A few years ago I told you about my grandfather’s api (notebook) full of alagaupu that I wanted to study and really understand. I was going to look at twelve of those proverbs, consult with the Samoan cultural experts in my life then share with you what I had learned.
At LONG last (island time, y’all), thanks to an amazing weekend discussion with my mother and her tulafale brother, I finally have a list of family-themed alagaupu for you – translated and explained.
And they are beautiful.
But before we delve in, let’s make sure everybody understands the importance and value of Samoa’s alagaupu.
What is this alagaupu thing?
Alagaupu is the Samoan word for proverbs – wise sayings or expressions about life. It is very closely related to what we call muagagana – or figures of speech (and in this article, we’ll use the word ‘alagaupu’ to mean both).
Every culture has its own collection of proverbs or maxims. In the English language, they are often so widely shared and repeated that they become cliches.
For Samoans, however, alagaupu belong to the more ornate and poetic version of our language, our ‘higher’ language that is used by matai and ministers.
Alagaupu can add great power and eloquence to our lauga (ritual speeches), and because the prestige and social ranking of our talking chiefs depend largely on their oratorical skills, we tend to keep our knowledge of alagupu to ourselves.
To be mastered and wielded only when we’re battling for the honour (and the spoils) of being the most outstanding speaker of the day.
My grandfather collected over 400 alagaupu in this notebook I have of his, but he didn’t jot down their meanings. Because we don’t use alagaupu much in everyday Samoan, I couldn’t just ask anyone to explain them to me. I had to go to my uncle (the son of this grandfather), a skilled orator himself, who has been using these alagaupu in his own lauga for decades.
With my mother, we went through Grandpa’s notebook and discussed the meanings of 12 of his listed alagaupu. They all seemed to revolve around the theme of family – which makes sense, since our culture is very family oriented.
Here’s what we came up with.
1. Uo i aso uma ae uso i aso vale
Literally: Friends every day but siblings on bad days
Some people think this means that our friends can become like our family when times get hard (that’s what I thought it meant based on the lyrics in this beautiful song), and I guess it could be read like that, too.
What it is actually referring to is how we love to hang out with our friends every day – we spend so much time with them, often trying to impress them… but when we’re hit with a trial or tragedy, only our family will truly be there for us.
Only your family can.
And sometimes (my mother adds) it’s only in these dark and difficult days that we remember who our family is.
2. A logo tai ua logo uta
Literally: When it is felt toward the sea, it is felt toward the land.
It’s kind of like if you stub your big toe, your brain will feel it lol.
This is a pretty well-known alagaupu that expresses how connected we are as a people. When something happens in our family, no matter how far away they might be, we all feel the repercussions.
…which is especially true when that ‘something that happens’ requires a monetary donation. *ahem*
3. E leai se mea e sili atu i lo lou aiga
Literally: Nothing is more important than your family.
This is a very straightforward, self-explanatory expression. 🙂
4. E le fa’atofaina le po masina
Literally: We don’t farewell a moon-lit night.
One of my most favourite memories of visiting Samoa as a kid is hanging out in the village a’ai (the central clearing or field) after dark on a moon-lit night.
It’s like, everybody comes out! Especially when the moon is so bright it could be daytime. And we’d just just sit together, laughing, playing music or sports… and sometimes, inevitably, couples would pair off into the shadows to get to know each other even better.
Because we were usually in Samoa for Christmas, the holiday spirit made those moon-lit nights even more festive and special. I remember wishing we could stay out there with everyone forever.
This alagaupu refers to that feeling of not wanting a moment to end.
5. Ua le tunoa faiva o Sāmea
Literally: The work (fishing trip) of Sāmea is not haphazard.
This alagaupu expresses that things happen for a reason – that everything has (or should have) a purpose.
Who is Sāmea? I don’t know.
We were thinking it might be the name of some historical Samoan person, but this textbook suggests Sāmea is a group of people – perhaps a village?
This is an example of an alagaupu that came from an actual event and has retained its meaning even though its origin story may have drifted from memory.
We have a few more like that in this list.
6. Ua sau Salū ua uma mea a Foa
Literally: Salū has arrived, Foa’s things are finished.
So basically, Salū is late to the party.
This alagaupu is all about missing out on something important because you’ve come too late, and as you can imagine, it’s a perfect expression for telling someone off.
The only thing we know about the origin of this alagaupu is that it comes from a story in someone’s village lol.
(If anyone can tell us more about #6, please leave a comment below.)
7. Solo i tua ni ao taulia
Literally: Clouds (that are spent) are retreating.
I had to ask a lot of questions to try and understand the literal meaning of this one, because the word ‘taulia’ to me means something that has been accepted or approved, so I couldn’t understand why ao (clouds) would be described as taulia…? lol.. It might make more sense to you.
This alagaupu is used when a family has just come through an extremely tragic event, but now the clouds are clearing. My uncle says that ao taulia, in this case, is referring to a dark time that is also momentous – so it’s not just about sadness, but a profound kind of ground-shifting pain.
As in, your family is never going to be the same again after this.
But this devastation is also cleansing. When these clouds pass, they will leave behind le lagi mamā (pristine skies) ma soifua maua (a sense of healing and well-being).
8. O le malaga e nofo ae olo
Literally: The travelers sit but coo.
This literal translation is so awkward… haha. Gotta love how different some languages are.
Malaga = a group of visitors or travelers. Nofo = to sit. Olo = the noise that pigeons make (coo).
So this alagaupu is referring to how we might be sitting here enjoying the conversation, but at the back of our minds, we know we need to be somewhere else.
This expression is used a lot when a matai wants to excuse himself (and whoever he came with) from a gathering. It’s like saying… we wish we could stay longer, but alas…
9. Savea tuvaelua le aso
Literally: Savea has a leg on either side of the day.
Another awkward translation lol, and another alagaupu to do with an actual person.
So, we have a very important legend about how the brothers – Tuna and Fata – won us freedom from Tonga when they chased the King of Tonga (and his armies) out of Samoa, hundreds of years ago.
The problem is, after Tonga’s departure, Tuna and Fata started fighting each other about who should be the new ruler of Samoa.
Savea was their older brother, who loved them both and did his best to mediate between them.
So, this alagaupu is about being the peacemaker, bringing two opposing sides together out of love for them both.
10. E le sua se lolo i se popo e tasi
Literally: You can’t get a flow of coconut fat from one coconut.
Coconut oil is made from copra, which we get from drying coconut meat (in their shells) out in the sun. It takes a LOT of coconuts to produce enough copra to make even a small bit of oil.
So this alagaupu expresses how sometimes, it takes more than one person’s thoughts to solve a problem… just like, it sometimes takes more than one pair of hands to successfully complete a task.
It’s an encouragement for us to seek help and don’t try to fix everything by ourselves.
11. O se va’ai lava e malie ai le loto
Literally: Only to look (at you) can satisfy my soul.
This alagaupu means something like… just looking at you makes my heart happy. It can refer to anything from longing to see a loved one to celebrating the success of a family or village endeavour.
…as in, what a beautiful chapel we have built. Just gazing upon it bring joys to my soul.
That kind of thing.
12. Va’ai se mea a Sameli
Literally: Look out for something for Sameli.
Confession – this one is not actually in my grandfather’s notebook, but it’s my favourite alagaupu on this list because it has very recent, very local origins
…as in, Sameli is still very much alive and we know him because he’s from my mom and uncle’s village.
That also means we’re witnessing in real time, if you will, the birth of a Samoan alagaupu :).
So, Sameli is a funny guy. At family gatherings, while they’re serving food first to the elders and high ranking matai, he’s known for yelling out to the kitchen, “Va’ai se mea a Sameli!”
Basically, poor Sameli is worried that all the good food will run out before it’s his turn to be served, so he’s just looking out for himself. Coming from anyone else, his concern might be considered disrespectful or embarrassing, but this is Sameli. He’s special 🙂 so it’s just funny.
And this expression is spreading. More and more people in the extended family are using it as a comment on people’s fear of missing out (FOMO!) without even knowing the Sameli story.
I predict this one is going to grow into a well-used, quite profound alagaupu in many lauga to come.
These are only
12 11 (plus 1 extra) out of over 400 alagaupu that my grandfather recorded in his notebook. I’ll work on sharing more of them with you in upcoming posts – but yes, I may have to save my most favourites for myself and the lauga that I will put together… someday lol.
Apparently, like many other tulafale (talking chiefs), my grandfather used to recite these alagaupu over and over to himself as he went about his day, constructing and memorizing lauga in his head.
Ever see an old Samoan man talking to himself? That’s probably what he’s doing, too :).
The meanings I’ve given these alagaupu here are based on how my uncle and his matai peers use these expressions in their own lauga, but language is pliable.
Your own understanding of these alagaupu might be completely different from ours, and just as correct.
Would love to see your own interpretations – and any other alagaupu you might want to share – in the comments.