Life In A Samoan Village


This article is the result of my recent visit to the village of Leauva’a on the Samoan island of Upolo. I was there with my wife to visit her father who has an advanced, cancerous tumour growing on his chest, and who may not be with us much longer. He has resorted to Traditional Samoan treatment, and I have an open mind as to whether it will prove successful. It was an emotional, deeply interesting and rewarding journey.

Foreign Fauna
The mongrel had been shot through the head and now lay sprawled face down on the dusty path that ran alongside the fale: mouth open in a fixed snarl, blood trickling over his teeth and mingling with the dirt. He’d lived a dog’s life and died like one. His crime? He had discovered a taste for chickens.

In Samoa the dog is an integral part of the scavenging clean-up team: But there are rules. You do not eat the chickens. The chickens, like the dogs and pigs, are not indigenous to the islands but now are as common as the coconut palm. They roam freely, seeming to know the rough boundaries of their owners’ fence-less property, picking and pecking at the smaller discarded food scraps, dropped over-ripe fruit, and insects. The free-roaming pigs and piglets serve the same purpose and take care of the larger edible detritus. But only the dogs are not a part of the Samoans diet, therefore I ponder the reasons for their introduction to the islands. But dogs – and these are a semi-wild mix of mongrels – have always been good at ingratiating themselves with those humans soft enough to feed them, even if they offer very little in return. Each household in the village has at least three and the dogs are fiercely protective of that territory and of their prime owners. Many bear the scars of great battles.

All through the night, on most nights, you will hear their wild yelping, barking, growling: even piteous howling when they are struck with a stone or have met their match with a more fierce dog. As you lay awake, unable to sleep through the combined ruckus of dogs barking and ill-timed roosters crowing, it is of little reassurance that no interloper – animal or human – is going to get near you with their legs intact. You cannot help but listen intently as each bark and cock crow is responded to from neighbouring villages, as if in some bizarre competition as to who will make the last, the final, the ultimate yelp or cock-a-doodle-doo. It is compelling in its madness and can leave you drained at dawn as the village comes to life, and as you seek desperately to snatch a few more, precious moments of restorative sleep. To the island’s villagers, who usually sleep in open fales to catch any possible cooling breeze, the background mayhem is merely a soothing and reassuring hum, probably akin to us big-city dwellers sleeping through the drone of overhead police helicopters and cars’ sirens through the night. Finally awakening to the smells coming from the cooking fires, I would still opt to stay in the village as opposed to a resort or hotel any day.Animals in SamoaVillage Doctors

Taulaitus, Fogau and Taulasea
– Spirit Mediums, Faith Healers, Bone Setters and Witch Doctors
‘Witch Doctor’ has a negative connotation in our society and is only an approximate translation of Taulasea. All of the above traditional healers exist today in village society throughout Samoa. Their services are frequently called upon by Samoans, often in conjunction with modern medical practice and the hospital’s services in Apia, the capital. In the case of my wife’s father, he has now completely lost faith in western trained doctors and pharmaceuticals, and has resorted to traditional healing. He is not untypical, as stories of miraculous cures by traditional healers abound, passed around by word of mouth. It would be foolish to discount these stories as fantasies, as without real cures, real successes, the tradition would have died out years ago.

I witnessed the regular application of particular leaves soaked in coconut oil on my father-in-law’s tumour under considerably less than western hygienic standards, and was awed by the fact that infection not only had not occurred, but was kept at bay by the application. The use of certain leaves for poultices is common practise amongst the healers. The putrefaction of the tumour which we had seen (and smelled) on our previous visit two years before his resorting to the traditional healing, was totally absent. Though we didn’t measure the tumour, it also appeared to be diminishing in size over the period of time we were there: though what that means in medical terms of recovery I couldn’t say. The healer, a small, wizened old crone who had an amazingly warm, toothless smile, massaged with a deftness and tenderness that left me in no doubt about her skills – skills handed down to select persons through the generations. Other women fanned the ever-present flies away, and it struck me as very interesting that our rigorous, fastidious concept of hygiene had no place in the treatment at all.

My father-in-law had also suffered a bad fall on his hip a few months back. The leg was X-rayed at the hospital and the doctors declared there was no sign of fracture, but the leg subsequently became more painful and, probably because of his compensating for his hip, the foot became inflamed and extremely painful too. The doctors claimed it was all related to the cancer. However, the patient resolutely rejects this and has resorted to another traditional healer for that particular ailment. In this case it was a small (I don’t know if their size is relevant), wizened man. His deft and adept strokes and kneading were evident of his having a deep knowledge of the art and the massage, and alternated between gentle and brutal as he worked on re-aligning the leg, hip and foot. To date it has been having a clearly beneficial effect.

My wife’s cousin, a young man in his thirties who was visiting from the neighbouring village of Saleimoa, had effusively attempted to convince the father-in-law to use the services of a (female) Taulasea. He was of the opinion that the condition was caused by his being beset by demons: a widely held belief in the face of a wide range of ailments. On visiting Saleimoa myself I was told that my wife’s uncle had recently been cured of some sickness by the services of this Taulasea (I was given her mobile number to give to my father-in-law). They were vague about the “sickness” of the uncle (lost in translation), but it may well have been linked to depression brought on by recent events. His youngest son had recently been brutally murdered in the early hours of the morning by three men and a woman from the same village, and his oldest son was recently imprisoned for attempted murder: an event unrelated to his brother’s death. Life can be brutal here.

I was told of how the Taulasea had worked in the dead of night, circling the boundary of his property, seeking out the source of the demons. In this case the offending demon was located at the grave of his aunt near another fale at the back of the land – Samoans bury their dead on their property around their homes – and it was duly exorcised. The uncle swore by the efficacy of the Taulasea’s treatment and, aided by the ancient Samoan tradition of spreading news by word of mouth, his tale will further ensure the continued use of traditional healing. In the case of my father-in-law however, I seriously doubt if any exorcising of demons is going to remove that cancerous tumour from his chest, and as yet he has resisted calling that mobile number. But stranger things have happened.

The Tropical Bus
What is it about buses in the tropics?

There must be some magical, atmospheric influence – found only in the equatorial belt – that dictates buses found there must be more colourful, more decorated, and have cheerful boppy music pumping out loud: that they must be more people-friendly and have friendlier, more cheerful people on board who do not mind the crush and the cram, and who will happily accommodate someone on their knees when there are no more seats available. The Samoan bus is like this. It is a hot, crowded, rowdy fun ride and the Poly Wrap (as I like to refer to Polynesian Rap music) has a really uplifting, yet soothing influence.

Typically, these colourful, door-less buses have all the windows right down when there is no rain shower, and I note the majority of the females have their luxuriant hair tied firmly back, glossed with scented coconut oil. This delightful scent wafts over us as we hurtle along. Off the main road on the village routes, the countryside is barely-tamed, verdant jungle, the rich greens a glaring contrast to our countryside. The villages, with their houses and traditional palm-thatched-roof fales are in little jungle clearings off the road – sometimes deep in the bush, where the villagers work whatever land space they need. Alternately, along the coast the fales and houses are right on the water – vulnerable to tsunamis – and you can often see the village men out on the lagoons in their outrigger canoes fishing for a living. These canoes, hand hewn from large trees, when not in use are parked, upturned beside their homes while their owners rest in their fales. As bone-jarring as they can sometimes be, to get a real feel for the place and its people, you can not beat the local bus.

The Smile
The Polynesian smile is a wonder to behold and to have a girl – especially a young girl – turn her beaming smile on you can be devastating. What to do? Is it a come-on? But no, forget your ego. Anyway, at my age I don’t kid myself that it is anything but beautiful friendliness. I follow the smiles to see if they disappear as quickly as I am used to seeing in our rushed and busy society: but no, they linger on and I feel as if I am bathed in light. Unfortunately it is also notoriously difficult to capture on film; the intrusion of a camera inevitably spoils the moment.

An anthropologist may have an explanation for the extraordinary power and, perhaps, purpose of their smile: one is certainly disarmed. The white teeth gleaming against a dark skin undoubtedly contribute to its effect. Meanwhile, forget the analysis, it is one more of the memories you willingly carry away from these Pacific Isles.

Hard Life – Soft Life
Life for the villagers is hard. But wait a minute; the two words “hard life” are used in a pejorative sense by westerners, often to describe the lifestyle of a people living a more natural, less consumer driven, or primitive existence. Most Samoans live primarily off the land. Comparatively, in western terms, “living off the land” usually implies a farmer who is quite likely to be a millionaire grazier or grain producer. Hardly humble circumstances.

Most villagers are settled in family clusters throughout the village (neighbours without the fences if you like), and while they do live primarily from their land – both to earn cash and provide food for themselves – one or two in a family may have regular employment to provide a consistent cash flow. This enables them to purchase the western consumer goods they have become accustomed to. Some family members will undoubtedly be living and working overseas in New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii or America, sending money back to the family, or contributing western building materials: sometimes even a modern motor vehicle.

Those back in the village do indeed work hard on their munificent land and carry out daily chores in comparatively primitive conditions. The men become nut-brown from the sun and muscular from the toil; there is always much to do, but plenty of time in which to do it. When they have done enough – and time is not measured by the clock – they return to their shaded fales to rest and idle. The women will have been mothering, preparing food, washing clothes by hand, gossiping or nursing their elderly and the many young. Children snack through the day on bananas, seeds, coconut, seasonal fruit, leftover cooked taro or yam: all from the surrounding land. The climate and the vegetation ensures that they will not die for want of food even if they did little, but for the extras they want or require it takes some hard work. There are victims too: falling coconuts kill quite a few and the sea takes its toll of fishermen. Diabetes and heart disease seems to afflict many of those who adopt the western lifestyle and high sugar diet – a culture clash.

The Hard Life generates interesting roadside and small enterprise too: foodstuffs, repair shops, native medicaments, transport etc., to which the Government turns an enlightened blind eye. Meanwhile, in our Soft Life land, from where we disdainfully look down on those hard working folk, there is a mad and desperate rush to join the Gym, run, or cycle in order to compensate for the physical indolence of the 9 – 5. And, victims of our soft, consumerist, acquisitive lifestyle are plentiful.

I got the distinct impression that the villagers’ hard life was a healthy life: certainly devoid of stress. In many cases it may not equate to a particularly long life – though many islanders have lived to exceptional ages, particularly the women – but it certainly has appeal in its non-stressful physicality. A downside of this hard life may be, however, the traces of an element of brutality among some of its people – the widespread influence of the Christian church notwithstanding. But, an anthropologist may shed light on this factor too, and may maintain that the physicality of a lifestyle lived not far elevated above the survival line, breeds a certain harshness into the character. Perhaps sentimentality is a luxury that can only be afforded by the people of the – perhaps, now ‘over’ – developed nations.

Copyright Photos and Text © 2010 by John Cedric Watkins