How Samoans treat their elders

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How Samoans treat their elders

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In general, the Samoan attitude towards aging is pretty similar to other cultures. To us, old age is wisdom and accomplishment. It’s a time to sit back and enjoy the spoils of life. But how do younger Samoans treat our elders? 

Samoan culture emphasizes alofa (love) and fa’aaloalo (respect). We believe that our elders are most deserving of our love and respect because they gave us life, they teach and minister to us, they have sacrificed for us and have paved the way for our success. As younger people aiming to one day fill their shoes, it would be wise for us to make peace with, learn from and care for our elders. 

A Family Responsibility

A few years ago, I learned the phrase tausi matua.

I learned it when my older cousin randomly stopped by my mom’s house one day with a large, fresh fish of some sort and a basket full of produce. He didn’t stay long. He and mom chatted for a few minutes then he kissed her, wished her well and left.

I thought that was a lovely gesture, but I was a little confused. It wasn’t her birthday or a holiday, and I was pretty sure my cousin didn’t call ahead to arrange this visit. I asked my mom what that was all about and she just shook her head at me. ‘Eh… o le mea ga e ka’u o le tausi matua.’

It’s called caring for your elders.

Apparently, this was a little bit more than just my cousin doing something spontaneously nice for his aging aunt. My mom explained that if we lived back in her village, visits like these – from grown children, nieces and nephews, cousins etc. – would be a regular occurrence because everybody looks out for the elders in their extended family… especially those like my mom who are widowed and retired and have daughters like me who should know our culture better.

I felt a bit schooled that afternoon. I was touched that my cousin still honoured the traditions of his youth growing up in Samoa, but then I started thinking about my own elderly aunts and uncles who live in my neighbourhood, even. How often have I been to visit them? How many times have I taken anything over for their supper or tea?

It’s something I still need to work on in my effort to embrace the values of my Samoan heritage, but tausi matua is only one of the many customs we have that refer to the way we treat our elders.

What happens if you don’t respect your elders

I’ve read a few scholarly articles that diplomatically describe the social hierarchy of the Samoan family as favouring older people. I would bluntly confirm that, in ‘traditional’ Samoan thinking, your elders hold the status of venerated prophets of God – with the power to bless or curse you as they see fit.

True story.

To illustrate this concept, here’s another true story from my own extended family…told super-vaguely with no names because everyone in this story is older than me and I don’t want a hiding.

So, a certain newly married couple fell out of favour with her parents – my uncle and his wife. It was an ugly, drawn out conflict that involved physical fighting and lots of bad blood, especially between the husband and his father-in-law (my uncle).

My uncle’s eldest living sister – at that time, the matriarch of our extended family – stepped in to assess the situation, and when she found the young couple unrepentant, she cursed them, mostly for they way they had disrespected her brother. She promised that God would block the wife’s womb and that no children would enter their family.

Sure enough, for at least 7 years after that, this couple was barren.

The thing is, the wife had a child from a previous relationship, and she was still quote young. Her husband was not much older, so it didn’t seem like they should have had a problem with fertility. They eventually made amends with her parents – everything was cool now – but still, no babies.

Finally – I guess because they were willing to try anything new – this couple went to see my elderly aunt. They tearfully apologized to her about all that stuff that happened in the past, and they asked her to please forgive them and lift the curse, to allow them to have children.

She did.

The very next year, the couple welcomed their first son into the world. They had two more children after that.

Coincidence?

*cue spooky music*

I know that was an extreme example, but you’d be surprised how many similar stories you’ll hear amongst Samoans. I mean, I don’t know many Samoan parents who would blatantly declare their god-like dominion over their children, but I know plenty who come close. 🙂

Real talk, though.

At the top of Samoa’s cultural set of values is fa’aaloalo – respect. We learn from a very young age to defer to anyone who is older than us, and then to truly honor the parents who feed, clothe, house, teach and have often sacrificed for us.

Related to fa’aaloalo is our concept of tautua, or service. For most Samoans, an underlying philosophy in our family structure is that children serve their parents…forever. Until recently, it was almost unheard of for Samoan elderly to go to rest or retirement homes. It’s more likely they would live out their lives with one of their children – usually their eldest daughter, whose siblings would help with the financial cost of their parents’ care. 

The idea is, if you’re a loving, obedient child who takes good care of your parents, when you become a parent yourself – the head of your own household – you will then be blessed by the service of your own children.

That’s why you hear some of us joking (but not really joking) about the value of having lots of children to take care of us in our senior years. 

Respect through service

We demonstrate our respect for our elders by treating them basically like royalty.

At mealtimes, not only do our elders (and guests) eat first, they are also waited on by the younger folk… who should always be on hand to fetch a glass of water or to refill a plate of taro or clear used dishes away and bring a bowl of warm soapy water for hand-washing. (Yes. That’s a thing).

I guess I’m old enough now to have experienced a little bit of this kind of deferential treatment.

I visited a relative once in Samoa, where an over-abundant feast was laid out in front of me and a child sat nearby fanning away the flies as I ate. When I was full (and had washed my hands in the soapy water bowl), to my surprise and embarrassment, this young boy called his little sister over and they both made a meal of my leftovers. I wish I’d known to leave more food for them.

Of course, it’s not just around food that we show respect for our elders.

Etiquette in the presence of our elders

For Samoans who move to western countries, one source of culture shock is hearing how some children talk to their parents. Oh my gosh. I know this is also true for many other ethnicities, but if a Samoan child forgets to edit the attitude out of the voice she’s directing at her parents? Oi solé, she better know how to bob and weave.  

Respect for our elders is also demonstrated through our body language. If you’re sitting on the floor (as Samoans often like to), make sure your legs are never extended out with feet pointing at…well, anyone really. Your feet are considered unclean, so only wave them around at people if you want to insult them. 

When you’re speaking with an elder and he or she is sitting, make sure you’re sitting down, too. Towering over someone you’re talking to comes across as confrontational – like you’re trying to start a fight. You don’t want to do that with someone you’re supposed to respect. 

Living our culture in a western world

Here’s another story. 

A Samoan woman and her brother – both in their 60s – while on holiday in the United States, were invited to their nephew’s home for dinner one evening.

With great enthusiasm, this nephew ushered them to the dining table then went to the kitchen to help his wife finish preparing the meal.

It was an open plan living area, so he talked with his aunt and uncle as he cooked, telling them that he was making burritos from a recipe his friend gave him.

Then, as his elders watched, he grabbed half a tortilla, filled it with the meat he was stirring and popped it in his mouth – to taste it, of course.

His aunt and uncle were appalled, but out of love for their nephew, did their best that night to hide their disappointment.

Can you spot what went wrong?

~ Let me give you a minute to think about it ~

So…

From a Samoan perspective, it was a few things:

  • If you’re going to have a conversation with your elders who are seated, sit down.
  • If you’re going to eat something, especially while your elders are around, sit down.
  • Your elders should ALWAYS eat first.

This story illustrates what can happen when people who are from the same ethnicity don’t practice the same customs anymore. The nephew just didn’t know (or had forgotten?) this particular protocol, unwittingly offending his elders. 

Can you see how easy it is for conflict to arise in immigrant or bi-cultural families? With parents trying to hold on to their cultural values while adapting to a new way of life? 

But then, whenever we talk about how something should be done in a culture, it’s always going to be up for debate. 

Not everybody’s family practices our culture the same way. Not everyone agrees with how our culture’s values are demonstrated. Some of our traditions don’t seem relevant anymore, especially when we don’t live in a community of Samoans.

I think that’s okay. Culture is about people, and people evolve.

Sometimes we just have to decide for ourselves which parts of our Samoan heritage we think are important and beautiful enough to embrace. 

It’s my sincere hope that we choose to keep our respect and love for our elders, because if we’re lucky, we’ll one day be part of the oldest generation of our own families

One thought on “How Samoans treat their elders

  1. Great read. Nicely composed with an extreme example out of disrespect and dishonor. lol and please if you have to pick and choose which part of our culture to live by. don’t choose to dilute our culture and our way of life or we lose being Samoan.

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