'Why a Pacific Philosophy Conference: Rewriting a Pacific Development Narrative'

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Rev. Dr. Upolu Lumā Vaai (PhD)

Rev. Dr. Upolu Lumā Vaai (PhD)

Rev. Dr. Upolu Lumā Vaai (PhD)

Associate Professor

Head of Theology & Ethics

Pacific Theological College, Suva


On the 11-14th June 2018, the inaugural Pacific Philosophy Conference (I.P.P.C.) was held in Suva, Fiji. The Pacific Theological College, the University of the South Pacific, Pacific Islands Association of N.G.Os, and Fiji National University were the four hosting partners who sponsored the event. The conference was attended by many participants from around the region including Samoa who are interested in decolonizing the dominant development narrative in the search for an alternative one that is Pacific and ground-up. The following is a paper from Rev. Dr. Upolu Luma Vaai presented at the event:  


Tulouna le Atua e ana le aso

Tulouna tagata ole eleele, Vanua o Suva

Tulouna lauga na aami: Le Afioga ale Tama Aiga, Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi mai Samoa male Afioga Hon Sir Justice Tauhākurei Durie mai Aotearoa. 

Tulouna matua o faiva, o tootoo sinasina male au puputoa ole Pasefika

Tulouna faaao o Ekalesia, o faalapotopotoga, a sui o malo, sui o faalapototoga tuma’oti, o sui o Iunivesite, aemaise o tupulaga 

Tulouna le mamalu lasilasi! Tulou!


On behalf of the four hosting partners: the Pacific Theological College (PTC), the University of the South Pacific (USP), the Fiji National University (FNU), and the Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO), it is an honour to welcome you all to this Inaugural Pacific Philosophy Conference, the first of its kind in the Pacific. I especially stand in awe in the presence of God as well as our matua o faiva, our custodians of knowledge who represent the tofa loloto (wisdom of the deep) of our tino Pasifika (Pacific body). 

As the chief convener of the conference, I have a task to take you through the journey of why we need this conference. What was the idea behind it? And where will this conference take us? 

The partnership between the four institutions to make this conference happen is a response to the many calls of the urgent need for an alternative development narrative, one that questions the current one which continues to facilitate the colonization and subjection of nations to serve the interests of a few.

It is a response to decolonize and rethink our region in the midst of the hegemony of the global market system and its affect on the local communities. This response is summed up in a vision called “turning local” in a search for a new story.

Ours is an unapologetic turn to the sacred wisdom of our people and to the relational philosophies that have sustained the Pacific for centuries, as a firm basis and guidance for: (1) decolonizing education, (2) reweaving our ecological mat to achieve a sustainable planet, (3) re-envisioning a holistic spirituality, and (4) reframing development from the ground-up perspectives of the local communities in order to create a Pacific that we want. 

In this vision, we cannot accurately rewrite and reright our development narrative until we have a firm grounding upon the wisdom of our moana faith and cultures. A healthy narrative is a result of a healthy foundation.

The problem with the current development narrative is that its foundation is dictated by a global economic system that knows either very little or nothing about the everyday struggles of our people in the rural villages. Hence we have the reason for this conference, to begin discussions for an alternative sustainable development foundation.

In the vision of “turning local”, the four partners turned to our matua o faiva, our wisdom custodians, who in their own lives and careers have lived with their local communities and have advocated the importance of relationality. We invited them to share their baskets of wisdom, a concept manifested in a custom we called in Samoa ole ato e fevailiai or literally “a basket for interactive delvings”.

In our indigenous cultures, ato can represent a well of knowledge or a person who is deemed a deposit of wisdom within the community. According to one of my mentors, Sister Vitolia from Samoa, a deposit of wisdom could be both the source and the perennial resource of life. It is customary in the Pacific to delve into such deposits or baskets of wisdom to guide life. 

Thus this conference will revive this ato feva’ilia’i culture. Ato is always open.  It represents an intergenerational open culture of gifting, dialogue, and the imparting of wisdom. This ato culture was manifested in our ancestral relationships when they navigated, many years ago, crossing the moana from one land to another in order to share their wisdom.

The moana holds clues about our interconnected history and about the poetics of relations. If we want to rewrite history, full of relational currents, go back to the moana. Feel its unpredictable heartbeat. It is in the ocean we find our Alaimoana, “our passage through” in the midst of what I would called an “organized indigenous holocaust” in the world today.

This week we revive the forgotten crossings of our ancestors by immersing ourselves into the practice of ato feva’ilia’i. The aim is to rewrite a narrative to empower inter-generational crossings.  

The theme of this conference: ‘Vuku ni Pasifika-Wisdom of the Pacific: Indigenous Relational Philosophies of Life’ alludes to this ato feva’ilia’i culture.

 Vuku is wisdom in the iTaukei language. In a much deeper delving, vuku is the portal through which we came. To our origin. As Pacific people, we’ve always embraced the fact that “in the beginning was relationship!”

Our origin is in relationality! Therefore, all of life is an “assemblage of relationality”, designed and fashioned according to the flow and interweaving of multidimensional relationships. This overarching philosophy is the source, the birthplace of the tino Pasifika.

While we are formed and shaped by many relationships, relationality focuses on the quality of such relationships. It makes us aware of the importance of reciprocal giving and sharing, conscious of the gravity of suffering, and awakens compassion for all who are oppressed. In the Pacific, relationality encompasses all of life and it is translated and reconstructed to fit the local itutino or local lifeworlds. 

Philosophy is complex, a huge subject that is difficult to break down into manageable sections. Even the word ‘philosophy’ itself frightens many because of the way it is framed by the Western education system as something to do with rational arguments.

What can be affirmed in this conference is that philosophy should not be treated merely as an ‘academic study of knowledge’, nor just about rational investigations of features of existence and notions of truth as it is in the dominant academia.

Our conference subtheme, ‘Indigenous Relational Philosophies of Life’, means that philosophy, at least from the Pacific perspective, aims to value the mystery and the complexities of relationships and how we fit into such a mystery.

The aim of this conference is not to reinvent the old indigenous cultures, but rather to create new cultures with firm grounding on the old relational philosophical underpinnings that have been the source of harmony and balance of life in Pacific cultures. 

There is an urgent need for a relational philosophy of life. We see today a moral crisis infecting all the organs of the tino Pasefika, from economy, to politics, to education, to religion, to policies, and to the everyday lives of the people.

Today, for example, the neo-liberal capitalist philosophy of ‘growth’, expressed in the ‘more is better’ economic paradigm, and manifested in ideas such as ‘more profit’ and ‘more production’ is deeply moulding our Pacific consciousness, ideas of development, and systems and policies that promote a materialistic civilization. Unlimited material growth is now the true obsession of postmodernity. 

Such philosophy has dominated the Pacific development narrative for many years which is why many governments and development partners in the region have been obsessed with topics such as projects and income at the expense of our lands, ocean, people, and the sustainability of life.

This desire for wealth without ethical limits has inevitably contributed to a vulnerable tino Pasefika that is overwhelmed by environmental issues, climate injustice, policies that marginalize indigenous people from their lands and resources, militarization and political colonization, violence against the vulnerable such as West Papua, the rapid pace of poverty and unemployment, the high rate of domestic and gender-based violence, the culture of resource extraction as in the recent threat of deep-sea mining in PNG, and the undeniable presence in the region of rich countries such as China who heavily invests in countries addicted to debt yet do not have the means to pay back these debts. 

These issues are all interrelated as they are inextricably linked to the planetary inequality pose by the injustices of the capitalist philosophy of growth. Such philosophy has also influenced our own local leaders who twist and maneuver their cultures and powers either to serve personal interests or to justify the activities of a few who prey on the vulnerable. Even the bible is turned into a tool by Christians to justify this obsession for growth. Relationality, which is also grounded in the very life of the Triune God, is perhaps the last antidote to revive the slaughtered tino Pasefika. 

The above issues and many others necessitate the imperative to “turn local”. Do our local Pacific philosophies have the potential to create the ‘Pacific we Want’, rather than what the market or the corporations want? Do these local philosophies have the potential to shape a re-envisioning of the idea of ‘growth’ and to enhance a holistic spirituality that maintains the harmony of life? The churches and governments must struggle together to answer these questions. Hence is the reason for this conference. 

Our two renowned paramount elders Le Afioga ale Tama-a-Aiga, Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Efi from Samoa and Hon. Sir. Justice Taihākurei Durie from Aotearoa, who have been selected as keynote speakers will enlighten us on how Pacific relational philosophies of life are integral to decolonisation and the search for a new narrative for the Pacific.

Our distinguished elders from around the region will be speaking on the relational philosophies behind selected themes: Prof Manulani Meyer from Hawaii on ‘Indigenous spirituality’, Thomas Mendiola from Chamorro Guam on ‘Health and Wellbeing’, Prof. Konai Helu-Thaman will speak on ‘Indigenous knowledge’, Ratu Semi Seruvakula from Fiji on ‘Indigenous economy’, Archbishop of the Anglican Diocese of Polynesia, Rev. Dr. Winston Halapua will speak on the ‘Ocean’, Rev. Dr. Sevati Tuwere from Fiji on the ‘Land’, Prof. ‘Okusitino Mahina from Tonga on the philosophy of Time and Space, and Manoa Rasigatale from Fiji on ‘Navigation’. 

The wisdom of the elders will be complemented by an arts/cultural exhibition organized by artists from around the region. There will also be poetry as well as cultural and knowledge performances. Out of the 200 participants, panelists and guest speakers who live in local communities and work in development channels, are invited to critically discuss how these philosophies would fit and apply to their own work and vision. 

I invite all of us to reconnect with the Spirit of wisdom. In the Pacific, wisdom is sacred. The space in which we share and gift such wisdom is deemed sacred. Therefore this very space is pronounced sacred.

And those who are involved in the transmission and the reception of such wisdom will also embody such sacredness. This week, we breathe wisdom and dance to the rhythm of our sacred knowledge. And as we do that, we celebrate without apology the value of what is found in the local to transform and change the global. 

To the elders and speakers, on behalf of the hosting partners and all participants, in my language: Afio maia! Talaaao maia a outou afioga! Ia uluulu mamau lau tofa! Ia susulu le la o manatu! Ma ia gafoa ata o manino aua le sausau!

Manuia o outou faiva! Soifua!

© Samoa Observer 2016

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