the songs and dances, the ava ceremony, and all the responsibilities of those with different matai titles? Everyone talks about it a lot, but it doesn’t happen a lot. I think part of this is because Samoa is fairly well developed. I wouldn’t call it a third-world country, and the culture has become diluted through globalization. Western influence is obvious everywhere you look (I say this now, what would I have said when I first got here?) But I think the best thing to compare the traditional cultural ceremonies to would be a holiday or a special get-together back in the States. You don’t make a big deal out of every single occasion, but the semi-big and big events warrant more planning, preparation, and fuss. So even though I don’t see traditional Samoan culture everywhere I look every single day, I get a lot more of it than I realized.
This is one of the perks of living in the church hall. The thing I wanted most out of being a Peace Corps Volunteer (other than changing the world, of course) was the cultural experience. Living in an unimaginable country, learning an obscure language, and leading a different life. It was hard to see when I first got here (well, it was easy to see, but I wasn’t exactly living it yet – still stuck in the tourist phase), but that’s what I have now. When I first got here, I hated being on display for everyone and having things going on around me all the time. It never seemed to settle down, and I needed it to settle down before I could even begin to feel marginally comfortable with it. Two years in, that has finally happened. It’s familiar (at least with the fa’alavelave of a visiting pastor at my fale. I was across the village for a family dinner the other night and there was a family fa’alavelave happening, and I felt all kinds of out of place). Although I’m still really awkward with my guest of honor status, I’m trying to accept that I will always have it here, and I think it makes it easier for all involved (myself included) if I embody my status rather than pretending it doesn’t exist and cringing under all the special treatment. I hated that I was so rural, and so geographically separated from the Peace Corps office and all the other PCVs, but now I love it because it has given me such a great opportunity to get involved with my village. My lack of options, which I hated at the start, eventually forced me into the exact situation I was hoping for. I don’t know if any other PCV in Samoa can say that they regularly attend traditional fa’alavelaves and get the same exposure to the culture that I do. Good grief, it was a long struggle to get here, but I’m so lucky that things worked out this way.