Monday, March 13, 2006
Whilst staying on Manono I had the opportunity to learn a little about the nature of village politics and the role that matai play in the management of family and village affairs. Leota (pictured here) is a matai (chief) of his village and also the head of his aiga (extended family). He was more than happy to explain his responsibilities to both his family and his village and village politics more generally.
Leota was absent from his house for most of Saturday as he was busy attending his village's monthly fono ale nu'u (literally "meeting for the village"). Once a month the villagers meets to discuss (at length) any and all issues until a satisfactory outcome is reached. The nature of the discussion during these meetings is to avoid direct confrontation. Typically everyone will talk around an issue until a consensus or majority view is reached.
After the fono ale nu'u finished, Leota and all the other matai held another meeting to elect a new head matai for the village. The previous chief matai passed away in February and it was time to appoint someone in the position. Leota spoke only a little of the nature of the role but made it clear that the head matai effectively held the power of veto for any issue discussed during a fono ale nu'u. It would seem that this power is rarely used; any head matai who decides against the majority view too many times may well find themselves stripped of their position.
The head matai represents only one aspect of the village’s power structure, a largely intra-village focused one. The pulenu'u is a matai who has been selected to represent the village in all broader affairs, typically regional and national government driven. The best analogy we have in Australia is that of the town mayor. The head matai is normally not elected as the pulenu’u.
The fono ale nu’u exists to provide an arena for everyone to raise their concerns and discuss village business but specific village responsibilities fall upon a number of different committees. In this way the business of managing the village is shared amongst all of its inhabitants. The women’s committee, known as the aualuma, typically discuss beautification projects for the village and fundraising activities. Married and unmarried women over the age of 21 (or younger but out of school) attend these meetings. The aumaga or taulealea is the young men’s committee, where all untitled men over the age of 21 are typically responsible for managing the village’s plantations and other labour intensive tasks (fishing, grass cutting, etc., preparing umu). I’ve already mentioned the matai-only meetings that take place.
The hierarchy within villages would appear quite established. Leota certainly gave the impression that such is the case. However, as most of the village’s business is determined through consultation and communally reached decisions, there seems little opportunity for strongly individualistic behaviour. The pulenu’u or head matai for example, are going to find it difficult to exploit their positions for personal gain.
There would seem little to indicate that this manner of managing village business is going to change much in Samoa for a while. It is really only in Apia that there is a weakening of these structures. The main reason for this would be that many of people here only live in Apia because of work obligations. Even so, many return home to their own villages over the weekend, where their social and community responsibilities still lie.