Those of us engaged in actively encouraging the emergence of a new mindset, which sees the unity of all life and encourages humanity to live in balance with the natural world, often write about the importance of “being connected to Mother Earth.” It’s a positive and noble goal but, until personally experienced, can just be another set of empty words describing a lofty sentiment.
I never expected my true appreciation of this concept to occur within the sterile confines of the concrete jungle known as the Shanghai 2010 Expo in China, but it did. There, under the traditional thatch of a Samoan fale and within the bright blue warehouse structure called the South Pacific Pavilion, I watched a contemporary and very brave woman participate in an ancient, indigenous ritual that connected her experientially and personally to Mother Earth in a way that provided a glimpse into the very meaning and mystery of being alive.
Last week I was privileged to join a team from the Samoan Tourism Authority and Government of Samoa who were attending the Expo and celebrating Samoa’s National Day on August 1st. A dear friend, Zita Sefo-Martel, celebrated fautasi (longboat) skipper, High Consul to France, owner of Polynesian Xplorer, and devoted mother of four young boys, had agreed to receive her malu (tattoo) in public from the celebrated master tattooist, Tufuga Ta Tatau Su’a Sulu’ape Petelo.
In western cultures, a body tattoo is an object of adornment; in Samoa it is a sacred covenant between the bearer and the earth and community that support him or her.
Zita has described the meaning of the event in her own words:
The generic word for tattoo in Samoan is tatau. The Pe-a (tattoo for men) or malu (tattoo for women) is not only an eloquent form of living art and a record of ancient navigation and traditional culture, it is also a Samoan's spiritual connection to Mother Earth through the physical pain and sacrifice experienced in the act of being tattooed.
The symbolism depicted on a tatau or malu represents the sacred covenant between a Samoan and his or her way of life. It is “O Mea Sina”. It is sacred.
The word malu means protect, shelter, security. Malu also means house. The woman is therefore seen in Samoan culture as the protector of the children, the family, and the village. She is the giver of bloodlines.
The symbols of the malu etched on the woman reflect the many roles of the woman in Samoan society. The malu is applied starting from the knees and working up to and finishing at the top of the thighs.
Now let me explain what that act of sacrifice actually entailed. For four hours, Zita lay on a mat above a hardwood floor, while three skilled men worked expertly to adorn her thighs, upper legs and knees with a range of traditional symbols representing Zita’s environment, family connections and love of the ocean. That’s one way of describing it. Another is to say that for four hours she endured torture as the sharp teeth of the various instruments etched her skin, muscle, sinew and bone to leave this indelible testimony.
As illustrated in the first video, receiving a malu was, as with all things Samoan, a community affair. Zita was never left alone; initially accompanied by another tattoo recipient – Roger Warren, an internationally recognized Rugby player, who was receiving the male tattoo; and a respected elder Lei Lua and various Samoan musicians and performers who soothed her passage with gentle Samoan songs and chants. In the afternoon, the Prime Minister of Samoa and his wife plus the Chinese official delegation and media came by and the act was viewed by hundreds of the curious and somewhat perplexed Chinese visitors that streamed past the fale.
At no point did this event descend into a marketing spectacle – that fale was and felt like a sacred space, a setting for a rite of passage that was also a statement of profound connection linking all Samoans’ present to their homeland and extending an act of selfless welcome to their visitors.
After four, painful hours, the work was complete and Zita’s bare legs had been transformed into a work of art that will permanently broadcast her unique identity and relationship to Mother Earth in a way that will evoke curiosity and respect in all who meet her – a living lesson; etched in flesh that gives a whole new meaning to the statement “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
After a quiet period of rest and reflection, a ceremony of blessing - the "Samaga o le Malu" could commence, starting with a prayer of thanks and song. The Tafuga Ta Tatau (master tattooist) Sulu’ape Petelo murmered a prayer, while cracking an egg on Zita's head symbolising her rebirth into a new woman of the earth. Then a lotion of lega-tumeric mixed with coconut oil was applied to Zita's body starting with the Malu. Finally, it was Zita's turn to celebrate her passage and proudly reveal her Malu to her admiring community in dance as shared in the following video.
Zita Martel designed her malu in collaboration with the tattooist and in accordance with Samoan tradition. As a Tautai (skipper) of Samoan fautasi (longboats) some of the symbols depict Zita’s life, her personal journey as a Tautai and the gift of being able to feel at one with the ocean waves, the winds, the crew and the fautasi.
Zita Sefo-Martel is one of many individuals who act as “agents of change” by living a different set of values to those that have dominated the prevailing industrial culture of the past 150 plus years. She acts as a bridge between an ancient indigenous culture (in this case Polynesian) and a contemporary western culture now engaged in a search for meaning and balance.
I thank the Samoan government, its people and Zita Martel herself for the opportunity to share a week with the Samoan team at the Expo in Shanghai and witness this remarkable event.
By the way, this tiny nation provides the perfect destination setting - just look at this video to see why Samoa shouldn't be missed!