Where aunts and uncles are called parents
On the super-laid-back Pacific islands of Tonga and Samoa, the extended family is everyone’s social insurance system.
In many countries, you have to go out of your way to find something you think is authentic; in Samoa it is always close.
Walking through a village, I stumble on a tattoo session: a boy of 16 is getting his pe’a, the authentic tattoo from waist to knee. Tapping away at a block of needles while his assistants wipe away blood, the artist stretches the skin of his victim with his dirty toes.
Seeing my disapproving gaze, he waves cheerfully at a bottle of alcohol and extremely filthy rag. Getting such a large tattoo takes weeks and is extremely painful, while the large risk of infection is sometimes fatal. But it is also joyful, marking the transition from boy to man. It also strengthens the identity of young people torn between their love of the western life of Nikes and Big Macs and the strict mores of extended families and their matai (chiefs). They want nothing more than to show that they deserve respect.
Others may have no real choice in the matter, like Joanna who works at our beach resort. “One day I was working in the kitchen and my grandfather called me and said that it was my time,” she says. “I lay groaning in pain for six hours while the tattoo artist worked on my legs. Every 16 or 17-year-old girl in our family gets them.
They are typical for women, the men get totally different designs.” Women only have their upper legs done and hers are adorned with plants, flowers and shells. Is she happy with them? She shrugs her shoulders. “I have no choice but to like them. But it amazes me that more and more tourists come to Samoa for a pe’a. All the designs have a specific meaning for Samoans.”