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Ifoga: Samoan Atonement

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Samoan culture has strict ways of showing respect to one another, and the ifoga (pronounced ee-FONG-ah) is perhaps the best example of the severity of atoning for one's wrongdoing. The ifoga is a ritual apology where the offending party demonstrates remorse by begging for forgiveness.

Pandanus.JPGBefore dawn, the guilty party arrives at the home of the person whom he has offended and kneels outside the home. An important part of the ifoga is the fine mat, or 'ie toga, considered of the highest value in Samoan culture (pictured at right). Ie Toga.jpg'Ie toga (ee-ah TONG-ah) are woven with pandanus leaves (pictured at left) and take months, if not years, to complete. Fine mats represent the wealth of the weavers' community and are presented as gifts. 'Ie toga are so labor-intensive that they will never be used on the floor. Once those receiving ifoga have forgiven the guilty party, they accept the 'ie toga as a symbol of the atonement and forgiveness. Regardless of any legal action taken by a court, the ifoga remains an essential part of Samoan culture as a demonstration of sincere remorse and respect. More information is available from Samoan Sa'o and Te Papa Online.

On February 20 Samoan police presented ifoga to the family of a 69-year-old man who was killed by a police officer who was driving away from Salelologa Market on Savai'i Island. The family accepted the ifoga and the police officer will also stand trial for the crime.

In 1976 the Samoan ifoga came close to Seacology's Bay Area home. In early September of that year Herb Caen, the famous San Francisco Chronicle columnist who coined the term "beatnik" and wrote in 'three-dot journalism," angered the entire Bay Area Samoan community.

Children at the Falealupo Rainforest School, SamoaThe project that originally launched Seacology took place in Falealupo, Samoa and has remained a wonderful example of Seacology's win-win strategy. In the early 1990s the Samoan government told this remote village that if they did not build a better school, teachers would be removed and their children would not be educated. Having no other source of revenue, the villagers sold logging rights to their rainforests. Before this could happen, however, Seacology co-founder and chairman Paul Cox worked with the village chiefs and raised the funds for the school in exchange for a covenant protecting the 30,000 acre rainforest. The Falealupo Rainforest School was constructed, and since that time Seacology has had a close relationship with the village.

Carvings from various types of wood can be found throughout the world. The four examples from the Seacology office that follow are from Palau, Vanuatu, Samoa and the Solomon Islands.

OfficeArt10.jpgTraditional Palauan Storyboard: Presented to Seacology by Chief Urong Victor Joseph of Ollei Village, Babeldaob, Palau. Carvings such as this were traditionally found on bai, or the beams of the men's club houses, but under the influence of Japanese artists during the Japanese occupation of Palau, the depiction of these stories was transferred to a smaller portable board.

Breadfruit: A Symbol of Island Life

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Breadfruit trees (Artocarpus altilis) can grow to 65 feet and produce round, heavy fruit for 50 years. 'Ulu, as we call it in Hawai'i, is found on many islands around the world, and its large, glossy leaves with small bumps are a common Hawaiian quilt pattern (below). The skin of the large fruit is green and bumpy, the flesh starchy and white or pale yellow.

Breadfruit Quilt Pattern.jpgAs a food, breadfruit (always cooked) is common throughout the Pacific. When I studied in Samoa, breadfruit was served every day in the cafeteria, prepared boiled--and very bland. In contrast, roasted breadfruit (either cooked in a modern oven or the traditional underground oven) is delicious, and in Samoa the fruit is used as a vehicle for palusami, coconut milk and onions in taro leaf. This dish is one of the things I miss most about Samoa.

Polynesians share many similar cultural traits, from language and music to family structure. One of the most sacred of Polynesian traditions, the kava ceremony, is also one of the most well-known. Tasting like a wet dish towel to my unrefined palette, kava is a relaxant which was banned in 2003 by several countries because of medical concerns. A recent push to lift that ban (Fiji Times article, September 24) and a new University of Hawai'i study (Honolulu Advertiser article by Dan Nakaso, September 22) brings kava back into the news. Despite these developments, it is the tradition of the kava ceremony that interests me most.

Kava has many names: 'ava in Samoa, 'awa in Hawai'i, yaqona in Fiji, and sakau in Micronesia. The drink is made from the ground root of the pepper plant Piper methysticum. The root, a long beige stick about 2 inches in diameter, is ground to a pulp and then massaged in a sack made from coconut fiber and mixed with water to make the juice. The drink is collected in a wooden bowl with legs and one uses a half-coconut shell to scoop the liquid.