Around the kava bowl

I earned a seat around the kava bowl.

Just about every evening, my Samoan host father, Tuugamau and his buddy Simi, and perhaps some other friends, sit around sharing news and stories, discussing village and national politics as they drink kava from a big cooking pot. (Kava is a common ceremonial drink consumed throughout the Pacific. A very mild narcotic, kava is made from the root of a kind of pepper plant, and has a mild euphoric effect.)

To me, this nightly ritual represents both a quintessentially Samoan tradition and the universal art of conversation. I’ve secretly wanted to be a part of it since I’ve been here, and although kava isn’t strictly forbidden to women, making a habit of drinking kava with the men could earn me some disrepute.

But not tonight. My host parents, Tuugamau and Malae, Simi, another family friend Tamala, and myself sit around the kava bowl in the traditional thatched-roofed Samoan fale. A bunch of ripening bananas hangs from a crossbeam, and drying clothes are draped from wires strung across the top of the hut. I notice that one of the kids has drawn up a sign forbidding smoking in the fale as Tuugamau lights a cigarette.

Simi, the only one present with a traditional Samoan pe’a tattoo, is responsible for serving the kava in the halved coconut shell cup. Everyone takes a turn holding their cup of kava and giving me and my new malu a blessing.

I’d just recently finished my traditional Samoan malu tattoo. According to legend, two Fijian maidens introduced the art of tattoo to Samoa. And as the tradition of the tattoo has become nearly extinct in other Pacific nations (Fiji included), Samoa maintains the oldest continually-practiced tattoo tradition in the South Pacific.

There are two traditional Samoan tattoos: the pe’a and the malu. The pe’a is the man’s tattoo, which stretches from the rib-cage down to the knees and covers everything (everything) in between. The name pe’a comes from the Samoan word for bat, as the tattoo resembles a large bat wrapped around the man’s body. The pe’a has areas of heavy black and takes weeks or more to complete. A symbol of manhood, the pe’a used to be a prerequisite for a matai (village chief) title.

The malu is the woman’s tattoo, which covers the thighs and knees and resembles lace stockings. The malu is much lighter without the heavy black of the pe’a. The word “malu” comes from the Samoan word for “protected.”

Just a few days earlier, in a small tattoo studio tucked behind the Magik Cinema movie theater in downtown Apia, two Samoan men held me down in an intensely intimate manner, leaning with their full weight and stretching the skin of my legs tight. Tap, tap, tap. The tattoo artist (or tufuga – master – in Samoan), Petelo Suluape Junior, meticulously and repeatedly hammered a sharpened piece of toothed metal into my thighs.

The men laughed and joked amongst each other, but thankfully, under the circumstances, any typical Samoan cheeky jokes would have been bad form. One of the skin stretcher’s phones rang repeatedly with the popular laughing baby ring tone. At one point, Junior cradled his new, Chinese-import phone (complete with antenna and mobile TV reception) between his ear and shoulder talking business as he hammered away on the side of my knee.

Both Samoan onlookers and my volunteer friends filtered in and out of the studio during the hours long process.

My internal monologue during the tattoo process was in line with what I’d thought to myself during my Peace Corps service; as Junior hammered away on my right kneecap, I thought to myself, “I don’t regret this, I don’t regret this, I don’t regret this…”

By the time he reached my left knee, the endorphins and other natural defenses against pain had worn off.  The pain was so intense at times that I was actually shaking with agony.

But I remained determined to finish my tattoo. I concentrated on my breathing to calm my nerves and ease the pain.

And then finally, with the last tap tap tap, it was finished.

I stood and performed a little jig in an effort to work all the pent-up nerves and shakes out of my legs and body (keeping still while someone hammers a sharp-toothed comb into bones and tendons is no easy task). I then stood in front of the mirrored wall of the tattoo studio. I must have had a big grin on my face, because a volunteer friend remarked, “Your face says it all.”

The next day, I traveled back to my island, the big island, Savaii, where my host family was anxiously awaiting my return.

They threw a big barbecue to celebrate the completion of my tattoo.

The Samoan people are intensely proud of their culture and heritage, so whenever anyone notices the end of my tattoo peaking out from the bottom of my shorts they’re very curious about this palagi (white) girl with the Samoan tattoo. I’ve had complete strangers come up and give me a big hug when they see my tattoo. The comment is almost always the same, “You’re the first palagi I’ve ever seen with a malu!”

Whether they say it or not, I can tell by their look how proud and thrilled they are at the thought that such a unique, cherished and tangible piece of Samoan culture will travel with me where ever I go for the rest of my life. Where ever I am in the world, when people see and ask me about this curious-looking tattoo on my legs, I will share with them my stories of a couple of tiny islands in the South Pacific.


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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.