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 matai 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 fale 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 matai 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 ifoga where the family of the original victim will further humiliate the ali’i and his matai by spitting on them or sitting with their backs faced to them. Some ifoga 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 matai, 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

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