One of the absolute highlights of our recent Future Leaders of the Pacific Conference was the presence of His Highness Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi, the Head of State of Samoa. Accompanied by his charming wife, Her Highness Masiofo Filifilia Tamasese, His Highness not only opened the proceedings with a powerful keynote address but also participated in group discussions and social interactions with the youth delegates throughout the 3-day conference. His extraordinary generosity with his time uplifted the conference and inspired the delegates.

His Highness is one of the most impressive people I’ve met. As I learned when my presentation of credentials evolved into a 2-hour discussion of philosophy, religion, and psychosocial cultural influences, he has a sharp intellect, voracious curiosity, and great instinct for weaving seemingly unrelated matters together in insightful ways. Rather than paraphrase or summarize his conference address, I reprint it below for your enjoyment. It weaves together themes of self-reliance, cultural authenticity, core values, education, and enlightened leadership from a uniquely Samoan perspective.

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Le so’ofau o le poto ma le faautauta / Transforming intelligence into good judgement


Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi
Head of State of Samoa

Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi,  Head of State of Samoa. Click through for image source.

Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi, Head of State of Samoa.

Let me begin with a story about two canaries.

There were two canaries holding conversation one day. One was inside the cage and the other outside. The canary inside said, “I have the best deal in the world. I have three meals a day. I’m cuddled and cosseted. I get blankets in winter. I also have a vet that attends to my health. What have you got to say for yourself?” The canary outside replied, “Man, I fly!”

This story was told to me by Jimmy Baxter, one of New Zealand’s finest poets many years ago.  It stuck with me. And, as I read President Obama’s inauguration speech only a few days ago, I thought again of it and reflected that fundamentally our job as leaders is to find our way through the perennial dilemmas of progress and soul implicit in this story and Obama’s address.

Admittedly, we will not transform ideas into meaningful policy or action with smart retorts. We need to carefully and continually probe our premises, fundamentals, values, and visions.  We need to understand our biases and prejudices, strengths and weaknesses.  We must have languages and ways of doing, teaching and knowing that can speak to our minds and souls. We must be able to know when to adapt the old or take on the new; when to learn from our mistakes and share our successes.  And we must do all this with humility and the right tools.  It is this kind of careful deliberate continual searching (the tofa saili), and building and re-building of our foundations, that will allow us to fly.

I am patron of the Commonwealth’s Emerging Pacific Leaders Dialogue (EPLD) group.  Their aims are the same as yours.  In my addresses to the EPLD I have stressed the importance of indigenous culture, identity and history to our models of Pacific leadership.  It is equally important here.  We need as Pacific nations to rediscover the great feats of our forebears, particularly when we seem to be overwhelmed by globalisation and alien heroes.   We need to celebrate their heroic and epic achievements as reference for our own development moving into the future.

The inheritance of the traditional Samoan building guild or tufuga faufale offers a rich source and framework for probing the challenges of Samoan or Pacific leadership.  I wish to share with you some of my reflections on their legacy.

Tufuga faufale – the companions of kings

The honorific for the tufuga faufale is “o le agai o tupu”, meaning “the companion of kings” (translation mine; also used by Te Rangi Hiroa, 1930, n.p; Kramer uses the term “artisan of the king”, 1995: p.278).  The word agai can mean, if you did something good to me and I want to reciprocate, I, as a chief, would say, “ia fai le mea e agai le faaaloalo” (give this in reciprocity).  Agai in this context is a verb used in chiefly deferential speech.  In Pratt’s dictionary of Samoan he translates it: 1. as a noun, “attendants on a chief”; and 2. as a verb, “to have work paid for” (p.67).  The term agai is an abbreviation of feagai (“to correspond”, Pratt, p.152) or faafeagai (to be on good terms, Pratt, p.114; i.e. to be equals).

The term tupu means origin or source.  It implies that leadership is the origin or source of good things.  As the companions of tupu, the tufuga faufale are given sacred status in the village and the district.  He shares with the commissioning chief a common mission, which is to ensure that they create a good outcome and do right by each other.  They recognise that their undertaking is not only with each other but also with their God, the ultimate source of all goodness.

In traditional times if a tufuga faufale was unhappy with how he was cared for and/or resourced he was entitled to leave the building work unfinished.  In modern discourse one might say, as Te Rangi Hiroa notes, he could go on strike.  If this happened shame would befall the commissioning chief and his family and a tapu or curse would impose itself on the work.  Moreover, as Kramer notes, no other tufuga faufale would dare complete the work for fear of bringing malady upon himself.  Careful preparations would thus be essential on the part of the commissioning chief to ensure that he had sufficient resources (material and human) to meet the likely professional and personal needs of the tufuga faufale.

Equally, the tufuga faufale had a responsibility to perform his role to the best of his ability.  He simply could not underperform and still expect to receive high honour.  Both the tufuga faufale and the commissioning chief has a sacred duty to do right by each other and to their legacies as creators and sources of good things.  This relationship between the tufuga faufale and the commissioning chief offers a useful metaphor for the way in which funders and providers in modern economies work together.

Samoan Head of State Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese delivering the opening leadership address to the delegates.

His Highness delivers his keynote address.

Two building metaphors common to traditional Samoan house-building is worth exploring some more.  The first is the “fau” found in the word so’ofau (meaning to join together) and the second is uta from the word “faautauta” (meaning to consider carefully).

Fau/soofau, uta/faautauta

In traditional Samoan house-building the word fau is used often.  It can refer to the wood of the beach hibiscus or hibiscus tiliaceus tree commonly found on our tropical Pacific shorelines.  Additionally, in builder’s-speak, it can loosely refer to curved or arched purlins in the way that Kramer records.  In illustration I draw on part of a conversation between a tufuga faufale and commissioning chief as recorded by Kramer.  This excerpt highlights the importance of the fau to traditional Samoan house-building and to the notion of so’ofau or the joining of something together.

Ona toe fai atu lea ‘o le tufuga: E lelei ona tatou ō e tā mai ni fau o tala.  Ona ō lea ‘ua tā fau.  Ona ‘ave ifo lea ‘o fau, ‘ua soso’o.  Ona fai atu lea ‘o le tufuga i le ali’i: ‘O a taeao e ‘ave a’e ai fau i luga.” / “It is well we will now go and cut the big arched purlins for the round part.  So they go and cut the arched purlins.  They bring the pieces down and lash them.  Then the carpenter says to the chief: Tomorrow we will put up the large arch purlins” (Kramer, 1995, p.271).

In this excerpt Kramer raises evidence of the origins of the word “so’ofau”.  Milner suggests that soso’o means “to join (several things) up” (p.215).  To say “so’ofau” one deliberately seeks to bring to mind two things.  1. The act of joining together fau wood or purlins; and 2. the act of joining wood or purlins using the cordial bast from the fau tree as lashing.  In both cases the fau acts as the figurative vehicle for transporting the nuances of “so’ofau” as suggested in the title of my talk.  The word “uta” in “faautauta” operates in a similar way.

In house building terms uta can mean 1. a heavy load or 2. an opinion or judgment.  Both Pratt (1893) and Milner (1993) record the saying: “‘Ua i ai le uta i lāu tofā”, which Milner translates into English as “the opinion or judgment is with you the tulafale (p.74).  Uta as the wisdom of the tulafale derives from the name given to their specific wisdom, which is faautaga loloto.  Because tofā in the above saying is used as an honorific to address the tulafale, it is correct.  However, one has to be careful not to confuse use of it with the tofā or wisdom of the tamalii.  There are cultural subtleties here that are easily confused when one is not familiar with the rules, premises and idiosyncrasies of the Samoan language and its various registers.  Today there is significant confusion over the use of the term tofā.  Our forebears went out of their way to demarcate the roles of a tulafale and tamalii.  If you will indulge me it is important to explain the philosophical premises of this demarcation a little more.

When referring to the concept of wisdom the foundational reference in the faasamoa is found in the saying, “Samoa o le atunuu tofi, meaning Samoa is a country, culture and people whose origins, roles and responsibilities have been divinely designated.  The tofi (origin, role, responsibility) of the tulafale, although complementary to that of the tamalii, is different. They hold the wisdom of the deep view of the here and now.  This is faautaga loloto.  The tamalii hold the long view relevant for finding and maintaining peace and prosperity.  This difference in tofi is evidenced in ritual performance, i.e. in language, gesture, intonation and seating order.

For example, with regards to languaging and intonation, in the traditional ava ceremony the faasoa ava or master of ceremony when it is time to distribute the ava roots would call: “…o le ava sa faagagasua, o le ava sa tofā i le maota, o le tugase sa moe i laoa” ([the ava to be distributed are] ava that have been set aside for special guests, they are ava that have both rested in the residence of the tamalii and in the residence of the tulafale).  When the tautu delivers the ava cup to a tamalii he delivers it using a forehand gesture (as in tennis).  When he delivers to a tulafale he delivers using a backhand gesture.

This difference carries over into the language used to describe their sleep, i.e. the sleep of the tulafale is moe; the sleep of the tamalii is tofā.  Distinguishing their sleep in this way again underlines the point that their wisdoms are not the same; that they do not share the same tofi.  These are highly critical distinctions.  In contemporary times these philosophical premises are not well understood or are deliberately ignored and as such there has arisen a lot of confusion over the use of tofa and uta.  To avoid this confusion it is necessary today to add to Pratt’s recording of the saying, “Ua i ai le uta i lau tofā” the words “le tulafale” at the end so as to read “Ua i ai le uta i lau tofā le tulafale.

To return to the context of building, I remember probing Fao Isaia, one of my mentors and one of Asau’s master tufuga faufale in his day, about the meanings and origins of words such as faautauta. In response to a question I asked about taking accurate measures, he said, “Ia e faauta lelei (You must discern and assess properly)”.  He explained the need to use the judgment of the eye in tandem with other measures such as the arms and hands.  Before the introduction of measuring tapes and other metric instruments, the senses and body were core tools for the traditional tufuga faufale.

For example, eye measurements used were called fua’isisila, the length of arms was gagafa, the length from the elbow to the fingertips was fatulogonoa, from the wrist to fingertips was laui’a, and so on.  The accuracy of these traditional measurements depended on the tufuga faufale being able to adequately bring together his various estimations.  Of course trial and error helped to hone the tufuga faufale’s knowledge of what fits.  But a lot also depended on his own artistic and architectural talents and his understanding of building conditions including possible weather or seasonal concerns that could affect successful completion.  This was something that the commissioning chief had also to be mindful of.  It’s here that you can feel the rub in the old Samoan sayings: “fa’i o le mana’o ae o le mafai” (it’s one thing to want, it’s another to deliver), or “fa’i o le upu ae o le faatino” (it’s one thing to say, it’s quite another to do).

This demand for careful and accurate discernment and assessment placed a duty on both the tufuga faufale and the commissioning chief to ensure that they do right by each other by equipping themselves sufficiently to be able to meet their respective demands.  Both men carry a heavy load or uta of responsibility.  The decisions they make must be considered carefully, like the turning of heavy logs as in the saying “liuliu faalaau mamafa le mataupu”.  The whole point about liuliu here is that for leaders decision-making is no easy task, it’s a heavy responsibility, so you have to consider the problem very carefully, like the turning of heavy logs.  Thus the saying: liuliuina o le tofa ma le faautaga: a tamalii and tulafale must turn or deliberate carefully over core issues of concern in order to gain a consensus of minds and spirits.  Failure to do so has obvious consequences for both.

The way of searching for this consensus is through faaaloalo (a spirit and code of mutual courtesy), expressed in respectful gestures and allusory language.  This ensures that the environment of discussion between them, between their long and deep views, is not disruptively confrontational or adversarial.  The tulafale and tamalii share an onus and responsibility to respect this code and to (ultimately) find accommodation.  Of course in traditional times there were shenanigans as people vied for power or status, and a balance was not always immediately found.  Nevertheless, the point I am making is that tamalii and tulafale of old operated within this specific cultural reference.  Moving forward we need to decide its relevance to us today and into the future.

Samoan Head of State Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese with three of the delegates after the opening remarks at the Future Leaders of the Pacific Conference in Pago Pago.

His Highness mingles with delegates between sessions of the conference.

Like our traditional navigators, our tufuga faufale are part of our list of great heroes, whose successes and talents are worth celebrating and learning from.  We can be proud of their ingenuity, intelligence and skill.  As Kramer in the early 1900s observed:

“As to the architecture of the Samoan house, it may well be listed among the most beautiful ever found among primitive people, which deserves all the more recognition since today as in former times not one minute piece of iron is used but all parts are lashed together.  Even when the houses are constructed on a large scale that practice does not work out to their disadvantage; their lines are always artistic and well arranged.  Already the earliest visitors were impressed and all of them noted with pleasure that staying in such a house which is open on all sides and whose high roof provides excellent protection against the sun, is very refreshing and beneficial, all the more since painstaking orderliness and cleanliness… prevails within” (1995, p.260).

We must be careful not to boast, however, in vanity for as another delightful building-related saying goes: “Ua sagisagi fua le vinavina, ‘a ‘ua gau le matavana!”, the message of which is we must make sure the tools we boast of actually works otherwise our boasting is like the broken drill borer that drills in vain.

To transform a vision into policy and policy into practice and gain the desired results, your task as future leaders is to find the right tools, know how to use them so that they don’t break, and then use them wisely to bring to life those ideas, policies, actions and outcomes that can please both the eye and the soul.

My final comments offer some reflections on the promise of education.

The promise of education

Nelson Mandela tells us that education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.  Today the medium and measure of education in the Pacific has moved beyond the formal classroom to include the technologies of the village and the internet.  The main problem in the Pacific Islands as I see it is loss: increasing loss of land due to the effects of rising sea levels; loss of language due to stagnant language use; loss of identity and community belonging through growing individualising assimilationist technologies; and loss of a spiritual intimacy with the environment. There is significant effort by many today to recoup this loss and some good progress is being made.  Education, i.e. the enterprise of teaching and learning, is central to this effort.

The kind of education I speak of here is that implicit in the title of my talk, “Le soofau o le poto ma le faautauta”/“Transforming intelligence into good judgment”.  It is education that comes about by a blending of faafaletui (i.e. teaching and learning through open and focused dialogue, e.g. the teaching and learning of a mentor with a mentee) and faafailele (i.e. teaching and learning through close and loving nurturing, such as that given by a mother to a newborn child).  In both cases there is the kind of sharing that seeks growth and progress.

Mason Durie (2005) in a probing paper on race and ethnicity in public policy in Aotearoa, New Zealand, suggests that education is a central tool in meeting both personal and public goals.  He draws our attention to the way in which modern governance can be selective in the application of its tools or measures for assessing equity and rights.  He makes two key points worth reflecting on.

First, ethnicity is a measure that draws meaning because people still live in ethno-cultural groups; they still subscribe to ethno-cultural values and practices; and they still hold dear the identities, histories and languages of their parents, families and ancestors.  Because of all this ethnicity must be utilised alongside other measures including socio-economic status.  Not to do so would not only distort policy, but more importantly make implementing it frustratingly difficult if not impossible.

Second, in order to address deprivation within a community the realities (or the deep view) and the vision (or long view) must be assessed and the findings must inform the set up of programmes, such as affirmative action programmes, with its aims of building professional practitioners and leaders who not only have academic merit but also the capability to help society achieve its public goals.  In relation to affirmative action programmes Mason Durie warns: “It is both simplistic and short-sighted to define merit solely on the academic merits of individual students in isolation of other students or the institution’s [or nation’s] broader social goals” (Durie, 2005, p.8).

The academy is without doubt a key institution for the development of our future Pacific leaders.  In the Pacific the university is now considered the place for higher learning and a university education a pre-requisite not only for gaining leadership status but also the salary that usually comes with it.  Bernard Narokobi has famously said that the University of Melanesia is “the ancient, timeless, eternal” / “The village” / “where courses are offered in living” (1983, n.p.).  This is true.  But so too is the truth of having to blend our village references with that of the global environment.

In the disciplinary field of formal education, Linda Smith, another of Aotearoa’s prominent Maori scholars and teachers, offers us good advice about how to achieve this blend.  Her intimate knowledge of the conditions that leaders face when applying measures and tools in the modern educational environment allows us to see how crucial it is that we not only learn the languages and models of the governing system but also those of our villages.  With reference to building a community of Pacific researchers that can “transcend all the small stuff” she plugs quite rightly for a community that can establish direction and possibilities “for their own research, that allows for different kinds of collaborations and synergies to be formed, that protects the role of critique and questioning of the status quo but also encourages the interrogation of new ways of knowing, of analysis and reflection” (Smith, 2004, p.6).  She reminds us that today education is a “corporate institution” whose philosophical, theological and cultural orientation can and has been bent to meet that of the dominant culture.  In the set up of programmes for the development of Maori scholars and leaders she shows us that this orientation can be brought our way, it can even embrace our ways, if we learn to understand its markers and drivers and learn to do so with faaaloalo and alofa, with a humility, respect and love for our common humanity.

Like the legacy of the tufuga faufale, Pacific scholars such as Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck) have paved a clear pathway for how we can find le sootaga o le poto ma le faautauta.  Te Rangi Hiroa is particularly pertinent here because not only was he a recipient of a government scholarship deliberately designed to recruit Maori to become doctors of medicine but he also wrote a superb account, in 1930 no less, of Samoan house-building in his book on Samoan material culture.  There is a subtle but distinct difference in his rendering from that of the meticulous German ethnographer, Augustin Kramer.  The difference lies in their grasp of the Polynesian cultural orientation or nuance.

The promise of education is the ability to discern the difference between poto or intelligence and faautauta i.e. good judgment.  It is the promise of transformation, the ability to transform our losses to gains through prudent application.

 Listening to Samoan Head of State Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese talking with youth delegates.

His Highness makes a point during one of the small-group break-out sessions at the conference.


I wish to end my address by returning to the canaries.  In this case, the discovery of the Canary Islands, a few hundred miles off the coast of Africa.  When Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa raised the point that Pacific Islanders had found every inhabitable island in the Pacific, most of which were comparatively small and spread over waters that spanned more than one quarter of the globe by the time the Europeans discovered the Canary Islands in 1336, he forced us to recognise that we have in our histories a history of progressiveness.

And, when Bernard Narokobi passionately urged us to look more deeply into our village knowledges and ways of doing things, he is telling us to take stock and look carefully for if we do we will find that in our villages we are self-reliant and helpful and have always been, we are civilised and progressive and have always been, that we do have and have always had core values that have nurtured our spirits and allowed us to ‘fly’.

Yes, despite the odds, we have ‘flown’ the seas and discovered new shores, built great houses with functionality and beauty, and influenced languages and visions, and we can still do all this and more.  But in saying this, we must be careful, we must faauta lelei, because all this progress and intelligence means little if we cannot see the value of continually searching for that right blend that can transform and connect all this progress with what is core to the soul.  This is the imperative and challenge of decolonisation.

The dilemma of Jimmy Baxter’s two canaries is the dilemma of decolonisation.  In this dilemma there is no one right answer.  There are many answers; many ways of addressing whether the canary ought to stay in the cage or risk flying outside. The answers depend, as Mason says, on who you’re asking and where they’re coming from.

The dilemma of the Mau is also the dilemma of decolonisation.  When Samoa was fighting for independence from colonial governance they sang of being taken by surprise by the sudden appearance of foreign warships.  They sang of having to stay composed in spite of childish provocation.  They sang of the cultural difference of orientation and measure.  And they sang that despite all this there is in the end a common destiny.

Samoa e ua te’i, ua taunuu mai vaatau

(Samoa we were taken by surprise, all of a sudden these boats appear)

Le alii Komatoa e lua ona Manuao

(There was a Commodore and his two warships)

Aumai le vaegaau mai Niu Sila, ia Faauma si a ta Mau

(Bringing in troops from New Zealand to abolish the Mau)

E ui ina e avaavau, ae lava lou mafaufau

(Even though you are spoiling for a fight, I stay composed)

Ua iloa ai lou valea, ua e oso i le fia tau

(Which shows foolishness, resorting to fighting without good cause)

Ua ou fuatia nei oe i le fua faatautau

(For this I measure you by the ordinary scales used in our stores)

E mamasania lou tino e pei o se laulaau

(You diminish yourself to the status of a mere leaf)

Sa fai nei le tuligasi’a

(There was this chase)

Na tuli ai o le malo o Niu Sila

(By the forces of New Zealand)

Ua taamilomilo i le lagi tuaiva

(Around the environs of the ninth heaven)

Oi a ta pa’u a ta lili’a i le fia maua o se gogosina

(Oh I may fall because of vertigo in my search for the feathers of the white tern)

Talofa i lenei seu mataina

(Pity this search which is so exposed to risk)

Na o le talanoa i le alofa i le Mau

(We are reduced to talk in sympathy for the Mau)

Ua na taitai le vaega’au, se’i saili alalafaga o le Mau

(He who leads the troops to the hide-out of the Mau)

O alii Niu Sila e le tumau e iai o se aso e toe folau

(The New Zealand troops will not stay for one day they will sail away)

Ae ta nonofo lava ai i lo ta nuu tumau.

(And we are left to share our homeland).

The message of my talk is that to transform our knowledges and practices we have to tap into this indigenous spirit of insight, common destiny and progressive self-reliance and use it, alongside other relevant knowledges and practices, to guide us into the future.  We need to know that despite the odds what we have is special and that with prudence we can continue to hone it so that it remains relevant for us now and in years to come.  As Pacific leaders we need to know our tofi, our designations in life, and we need to have the humility to faithfully act upon them.  President Obama’s words are poignant here:  “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.”


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His Highness’ intricate weaving of themes was a perfect way to open the conference and stimulate the delegates to think creatively while drawing on their own histories and experiences. I know from the dynamic conversations that ensued that the delegates appreciated, valued, and were inspired by the Head of State’s wise, nuanced call to action. As was I.