Tuesday, August 16, 2011
In Samoa, a different way of life
No better way to start the morning.
Apia is like a ghost town.
I guess that’s what I get for arriving on a holiday weekend. Much of the capital, home to about a third of Samoa’s 180,000 population, has headed to their rural homelands. The bond of family is unbelievably strong here and many of those living in the capital – to which they have come, in part, to make money for their village communities – head home as often as they can.
The extended family features heavily in Samoan rural life, mostly living together on four-building compounds close on top of one another. While the way of life enforces strict codes of behavior with very defined responsibilities for each member of the community, it also makes privacy something of a luxury.
The compounds, for lack of a better word, feature an open pavilion. These are the buildings I saw last night filled to the rafters with people singing, playing or just hanging out together. These pavilions are used for social gatherings, like open-air living rooms. There’s also a separate kitchen out back for the considerable cooking in need of doing, as well as a family home and an outdoor bathroom - though many of the newer structures have indoor facilities now. The umu, the traditional Samoan cookout, unlike it’s New Zealand counterpart, is above ground and uses volcanic rocks.
Driving past them at night you understood just how tight-knit these communities are. Each of the villages has its own tribunal, known as the Council of Matai or fono, which handles all but the most serious of infractions. One level below the matai in importance is the Women’s Council. Every married woman is a part of this. It is in charge of village beautification and, in some cases, even inspects the tidiness of homes.
These social structures, which often include 15 minutes of worship time when everyone must be in their homes as well as curfews, are taken seriously and deeply influence much of a Samoan's life.
Huge natural disasters – cyclones and blights – in the 1990s fundamentally damaged much of the agriculture that had been the mainstay of the Samoan economy. The Samoans have had to adapt, but members of the community – particularly the Samoan ex-pat community which is larger than the entire population of Samoa – is expected to contribute.
Samoa, which means "sacred center", is about the size of Delaware and is made up of two islands: Savaii and Upolu, home to Apia. It is completely separate from American Samoa. Though the two cultures share a language and most of their customs - though not similar sports - there is a distinct rivalry between the two. Think Australia and New Zealand.
Next year Samoa will celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence from New Zealand. It had also been under British and German rule. The parties are already being planned. But first there is the Rugby World Cup. Rugby mad Samoa, incredibly, beat Australia a couple of weeks ago – an astonishing feat for a country so small - and the fever is building here.
One other oddity. For reasons which have been explained to me but still don’t really make sense, in 2009 Samoa decided that its citizens should begin driving on the left-hand side of the road. Perhaps that’s not such a big deal in a country in which license plates for cars only have four numerals. Still, it seems like more trouble than it’d be worth. But apparently the switch went off without a hitch – except for the fact that their old buses spilled their passengers out into oncoming traffic.