During language and culture training we heard the term “fa’alavelave” (fah-ah-la-ve-la-ve) a lot. We asked for a definition but weren’t given one. Its one of the words/concepts that doesn’t quite translate.
Fa’alavelave is usually about something negative, such as a funeral. But it’s also about joyous occasions like weddings and matai naming ceremonies. I think the best explanation that I can come up with is “an event that involves an obligation to show respect through gift-giving”.
Fa’alavelave is so prevalent and has become so damaging that the government is trying to pass laws to regulate it. Here’s how it works. I’ll use a funeral as an example.
Someone dies. The body is usually then taken to a funeral home (there is one on Savaii) for embalming. Sometimes it is taken home first to be washed and dressed before it is taken to the funeral home. The day before the funeral the body is taken to the home of the family. There is a service there and that night church choirs sing over the body, there are prayers and mourners pay their respects. The next day there is another service and the body is buried, usually in the front yard of the family.
It is the responsibility of the family to feed all involved. Not just enough food for the individual, but food to take home for their families. Additionally, it is the family’s responsibility to show their respect for honored guests/mourners by giving them gifts. That is usually cash, cases of tinned corned beef and fish and fine mats. It could also mean slaughtered and partially cooked livestock – pigs or cows.
I have heard that there are some who take advantage of fa’alavelave. Even though they don’t know the family well, they show up to get the free food. I don’t believe that’s the norm. But even when it is just people who genuinely care and are involved with the family in some way, it is an incredibly expensive process.
Typically if someone attends a funeral or other fa’alavelave, they offer cash to the family. It helps offset the cost of the event but doesn’t seem to come close to balancing the books.
I don’t know any Samoans who have a savings account. Every Samoan I know has a loan that they’ve taken out to pay for fa’alavelave. When the women in the family work, they don’t have time to weave and have to buy the fine mats that are exchanged at every fa’alavelave. They’re very, very expensive. The government is trying to limit the amount of loans given for this purpose. People know it is a problem. But there is a strong societal sense of obligation to do what is right – to show respect with money and food, whether the family has it or not.
My school staff is considered a family. If someone from Peace Corps (other than me) shows up, they’ll be given money. By the teachers who are grossly underpaid. That’s fa’alavelave. Showing respect. We do it in the States too. Taking out loans for lavish weddings, for example. But the obligation and tradition is different. If I decide to have a small wedding (no, really, this is hypothetical, I’m more likely to be struck by lightening than to get married, although I’m open to offers) I won’t get pressure to go into debt. Nor would I feel obligated to give every guest enough food to take home to feed a family of 20.
Fa’alavelave demonstrates the respect so valued in fa’asamoa. It also demonstrates the challenges of a society moving into a westernized world. It used to be that all the “stuff” that was exchanged in fa’alavelaves could be grown or made by the families. That changed when tinned meat/fish and cash was introduced.
I was raised to believe that you earn what you have. You work, you get stuff. Don’t work, no stuff. In Samoa, you are given things. I’ve been handed cash by people I’ve never met before as a way to show me respect. I’ve tried to refuse it, which causes hard feelings so now I just offer my thanks. And I give cash to others as a way of showing my respect. I asked one of the teachers at my school how her vacation was. “Too many fa’alavelaves.” Then she asked me to loan her some money. I did. Her husband and car are collateral.