A highly esteemed Belgium medico, who has recently received a knighthood from his own people for outstanding service to try to improve the health of Samoans, has yet again got mention for his long-term views – that Samoans are fat and sick [he omits the lazy part]. In this post I give my take on some of the various factors behind what this surgeon essentially calls a sick country. Enjoy!
That Samoans are, as a rule fat, sick and lazy is an easy observation to make and validate. Just vist, look around and fait accomplis. Pretty ugly and politically incorrect to the max but hey . . . This story gives the expert’s own figures which align with the repeating mantra from anyone in the know and involved in Samoan health – an oxymoron if ever there was.
Rather than follow the original story‘s lead, I pick out a few key phrases and try to put the issue into proper context, as always drilling a little deeper than is usual, and talking from a Christian perspective.
The doctor (Sir Walter Vermeullen) was the former Director General of Health and is a Belgium who relocated to Samoa 5 decades ago. He’s no slouch! The story is from Talamua, so you know that the ‘big man’ himself has likely given it the nod. He (the PM) did some time up there in Belgium and there will be ‘warm-fuzzies’ all round despite the fact that seeing the overweight Prime Minister speaking about weight-loss will set his mortal opposition OLP into fits of claims of hypocrisy!
[He] is calling Samoa a ‘disease burden country’ … Samoa needs to change its eating habits. Of Samoa’s population, 30% have diabetes and 70% of its average population are obese … He recommends a changed diet with “Plenty of vegetables & less meat”.
Umm . . . That will go down like a cup of cold sick with the locals! Gracefully and tactfully he omits exercise and focuses on a healthy diet. I think he knows that if he adds in there exercise, it may get him accused of calling Samoans, fat, sick AND lazy!
He wants more people turn up to take part in their weekly seminars that talk about why people get sick, and how to overcome it.
Health is like money, sex and air. None of these are a problem really until you don’t have enough of them. In any culture. health is a very hard act to sell. The younger people generally have it thus are disinterested in lifestyle matters. People suffering from health issues in middle of life generally see any illness as a temporary aberration, and those with health issues and maturity have usually left it too late to change their habits.
Samoans have a massively high NCD rate – that’s the kind of diseases that Sir Walter is talking about – primarily obesity related heart and diabetes.
The Christian Viewpoint
I have always taught that the correct biblical view in relation to three primary failures in mankind’s behaviour all result from pride – the root cause of the Fall. For the record, these are Anti-social behaviour, Ungodly behaviour and Self destructive behaviour. Non-Communicable Disease’s and obesity fall heavily into this last category. We eat ourselves to death . . . literally.
While human pride causes us to create the problem, pride then prevents us seeing the problem, and even if we see the problem if not addressed constructively it will tempt us to avoid addressing the problem.
Pride remains until we consciously humble ourselves and DO the needful. Like a mirage or a popping balloon it will dissipate instantly but it will remain until we exercise that faith and DO it – in this case changing behaviour patterns.
Experts a million times smarter than me have pontificated for eons over how to change human behaviour. Samoans are no different in many ways to the rest of the world but they ARE different in some important cultural ways.
The Samoan Picture
Cuddly; the fuller figure, curvy, well cared for etc are the phrases you can use to explain overweight or obese. It usually means the same but only his enemies in private and a few anonymous bloggers and anyone booted out of Samoa by Tuila’epa would ever call him fat. He’s overweight; has put on a lot more weight in the time that I’ve known him and looks like a fat pompous [well you get the idea].
When as a tourist you see women waddle down the main street because they can’t walk and usually over 40 yo men by the dozens sitting, apparently pregnant, it is impossible not to get the picture. These people are different. Why?
The first thing to understand is that in the West there is a gentler physical change in our bodies than in the darker nationalities. Polynesians can be trim, fit healthy and turn to looking aged and podgy to the Western eye very quickly. Some of this is physiological – don’t ask me why or how – but some of it is cultural norms/practices.
Some of these examples are – the bestowing of a Matai title will usually require that the male (and to some degree his wife) will no longer work. It is his job to instruct others in his care. He will be brought food – the more the more prestigious he will look and increased body weight is a sign of success. This norm has been moderated with cross-cultural exchange but the idea that ‘beef = beauty’ is still culturally prevalent.
Food – especially the giving of it is a cultural norm. It is so ingrained in the Samoan way of life that trying to change this would be like saying to a Westerner – “Oh you can go to work for me all right but you have to pay to have a job!” We’d scratch our heads and try and work out which planet you’d just fallen in from.
The Samoan people are taught to respect age and to not rock the boat. Knowing that something is wrong or unhealthy can often be spoken of in private but you just can NOT go up to your Father or Aunty or Grandparents and say, “You’re overweight and unhealthy! You gotta stop eating or we’ll be burying you soon!”
There’s a lot more to this one, but the Samoan people have a shared, relational, communal view of life. This is great when there are needs, such as births, marriages and deaths but it breeds co-dependency and not personal responsibility
This is an ugly one but we’ve only two more to go, Samoans are essentially lazy. Nobody (and this is from the top down) does anything unless or until they have to. If they can get kids to carry things for them or if family will continue to feed them (supposedly as an act of love) or drive them or cover for them, then they will. The intrinsic motivation of knowing that a job is done well, or that something is right or good in itself means little to people who live by relationships, and maintaining the peace with those they aim to impress.
When the priest is the biggest glutton in the village and the people feed him and his family as a part of the cultural norm; when people ask you if you are OK if you lose weight rather than congratulate you on looking or being healthy; when the boys chasing the buses are selling Shasta soda drink in an easy to buy, easy to catch, easy to open and easy to slurp down can; it is very hard to start a rabbit-food based dietary programme.
Lastly, and this one is a real kicker, sorry for any hurt I cause to the few Samoans that do, but basically Samoans don’t care. Fat, not fat, who cares? I’ll repeat that in a little more detail so that you can see what I mean here . . . If I bring shame on my family by admitting that I made a mistake with diet or lifestyle, and then potentially saving an entire generation behind me, then most will save face and go. Whatever!
Or, if I know that something is wrong and that there is a better way, why would I bother to say or do anything different?
Sadly Samoa has huge potential to do it right, to get it right. Sadly, as evidenced by the Prime Minister and a gazillion other leaders who are all setting the example, Samoa, fat, sick it is. We’ll leave off the lazy part as Sir Walter did – a tactful man.
Now to all Samoans who are NOT fat, sick and lazy, good on you. Leave your respectful comments below and I look forward to encouraging you in your happy, healthy lifestyle!