In New Zealand, if a person or company wants to apologise for some wrong, they may write a letter, put a written apology in the newspaper, or perhaps pay money in compensation. In Samoa, a formal apology is called an ifoga and is a ritual involving one party seeking forgiveness from another by prostrating themselves or bowing down. An ifoga can take place between individuals, families or even whole villages.
An important part of the ritual is where the offender appears covered in an 'ie toga (fine mat). A mere apology may not be considered a big deal, but an apology backed up with an 'ie toga gives formality and sincerity to the occasion.
If the offence is really serious, the high chief of the offender's village will have to perform the ifoga. Traditionally, the high chief, wanting to avoid revenge or war with a neighbouring village, would take matai (lesser chiefs of the village) with him to the other village and wait on the malae - the open space where major village functions take place.
The high chief would then cover himself with 'ie o le malo (the very finest mats) while the matai would all wait in the sun for the chief of the other village to acknowledge their apology. If the chief didn't come, the ifoga was not accepted, and there was always the possibility they could be killed on the spot. However, this happened rarely, though on occasion the chief would have to wait a long time for the apology to be accepted.
Usually, when one chief saw another chief 'lowering' or humiliating himself by asking forgiveness on behalf of a commoner, he knew this was a very important event that would not be taken lightly, so granted forgiveness, completing the ifoga. So great was the humiliation of an ifoga that on occasions an offending village would flee, leaving their fale (houses) and plantations rather than apologise.
Today an ifoga involves the presentation of 'ie toga. In the past, the offender would also take stones and firewood and sit down with a bowed head and cover himself in fine mats. This meant that the offender (or chief of the offender's village) was not only offering mats but was also doing the most humble thing possible - offering himself as a pig to be cooked.
Ifoga (ritual apology). Commissioned illustration by Gus Hunter
Say it with 'ie toga
A fine mat was used in an ifoga in New Zealand. According to an article and photo in the Evening Post, 2 December 1976, an anonymous Samoan chief sent the mat to the then Prime Minister, Mr Muldoon, seeking his pardon because the chief became an overstayer when he did not sign the overstayer's register. The register was subsequently reopened and the chief signed. However, he wanted to return to Samoa with dignity, so, aware he had broken New Zealand law, he gave the Prime Minister and the government the 'ie toga - one of his country's greatest and most distinguished tokens. Mr Muldoon agreed to accept the gift.
Samoan mat presented to Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, 1976. Credit: Evening Post, 2 December 1976, p 9.