(Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi, Opening Remarks, 5th Pacific Regional Conference on Disability, Tanoa Tusitala Hotel, Apia, Samoa, 21 February 2017)
On behalf of the government and people of Samoa, I welcome you to Samoa. It is my privilege to offer these opening remarks. I have chosen to focus my remarks on two points: a point about inclusivity and about idiosyncrasy. The two, in this context, are inter-related.
Thank you for bearing with me as I first gave my opening remarks in Samoan. I did that to underline the point that building an inclusive and equitable Pacific for persons with disabilities includes ensuring that our messages catch our local idiosyncracies and idioms. This is best conveyed in our local languages.
I focus specifically on the theme of inclusiveness. In Samoan, inclusiveness may be worded: “Aua ne’i faasino’esea” – which literally means, “to not exclude”.
There are many ways by which one can exclude or avoid exclusion. You can exclude by word, by look, by voice or by body language: by the way you blow your nose or stamp your feet.
In the Samoan language, we have a saying: “Pele i upu, pele i ‘ai, pele i foliga, pele i aga”. This means that if something is precious (pele) to us, it or they would not be excluded. Evidence of this is found in our words (pele i upu), our behaviour (pele i aga), in the food we share (pele i ‘ai), and/or by our facial expressions (pele i foliga).
This ‘pele’ environment is an environment of joy,love and compassion. By contrast, an exclusive environment is one where ‘pele’ is absent or lacking.
In the Samoan culture to be excluded by others in society is bad enough, but to exclude yourself by personal choice is worse.
I want to illustrate with an anecdote. It’s about a great uncle of mine whose name I won’t mention. He was old and lame and single.
One day, he told the leader of the ‘aumaga i.e. the young men’s guild, to invite the ‘aumaga to one of the houses in the village compound and to await his return from proposing a suit of marriage to the Pastor’s daughter.
The next morning, my great uncle went to the Pastor’s house and asked for the daughter’s hand in marriage. The Pastor responded, “We are highly honored but with respect, we cannot decide for her. We’ll ask her to come and you can ask her yourself.”
The girl came and my great uncle proposed. The girl responded, “You are a great chief and entitled to marry one of the geat ladies of the land. In all humility, I am not worthy to be your partner.”
There was a long toing and froing, from about 8 o’clock in the morning until 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The young lady would not budge and my great uncle decided it was time for closure. His mind wondered how he was going to handle his predicament. On the one hand, there was the Pastor and his family, and on the other, there was the ‘aumaga waiting for him to report back.
He looked across the Pastor’s house and saw a paepae (a stone formation where a house once stood). He went and stood on the paepae, turned his back on the girl, the Pastor, his wife, and their family, and raised his lavalava and called out, “Can you tell me what the time is!?”
He then headed for the house where the ‘aumaga were gathered. When he got there and sat down, the head of the ‘aumaga asked, “How did you fare?” He responded, “Pity me! The girl rejected my offer of marriage.”
In those days, to reject an offer of marriage by an important chief is a serious matter. It reflects not only on the person of the chief, but also on the family – immediate and extended; on the mana of their genealogy and history.
The challenge for the leader of the ‘aumaga and the ‘aumaga was, how to do damage control? How do you appease and pacify the humiliation of rejection?
They opted for singing, dancing and making light comedy of what had happened.
One of the roles of the ‘aumaga is to protect the image of their matai and most importantly, to secure peace within the village.
In the village context the girl had ‘faasino’ese’ or marginalised my great uncle by turning down his marriage proposal. He and his village had to protect him/himself from feeling so aggrieved that he would opt to ‘faasino’ese’ or exclude himself and his family from the village and the church.
One of the principal imperatives of village fiafia or festivities was to ensure inclusiveness of all, including the disabled. This was often done through song and dance. The lame, the one-eyed, the blind, the disfigured, were welcomed not excluded. They were the star performers – through fun and comedy they showed everyone how their affiliction need not marginalise them in society. Their performance was a prayer for inclusiveness: “Dear God, do not exclude me, for I find my refuge and redemption in accepting my affliction.”
When the taualuga (the final dance and climax of the evening) is performed, the taupou and the manaia perform, and everyone joins in, the old, the young, the abled and disabled. If the sun is hot and the small stones sharp, everyone would move to inside a house, or to beneath the shade of a tree. The main point of the exercise is to celebrate and demand inclusiveness.
I conclude with a quote from Christ which to me celebrates inclusiveness: “Amen. I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
I wish you an enjoyable and productive conference.