Understanding the Samoan language helps to better understand Samoan culture and values related to pregnancy and childbirth.
Pregnancy and childbirth figure strongly in the indigenous religion of Samoan people. The sacredness of pregnancy and childbirth portrays the need for the baby to be well protected and cared for from conception to birth.
The terms used and rituals employed reflect the spiritual relationship between the child and the cosmos, the child and the land, the child and the older generation (tua’a, matua) or parents (matua), and the child and itself.
Samoan terms related to childbirth
The word fanau means giving birth. It also means children.
The word fanua means the placenta. It also means land.
The word tagata (human) is a combination of two words.
- Taga comes from the spiritual understanding of the deity Tagaloa, the all embracing god.
- Ta means to carve or to create.
- So tagata is the creation, or image, of the all embracing god Tagaloa.
- The birth of a healthy tagata is a blessing from Tagaloa.
The word alo is a term of respect for a child, son or daughter. It is also the word for stomach, womb, or the front part of a person.
- Alo is the root word of alofa (love) and of fa'aaloalo (respect), which literally means ‘face to face’, or ‘front to front’.
- It is commonly used in the biblical term Alo o le Atua, Son of God.
Samoan rituals related to childbirth
There are tapu that govern the safety of a mother and baby during pregnancy. There is a belief that obeying the rules of tapu brings an easy birth, and disobeying brings pain, excessive blood flow during labour and difficulty giving birth.
Samoan indigenous spirituality holds strong beliefs about where a baby’s placenta and umbilical cord should be buried. These beliefs reflect the close connection between human beings and the land, and the connections to one’s identity, belonging and ownership.
Fa'aaloalo and ava
Sustaining these relationships depends on the degree to which one party respects (fa'aaloalo) and honours (ava) the human dignity and integrity of the other party.
Samoan wisdom calls this type of mutual respect and reciprocity between people the ava fatafata, fatafata means one’s chest, or the va fealoaloa’i, meaning the space for face to face.
Without this mutual acceptance of reciprocal honour and respect, human relationships will sever.
These two proverbs are often used in relation to parenting.
O au o matua fanau.
Children are the parents’ liver.
This proverb likens children to an internal organ, the liver, a vital part of a human being’s system. The word au means the liver of an animal or human being. Just as a person needs to protect and care for their liver, so parents need to care for and protect their children.
O fanau a manu e fafaga i fuga o laau, a o tama a tagata e fafaga i upu.
The young of birds are fed with nectar, the children of people are fed with words.
This proverb recommends parents raise their children with words (upu). This implies teaching through face to face conversation, not through physical discipline. The comparison to feeding young birds with nectar suggests teaching children with warm words, encouraging the development of wisdom and strength.