How to Serve Tea to a Samoan Chief – and Why it Matters

by | Le Api, The Matai Handbook | 0 comments

You may have noticed. Many Samoan families have a preference for arranging their living rooms in a large, inward-facing oblong or oval formation, with the backs of all the couches and armchairs pushed up against the walls.

If you know anything about life in Samoa, you might guess that this practice is just a remnant of how we’d naturally arrange ourselves at a gathering in a traditional falé (house) – and you’d be correct.

It’s one of the more visible reminders that we carry our culture with us across oceans and generations. Migrant Samoans cling fast to many other, very visible traditions – our tattoos, our music and dance, our abundance of food, our fierce love of family, and so forth.

But some of our customs are harder to spot… They’re often so quietly and subtly executed that they’re easier to miss, especially by younger generations of Samoans, and so we risk losing them. One example is in the simple act of serving hot beverages to our matai – our chiefs.

It comes down to the rank and type of matai – and whether the cuppa is served on a saucer or not. If you’re serving the highest ranking ali’i matai in your family, known as the sa’o, you want to make sure the cup is presented on a saucer… and it doesn’t hurt to take that to him on a tray next to a nice teapot, too. A matai of any other rank – a tulafale or lower ranking ali’i – should be happy to receive their hot drink in a mug without a saucer.

Let’s have a look at what’s going on behind this custom.

Samoan Village Hospitality

One of the most significant rituals in our culture is our ‘ava ceremony, or the sharing of the kava root drink, which is usually performed to welcome guests.

Matai in my family will argue, however, that no ceremony is more uplifting or more iconically Samoan than le ta’iga o le sua, which is performed at the end of a malaga – or when a group from another village visits your village as an organized excursion.

The sua is a series of specific gifts that the host village will present, in a set order, to their guests. These gifts include food – cooked taro and chicken bundled in banana leaves, loaves of bread and a side of beef – plus metres of printed fabric (le la’ei), fine mats and/or tapa cloth (ie toga and siapo), and as much money as the hosts can spare.

With the prominence of these ceremonies – the ‘ava and the sua – you can see how incredibly important hospitality is to Samoans.

Like seriously? We could be amazing hotel and restaurant owners! (Although we’d probably go broke pretty quickly from giving away all our stuff.)


Honouring Hierarchy in our Hospitality

In traditional Samoan villages, every family – as in, the extended family clan – will own a collection of fale (houses). These include a main house, a sleeping house for the young men, a cooking house, and a fale tali malo, or guest house, where the the family entertains its visitors.

Long Guest House (Fale afolau), Samoa, early 20th century, Samoa, maker unknown. Te Papa (O.009502)
Long Guest House (Fale afolau), Samoa, early 20th century, Samoa, maker unknown. Te Papa (O.009502)

A fale tali malo should be at the front of a family’s property, opening out to the village. They are usually oval in shape, and when the family gathers with guests here, the highest ranking matai (chiefs) are given the honour of sitting in front of the main posts (le tala) at each end of the fale.

Kind of like how the head(s) of a house usually sit at each end of a rectangular dining table.

In our ava ceremonies, the type of matai title you hold will determine how the kava drink is served to you. If you are an ali’i (a high chief) your coconut cup of kava will come floating down to you from above the head of the server. For lower ranking chiefs, the drink will come swooping up to you, with the server’s arm moving as if he’s pitching a softball.

Bringing Faasamoa with Us

Today, more Samoans live in single-family, Western style homes than we do in traditional village settings. More of us live outside of Samoa than in, and generations of us are born and raised with very little exposure to what is known as the Samoan way of life.

But many of our customs – especially around love and hospitality – continue to thrive, wherever we go. They’ve just had to adapt (like we do) to our changing times and environment.

An example is how we host guests – especially matai – in our home… or at least, how we’re supposed to. The idea is to offer up the best of what we have.

When Europeans first came to Samoa, we learned that ceramic teapots and cups with handles were far superior to whatever we were drinking from before. For a while, only the wealthiest Samoan families owned them. so they were – of course – brought out only for guests.

To honour our matai system, someone back in the day decided that the saucer (and tray and teapot) were symbols of status that should be reserved only for the highest ranking of our guests – our ali’i matai.

What I find most amusing, though, is that where you seat the visiting matai in your living room matters, too.

We might not have a fale tali malo anymore – open out to the village, supported by significantly placed posts – but we can still arrange our lounge furniture in an oval, decide where the ‘front’ of the formation is, and make sure our guest matai are seated appropriately at either end.