“Poto”. – For Samoan Language Week, I’m choosing a few words that have special meaning for me. I am not a fluent speaker of Samoan but I don’t think its the sheer number of words we know that define our place within a culture, language or place.
My great-aunt was a rather fierce old woman named Ida – or as we knew her, “Aunty Ita.” When she was told of my birth, she announced my name would be, “Poto” which means, clever, smart, wise. Never mind that my parents had been presumptuous enough to name me already, oh no. So thats why my birth certificate says I am Lani Poto Jade Wendt. Aunty Ita’s husband had passed away many years ago and all her children lived overseas. My Dad would take us kids to visit her every other weekend. She was a wizened little old lady by then, wearing voluminous faded dresses and sitting on a wooden chair covered in rag mats. The walls of her house were covered with pictures and figurines of Jesus – all the sombre, suffering pictures of Him – and photographs of her children and extended family. My mum never went to visit with us because Aunty Ita got mad at her one day ( I don’t know why) and told her she was a “daughter of pigs.” After that, my mum said ( quite rightly), that she would never ever “go inside that woman’s house again.” So instead, mum would bake a cake for us to take to Aunty Ita without her. Aunty Ita never had a problem with eating cakes baked by a “daughter of pigs” so that was okay.
I always knew my Aunty Ita loved me because every time we went there, she would call out, “O lea ua sau le Afioga Poto…” ( or something like that.) She would make me sit by her so she could pat my hand and tell me very important things – like how, I had to work very hard at school and be a good girl so I could grow up and become a nun. (Never mind that we weren’t Catholic.) Or work very hard and be a good girl so I could grow up and marry a faifeau/pastor. (Never mind that we were Mormon and didn’t have pastors.) If all those failed, she told me I could ‘just be a doctor’… She would tell everyone how I was the most cleverest child ever because of the special name she had given me and order people to bring me some cake and koko. Aunty Ita never called me by my first name, Lani. No I was always Poto to her.
Aunty Ita liked to know about my exam results and class placings. She would get very agitated if she heard other people were(possibly) MORE smarter than her seven old grand-niece. The year I came second in the level annoyed Aunty Ita no end. “Who came top in the school?” When I told her the nice girl’s name who had come first, Aunty Ita launched into classic Aunty Ita attack mode – “I know her family, they are pigs! She is a daughter of pigs. You must study harder and you must KILL her, you hear me Poto?!” I told you she was a fierce woman…
Many years later when I started researching our family geneaology, I found that ‘Poto’ was a ten times great-grandmother and titled taupou name. I had always thought Aunty Ita just ‘made up’ my name, investing her grand-niece with her hopes for my intellect, yet she was gifting me with a further link to our ancestry. Aunty Ita died when I was very young. She was my first experience with death and loss.
My Aunty Ita believed great things for me and expected great things of me. I carry a piece of her love and hope for me always. I am grateful for parents who took the time to ensure I could get to know and love my (often grouchy, sometimes mean) Great Aunt. My name Poto, is a reminder of who I am, where and what I come from.
Maybe that’s what a week like this one is for?