Understanding Samoan Culture

In this post I share a communication with a biblical commentator in which he asks what is different about the Samoan culture that permits ungodliness, yet within a so-called ‘Christian country’. Apart from misunderstandings over the word “culture” I try to explain how I see the Samoan culture having lived there for seven years. It’s not possible to wrap up a description of an entire culture in one post but here is my effort nonetheless to explain it to a friend, a mature man whom I deeply respect for his own analysis of scriptural principles. Enjoy.

This digital exchange followed a series of discussions relating to Samoa – what I was doing engaging with the country a year after I had returned to New Zealand. My friend’s question was a challenge – to explain:

Dennis
I have one more question for you.
I cannot understand what is about the Samoan culture that makes it different.
I have read Corruption in Samoa. It gives an account of your being ripped off by people (that is not that unusual). You describe a Prime Minister looking after his mates and a senior bureaucrat guarding her patch, but that is normal stuff for politicians and bureaucrats.
But I cannot see anywhere in your writing that you have set our clearly what is different about the Samoan culture, especially given the strong influence of Christian missionaries (perhaps I did not find it).
When my daughter [name withheld] visited Samoa as a fifteen-year old, she realised something was seriously wrong. She thought the pastor of the village they visited was a creep, but she was told to respect him. She was shocked that the pastor and the Matai were living in palaces, while the houses of everyone else were falling down. She was shocked at the manipulative process for getting tithes. But she did not understand why.
They would not get away with that kind of behaviour in New Zealand. What is different about the Samoan culture that makes it possible there? Why is this kind of behaviour acceptable, when unlike many religious systems, the pastors do not have power to offer sacrifices for the people.? How does these attitudes feed through to the political and economic system?
Given your understanding of Samoa, I would appreciate a clear answer to these questions. I could not find it anywhere in your blog, although I may have looked in the wrong place. When you get back from Aussie would be fine.
Blessings

Whew! Rather direct this question but it is one common to many Palagi who come to Samoa. It’s actually the number one question that Palagi have – why the religious stuff such as churches and manipulation has such a huge hold on the people.

> I cannot understand what is about the Samoan culture that makes it different.
Human nature = the same.
Culture = totally different.
The best way to describe the difference is to think RELATIONAL vs PURPOSEFUL. We ask what line of business are you in. They [Samoans] ask which village are you from. We see a successful rugby player as a result of his endeavours, a system of training, a can-do mindset and genetics. They see a man who has touched down on the field as a brother, cousin, Samoan. We do something FOR a reason. They do it WITH someone. Accountability in the West is perceived to be responsibility to a Creator (or increasingly to ourselves) at an individual level. In their culture accountability is to the family, High Chief, or social expectations. Samoans are RELATIONAL people first. We are that SECOND following abstracts, values, principles, ideas. Both of us follow FEELINGS though, and both of us deny that, generally.
There’s also the Autism thing. I said it quite crudely that all Samoans have Autism. If a symptom of Autism the capacity to misread reality then Samoans have this.

Now before anyone gets upset about this please let me explain that last sentence that uses a label again. A symptom of autism is increased capacity to misread reality. This phenomena happens ALL the time in Samoa – all ages and all sectors of society. Some of this is genetic. Some of this is cultural. When an entire people-group have a disposition to a certain way of thinking even when taken out of their social setting, then this is likely¬†genetic. When it is conditioning, that’s different. All labels are only helpful to a point. What is 100x more important is to understand the consequences and how our differences influence relationships, especially cross-cultural relationships.

It’s hard for them to think. They are naturally feeling people. While not quite an oxymoron, a Samoan philosopher is hard to find, and the people simply aren’t interested in the sort of stuff you are. I have to take your four books of theology and strip them back to the bare basics, then tell them not only what to believe, but why it matters, and they will only believe me if there’s something in it for them and if it’s socially acceptable to take my teaching, then the instant I offend them, or any Samoan they will reject everything I said before. Is it logical? Not at all. Is it real? You betcha. We might call it stupid, illogical, irresponsible, immature and suchlike but it’s the way it is.

> I have read Corruption in Samoa. It gives an account of your being ripped off by people (that is not that unusual). You describe a Prime Minister looking after his mates and a senior bureaucrat guarding her patch, but that is normal stuff for politicians and bureaucrats.
Totally, and this is where you need to understand some aspects of the Samoan culture then apply it in regards to CIS and what it was for. Remember that only one person ever saw the book for two years – Tui! This is important to understand how Samoans think and work. The Lord took me to Tuila’epa first. That’s because a year or two before I knew it, He knew how important that was to a Samoan High Chief. He also caused me to speak His name at the outset and the first meeting. Again, I didn’t know or understand.

David Wilkerson turn in your grave!) so when people knew I was “with ” the PM it meant a serious thing to them – “Oh you’re friends with the PM” meant much more to them than it would in NZ. Playing golf with John Key means something totally different to a Samoan than to a Kiwi. A Samoan would then be able to walk in, chat up his wife, eat the fruit on his table, sleep on his couch, ask him for a financial gift for his church or family funeral or buy him a car for his family in Samoa, but he would also be offered a High Chief title and be given royal treatment in Samoa. To a Kiwi it means perhaps an opportunity for an introduction to a business opportunity or a Facebook post – nothing more. Relationship to a Samoan is natural, full and unconditional (both ways). Event sharing and perhaps a few little extras to us.

I could have written the script of a spaghetti Western in the book and achieved the same purpose. The point is not that there is corruption, or that I nailed it, the point is that the book was written for Tuila’epa alone. He covers over much worse corruption than in CIS by a factor of multiples. He spends all day, day in day out dealing with this – nothing in that book meant anything to him other than a blip on the radar, except when I implied strongly that he had an inappropriate relationship with Sonja. I can tell you the exact sentence that hit home if I had to. I knew it. He knew it. What I did was stand up to him High Chief to High Chief and this is what the people see. Shock horror, the Palagi took on our leader. The book is Ho Hum in its contents except to many of the diaspora who are now learning (from OLP me and Facebook).

My objective in blogging about Samoa is very important to understand – it is nothing to do with achieving anything for me, in fact I could easily walk away and write the whole experience off as a bad choice. It is about speaking the truth about and into a country and culture where the truth is suppressed. Those who suppress the truth do so for reasons of power and control. The little people thank me and encourage me to speak up. Thus I do.

The things I said in CIS about him and Sonja really was sooooo anemic it’s not funny, but we both knew that I was saying to him, “Enough! There is now accountability! You . . . Me!” and I sought multiple times before during and after the exchanges for the opportunity to sit down and talk, to deal with things constructively. The claims of cowardice came from actual events and engagements – not just stand-off theoretical stuff. The other thing is that Tui has learned more about me as time has gone on, and he will look back thinking “Darn! I made a mistake.” At night time when he lays down to sleep he thinks about the conflict with me and wonders what he should be doing. He cares about his country and he will be deeply hurting and is hugely challenged by our spat. Remember that we spent a LOT of time together and he’s not a fool. He might have made a few mistakes but he’s not altogether a bad man either. While he is cross-cultural too, he has real difficulty with the Western media and I’ve tried more than once to help him. He simply doesn’t get the modern world.

Samoan High Chiefs send their boys to other High Chiefs to play games. Adult men would risk their life to travel with messages where the leaders would simply be having fun. We’re so serious in the West. These guys simply don’t care. Tui has the potential to sign over vast tracts of land to me or my operations or allocate huge resources to fixing my problems. He doesn’t have a lot of money but he can “sort things” as PM so that matters are resolved the “Samoan way” where everyone saves face and it’s all agreed behind closed doors. I can also tell you how he thinks about Samoa’s sovereignty issues, about the legal case relating to the landmark land theft case and about his own sins. I’ve strayed from the key question I know but we did cover this somewhat.

> But I cannot see anywhere in your writing that you have set our clearly what is different about the Samoan culture, especially given the strong influence of Christian missionaries (perhaps I did not find it).
I am not sure that I have exactly sat down and detailed it ever . . . It is certainly in the Samoa Files but there’s hundreds of thousands of words to dig through before you would get it. It takes me about three days with a guest up there to teach full-time and then they generally get it when they go out on their own. Some never do. I can do it in a couple of hours if I have a good listener/learner but this is unusual unless they have third world or large travel experience.

One thing you touch on with the Missionaries that I have only recently been happy to ‘call’ is the situation prior to their arrival. I’ve never really been happy with the idea that the Missionaries changed everything, and for good. Of course the Gospel came. Of course some bad things stopped happening. Yes His name did get lifted but the Samoan ways are very strongly entrenched and I cannot see things changing when the Missionaries arrived. Samoa was the breeding ground for Polynesia, the Maori language is the same, Hawaii came from Savaii, and the ones with creativity and get up and go; got up and went. All aspects of culture in Polynesians who left is advanced, whereas Samoan culture has remained unchanged – art, crafts, carving, tattoos, food & cooking, clothing, implements, entertainment such as song and dance, legends, construction, weapons – they all remained much cruder and simpler in Samoa but advanced elsewhere. Thus it belies logic for religious observation to have changed meaningfully in such a short time, and when I analyse their religious observance today it is supposedly slipped away from the “Samoa is Founded Upon God” mantra, and that we have to return to the good old days. I don’t buy that thinking at all.

The LMS missionaries walked in at a time and place where the people were waiting for and expecting something new. One human leader accepted them as the expected ones and they were widely welcomed by decree and social pressure. I can accept widespread feelgood at the time; plus religious observance such as bibles in hand, Sunday whites, ultra modest clothing standards, and the name of Tagaloa newly identified as the Lord, new church buildings but aside from that how deep the personal repentance went, I tend to doubt that it touched the cultural idolatry. I think as today, when there is a conflict between the Samoan culture and Christ, He loses. This is the root thinking behind my inability to find even one Samoan that I could trust in a very active life over there.

Sadly I can say that the legacy of the Missionaries is unlikely to be anything like the Samoans perceive it. Yes there is an aspect of truth that has come – that the Lord and His name has been identified, but the people a century and a half on are still under oppression – religious oppression from both Catholic and Protestant streams. Samoans cannot see this and fiercely deny it at a societal level but it’s the truth, easy to see from outside.

> When my daughter [name withheld] visited Samoa as a fifteen-year old, she realised something was seriously wrong.
Yes, there is [something wrong].

First, your daughter is smart having experienced true faith before she went.

Second the cultural difference is very easy to see. Things are so different culturally.

Thirdly the concept of wrong needs fleshing out to 3D, for until we can see His view of things we are criticising from the sidelines. I’ve blogged about this recently but maturity came for me when after 18 months I inverted my learning and applied it backwards into my own culture – where WE failed. In the West we monetise our control over skills and labour which we often conceal. In the third world that monetisation occurs through things a lot more visible. We can often have very rich people even exploiters callously watching their neighbours struggle just to survive. It’s the cultural norm to let it all hang out in Samoa for show, whereas we moderate our affluence behind closed doors or hidden bank accounts. How many people have businesses, money in the bank and two cars when the anonymous people in the same street struggle to buy food or clothing or find a job?

Understand also that when you have nothing it is hugely satisfying for a community to have a monstrosity of a church in their village. Remember that faith is a social construct in Samoa as much as a personal matter.

> She thought the pastor of the village they visited was a creep, but she was told to respect him.
Yup – hit the nail on the head. He would have been a creep as most of them are,

Ouch! Did I really say that? I think in retrospect I would say instead that MANY of them are, not most. If greed and arrogance are natural when we have power of others, then perhaps my statement could stand. The labelling of faifeaus as greedy and manipulators is common in Samoa by Samoans, but they would never do this in public.

and yes as a man of God (faifeau) she MUST respect him. Why? Fear. Social pressure – the spirit of fear. Remember that in Samoan culture it is not the crime that matters (that’s an abstract) it is the shame (the relationships). This is where the Autism creeps in. All Samoans know that their culture suppresses them. They all talk about it and hate it. But they still all do it, and repeat it and teach it. A few exceptions but this is simply cognitive dissonance. Denial of reality.

> She was shocked that the pastor and the Matai were living in palaces, while the houses of everyone else were falling down.
This is THE number one take-home from Palagi guests, the observable wealth of the churches vs the equally observable relative poverty of those who give. Note though that in most third world countries this is the same with the witch-doctor driving a car and the people walking.

She was shocked at the manipulative process for getting tithes.
The use of social pressure (peer pressure) via shame (lit: fear of man) is also common in third world countries. Fundraising also does the same as tithes. We talked about that.

But she did not understand why.
Power, money, the usual. Oppression like this is the reason that Jesus came is it not? Setting the captives free?

They would not get away with that kind of behaviour in New Zealand.
Oh they do! Go to the Samoan community here and you will see the same – violence, social pressures, cultural norms are not all undone just because they are in NZ or OZ.

What is different about the Samoan culture that makes it possible there?
Normalisation. This is where my work is so valuable. When Samoans who are normalised to sin see others (like me) cry, and hurt and be in shock over something (like the PM and Sonja) there is opportunity for a recognition that something is wrong. The fact that it comes from an outsider; that it is accurate; that the entire people know, knew and know that the people always knew, makes it even more of a potential impact. That men of power take the women they want, and that women will give themselves to men of power to gain influence and benefit is nothing new. What is though, is that which nobody has been able to be talked about is now being talked about. When people see that one giant has fallen, the hindrance to having them stand for what is godly is reduced. Yes, it is the Holy Spirit who does that, but He uses conflict for His purposes, and excels working at the edges where there is friction to challenge people. Many a Samoan offshore reads and learns, the same as Palagi. A few take their wise choices back to their families. I know this for they tell me. It’s the same old, same old. Deceive. Keep them in deception and take what you want. Un-hiding the evil can be seen as aggression (which you rightly challenge me on) but it can also be seen as revelation of truth, the first step to an empowered people strong in the Lord.

Personally I would prefer to see Tuila’epa repent, even on his deathbed and the people learn to respect him, and indeed this may happen, but I am not preparing for that eventuality. It strikes me that the situation will require him to experience shame and for a new generation of leaders to go through the same traumas as he did.

When I said that this “may happen” and that I was “not preparing for that eventuality” I was being kind. I don’t want to say it will NEVER happen because that can become a statement of prediction, but the phrase relating to the hot-place freezing over might apply!

Why is this kind of behaviour acceptable, when unlike many religious systems, the pastors do not have power to offer sacrifices for the people.?
Good question. Why is there ANY social acceptance of sinful, ungodly conduct? I guess we have first, human nature, secondly a deceiver, then deliberate choices to run with the foolish stuff. I’m in the process of establishing a mouthpiece (as you know) that can be used to reveal the truth. I have noted Samoans change their conduct when confronted my a man of God crying before them. One man was stunned to see me weeping as he recounted how he beat his deaf 8 yo daughter with a belt and drew blood. He didn’t know that I knew and his conduct to her changed. Yes it’s hard but if people can see the truth and that it is being spoken in love, this is constructive.

In Samoa the faifeaus DO have the power. They claim authority over their flock the same as the High Chief. They work in cahoots with the High Chiefs to oppress, even though they do fight for that power. They do have the power, most definitely. Authority, no as you so eloquently teach.

My friend is a smart man. He would hate living in Samoa.

How does these attitudes feed through to the political and economic system?
Oh boy . . . don’t get me started! Isaiah 3 gives a description of the principles of political leadership applied – the people get the leadership that they deserve. The political system then as we’ve both noted ad infinitum is a direct consequence of the peoples’ choices. How much of this is through ignorance and how much through deception I wouldn’t know but they both affect Samoa. I’ve found that there is an excellent receptivity to hearing the truth up there, and a huge resistance to applying it. Apathy & laziness is a big one. They really simply do not care. Then comes the social cost to being a change agent. It is rare although not totally absent that a Samoan would risk family shame or potential social embarrassment. It’s a little easier from offshore Samoans who have been Westernised but they still find it unnatural and socially challenging. I think the younger ones from off-shore (under 40) are starting to speak up now.

Responsibility for the deception one has to be put onto the church leadership mostly. They really are the blind leading the blind. It’s one of the things I really look forward to doing is being able to preach, share in a forum that is outside of the religious control system in Samoa. I would also note that they are fat and lazy too, inexperienced generationally in dealing with challenges, thus an easy target for God. Their response and defence systems are crude, effective but totally predictable.

Deception and self-interest hits at economics as you will know across the board. What I would say though is that the poverty mentality is the biggest killer and sadness for me. When I see the incredible affect that getting a young man out there and resourcing him to produce (either on the plantation or in Australia to sing his way to stardom, or onto the rugby field to pop on the black jersey) has on whole families and for generations too, I get excited. Understanding the nature of money, that it is only ever a half completed transaction; that the other half is credit issued by someone who trusts that man to “be good for it” and that trust is only ever the true backing of a currency then Samoa COULD be one of the richest countries in the world. One day when/if you want I will go through my vision for a true trader’s currency and talk you through what I see as the dovetailing of a true trader’s currency, mankind’s needs and the guidance of scripture.

I see the understanding of money as the second most important question of life following identification of the person of Christ. The reason is that money is nothing more than the sum total of our life’s labours. When we see cash money as a limited supply (we earn $X this week, or year) we miss the bigger picture that when God extends us His credit, we are as wealthy as His supply of credit equal to our vision. When we consider the human investment into others’ journeys of faith and the opportunity that just one convert presents us for access to credit, this changes the way we see ourselves in the world. Seeing our true monetary value in the maximum value that we can be trusted to brings an awareness that goodwill (credit) extended to us by those we know and engage with is the wealth that we can tap into makes us (and that includes Samoans) view true wealth differently.

Take a beach fale. A Samoan will build a beach fale and beg for business. I will give a Samoan a pig or two to have use of it for a season knowing that within 365 days I can have 365×2 bednights converted into paying customers offshore. Should the Samoan owner realise the true value of the credit that can be obtained by those in the know, they can operate, think and feel like a millionaire instead of a beggar. It’s a huge, huge, huge potential change to Samoan ways, one that we barely touched on while I was working up there. It’s deeper than simply wishful thinking. It’s a profound change to the limited supply thinking that is the core deception – that money is a commodity. I know you know this but you asked, and you are onto my hot buttons!

Given your understanding of Samoa, I would appreciate a clear answer to these questions. I could not find it anywhere in your blog, although I may have looked in the wrong place. When you get back from Aussie would be fine.
As I said on the phone, I fund your reply quite frustrating.
You are correct that
>Human nature = the same.
>Culture = totally different.
The problem is that you answer many of myquestions is that they are human nature.
>Power, money, the usual
>Deception and self interest
>human nature, secondly a deceiver, then deliberate choices to run with the foolish stuff.
I already know about these.
There are a few hints about how they manifest in cultural differences, but they need to be dug out.
The most relevant comment was the following:
>I am not sure that I have exactly sat down and detailed it ever Ron. It is certainly in the Samoa
>Files but there’s hundreds of thousands of words to dig through before you would get it.
That seems to be correct. However, if you are going to be taken seriously as a cultural commentator, you need to get it down in a clear way. You need to explain why the culture makes Samoa different, without rambling about possible solutions and your bad experiences.

Whew! Doesn’t muck about with his words does he?

I think that my questions are good ones that need precise answers. It is no use saying that the problem is the cultural expression, and that you understand the culture, if you do not commit to writing it down clearly, you will not be taken seriously.
. . .

My reply in a follow-up email gets to the point of misunderstanding between us:

I see the problem in our miscommunication now clearly and I alluded to this on the phone. It’s this: I do not see the culture at fault.

I have no interest in changing the culture. The culture is fine, indeed there are many aspects of the Samoan culture that are closer to the biblical ideal than ours.

I teach Samoan culture to guests and others because I am a teacher. I criticise or analyse it from a Christian world view because I have faith. It is always faith in Christ that has to grow and this is nothing to do with culture. That answers your key question . . . the question is invalid, as the assumption that the culture needs to or should be changed is not accepted.

We didn’t resolve our differences:

You are playing with words. The word culture has quite a broad meaning in modern usage. You seem using it in a very narrow sense. If you want to distinguish culture from the manifestation of the culture that is fine, but you will be misunderstood, if you are not careful.

You cannot publish a book called Corruption in Samoa and then say the culture is fine. The gospel challenges every culture.

And I will leave this subject there for the moment.

Samoan culture, is grossly different to the Western culture. To cross this barrier requires a huge dose of humility (on both parties part) and a good deal of learning/experiences. When I as a Palagi sit down and teach a Palagi guest in Samoa about how my hosts in Samoa are feeling and what they are thinking, it can be a challenge to both parties. Likewise it can be just as hard when I explain to a Samoan host what my guest is thinking and feeling.

We can understand intellectually in the West for we use our minds well, but it took me a good 18 months of hard graft before I really understood. I had to let go the ideas, the abstracts, the concepts, the values that were so natural and important to me and engage with people where they were at. Misunderstanding still occurred more than it would have if I was in the West, but the Samoan culture has a lot to offer us in terms of keeping and developing relationships.

Samoans though have a lot to learn about reality and abstracts such as integrity, truth and personal accountability. Salvation is not a cultural, social or group thing as is the natural way for Samoans. Jesus came to show us the supreme importance of a personal relationship with the Father – hearing and doing His will individually and often in spite of our family or culturally normal relationships. Sometimes (as in Samoa’s case) that is not the way that our culture, genetically or socially is structured.

Sadly, I failed to explain the Samoan culture to my friend to answer his question to his satisfaction. I trust that you have grown a little in your understanding, however.

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