Exploring the changing “Sāmoan self”

By Jenna Ward

From left: Norman Pala'amo (10), Lemau Pala'amo, Alex Pala'amo (7), Dr Alesana Pala'amo and Jayden Pala'amo (6) at graduation last year.

Individualism is affecting traditionally communal cultures and changing the way pastoral counselling is delivered, writes Jenna Ward.

Pastoral counselling is one of the most important roles for ministers in Sāmoa, but a rise of individualism has contributed to a concept identified as the “changing Sāmoan self”, disrupting the traditional approaches of counselling previously used by ministers.

Reverend Alesana Pala’amo, who graduated with a PhD from the School of Social Work in November, collected the voices of a group of Sāmoan ministers and their wives, matai (title-holders), church members, and service users of a domestic violence agency. He used a Tafatolu (three-sides) Sāmoan research methodology and a qualitative approach to present the group’s views.

The 46-year-old, has a lot of experience with the ministerial life. Not only is he a minister himself, but also the son of retired elder minister Fosi Pala’amo.

“In the past, the Sāmoan minister was often the first person people sought help from concerning issues about their spouses, domestic violence, drugs and alcohol or relationship problems in general. However, the minister is no longer the ‘go-to-person’ for such problems. My research looked at where the Sāmoan person was changing from, where he or she was changing to, and how knowing these changes would shape how ministers undertake counselling with their parishioners going forward,” Dr Pala’amo says.

During his research, participants shared their expectations of being counselled as well as counselling others, together with reflections concerning effective and ineffective practices. Fetu’utu’una’i le va – navigating relational space – emerged as an approach to pastoral counselling that encourages dialogue. Dr Pala’amo says this contemporary approach empowers church members to re-engage with each other, and ultimately, with God.

In recent times, Sāmoa has undergone significant changes, include changing its name from Western Sāmoa to Sāmoa, shifting the international date line to align with New Zealand and Australia and switching which side of the road they drive on to allow affordable car imports.

“These examples imply that Sāmoans are well-accustomed to change. Add in the effects of migration from and returns to Sāmoa, together with technological advancements and globalisation, and you can see there are many different forces of change affecting Sāmoans today. Associated with these changes are the effects upon the Sāmoan way of life – known as fa’a Sāmoa. This has seen variances in the practice and lived experiences of fa’a Sāmoa. The foundational values such as love, reciprocity and respect remain for most Sāmoans, yet the lived experiences of fa’a Sāmoa have changed. The term, ‘a changing Sāmoan self’, is a concept born from the changes that has seen a rise of individualism among the traditional communal context of most Sāmoans. For the church to maintain any relevance for its members, practices of pastoral counselling must align and address this concept,” he says.

Since completing his studies and returning to Sāmoa, Dr Pala’amo and his wife Lemau have founded Soul Talk Sāmoa – an agency that provides pastoral counselling and social services for Sāmoans. The couple work alongside various clients offering pastoral counselling services and advocating for their needs. Dr Pala’amo is also working towards designing workshops and short courses run by the Congregational Christian Church of Sāmoa, to develop and enhance the pastoral counselling practices of current parish ministers and their wives. The pair are also kept busy with their three sons, Norman, 10, Alex, 7, and Jayden, 6.