In relocating into a foreign culture there is an enormous pressure to conform and become like those around you. This challenge, how much and when to adopt the local ways or to retain other values (that will certainly cause a degree of social ostracism) is easily solved by using the Scriptures as a reference point.
I‘m a strongly independent thinker, rarely pushed around by social expectation or peer pressure, but there are things I have done deliberately to fit in to the Samoan culture. I wear jandals (this is an improvement on wearing bare feet in New Zealand by the way), a lavlava (imagine an oversized pocket handkerchief wrapped around your waist a couple of times and a breeze between your legs) and an Ula – read “necklace made of wooden beads, seeds or whatever that takes your fancy for the day”. I’ll also choose to sit on the floor when meeting with new High Chiefs (although my body says that is a dumb idea for pretty much the whole time I do) and I eat the root crop the Samoans love – Taro, especially if it is dipped in lots of coconut cream.
(There’s a tip for travellers to rural Samoa. Always ask for coconut cream. You can eat the stones here if they are covered in it. It’s like what I did with my kids for years – slap whatever into a cheese sauce and they’d love it. They would even eat Leeks!)
[Pic: Luis the thief currently “inside”. Luis here used to work for us but kept breaking into our compound and containers but finally got caught and put away. Chased one night after getting nabbed, he was “accosted” by another Samoan who dealt with him in the Samoan way. Hint: It involved blood and facial pain. Social pressure to conform requires that visitors accept this as the Samoan way. Passing judgement on Samoan things is offensive especially if it comes from an outsider, thus setting up a challenge for those with different value systems.]
I’m not a Samoan and I never will be. I don’t want to be and can never be anything other than a Palagi, so I do these little things because they clearly like it here when I do. It is a little something that makes things go really nicely when a Palagi looks “nice” in his uniform and engages in a few social graces.
But I can’t speak Samoan for love nor money. I’ve only nailed about 30 words in a year of trying, so speaking the language more than a monosyllabic grunt of greeting or good-bye is a big turn-off for me. I keep trying to tell people that I got 30 something in French at school; somehow managed to get 6% in Latin to my father’s disgust; and actually failed Maori spectacularly at Teachers Training College but was “rounded up” to 50% because I understood the culture well, even if I couldn’t speak more than a greeting or two!
Even after a year, I still find myself saying Thank You instead of Good-Bye, and Good-bye when I want to say Thank You. Even well repeated phrases like “Have a good day!” I have to guess from context rather than learn the words. They all try to teach me when they first meet me and then very quickly give up in agreement when I forget the first word they try to teach me within a minute. I’ve got slow ears and cannot differentiate unfamiliar sounds at all well and I’m a visual learner – not a good start to learn Samoan, I’m afraid.
An acquaintance recently advised someone to “teach me the Samoan way” [nudge nudge]. “He doesn’t really understand the way things happen over here!” was the sentiment behind the words. Oh but I do! Much more than you realize, my friend. I know the Samoan way very very well, but in some things I choose NOT to do the Samoan thing, deliberately.
So here’s a guy living in Paradise who thinks he’s a Samoan some of the time and thinks and acts like a Samoan when he wants, being pulled in six different directions at once with social pressure and cultural “issues”. What to do?
When we discussed this guy’s guidance to “help me understand’ (read: change to) the Samoan way, I said to my colleague, “This is what I will do . . . I will listen. I will listen hard. I will do everything I can to understand what you/your friend is saying, and I will compare it to what I know and do. If it is biblical and better, then I’ll change. But if the biblical way is different, or my way is better for any reason, then I’m sorry, I probably won’t change”.
And then the fun begins. The following is not Samoa bashing; it is just me working out which is the better way. Some examples now . . .
Dealing with bad people 1.
Foreigners cannot own land in Samoa. No exceptions. You can get around the rules by having a company in the name of a mate who is a Samoan (or a Samoan who can help you do whatever) but foreign land ownership is a big no-no and it is a really hot topic here.
The only way to get your foot in the door is to marry a Samoan and THEN you can do things with land, and immigration and so on.
The story I heard was that some Indians I think from Fiji found a great wicket here marrying the local girls, getting land, bringing across their extended family, then booting out the Samoan girl(s) – not sure if the story was a one-off or a pattern of behaviour at this stage sorry.
This skulduggery does and did NOT go down well with the locals, of course. They really do not like to be made fools of. Over a while I learned the details of what happened to the guy . . . he got “run over” while walking down the road. They never found the car that did it.
“The guy’s head got run over by a car tyre and that’s too bad eh?”
“Well, not!” is the clear inference from the story teller here. “That’s what happens here when [people get angry/don’t like you/or do bad things!]
Now it’s anyone’s guess why nobody was ever found. Samoa is a small place. Everybody knows everything and everyone. That a hit and run (or executioner’s) car could not be found doesn’t tally with my understanding of how Samoa works. They know very well how to sort out where and who the crims are! There is nowhere to hide here – nowhere!
It is very likely that the people responsible for seeking the offender supported the outcome and then “couldn’t find” the guy. Perhaps something “happened” for those people who were supposed to investigate and they ended up with a little extra [cash] than they had at the beginning of the day! “No, really? you say?” Yes, very really!
The point is that this was a Samoan Way of doing things. I’m really not that much in doubt as to the biblical basis for rough justice like that. There’s none. Eye-for-an-eye is old school. God sent His Son to show us another way. I do understand the feelings inherent when someone rips you off and takes the Mickey out of your value system, but I think there is more to Christ’s message than an eye-for-an-eye.
Dealing with bad people 2.
One of our boys nicknamed a thief who used to work for us: Luis the Lowlife. Picture above. Luis got caught and was locked up for his crimes. Another of our boys Tamati Soma employed him and he too turned out to be a recidivist liar and thief as well. Seems like this Palagi gets only the best employees eh? We think these guys met while inside.
The explanation that Tamati used when talking about Luis’ arrest was revealing. “That guy’s lucky that he stole from a Palagi, because he would be seriously hurt by now if he stole from a Samoan!”
Interpretation: If one Samoan catches another stealing something – they get a hiding. Cops are not interested and anyway you don’t use people from another village (cops) to sort out “village things”.
Dealing with bad people 3.
Our landlord too said that he’d “sort out” anyone who stole from him (fist clenched as he talked). Because I knew that he was a bishop in the LDS (Mormon) church, I just laughed it off, thinking that it was just bravado.
One of the lads around here stole a cell-phone from us recently, pawned it for $15.00 and got caught when Digicel, the local Mobile Phone company tracked the phone and phoned up the new owner. The thief and his sister (a girl at the local high school) kept the same SIM card and all!
Any thief is dumb, but this guy wasn’t up with the play – not even 2 degrees. He kept the SIM; used it to transfer money to his own number and then proceeded to call all his mates and rellies. Ummm as if telcos can’t work out what’s happening on their own network? Doahhhh!
All hell broke loose in the Samoan way after this because the theft caused the landlord big time embarrassment.
The Samoan way again is physical. You can’t fine them anything. They don’t have anything to pay with. So the guy got chained up and given a hiding. Um-hmmm. Literally. This is a teenager getting dealt to Samoan style. And no, I’m not making it up or telling tales out of school. It was my cellphone; my SIM: and I arranged with Digicel to trace it. I found out who the thief was and secured the return of it and reported the crime to the Police and the Landlord. I’ve seen a video taken of the hiding taken on a cellphone by a visitor at the time and the boy showed me his puffed up lips and mouth the next day. The landlord was very interested too in who took the video and where it was, but I didn’t get into those details. It’s none of my business what they do really.
I dare not make too many comments about this but when the boy was caught inside The Airport Lounge trying to steal again the next day, I suggested to the landlord that “perhaps the hiding didn’t work” and that “maybe you might have to try another way?” He still got chained up though and knocked around a bit but I managed to undo the dog clip and let the guy go free.
I empathised perfectly with the feelings of wanting to “sort someone out” but even though Samoa engenders such raw brutal emotion, I really don’t think that a human being with dog chain around his neck is a nice thing. I’m more compelled to recall my knowledge of the scriptures, and resist the increasingly strong pull of the Samoan way. Sorry guys, I’m not like that!
Dealing with Shoestring Businesses
Business here in Samoa is generally run on a shoestring. Most people have nothing. The exceptions are several family conglomerates Indian/Chinese who have established themselves over a few generations.
BBQ shops pop up in a jiffy and the moment that anyone decides to do it 100 people will. Their budget is small, their offering marginal and their working capital zip!
I needed two signage companies to complete the signs for The Airport Lounge recently. The first one ran out of reflectorised vinyl and the second one ran out of black vinyl. So clearly stock holdings are very low here.
When trying to buy a mousetrap, I went to no less than five stores who had all run out, before I found one that had them. It’s a common occurrence here – shoestring businesses.
For the record I do not believe in the Prosperity Gospel as embraced so readily by predominantly middle-class white Americans. BUT there is something to me ungodly when people are constantly battling with poverty, doing things that only compound that poverty and seem unable to see the wood for the trees. If I spend $2.00 every day on something that I can spend $20.00 on once and use it for 20 days, I have effectively doubled my income. If one signage company had spent an extra $50.00 and had a common item in stock, they would have been well over $500.00 richer.
My brain tells me (and the bible confirms to me) that “Shoestring Business” is dumb business! I hope not to get drawn into that thinking now that I am living here.
Dealing with the poverty mentality
I have shared many times that a “loser” mentality, (a poverty mentality) pervades Samoa. Independent thinking lacks. Group-think (i.e our culture, the way we have to do it) rules.
The Fa’a Samoa is held up in high regard by many Samoans. “This is our culture! We are proud of it! It is who we are!” are the catch cries. Many people at the bottom of the social order however say differently and would LOVE to be free from the social expectations that have such a strong grip on them all.
I could write a book about the examples I’ve seen that show how Fa’a Samoa pulls down the majority and helps the few at the top, but this is common of many communal or socialist societies, so I’ll just pick on one – the biggie.
Fear of man is one of the more insidious aspects of the Samoan way. Being an outsider in this environment, there is an enormous “pull” – social and peer pressure to comply, even on a foreigner, and an independent thinker carries a high price. It’s exhausting and pulls you down, but again the Samoan way contrasts to the biblical way – and I’m Sorry Samoa, sometimes I’ll choose another.