In this post I recount an explanation I gave recently to an off-line enquirier explaining ‘why you can’t trust Samoans’. While the answer of necessity contains a generalisation in the main it is true regardless of the [Samoan] person involved. I give examples and explanations that answer the question I am often asked, “Can you trust . . . ?” covering cultural and spiritual matters as always written from the Christian world view. Please hold your criticism until you have read the entire post [if you are an already indignant Samoan] and enjoy!
I have recently been receiving feedback supporting my exposure of Corruption at the top of Samoa’s political leadership. Someone has linked to my book “Corruption in Samoa” and the Social Media links have done their thing. Responses are generally poles apart and are either anonymous hate-mail or passionate support by way of pleasure that the truth has been told about Tuila’epa who they see as the most corrupt of them all. Occasionally I receive support from a thinking Samoan who is a little more measured and respectful in their response.
The background to this post is that I have paid a very high price for speaking out. I was determined to be a Prohibited Immigrant secretly (which BTW makes his act illegal by Samoan laws) by the Minister of Immigration Tuila’epa and tricked into leaving by his lackeys through four levels of the Immigration Bureaucracy while legally a visitor to Samoa – a fact acknowledged in writing at the time. As a direct consequence of this I lost everything I owned (literally) except the clothes I walked in and my notebook computer. I regret losing what I did, particularly family heirlooms; wish that my wife and three step-kids chose to stand up to her families greed but recognise that in Samoa, looking good means more than anything such as an abstract such as your word and signature such as a marriage.
My crime was that I exposed Tuila’epa’s immoral relationship with CEO of Tourism Sonja Hunter. I told the PM that I would publish even baiting him to “review my immigration status” if he was that stupid politically. He took the bait and two years later Samoa became a memory to me, now for life.
The issue of trust arises all the time with Samoans. Crime, greed and self-interest abound in the Pacific as they do elsewhere if people are not constrained in some way. The difference in Samoa is that to the Western way of thinking, lies and greed destroy trust for all but the naive.
Our trouble as Westerners is that we read the outward signals from Samoans such as a ready welcome, a smile and relatively open hospitality in the Western framework that this implies trustworthiness. When we [naturally] such conduct as an indication of Western-style trustworthiness, we err. This sets us up for [often] costly learning the hard way for these are cultural norms in Samoa, a social phenomenon rather than of Western-style individual values.
In seven years of engaging with the Samoan people at all levels of society (initially at the top politically and in business) then mostly at grass-roots level in the rural villages, I found not one person that I could trust in the Western meaning of trust.
I am strictly honest, deliberate and accurate in what I have just said. I did not meet all 180,000 residents personally of course but every single friend, business partner, colleague, acquaintance and relative I met either ripped me off, tried to or would if they could and I tried very hard to give opportunity for Samoans to break that mould, all at huge cost of forgiveness and extending grace for seven years.
Such words are hard to comprehend. We either will think that I am the one with the problem – that I invite trouble by my ways; or that I was unlucky or dealt only with the wrong people; that my standards or expectations are unreasonable or that I don’t understand the true Samoan culture, or the island ways . . .
No. I don’t accept that my analysis following seven years of what happened is wrong in this situation.
The issue I share here needs to be understood from the cultural difference. Human nature is the same across the planet and throughout time. Sure, at some times and places people choose to do dumb things en masse and at others they choose to do things right, but the underlying greed (based on pride) exists universally. The Christian perspective is that we are all “born into sin” meaning that because Adam and Eve screwed up, we too are spiritually children living under this control of less than a perfect world.
The cultural difference, which is what I was sharing in this past weekend can be summarised that Samoans operate in a relational space (culturally) and we in the West operate with abstracts (a primary influence of the Greek culture).
This affects the values that we respect, honour and [literally] worship. Thus the immoral conduct of their current political leader brings enormous shame on the Samoan people as they feel it personally*. We in the West could easily criticise our politicians and take criticism from outsiders less personally because we [generally] treasure abstracts, such as truth, integrity and so on. It is far less personal for us.
This difference flows out to establishing right and wrong; good and bad and into the spiritual realm when it is viewed as godliness and evil. In Samoa truth, right & wrong and good/evil is established through relationship, so that what their family leader (the Matai of High Chief) says is more important than any abstract or external measurement.
This can be seen in a ridiculous hypothetical situation I use by way of example (so that it doesn’t relate to an identifiable individual) where if the High Chief says that the sky is green and the grass is blue, then the boys of that family or village will fight to the death to support their chief’s diagnosis, simply because of relationship. Those of us from the West however could easily die defending the abstract that the sky is blue and the grass is green – because we know the truth.
Now there are exceptions to this ‘rule’ especially as individuals are influenced by the Western ways, but the underlying cultural norm is that in Samoa, relationships rule our thinking and behavioural norms whereas in the West it is abstracts such as the law and morals that determine our conduct.
I can give a hundred examples of this, literally, but will choose a few by way of example. I stayed in Satapuala for a while, invested into a property and one of the boys stole a cellphone. I tracked it down, found the thief and he was beaten in front of me quite badly. Bloody lips from a big Samoan fist and a dog chain collar around the boy’s neck, literally continued until I vacated myself from the scene. If I had stayed or permitted it, the boy would have been killed. The moment I left though, the punishment stopped. No effort was made to get or return the phone. None. The crime was not the theft. The restitution of a physical item never occurred to the Samoan matai. What was the problem was that shame had come into the family and it had to be undone, or atoned for, by beating the boy to a pulp in front of me. It showed to me that the family was to be seen a certain way by an outsider. Bugger the fact that theft occurred, or that this was ‘wrong’ (an abstract).
This relationship thing cuts both ways too. Money and physical assets become joint property in the Western view of things. The gifting of money when she needed it to my secretary and best friend, someone whom I should really be able to trust out of anyone I engaged with in Samoa, established a pattern that extended past my stay in Samoa. She sold our car in my absence and pocketed the money. Another good friend I assisted with monetary help when he needed it. He ‘bought’ a nice galvanised trailer which I specifically instructed NOT to be sold, yet his relationship with me was such that when he found out that I had gone, what was mine was suddenly his. Likewise with my ex-wife’s family who swooped on everything they could, the instant they knew that I was gone. despite the fact that the majority of the assets where owned by the Charitable Trust, relationship (in this case a marital one) over-ruled all abstracts such as fairness, truth, morality and the law.
In a business sense, Western investors into Samoa need to be ultra careful in partnering with Samoans. In fact I would strongly advise against this unless there were exceptional circumstances. The same reason applies – cultural differences. In the West, no matter where we fit on the ethical scale, our word is our bond – a document signed and witnessed may feel like some form of security but in Samoa it is almost worthless, and let alone a Samoan’s word.
I lost count of the number of times I personally wiped out through failed ventures, usually all to do with broken promises from a Samoan. Sometimes I got sucked in directly and deliberately by those out to defraud from the outset. Many times though it was just a development that gravitated to a loss or a deterioration of relationship. Most times it was no fault of mine, other than to have been the one there and the one who trusted – of necessity.
The best way to describe this risk of trusting is to understand the Samoan ways that the business is good when there is something in it for the other party, but the moment that things turn socially, no paper, agreement or anything other than saving face today will matter. An agreement; a promise; ethics in the sense of an absolute or any abstract means little. Understand this cultural thing and our risk assessment changes for the wiser.
The cultural difference is not necessarily an excuse. The Christian world view shows that the Samoan as does a Palagi has a conscience and knows inherently right and wrong, good and bad, and that there is a Creator to whom we are ultimately accountable. The deception though is that for a Samoan, the societal norm whereby maintaining relationship is more valuable than standing for an abstract (even such an abstract as love or truth) is acceptable. We listen to and give money to the religious leaders, even though we know they are immoral. We lie and cover up dishonest or other immoral conduct within our families and villages in order to avoid shame or embarrassment.
This is also the same reason why Tuila’epa chose to evict me from his country. The people hated me for standing firm in my faith. I would not cease speaking the truth. He covered for me for two years then ripped me off in order to protect his immorality with one of his long-term mistresses. I was a small price to pay for retention of his power and keeping face.
It matters not at which level you approach this aspect of trust – a low level theft in a rural Samoan village or at a village level or an national level . . . you simply cannot trust a Samoan if the trust is viewed from the Western perspective.
I speak for a moment to those Samoans who consider that they are above this critique and challenge them directly. Malo Soifua. If you think that you are free from the worship of Samoan culture and can be trusted in the Western style, ask yourself how you would handle a situation in which your family or Matai or village required you to comply with something contrary to a Western-style abstract, especially a biblical one. Would you stand against this influence or would you submit to them, knowing the price of doing this? I have met several who have paid the social price of ostracism but have yet to meet one Samoan who is ready to give up their life for the Truth. Samoa mo Samoa is the motto of many a Samoan which says it all.
If you are trustworthy, you may contact me and I will be happy to update this post.
I conclude this post with a comment on the flip side of trust seen from the Samoan angle. I ask these semi-rhetorical questions. What is the value in truth as an abstract, if we do not love, support and be there for our families, village or culture? If the Palagi comes to Samoa and desires to have that family bond/relationship after seeing it and appreciating it, why then does he/she return to their lands and preach back to us, complaining when they don’t understand us or our values?
The answer is not to take either side, but to establish reality from reference to the biblical absolutes. When measuring a cultural norm by the biblical instruction, the Western culture errs when dealing with relational matters. We are happy to enforce debt collection beyond biblical guidance, and to gloss over relational matters which Jesus taught and demonstrated. We will fight over theological things yet ignore our shared global situation of need. The Samoan culture though errs when elevating cultural norms above the abstracts espoused in Scripture. The reason that foreigners get ripped off so often and that there is distrust towards Samoans is a failure to honour our word and ‘The’ Word when the truth is fudged for relationship reasons.
Thank you for swinging by today. It’s been a pleasure trying to explain a complex and contentious subject.
* Actually it is more the shame of being exposed rather then the actual crimes.