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Famed Samoan writer reluctantly accepts traditional honor

By Niccola Hazelman-Siona APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, Jan. 29, 2012) – He is a world renowned award winning poet, novelist and artist, a celebrated academic and now he is a Samoan matai. The village of Malie was bustling on Saturday as one of its better-known sons returned to help in "rebuilding and strengthening our family ties in the village."

Professor Albert Wendt went back to his roots as he was bestowed the title of Maualaivao, something he said he never wanted. "I am 72 years old, I have never had a Saofai (title bestowal), mainly because I have not wanted to have a saofai. Even though I didn’t want to accept the title, because it was going to be a lot of work and stress, I had to accept it," he said.

"Samoan life is very complex and very complicated, and at my age it’s going to be even more difficult. When the elders of my family, especially my aunt who lived here in Malie wanted me to have a title, I would leave the country, my aunt died before she was able to give me a title."

The Wendt family originated from Malie and this is one of the reasons the bestowal was so significant.

"We are the descendants of MaualaivaoFili from Malie."

The descendants are called Wendts because Edward Wendt came to Samoa and married Mauala Fili’s daughter and from that union came the Wendts.

"Our Maualaivao has been vacant for over 10 years. The last Maualaivao was a cousin of mine, Maualaivao John Wendt."

Although reluctant to assume the title, Professor Wendt came anyway in a move to help rebuild the Wendt family in Malie. "Last year, my siblings and I got together and decided we had to rebuild our family. There are very few of our relatives left here in Malie, so it was decided that I was to assume the Maualaivao title. This is the first step towards rebuilding and strengthening our family ties in the village."

Maualaivao Pepe, who spoke on behalf of the extended family, said that choosing the next title holder was not easy as the title cannot just be bestowed on whoever wants one.

"This is our way of honoring Professor Wendt for his contribution; not only to our village but the country as a whole," he said.

"We took into consideration his status and the work he has been doing. He is worthy of cultural recognition, although he is a Professor but he is now a Matai - a title we think is befitting of someone like him. He has the potential to lead."

Professor Wendt said he is committed to serve his family and the village because of the sacrifices made in order for his saofai to take place.

"This saofai has been an enormous stress for me, but it has been a marvelous learning experience. It is a great honor given to me by the village but I also know that there are numerous competitors. I am fascinated with language, and when I hear somebody who uses the language beautifully, it’s very powerful, it’s absolutely wonderful. I think it is a great honor to have a title, but I have never needed a title. I am committed to this. My family has gone through an enormous sacrifice for this day. I am very pleased that my family is pleased, my brothers and sisters, my children who came from all over the world to be here today."

Professor Wendt understands the challenges he now faces, and being away from Samoa will be a problem but one he is looking to overcome eventually.

Now that he has retired he is able to do a lot more since he doesn’t have to be at the university.

"We are going to go back to New Zealand but my siblings and I have decided to build a home base here so that I can visit more often.

I am now retired, I no longer teach and eventually I will move back for good.

"I am learning, I have to catch up, I know I will never catch up because there is so much to learn but it’s the learning that is really interesting."

Professor Wendt is the third eldest of 22 children. He is here with his partner, academic Reina Whaitiri and his three children Sina, Mele and Michael.

Maualaivao Professor Albert Wendt returns to New Zealand later this week.

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