Samoan visit to Tafua village on Savaii

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Before I departed from Samoa I wanted to experience the village way of life in Samoa. It has been very easy for me living in a western townhouse set on the hillsides above the Samoan capital, Apia, with air-conditioning, hot water, phone, a computer, and a wealthy income – my own little western bubble from which I have made regular forays into the ‘real Samoa’. It would be possible for a Palangi to live in Samoa for years and never get beyond a superficial knowledge of Samoan culture – Apia has its own expat enclave which can meet all your social needs. Interacting in this sphere the only Samoans you meet are waiters and shop-assistants. I wanted to gain a deeper understanding than this.

I knew my appreciation of the culture was already much deeper than most of the expat women I have spent time with in the 3 months here – mainly because of the books I have read about the history, and accounts by anthropologists and other researchers. I had read Paul Cox and his account of his family living in a remote village in Savaii for 2 years while conducting ethnobotanical research in the surrounding forest – ‘Nafanua’ – and his stories were deeply moving and made me determined to leave my comfort zone and follow his footsteps – if only for a few days. Making the decision in your mind is one thing – having the courage to actually act on it is another. I knew I had to do it but I kept putting off making the arrangements. Finally with my deadline for leaving Samoa only 2 weeks away and the opportunity to hitch a ride with Digby to Savaii on a fruit tree visit, I was forced to stop intellectualising about it and actually pick up the phone and impose myself on a family.

Steve Brown, the director of Ecotour Samoa, gave me the phone number of Anita who lives in the village of Tafua. He was very enthusiastic “You’ll love it – she will treat you like a sister. She loves having people to stay.” So I phoned Anita. It was arranged that Digby would drop me off at Anita’s house at 9.30 am on Wednesday and collect me at 12 midday on Friday. I would spend three days and two nights with the family. “Our fale(pronounced farlay) is the biggest fale in the village – on the right hand side just before the church.” Two laps through the village and a double back. The family were waiting for us to arrive.

Samoan protocol requires removal of shoes at the entrance of the fale and then guests sit down on mats and go through a ritualised welcome ceremony, before you can get down to any business. Digby joined me on the mats. Ulu and Anita sat cross-legged before us – aged in their late 60s-early 70s. Introductions etc. As soon as I sat down I was made to feel welcome (phew, it was going to be OK afterall – the risk was not so scary)– in fact their hospitality and willingness to invite a complete stranger into their family overwhelmed me – it still does, a week after the event. I find myself reflecting how we would respond in a similar situation – ‘Some stranger from another country rings you up and says they want to come and stay with you a few days to see what its like living in an Aussie family’ – we certainly don’t greet them like long lost friends of the family – I am still reflecting on what our response actually is – suspicion maybe – too much trouble – invasion of privacy – OK for the right price.

Digby departed and the three days stretched before me.

The family

The household was made up of Ulu and Anita – the grandparents, their daughter Faamai, her husband Keneti, and their five children – 3 boys and 2 girls ( they had another daughter who was away at secondary school), as well as their youngest son Tialii, who had finished secondary school last year and had come home to stay for a few months before joining the police force.

Anita and Ulu had a total of 7 children – one of their sons was in the Samoan police force and had just been sent to East Timor as part of an international policing effort. Every time the TV news mentioned anything about Timor, the family stopped to listen. (Yes they had TV – more about this later). One daughter was living in the village a few houses away, and one son was working in American Samoa because the money was better.

The five grandchildren living at home ranged in age from 11 years to 11 months. Tuluinga – the eldest girl at 11, Elisapeta, a girl aged 9, Vaoita a girl aged 3, Koneferenisi, a boy aged 2, and Lopati a boy aged 11 months. Koneferenisi had been born at the end of an important conference – apparently nisi means finished – and hence his name – known as ‘nisi’ in the family. By the time I left all five of the children were comfortable with me, and chose to follow me and spend time with me whenever the opportunity arose. All my Epenarra Aboriginal pre-school experience came to the fore – I had them playing finger games and rhymes such as ‘I’m a little teapot’ (yes they do have teapots), ‘Round and round the garden’, ‘Five little ducks went out one day’. My nephew Liam had taught me a new rhyme when I was in Melbourne about 3 little monkeys being eaten by a crocodile, but unfortunately I could not remember it – it would be difficult to explain what a crocodile is anyway as there is nothing dangerous in Samoa – there is one endangered snake yet to be seen. Anita said “ The children don’t run away from you – with other tourists they never come into this fale – they run away to their aunt’s house.” I found myself running the Tafua pre-school! They had no toys that I could see except for a stick with a banana leaf which was trimmed to be a sled – you pushed the leaf with the stick around in the dirt behind the kitchen fale – it was clear of grass and gave a good sliding surface. Shells that I and Tuluinga had collected on the beach became an important resource for all sorts of games – sorting, counting, building, memory games. To my shame I did not know the English equivalents of all the different types of shell we had collected, although even the 3 year old knew the different classes of shell. The only one I recognised had ‘pipi’ in the name. Playing with the shells kept them amused for hours. One of the gifts that I had bought – two bags of apples – had been wrapped in that stretch red string bag stuff and these were used to keep the shells together.

Ulu and Anita turned out to be rather famous, each in their own right. Anita had been a nurse for 27 years and was one of the women fighting to establish nursing as a profession in Samoa. I had read a book ‘Tamaitii Samoa’ which had 10 stories of older Samoan women who had made a major contribution to Samoa in the last 40 years. Anita was one of these women – although I had read the book the penny did not drop until we were well into a conversation about what it had been like as a nurse in Samoa in the early days. Ulu had also featured in a book I had read about the preservation of the rainforests in Samoa. Ulu was the high chief of the village of Tafua and had taken a stand to fight and stop the logging of the rainforests around Tafua. His actions had been recognised internationally and he had been to Sweden to receive an award which commemorated his wisdom, determination and courage in saving the rainforests of Samoa. I felt very humble in the presence of these two older people who had achieved major things beyond the village – and also really stupid that I did not know this before I went to stay with them. I had not even been aware that I was staying with the high chief until this point. Their view of the world was broad, with their own experiences, as well as that of their children – which could explain why they were willing to have a strange palangis come to stay.

Keneti and Faamai (the daughter and son-in-law) did nearly all of the work involved in running the household. Their children were trained to drop whatever they were doing and run errands for the adults on request. I gather that this is a typical expectation of a Samoan child past the age of about 5. They fetched and carried on request – with no hesitation and no complaint. I was intrigued. Further observations around the village in the 3 days showed that 6 year olds were expected to go and collect coconuts, and the 8 year old was the one climbing the tree to cut them down (he proudly showed me the tool he had to do it). Even the 3 year old was being trained to fan me while I ate my dinner to keep the flies off the food (more later). Keneti was in an unusual position – he had chosen to come home and live in his wife’s village. Normally the wife would go to the husband’s village. From my reading I knew that this happened, but it was a risk for a husband who was responsible for growing all his food on the plantation. If his relationship with his wife broke down, and he had to leave, he lost all the effort he had put into his plantation. My feeling was that they had come back to Tafua because of the family’s position of high status within the village, although Keneti did not have enough English to explain this to me.

Over the three days I was able to spend one-on-one time with Anita, Keneti, Tialii, Faamai, Tuluinga, and Elisapeta. When I spoke with Ulu, Anita was always there to translate for me. In talking individually with each one, invariably the first conversations asked me how many kids I had – and after my answer – the typical response ‘ Oh…..sorry’. It was beyond me to explain that it was by choice – I tried in one converstation I had with Keneti, but I wasn’t getting through. Luckily I was able to dredge up one brother and sister and all the associated offspring to give me some credibility. They wanted to know if my parents were alive, and how old they were, and where I lived in Australia and what it was like. Pretty tricky trying to explain Cape Trib to a Samoan. When I told Anita that tourists actually paid 16 tala to come to our farm and eat our fruit, her jaw dropped. (The hourly wage is 2 tala). Anita and Ulu repeated several times over the 3 days that when my family came to Samoa, they should come and stay with Anita and Ulu, who were now their Samoan family.

The family fales

The family had five fales – set back from the road behind a hedge of multicoloured tropical shrubbery. A large strip of manicured lawn about 30 metres wide separated the fales from the road. The front fale was very large and empty, with the exception of a large double bed mattress which had been brought in for the occasion – this was to be my bed for the 2 nights. Concrete floor and no walls, with posts around the edge every meter holding up the roof. The shape of the Samoan fale is like a huge rectangular carport with a central ridgeline and beautiful rounded gables at each end – 7 metres wide by 10 metres long, with a corrugated iron roof. Around the outside edge of the fale, white coral pieces had been carried in from the beach to provide a rock pathway. Inside the fale the roof had been decorated – above the posts, like a pelmet box a strip of red cloth with white flowers in the pattern went all the way round. Then hanging from the rafters were many decorative white paper cut outs which I can only describe as doilies. Hanging above the main entrance in a wooden and glass frame was the award which the Swedish govt had presented to Ulu a few years before.

I came to think of this front fale as the formal reception area – this is where guests were welcomed and entertained. But all the day to day living took place in the other fales which were set behind the front one. As soon as I arrived, a table and 2 benches and a chair were carried up to the formal fale. This was to be where I would eat, served and waited on by the family. Only Anita would sit and eat with me, the others ate in the second fale, after I had finished. The odd chicken and dogs would pass through looking for any food scraps. The second fale was about the same size as the front fale, – the same shape, and with a concrete floor but it was stashed with furniture which was all located around the edges leaving a large space in the middle covered in woven mats. There was a chest refrigerator, a TV, 4 double beds (one of which was minus a mattress – this was the mattress which had been carried up to the formal fale for me. There was a wardrobe, some wooden chests, and several cupboards with glass doors where the crockery was kept. Large wooden chairs and benches were placed around the edges where there was space. Ulu was quite ill while I was there, and he spent most of his time sleeping on a mat on the floor in this second fale. This fale was where the family ate, relaxed, mooched, slept, and prayed – this was their private space. My visit disturbed the balance somewhat – Anita brought all her weaving materials up to the formal fale so that she could talk to me, and weave at the same time. The children moved into the formal fale to be with Anita and to play with me.

Behind the family fale was a fale made from the original materials – a thatched roof and a coral rock floor. This fale was smaller and contained a long bench which had cooking utensils and pots on it. Behind this was the cooking fale – with thatched roof and lava rock floor – and 2 fire places, one at each end. There was a wall of corrugated iron about 2 foot high right around the edge to keep out the pigs, the chickens and the dogs – it seemed to be work on the pigs but the baby chicks just came through the holes and dogs seemed to sneak in and curl up in the ashes when no one was looking.There was a fourth fale off to one side which seemed to have a whole lot of stuff in it and a large concrete bench but I did not establish what this was used for, and I did not see anyone using it while I was there.

Between the formal fale and the family fale, set off to one side was the washing and bathing area. The water pipe came from the road and terminated at this point. To catch and store the water, there were 4 x 44gallon drums. There were 2 flush toilets in separate cubicles, and a shower room, where you use a bucket and a dipper to wash. The concrete floor had a drainage hole set into it so the water could drain away. To flush the toilet, you poured in a half bucket of water. All the clothes were washed here by hand.

12 hours after I arrived, we ran out of water – no water came down the pipe for the rest of my stay. When the water in the 44 gallon buckets ran out – Faamai took 4 large buckets and caught the bus up to the main road 6 kms away to fill them. She returned in the back of a ute loaded with people who helped unload the water. Other people in the village came to see Ulu about the water problem, but I could not determine whether anyone had actually tried to notify the authorities that the whole village was out of water. There was no creek nearby. None of the houses had a tank for water storage, except for the church. This tank was dry because every one used it when they ran out of water. The family apologised that I could not have a proper shower – I apologised for adding extra pressure on their water use and stopped washing. The toilets became a problem. But as if to help the cause, my bowels seized up and refused to operate for the last 2 days of the stay! Whenever I had the opportunity I pissed in the bush – although these opportunities were limited as one is never alone in the bush in Samoa!

The village of Tafua

The village was relatively small by Samoan standards – there was no shop. The Samoan village shop fulfils the role of the corner milk bar, before supermarkets and cars changed our shopping patterns. A typical Samoan shop sells tinned fish, soft drinks, cheezel equivalents, and cigarettes. I had assumed that the village would have a shop where I could buy bottled water to supplement the supply I had brought. The family understood that I could not just drink water out of the tap – not that there was a tap, or water for that matter. So when my supplies ran out they offered me iced tea which had been boiled, sugared and refrigerated and was absolutely delicious and thirst quenching.

There were only two churches in the village. The one closest to us was Methodist. I never found out what the other one was. I estimated that there would have been between 40 and 50 family groups living in Tafua. All the plantations were located on the outskirts of the village – it is usual in Samoa for the men to work to and from their plantations each day. The village was only 10 minutes from the largest town on the island – Salelologa – where the ferry terminal was based, and the village had its own minibus run by an enterprising local which went in and out of Salelologa 4 times a day to coincide with ferry arrivals and departures. This probably explained why there was no shop. The school in the village had 8 classes – Tuluinga was in grade 6, it went up to grade 8. After that the children had to go away and board with another family to go to school – her older sister was doing that now.

The village had been relocated after Cyclone Ofa in 1991 – the original site was located behind the dunes on the beach – a beautiful location, but completely submerged by the storm waves which came with the cyclone. The new site was about 400 metres inland and on the ridge – a much safer position. Anita spoke with me about the cyclone – she was alone with her youngest children when it hit the village. In the week prior to the cyclone, Ulu and Anita had hosted a large group of Swedish students who had stayed with them for a week. As a farewell gift the students had presented the family with a truckload of food including bags of rice, sugar, tea, etc. Ulu had left the village to go with the students to the airport and say good bye. Luckily the plane took off in time, but Ulu was not able to get back. Other personal accounts of the cyclone describe how it lasted for four days and three nights. The entire village was flattened – but so was nearly every other village on Savaii. People lost everything. On our previous trips we had found the remains of at least four other old village sites which had since relocated. Anita said “After the cyclone, friends and family sent us money so we could build a new fale”.

The food.

All the cooking was done by Keneti – in Samoa it is the young men who do the cooking – it involves using the umu – hot rocks on a fire with fish and yams baked on the coals and covered with banana leaves. Giving food is an important part of Samoan protocol. Within one hour of my arrival I was served a huge lunch, with at least four different dishes, including soup made from the green leaves of a hibiscus species, baked whole fish (which had been caught by Keneti using a home made spear gun, and then frozen), a plate of starch vegetables including yam, tamu, and banana, and a plate of fried chicken pieces. Anita ate with me, Keneti stood and watched and fanned the flies off the food, and the 3 year old Vauita did the same, copying his movements. I felt rather uncomfortable being treated with this ‘honoured guest’ routine, but there was nothing I could really do about it. I took small servings on to my plate, and Anita spent most of the meals urging me to have more and trying to place more food on my plate. She was worried throughout my stay about how little I ate. Fending off the food became a major pre-occupation to the extent that by the time Digby picked me up on the Friday after lunch, I was actually hungry – the lunch had been too light! I had got carried away with the act of rejecting food! While I was given a knife fork and spoon to eat with, Anita ate with her hands, and at the end of the meal, a bowl of precious water was brought to wash your hands in. The 3 year old was allowed to sit next to her Grandmother and eat off her plate.

Each meal was served with Cocoa Samoa – a delicious drink which is made from freshly roasted and ground cocoa beans. By asking to watch Faamai making the Cocoa from first principles, I was actually allowed to enter the kitchen fale and watch all the food preparation. Keneti was on my left preparing the baking fire for the fish, and the yams, Faamai to my right squatting over a fire stirring cocoa beans on a hot plate. I sat on a woven mat on the floor and relaxed and enjoyed myself – it just felt so right – I was no longer part of the ‘honoured guest’ routine – I was out the back with everyone else, including the chickens, the pigs and the dogs. The children clambered over everything, and as they were not wearing any clothes, I was worried about the danger of them falling into the fires.

Keneti was making Palusami for dinner that night – it is my favourite Samoan dish, and I had mentioned this to him, so he was going to make it for me – as I saw how time consuming it is to make it I wished I had kept my thoughts to myself. The family had also gone and obtained some Taro from somewhere – it arrived back with the water on the truck – because you always use taro to mop up the coconut cream in the Palusami. This was the only time over the 3 days that we ate taro. In the early 90s, the taro crop was wiped out by a disease, and replaced with another tuber called tamu which was more resistance but did not taste so good. So taro was quite expensive and not that common. I wondered where the taro had come from.

After the cocoa beans have been roasted they are then put into a mortar and pestle and pulverised until it becomes a viscous liquid. It took 2 hours to make one cupful of this liquid which would last for 2 meals. I took my turn on the mortar and pestle much to the amusement of the family. It was energetic and very tiring, as the pounding went on for at least 30 minutes. During the pounding, the village bell for prayers went, and a small child arrived at the kitchen fale to announce that Ulu would like me to join the family for prayers.

The religious, social and intellectual life

Every night in the village, the warning bell rings at about 6pm, and then another bell at 6.15 pm. By this second bell, the family is gathered together on the mats in the family fale – with the exception of Keneti and Faamai who continue to prepare the evening meal. It is dusk. In the darkening room, Ulu leads the family in prayer, followed by a hymn (I even recognised the tune from somewhere deep in my subconscious) with beautiful harmonies created by the two older children. Then what I can only assume is the Lord’s prayer in Samoan, and then a final prayer, in which God is asked to look after all the family members, by name, those both living at home and away. The conversion of my name into Samoan is Alisa – much easier for Samoans to say. On the second evening I sat cross-legged on the mats surrounded by the five children, and Anita and Ulu, in the twilight, with the beautiful voices putting their hearts into their singing. Then the final prayer – the children all pray like little ducks with their head on the floor and their bottoms up – and in the middle of all the Samoan I hear Ulu asks God to look after Alisa and all her family, and the tears start to roll down my cheeks. The generosity and the kindness of this family was overwhelming to the infidel in their midst.

Every Sunday the extended family came together for Sunday lunch after church, at Ulu’s formal fale – as Anita explained this would be about 20 adults and numerous children. This would be a major social exchange and discussion of news.

There were no books in the house, and as I found later in talking over my experience with a Samoan education lecturer at the university, there would be few if any books in the schools.

Sleeping arrangements

Ulu was worried about me sleeping by myself in the formal fale. I re-assured the family that I was not frightened and that I would be fine but I was not going to win on this one, so it was better to accept it with good grace. Faamai and the baby, 11mth old Lopati who was still being breastfed would come and sleep in the formal fale as well. I thought that would be fine. About nine o’clock the mosquito nets start being hung over the beds. To give me more privacy, they also pegged up sheets around the outside of the mosquito net so that people on the road, or next door could not see into my bed.

I was really tired so I crawled in and went to sleep, about 9.30, with the overhead fluorescents still on. I was right out to it when about half an hour later, Faamai is yelling at me to wake up, that Ulu wants Tuluinga to sleep in my bed with me as well. Half awake, I said fine, and in she crawls. Faamai settled herself under a mosquito net on the floor with only a woven mat and a pillow alongside me leaving about a metre gap. Through the night, the baby cried at least every hour on the hour, a dog came and slept in the gap between the nets, and Tuluinga as a restless sleeper tried to fling her arms into my face or my back every 20 minutes or so. With the dog scratching, the baby crying, Tuluinga thrashing around, I did not manage much sleep.

The second night, was better. I was exhausted anyway. Tuluinga slept back in the family fale and Keneti joined his wife on the mats along side me with the baby who continued to cry. But there was no dog. Being woken up by the baby at one time in the night I found myself reflecting what sex must be like for Samoans – and came to the conclusion that it must be a series of quickies in the early hours before the household gets up at about 5.30 or 6 am. I have yet to test this hypothesis – I have not met a Samoan I could ask. At least parents in our society have a bedroom door and a bit more privacy from their kids.

The walk to the beach

At one stage craving some solitude I decided to walk down to the beach, but I mistimed my walk so that I was walking past the school as the school bell rang and the children were let out for the day. About a hundred children saw me and ran to surround me. All the usual stuff – what is your name, where are you from etc etc etc. I felt like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn. I kept on walking with all the kids just swirling around me, intending to accompany me to wherever I was going. By the time I had covered the 400 metres to the beach I had lost about 50, but the other 50 were settling in, each one still clutching a precious pencil. I sat down on a log in the shade and it must have taken about an hour before we were down to 10 kids remaining behind, two of whom turned out to be Tuluinga and Elisapeta.

The crater

One of the main reasons I chose to stay at Tafua is because it is adjacent to a Rainforest Reserve – rainforest is rare in Samoa having been logged or destroyed by cyclone and/or fire. The whole peninsula on which Tafua is located is a lava flow and the crater is only an hours walk from the village. I knew the walking track climbed to the crater and then traversed around the mountain rim to the highest point which then descended steeply to the village, and I intended to do this walk.

Anita provided me with a ‘bodyguard’ – Keneti – who walked with me to the crater viewpoint and said I couldn’t go any further along the path I had proposed to walk. We spent half an hour discussing it, perched up on the edge of the crater, drawing mud maps on the ground. We established that yes the track did keep going, and that yes it did go back to the village, but no I could not walk back this way. He apologised for his lack of English in not being able to answer my “Why can’t we keep going this way?” No matter how much I pushed he came back to the same explanation “ We here at crater. This track goes back to village. We go this way.” I was rather non-plussed – was this classical Samoan male chauvanism at its worst – women are weak – women can’t walk through difficult country. Samoan women are not exactly bushwalking fanatics – many are overweight and not able to walk in the bush even if they wanted to. Or was there some terrible taboo which I was guilty of ignoring. In further discussion with Keneti I came to the conclusion that it was just that he was not mentally prepared to do the full walk – he had only planned to come up to the crater and go back and this longer walk required more planning and would take longer than the time we had available that day. So I suggested that we could come back tomorrow and do the whole walk and he agreed that this was possible. So at that point as a gentle little lamb I turned around and went back as I was told.

At the bottom of the crater track it reaches a small dirt road covered with grass – few vehicles went along it. Never say die. I said “ Where does this road go” pointing to the right, away from the direction we had come along it. It turned out to go back to the village in a huge semi circle around the craters and the mountain and provided access to all the village plantations which were along this road. Keneti was quite happy to walk back this way, and it was a delightful walk – many of the families were working on their plantations as we passed. We stopped at Keneti’s plantation and he gave me a guided tour. He was growing the plant which was used for making mats which Anita spent all her days weaving. He climbed a coconut tree and cut down two green nuts for us to drink. It was strenous work and he was wearing his lavalava which is very constricting – I found myself wondering whether I was gong to find out the answer to the question “ What do Samoan males wear under their lavalava – but no – he was able to keep the lavalava on and still grip his knees around the trunk and boost himself up at the same time. Every Samoan male carries a long bush knife rather like a machete whenever they go to their plantations or walk in the bush – the palangi equivalent is to carry a day pack stocked with a water bottle and a swag of food. When there are coconut trees everywhere, a knife is all you need to provide you with a wonderful drink and a snack food.

The next day I was able to go back to the crater and do the full walk. But this time I went with Anita’s son Tialii, who looked about 18, and was built like a rugby full back – he later told me he had captained the school rugby team last year.

We headed off in the opposite direction – we were going to climb the mountain first and finish with the crater. The track up the mountain was just a footpad through the plantations and not easy to follow. It quickly became very steep and the long grass covered any track – if there was one – half an hour of steady climbing we found ourselves on the ridge. At this point my ‘bodyguard’ made a major mistake and turned right instead of left seeking the top of the mountain. We found ourselves in impenetrable jungle perched on a razor ridge dropping away steeply on both sides and lots of rotting timber which collapsed as soon as you tried to use if for a handhold. Thrashing around, my bodyguard said ‘Wait here’ and left his thongs with me, so he could continue in bare feet – I waited for the next 30 minutes while Tialii went on ahead searching for a path – I could hear the bush crashing in the distance as Tialii looked for a way. When he came back I discovered that he had never actually climbed the mountain from this direction, even though he had lived in the village all his life. Just like Queenslanders who never make it to the Great Barrier Reef. He then headed off for 30 minutes in the opposite direction, finally located the path, and came back to get me.

The summit of the mountain was spectacular – a view on both sides – overlooking the whole village and the beach one way, and the other way you could see the other islands of Samoa stretching out into the ocean. Well worth the climb. The track then descended into a beautiful valley through mature rainforest. In the valley we came across 2 young boys about 12 years old, with their two dogs. I don’t know where they were going before they saw us, but as you can guess, the palangi was the best show in town, and they weren’t going to let her get away, so my party doubled in size.

Steep ascent to the crater and I found myself back where I had been yesterday afternoon with Keneti. I realised that we could have easily completed the entire walk in 3 hours – but hey, what the hell – this is Samoa – and I had had another adventure. The four of us sat on the lip of the crater gazing out over the whole of Savaii, and looking down into the crater for flying foxes. The Samoan flying fox flies by day and is an endangered species, due to two cyclones occurring relatively closely together wiping out 90% of the population the first time, and then 90% of the 10% remnant, the second time. We walked back down to the plantation track, the boys turned right to take the plantation road I had walked yesterday. We turned right and were soon back on the bitumen. We got back about 1pm after being away for about 4 hours, and Keneti served us lunch as soon as we arrived. Another feast– chicken soup, baked fish, fried chicken, tinned fish salad mixed with the pele greens, an eggplant dish, and the standard starch dish which contained tamu, cooked green bananas, and breadfruit.

The gift giving

Gift giving is a major part of Samoan culture, particularly at arrivals and farewells. When I arrived, I had brought with me a pile of food – I had made the decision to bring some stuff that they would not normally have access to – two bags of NZ apples, a large packet of smarties, jubes, and fruit bonbons, and two packets of sweet biscuits. The sweets were a great treat for the little kids – which is no doubt why they regarded me so affectionately from that point on. But in hindsight, now knowing what I know, next time I will bring children’s storybooks instead, and coloured pencils and books for writing.

At the farewell, the protocol was a little more complicated. Giving gifts is a reciprocal activity, and there is a strong element of competition to see who can give the most, to make the other party feel the most indebted. So I wanted to give them a large gift, but this would make them look bad, if their perception was that they could not match my gift. It is also an abuse of Samoan hospitality to offer to pay for what they have provided. Anita was not running a hotel – there was no stated price at the start of the visit – she would have been very offended if I had asked her what the charge was for staying with her family. So my dilemma was to provide them with a gift which would recompense them adequately for my stay, without shaming them, or making it feel like a business transaction. The day before I was due to leave Anita started to make apologies in advance that they did not have enough resources to give me a large gift. I tried, (but I know that I would never succeed) to explain that in fact her family had given me the biggest gift that they could ever make, by letting me into their family in such a generous way. And that I was much more indebted to them than they could ever imagine, that theirs was a gift that I could never hope to match.

I had bought a prewrapped gift with fancy rosette ribbon which contained soap, body oil and hand cream, and I tucked 100 tala into the ribbon, so that I did not have to hand the money separately. I had already paid both Keneti and Tialii 40 tala for their bodyguard duties, but I had done this on the quiet, as protocol would demand that I pay the whole gift to Anita and Ulu, who then distribute amounts as they see fit. If I had tucked 180 tala under the ribbon, it would have been embarrassingly too much, but 100 tala I could get away with, without making them feel too bad that they did not give me a gift in return.

Digby arrived in the car, came into the fale, and he and I sat crosslegged on the mat facing Anita and Ulu. The speeches were made and the gift was handed over, and received with the correct Samoan protocol, where the gift is taken and raised to the forehead, and then passed on to the other who repeats this. A lot of talking about not wanting to accept money – we are not a hotel – and Digby answering by saying “We did not know what gifts to buy for you, so this way you can buy the things which you need, so please accept this gift from us, as you have given me so much looking after my wife for me while I have been away!”

On departure, Faamai, the daughter decided to come with us into town, so to ensure correct Samoan protocol, I sat in the back of the utility with her, rather than in the front with Digby, because she would have otherwise been travelling alone with strange Samoan men. The journey was hilarious and I wished I had spoken Samoan. The two young men in the back, had spent the last three days with Digby pruning trees on the island, and now were curious to find out how I had got on in Tafua. Faamai filled them in – heaven knows what she actually said – but they would stop the conversation to pass comments to me like “You know how to make Cocoa Samoa now Alison”. The mind boggled. I would have liked to have listened to a Samoan perspective on my three day stay.


The whole experience is still on my mind, a week after the event, as I finish writing this story which has grown to 12 pages. I plan to go back in January when I return to Samoa, and I find myself thinking of what contributions I can make to this family. I know I will be treated like an old friend when I return, and I look forward to it.


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