Report Claims Samoans Put Church Before Education

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Researchers looked at transitions from rural to urban living

By Sophie Budvietas

APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, Oct. 28, 2013) – Giving money to the Church is more important than paying for a child’s education for most Samoans. That's what a new study published in the Singapore Journal of Topical Geography has found.

Titled "Hard times in Apia? Urban landlessness and the Church in Samoa," the research concludes that in "all five areas surveyed, households prioritize giving to the church as their primary or secondary commitment, followed by the payment of school fees.

"These findings suggest that urban-based kin do not contribute or participate in traditional reciprocal exchanges with their rural extended families, and instead target their resources towards the needs of the household and membership of urban-based faith groups."

The study also reveals a further disconnect of Samoans from their traditional norms and values, including their ancestral past, and their mainstreaming into an increasingly Pacific urban way of life.

To draw these conclusions, researchers Alec Thornton, Tony Binns and Maria Talaitupu Kerslake looked at the transition, from rural to urban village settlements.

Their research questioned how this could result in the alienation of urban-based households from the reciprocal social and economic benefits of traditional relations with the aiga (families) in the rural villages.

"To what extent are settlement areas in greater Apia characterised by a new landless class in Samoan society?" the authors’ asked.

"Secondly, are some urban households opting out of contribution to the rural aiga and its church, and turning to urban-based faith groups?

"Ultimately, this paper will argue that urban-based Samoans who opted out of reciprocal kinship and redistribution systems, and depend on informal land tenure arrangements through urban-based church membership, may find it difficult to exercise their customary rights to traditional land in the event that their situation changes.

"It is these Samoan individuals and households that are effectively landless."

The authors claim that in many Pacific Island countries (PICs), kinship and Christianity traditionally form the foundation for all political, economic and social organisation and are inextricably linked.

"Kinship and social networks involve a reciprocal system of gift-giving, where material and financial support are exchanged, shared and redistributed," the report reads.

"However, increasing hardship in PICs are seemingly having a profound effect on kinship relations at the village level, which might be providing the impetus for some households to relocate from rural village to ‘urban village’ settlements.

"In the case of Samoa, where Apia is the capital city and the country’s only economic and commercial hub, the city is often described as a collection of urban villages, due to its influence on villages that surround the original Apia town settlement."

The authors’ claim in the context of our country, a small island developing state in the South Pacific, social relationships and traditional obligation have been explored as factors influencing land redistribution and revocation of land rights due to dissension among rural village members.

They cited fellow researcher R.G. Ward as being concerned about change in human settlement patterns as indicative of wider social change in Samoa.

"These issues were explored in a recent study, which examined the effects of kinship and church obligations on increasing poverty and speculated on the possibility of increasing landlessness among urban-based Samoans," the report reads.

"People are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the financial burden incurred from membership of traditional or mainline Christian denominations - (the) Congregational, Catholic and Methodist, and are changing to ‘new’ denominations deemed to be ‘churches of the poor’ – (the) Mormon, Assembly of God, Seventh Day Adventist.

"In Samoa, where the matai hold significant influence over decisions regarding rural village-church membership, households opting to change denominations may face alienation from the aiga and, in some instances, may risk expulsion from the rural village.

"This alienation can result in the loss of kinship benefits that include access to traditional lands, which can have serious implications for household food security."

According to the report matai and village pastors, acknowledged the steady migration of rural village residents to Apia, with many entering into leaseholds and not maintaining kinship ties.

"The implication of reduced links with rural-based kin is exclusion from customary land use," the authors claim.

To compile their report the researchers used qualitative data drawn from fieldbased research, which was used to place the quantitative household survey they conducted on landlessness into the wider context of changing settlement patterns as a reflection of broader social change.

"When considering relationships between settlement patterns and social change in Samoa, one trend that is increasingly apparent is the emergence of a settlement class that is rather untypical of Samoa and much more typical of developing countries elsewhere," the researchers report.

"Perhaps the most significant indicator of social change in Samoa is the loss of customary or familial land and the decline of traditional kin-based relationships.

"Whereas this study is primarily concerned with the customary land system, and changing familial and church relationships in Samoa, an overview of increasing urban poverty in Pacific island countries will help in establishing the context of settlement patterns and increasing landlessness, which is a focus of this paper."

Ultimately the study revealed the fraying of kinship relationships among a progressively urbanising population as an indicator of social and economic change. "In all five areas surveyed, households prioritise giving to the church as their primary or secondary commitment, followed by the payment of school fees," the authors claim.

"These findings suggest that urban-based kin do not contribute or participate in traditional reciprocal exchanges with their rural extended families, and instead target their resources towards the needs of the household and membership of urban-based faith groups.

"The survey revealed a growing trend where individuals and households are effectively rejecting the conservative rural village life for greater independence in the urban areas."

The article reports that this is particularly apparent in the non-traditional urban villages on freehold land, namely, Vailele and Vaitele Fou.

"This independence comes at the expense of no longer receiving traditional benefits of the kinship-based economy of reciprocation and redistribution of resources, which includes access to customary land," reads the article.

"This is arguably a conscious decision as part of the trade-off in seeking independence from traditional norms and values associated with the faaSamoa.

"This loss of access to customary land is leading both to an increase in the number of Samoans seeking private land ownership, and also to an increasing prevalence of low income households that do not have the means to purchase private land or formal leasehold through church membership.

"Thus, church membership provides a safety valve for those seeking some form of alternative land tenure to formal freehold and leasehold systems."

According to the report in both cases, some urban-based households are effectively landless and increasingly dependent on food and income sources from outside the reciprocal system of familial and rural village-based exchanges and customary land use.

"These findings reflect a further disconnect of Samoans from their traditional norms and values, including their ancestral past, and their mainstreaming into an increasingly Pacific urban way of life," the authors’ claim.

Alec Thornton is from the School of Physical, Environmental and Mathematical Sciences at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, Australia.

Tony Binns is from the Department of Geography, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand while Maria Talaitupu Kerselake is from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, National University of Samoa.

This is the study’s Conclusion: "This study has presented household survey data on the nature of urban settlements occupying customary and freehold land in Apia. It has also revealed the fraying of kinship relationships among a progressively urbanizing population as an indicator of social and economic change.

In all five areas surveyed, households prioritize giving to the church as their primary or secondary commitment, followed by the payment of school fees. These findings suggest that urban-based kin do not contribute or participate in traditional reciprocal exchanges with their rural extended families, and instead target their resources towards the needs of the household and membership of urban-based faith groups.

The survey revealed a growing trend where individuals and households are effectively rejecting the conservative rural village life for greater independence in the urban areas.

This is particularly apparent in the nontraditional urban villages on freehold land, namely, Vailele and Vaitele Fou. This independence comes at the expense of no longer receiving traditional benefits of the kinship-based economy of reciprocation and redistribution of resources, which includes access to customary land.

This is arguably a conscious decision as part of the trade-off in seeking independence from traditional norms and values associated with the fa’aSamoa.

This loss of access to customary land is leading both to an increase in the number of Samoans seeking private land ownership, and also to an increasing prevalence of low income households that do not have the means to purchase private land or formal leasehold through church member- ship.

Thus, church membership provides a safety valve for those seeking some form of alternative land tenure to formal freehold and leasehold systems.

In both cases, some urban-based households are effectively landless and increasingly dependent on food and income sources from outside the reciprocal system of familial and rural village-based exchanges and customary land use.

These findings reflect a further disconnect of Samoans from their traditional norms and values, including their ancestral past, and their mainstreaming into an increasingly Pacific urban way of life."

The paper will be published in full in the Samoa Observer over the coming days.

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