Samoan Tradition: Ifoga

One Samoana Throwback: First published Jan 4, 2009, this post explores a tradition of forgiveness like no other.

Samoa_traditional_mat

It’s a fact of life: humans are attracted to drama… which makes me – and apparently, Samoans in general – oh so very human.

I don’t remember when I first heard about the Samoan tradition of ‘ifoga’, but I do remember thinking wow. How tragically beautiful.. how poignantly dramatic.

Ifoga is a grand, theatrical, mother of an apology reserved for the kinds of sins that in many other societies are punishable by death, like murder, rape and adultery.

(…okay, maybe not adultery, but I think it should be included on that list…)

O le sala o le mea fa’atamali’i…

Ifoga are traditionally performed by an ali’i (high chief) of the offending village on behalf of whoever it was in his village or family that committed the crime.

…If this ali’i had taught his people well, reasons the Faasamoa, this sin would not have happened in the first place…

The ali’i rises in the very early hours of the morning… long before the sun, then quietly – without any kind of pomp or annoucement – makes his way to the village that was wronged, carrying with him the finest of fine mats.

As a show of support and ferventness, lower ranked matais and other representatives from the offending village might also accompany their high chief, but they stay behind him. The brunt of this burden belongs to the ali’i, who heads to the front of the fale (house) of the family that was wronged.

There, usually on the sand or dirt, or on the sharp coral rocks that decorate the front of many fales in Samoa, he kneels and bows down to the ground, covering himself completely with the fine mats he has brought with him. There he will stay – with no food or water or relief from the soon to be sweltering heat – for as long as it takes for his apology to be accepted.

The matais who have come with their ali’i take up a position behind him, also facing the fale, and wait with him… in the dark, then in the sun… or the rain…

In any culture, an apology is no guarantee of forgiveness… neither is it protection against retaliation. I’ve heard of some ifogas where the family of the original victim will further humiliate the ali’i and his matais by spitting on them or sitting with their backs faced to them. Some ifogas continue for more than a day or two, to the detriment of the ali’i’s health. I’ve even heard stories where the ali’i was killed right there by the unforgiving family.

For the sake of peace between families or villages, however, if the apology is not accepted by the victim’s family, this village’s high chiefs will often step in and accept the ifoga on their behalf, essentially forcing a forgiveness. Samoan wisdom is usually good about acknowledging the advantages of peace over war…

With this acceptance, the ali’i who has spent all this time under fine mats is invited, along with his matais, into the fale of the conceding family and after tearful speeches from each side, to demonstrate the sincerity of their forgiveness, the ali’i who performed the ifoga is sent home with more fine mats, food, sometimes even money, and always the promise that no further retribution will be sought in response to the original crime.

xx HGG

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Known offline as Lillian (Lils, Lei'a) Arp, Hamo Geek Girl is just learning what it means to be Samoan. When she's not here, she's over at Manaui: Savour Oceania mostly talking about her other favourite topic: Food!

16 thoughts on “Samoan Tradition: Ifoga

  1. Hello hamogeekgirl thank you for sharing the story of this custom. I was wondering if you know of any customs couples may perform if they have hurt each other in some way and want to seek forgiveness from one another.

    For eg perhaps a man has an addiction and left the family home and has sorted himself out and is now returning to the family home and seeks forgiveness?

    Could something similar take place? I am interested as I am writing a short film and I would like it to conclude with a customary way of seeking forgiveness from one partner to the other and this custom seems very visual, sad but beautiful. Thank you.

    1. Hi Andy

      Sorry for the late reply.

      I can’t think of an apology custom that is specifically for what you’re describing there, but I’d say if the man is apologizing to his wife’s entire family (her parents, etc.) an ifoga might be used…maybe. But definitely not if he’s only apologizing to his wife.

      I’m also working on a short story that involves a traditional sort of apology that doesn’t require the scale of an ifoga. I’m using the to’otuli (just a simple kneeling before someone and asking for forgiveness). Teenage to adult children will to’otuli to their parents, siblings can to’otuli to each other. This can happen anywhere, but I’ve seen it mostly happen in the privacy of their homes, and the apology is usually a very eloquent and remorseful speech.

      This practice might be more suited to your man’s apology to his wife.

      Hope that helps 🙂

  2. @ Tai soti: Yeah! Thats soooo true. They still do that nowadays, but I guess not as much. My family recently experienced a ifioga about 3 weeks ago. But this was quite different.

    It was because my cousin accidently ran into a kid who was walking. And as some of you would know, the government have just recently built footpaths around Apia (town area).

    The Samoans on the other hand, (esp the ones from the villages out in the country side a.k.a kua) like to walk close to the car lane, or even on the road. So yeah! Long story short, we did a ifoga and the family came and told my cousin to stand up and said that she forgiven and hugged her 🙂

  3. back in the old days when the ali’i goes to the house with the fine mats and sits underneath it the other matais that came with him would bring sticks and stones and leave it in front of the ali’i that is underneath the fine mat the reason being if the family was really angry they could pick up those sticks and trhow peg or even bash the ali’i but this was backk in the old days man like mhy great great grandfathers time…..

    Peace and Love.

  4. If you ever feel like crying in Samoa, go along to an ifoga -- it happens all the time here on the island -- the first one I watched (I was staying a friends house doing my faikala from next door) after the ie toga’s are given and the viewpoints expressed, everyone just cries.

    its more deeper than that, but the message I could decipher between the crying is that ‘if you can’t forgive here on earth, god won’t forgive you in heaven’ and apparently it applies to the village as a whole..

    once presented with an ifoga, it is rarely rejected…

    personally, i think we got this one right.. no amount of court battles would ever heal pain inflicted -- forgiveness is the key -- and ya’ll… one of the most beautiful aspects of our culture, may it never die.

  5. Enjoyed the read.

    Ifoga is practiced in Samoa and the Courts can take it into consideration as a mitigating factor when sentencing.

    Keep up the good work.

  6. HGG..

    You’ve captured the essence of the ifoga…
    you write so beautifully…

    Many people believe that the ‘ava ceremony is the epitome of the Samoan culture, because of our pride in hospitality…

    but the ifoga..

    the ifoga..

    where else in the world can the ultimate crime, murder, be forgiven with a fine mat and a sorrowful heart…

    the ifoga goes to show that humility above all is our most prized possession.. an understanding that transcends all other traits.. we are a people of love and compassion..
    we are easily offended, but we are also quick to forgive…

    The ifoga reinforces my belief in the wisdom of our ancestors.. o le utaga ma le tofa mamao.. only that kind of depth of knowledge would recognize the frailty of human life and the humility that can bring even an ali’i sili to his knees…

    True.. there are times when the ifoga is not accepted right away and it goes on for a couple of days…but many families are unwilling to let the sun set on a ifoga or let the alii kneel for hours on end.. it says something of your families ability to forgive no matter how harsh the crime..

    it seems strange, but if you understand the Samoan psyche.. you would realize that the person outside is not the one responsible for the crime.. he shoulders the responsibility.. and your inability to forgive.. makes you less of a person than he who is kneeling before you…

    beautifully composed HGG..

  7. HEY HGG wow what a great article. Funny because this was probably the only custom/culture/tradition that i found more interesting than any other that i have heard. My dad told me about this awhile ago because it happened in his village, a family member was murdered by someone frm another village and instead of taking it to court [which i think they should have done], they did this ‘ifoga’.

    It really is ‘poignantly dramatic’. Depending on the honesty, trust, pride of being Samoan etc that a village has then this custom is suitable. But i dunno…things like this do get messy.

    BUT i enjoyed reading this. thanks.

  8. Paris: Yes, I’m still waiting to see you rock up to my faleo’o with those ie koga… hehehehe…

    Pen: Okay.. I am truly enlightened now… wow!! I could write a whole new blog entry in response to that (and I just might!)… thank you so much for sharing!

  9. Savea: Dogs huh? I never even thought of that… just another form of humiliation I guess for the Ali’i who is there to apologize…

    PagoKid: I’ve never heard of it practiced here (in NZ) or anywhere outside of Samoa, but it could happen, I guess… if anyone knows any stories like this, please drop a comment here.

    Wanda!!!!: Hiya ma lurrve… so good to hear from you and to have drop by my little blog thing… Yes I’ve been learning about our culture cause of how I finally realized a little while ago that I’m not white… *sigh* hehehehe… loving that spin your mum’s generation has put on the ‘adulturess’ theme.. if it scared u from that kinda behaviour, then at least its served its purpose right? lol… Love ya suga… Please stop by again soon! 🙂

  10. Compare the Ifoga to traditions of the Old Testiment:

    “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of The Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he cried, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. Then tidings reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he made proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands.” (Jonah 3:3-8)

  11. Well! this is true this ifoga stuff… However, Due to Christianity playing a Big part in the Samoan culture etc…

    Everyone has learn’t that … the real way to forgive is through ‘Jesus’ =)

    That’s all! … and Hamo will I need to do a Ifoga for my never ending … ‘BANS’? LOL!*

  12. Suga Hamo-Girl,

    Oh my gosh -- I love your site! It’s excellent, love the music selection & the tidbits of into on “Samoan Tradition!” Girl you so awesome! I’d never heard of anything like this in our traditions! Hey… I did however hear from my mother’s generation that if a woman commits adultery against her husband, the sisters or female relatives of the wronged husband can seek her out & humiliate her & beat her up as revenge on her wrong-doing? I even heard accounts of the sister-in-laws pooping & then forcing the adulteress to eat their poo, or smearing her face with it. (I know gross huh!) Maybe it was just my mother’s generation adding some of their own dramatic & sick license to the accounts. Maybe… now that adultery is so prevalent in many cultures, not just in ours that tradition has stopped. Still… I remember that after hearing this for the third time before I was even 13 years old -- I vowed then & there never to be an adulteress!

    Keep up the great work! Love ya girl!

    Wanda

  13. Very dope article. Adultery huh? Scared of you.

    I know they still practice ifoga in some parts of Samoa. But do they still practice this overseas in NZ and Aus.?

  14. Great article. With due respect, I wonder about families that have dogs that might bark or even attack the High Chief or one of his entourage before they arrive to the front of the victim’s house. Did anyone here experienced or heard of somethign like that?

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