Fa’a Samoan–The Samoan Way

The first thing you need to know is that there are two Samoas. Originally they were one, but after a civil war between Samoan tribes in the 1880s-90s, along with colonial interference by Britain, Germany and the USA, the island group was divided between the USA and Germany by the Tripartite Convention of 1899. I know it was common practice then, but how a foreign power can so blithely claim and divvy up other peoples’ land mystifies me. Just wait until aliens in UFOs invade Earth and see how you like it.

American Samoa, as the name signifies, is still a United States territory consisting of five inhabited islands and two coral atolls with a population of 55,000. Its capital and main harbor, Pago Pago, is a base for the American tuna fishing fleet, and eau de tuna frequently perfumes the air. Foreign vessels call here as well, and the docks are stacked high and deep with cargo containers. For visiting yachts, it offers good provisioning but a dodgy harbor. A deadly tsunami in 2009 swept all sorts of debris into the murky water, making it hard to find good holding. There are frequent reports of yachts dragging—making it unsafe to leave your boat unattended while you go exploring ashore—or getting their anchor fouled on some obstacle, in which case you must hire a diver to enter the murky water and pry it free. Nor is the island overly geared for tourism. Some beaches and mountain scenery aside, we didn’t discover much to see and do.  

Samoa, formerly called Western Samoa, remained in German hands until the outbreak of World War I. It was subsequently administered by New Zealand until becoming an independent nation in 1962. Its population of 195,000 is four times that of American Samoa, and its capital, Apia, is more cosmopolitan, but its land area—two major islands and eight smaller ones—is fourteen times as large, so it feels less crowded and more easy going. Tourism is encouraged, a highlight being the airy and spacious former home of Robert Louis Stevenson, now a museum. You can hike to his tomb on the mountaintop for an inspiring view. Fun fact: though only 60 miles apart, the two Samoas lie on either side of the International Dateline. When it’s July 31 in American Samoa, it’s August 1 in Samoa.

Robert Louis Stevenson house and tomb

Given the drawbacks of Pago Pago, Eric and I had decided to skip American Samoa in favor of its independent neighbor and left Bora Bora on 23 July for the 1,165-mile passage. In good wind, it should have taken us 9-10 days. Instead, 12 days later, where did we end up? Pago Pago. You can blame this—as we do—on the Southern Pacific Convergence Zone, a huge “moving” weather zone that extends from Tahiti to New Guinea. What “converges” here are frequent fronts or troughs of low pressure coming from the east as well as ridges of strong high pressure. Conditions in the Zone, the sailing guides warn, can range from benign to “quite violent.”

We were spared the “quite violent” but encountered a grab bag of everything else. Light wind, no wind, wind shifts and drenching squalls alternated with sunny days, cottony clouds, moderate breezes and decent progress. No sooner did we adjust to one weather situation than it changed on us. We even skirted a waterspout. Then, a hundred miles from Samoa, the wind came right on our nose. Every time we pointed the bow to Samoa, the wind pushed us inexorably toward American Samoa instead. So there we went and found a number of our cruising friends already ensconced for the same reason. It made for a more enjoyable stop than expected, though sure enough, several boats dragged during our stay and another got its anchor fouled. We were relieved when, a week later, ours came up unhindered and we were off to the other Samoa.

And there, at the Visitors Center in Apia, we experienced the most comprehensive, absorbing and entertaining presentation of Polynesian culture we have found anywhere in the Pacific so far. The free program lasted almost three hours, and the tattooed interpreter, Chris, was utterly engaging. As he led us to a series of small pavilions, called fale, around the grounds, we saw demonstrations of the fundamental aspects of Samoan culture. Augmented by information from the official welcome booklet and our own observations, here is what we learned about Fa’a Samoa, the Samoan way.

Family is the cornerstone of Samoan life, and that means extended family—aiga—living on traditional family lands which are owned in common and not by individuals. Each village is made up of a number of aiga, which are headed by a chief or matai. There are more than 362 villages in Samoa with a total of 18,000 matai. Generally, a man stays with his family when he marries, the woman joins his. Marriage between people of different villages and farther afield is strongly encouraged to reduce inbreeding.

A chief may be male or female, and the title is not automatically inherited by the eldest child. Instead, when a chief dies, the extended family, including those who live abroad, gathers to appoint a new chief. Anyone may propose a candidate, including himself or herself, but must explain why they feel this person is best qualified for the job. Similarly, anyone may speak against a proposed candidate but must again justify their reasons. Lengthy discussions ensue until a consensus is reached. The winning candidate will be the one who has a proven record of serving the family wisely and well.

Every village is required to have a fale of some sort to accommodate these and other local meetings, with a designated place for each chief to sit. Again, consensus is the goal, though human nature being what it is, I don’t imagine all discussions proceed smoothly The chiefs of a district also meet monthly in council on more widespread matters. Only those who have risen to the rank of chief may then go on to run for national office, if they so desire. As Eric and I noticed  in driving around Samoa, the fale is also a popular place to hang newly washed laundry, sheltered by the roof from rain yet open to the air for quick drying.

Village fales

Samoans are big on hospitality and welcome guests to their villages with an ava ceremony. Hosted by the chief, the ritual involves a greeting and an offering of ava, a white drink composed of water and the powdered root of a certain plant. A small cup is dipped into a bowl of ava, and each person in turn is offered a sip, with the cup being rinsed in water between servings. Drinking from a communal cup signifies that when you are together, family and guests, no matter how high or low your station, you are all on the same level now. Similar ceremonies are performed in other South Pacific islands, where the drink is called kava. At the demonstration at the cultural show Eric was one of the audience members chosen to sample the ava, which he describes as “bitter and grainy.”

Ava ceremony

Like other Polynesians, Samoans are extremely religious, having been converted to Christianity by missionaries in the 19th century. Churches large and small abound—Catholic, Protestant, Seventh Day Adventist, Methodist, Mormon. There’s also a Baha’i temple set amidst a beautiful garden. Sunday is strictly observed as a day of worship and rest. The women dress for church in a long white skirt and short-sleeved top, the men in shirt, tie, jacket and the long, wraparound skirt known as a lavalava. The churches are decorated with freshly cut greenery and flowers, and the singing swelling out the doors and windows is joyous. Virtually everything else is closed on Sunday, including restaurants and tourist attractions, the only exceptions being a few gas stations and grocery stores, the latter usually Chinese owned.

Catholic cathedral and Baha’i temple

Eric and I have wondered how and why the Polynesians became so thoroughly Christian. Didn’t they have their own set of beliefs before the Europeans came? With all the efforts being made to preserve and restore other areas of native culture, why not revert to those beliefs now that they are free to do so? But according to Chris, the reason Christianity came so easily to Samoans, at least, is that even before European contact, they believed in one invisible god in the sky, thus making Christianity a natural fit. And as Herman Melville writes in Typee, Polynesian religious beliefs were never strictly codified or enforced, there being no written language in which to record them. Samoans did practice cannibalism, to which the horrified missionaries put a halt.

The missionaries also tried, and for a time succeeded, in suppressing the practice of tattooing. The word tattoo comes from the Samoan word tatau, and in modern Samoa both men and women may sport various designs. But the tattooing demonstration we witnessed at the cultural show was of a far more serious nature. For men only, it involves dense coverage of the body from just above the waist and down the thighs all the way to the knees. “Including the bum,” Chris assured us, pointing to his own covered behind. It requires some 12 painful sessions, each lasting 3-4 hours over a period of about two weeks.

Only two families in Samoa are allowed to be tattoo artists, and in the session we witnessed, which we were not allowed to photograph for privacy reasons, the artist with two apprentices was at work on a man lying on his side, supported with cushions and with a small area of his hip exposed. The tattooing used to be done with boars’ tusks of various sizes as needles fixed onto a piece of turtle’s shell like the teeth of a comb. The black ink was made from charcoal soot and water. Now the artist uses fiberglass needles tipped with titanium tips and a special ink obtained from the USA which incorporates medicine to help heal the wounds. The artist does not come up with a design beforehand. It is spontaneous and part of the artistry. The finer the needles, the more detail the artist can achieve.

Chris was tattooed when he was twenty-eight, but a man or even a boy may opt for it at any age when he is ready to declare his maturity and his willingness to serve his family and community. His family will do their utmost to discourage it. Not only is it extremely painful, but if a man opts to tattoo and then chickens out after the first session, the news will run like wildfire among the villages and he will be shamed forever. It must therefore be his decision alone, and he must be absolutely committed to the whole procedure before he starts. Chris himself wanted to quit after the first session. “Why on earth did I ever think this was a good idea?” he moaned, recalling for us his agony. But knowing what was at stake, his family sat with him and helped him through the remaining sessions.

Meanwhile, the man being tattooed before us made not a sound as the similarly silent artist tapped the ink into him with a wooden mallet. Though Chris said you can scream and cry if you want to, the one rule is that you cannot so much as twitch a muscle. You must find a place within yourself to get through it. Thus, it’s not the tattoo itself that is significant but the mental and physical stamina to endure it that is valued. A man who is tattooed is one who has committed to devote himself, his life, to his family and community. That’s why, in ancient days, men who were tattooed were put in the front lines in a battle. Having proven their dedication they would die fighting rather than flee.   

We left the tattooing still in progress for a demonstration of traditional cooking. Fish are gutted and braided up in palm fronds. Breadfruit and taro are peeled. A dish called palusami is created by combining coconut cream and cooked onions and pouring the mixture into a cup of taro leaves which are further wrapped in breadfruit leaves to make a fist-sized ball. The food is layered in an earth oven of heated stones. Foods like taro and breadfruit which require the longest cooking time are placed in the bottom level. Fish and the palusami are layered above. The whole is topped with fresh green leaves, then yesterday’s dried leaves until the whole pile is smoking.

Cooking demonstration. Our interpreter, Chris, is in the black skirt. Note his tattoos

The cooks are always men and they cook bare-chested so they can gauge by the heat on their chests on hot the oven is getting. The meal takes about 45 minutes to cook, or the amount of time it takes a boy to weave three large baskets of palm fronds. On first arriving at the show, we in the audience were each shown how to weave a palm frond bowl from which to eat our meal later on.

Wood carving at the Cultural Show and at the School of Fine Arts

So while the food cooked, we moved on to wood carving. The carvers use modern metal tools, hand saws and sandpaper where their ancestors used stone axes and pigs’ bristles. Ava bowls, carved with many legs to represent the many members of a family, are popular items as are toy turtles. The finished works may be stained with charcoal-water ink and are very attractive. Later we saw larger wood carvings in progress at the School of Fine Arts.

Tapa making

Our last stop was tapa making, which is traditionally women’s work. The tapa cloth is made from the inner bark of various types of tree such as the paper mulberry. It comes off in narrow strips, which are soaked and scraped with a shell to remove the tough fibers. The women further pound the strip with a striated stone to widen and soften it. They keep working the tapa until it is much wider than the original strip and patch up the holes where the leaves were with small pieces of other tapa. Another tapa layer is then placed over it so the patches don’t show. Finally, the tapa can be patterned using a wood block print and colored with ochre powder or black ink. Tapa was used as skirts for the men and dresses for the women. A time-intensive process, it’s in danger of becoming a lost art. Today Samoans wear modern clothes and fabrics printed with their bold designs.

Lunch and dancing

After which, we returned to the main stage where we were treated to music, dancing, and lunch—the earth-baked fish, taro, breadfruit and palusami served in our palm frond bowls. All was eaten with our fingers and tasted delicious. The people of American Samoa share this culture and heritage, and some families have members resident in both islands. Almost everyone speaks both Samoan and English, and they are warm and welcoming to visitors. Driving around Samoa, Eric and I were especially taken by the extent to which Samoans go to beautify their villages with bright colors and abundant plantings. The roadsides are a swirl of vivid red, yellow, fuchsia and green.

Colorful homes and roadsides

Fa’afetai—thank you!—to Chris and the Samoa Visitors Center for an exceedingly informative, enlightening and memorable occasion. I’m glad you took back your islands.