Jubilee Celebrations

30th June 2012
The bunting is up, the instruments polished, the massed bands ready to parade, there’s a 5 day holiday and the great and the good are in their seats. Like all of you we have been watching and enjoying a jubilee celebration, not of our queen but of Samoa’s 50 years of independence. This small country,the first of the Pacific nations to gain independence as a state has been pulling out all the stops to mark their historic moment.
Whilst many of you were drenched by the rain we were drenched by sweat, not necessarily a nice thought I know, but a reality. Can’t think when we have drunk so much water just to try and stay hydrated. But can’t really complain as it’s so nice to be away from the cold of New Zealand and back in T shirts. Key elements of the ceremonies included dancing and singing by groups of a couple of hundred people, the giving of lavish gifts of whole pigs, beautifully woven mats and printed tapa cloth. Think the best thing is to let Mike’s photographs give you an idea of what we enjoyed.

There are only around 180,000 people living in Samoa – more having migrated, notably to New Zealand – and it did seem like everyone was parading or performing. We did doubt there were many Samoans left to watch!

As is so often the case we have been seduced by the gentle easy way of life here and a planned few days has morphed into a several weeks. People we have met have all been warm and friendly and clearly proud of their country and all it has to offer. Outside of the celebrations we have been exploring the main town of Apia on Upolu including Robert Louis Stevenson’s home at Vailima where he and his wife Fanny lived for the last few year of his life.
He was buried nearby on Mount Vaea with the epithet he penned ending ‘..home is the sailor home from the sea and the hunter home from the hill’.
When you see the spot it’s easy to see why he chose it with its quiet beauty and gentle breezes.

Like the Marquesas in French Polynesia, Samoa is very lush, green and fertile, courtesy of all that volcanic soil, reckon you could put a stick in the ground and it would grow...and that includes the vines planted by the GIs in the second world war as fast growing camouflage to hide their planes from the Japanese. It’s still fast growing and choking anything and everything if left alone for 5 mins. So work in the gardens and plantations for the subsistence crops that everyone grows is made even harder.
This is exemplified by the way that Pulemelei, the largest ancient stone structure in Polynesia, is hidden by the dense undergrowth so that you can hardly make out the pyramid hidden under vines. Seems such a shame when so little of pre European contact remains.

Maybe some USA university would like to undertake some clearing and research on the structure. People don’t even seem to know what its original purpose was.

We spent a couple of evenings with Joseph and Vision, local guys, and had a fascinating time getting a better insight into the fa’a Samoa – the Samoan Way. Unlike many cultures we’ve come across here it survived the arrival of the explorers, traders and missionaries and it is strongly and deeply embedded within society. The system of chiefs or matai within the villages still control ways life is lived, what community projects will be undertaken, fines for transgressing local laws and rules and the general running of the village. These leaders, as many as a couple of hundred in a village of around 1200 are elected locally. Each family elect and are represented by a matai in the village council or fono. The Samoan Way instils great respect for the elderly (at the expense of the young, it appears) and a culture of giving and sharing all that you have which inhibits personal saving and private enterprise. This appeared to us to be damaging the country’s economic development. Unlike other small Pacific countries we’ve visited, the traditional culture survives across Samoa, including in urban areas, and is strengthened by the fact that you can only stand for parliament if you are a matai.

The other underpinning facet of life here is the church, enshrined in the constitution to the extent that the memorial to independence states that ‘Samoa is founded on God’. Unlike the UK here the congregation literally pays,from the weekly collections,anything and everything relating to the church: the pastor, his house, his food, funds his travel even to expensive locations abroad for church shindigs as well as the usual church repairs and the building of new churches and buildings. These collections are most usually publically recorded with how much each family has donated together with mandatory tithes and in total can often add up to 30% plus of a family’s income, this in an uneconomic country dependant on foreign aid and remittances from relatives abroad.
Churches here are not simple humble buildings but grandiose in the extreme with not one but several per village. We found some to be almost obscenely extravagant, but we’re told local villagers take an almost competitive pride in them. Here as everywhere there is no one road to God and there are at least seven different denominations in evidence vying for souls and money.

Given the grinding poverty we have seen here you do have question if this is right. Is this truly God’s will? One pastor’s son did explain that non attendance at church can still result in fines of up to 5,000 tala (given the minimum wage here is 2 tala an hour and that a teacher earns 12,000 tala per annum that’s a pretty hefty fine). And if you refuse to pay? Well that can lead to expulsion from the village – for life. Leaving disappearing into the crowds of Apia as your only option as you’ll then be a pariah and other villages won’t take you in. Nothing like coming to God with an open heart of your own free will. Mind you some of the younger people are trying to change this, but I don’t suppose the church supports them in this.
We went to church one Sunday, for the singing it must be said. The occasion was full of surprises: during the service visitors were asked to stand up and introduce themselves which Mike duly did; their printed prayer list included two players in the Samoan rugby team because their families were members of the congregation (even though the order of service said the team selection was controversial!); they remembered one of their missionaries working in Bradford, England; and the last surprise was when the woman next to us went forward to lead the prayers, wearing a prim cotton dress she walked barefoot to the front of the church. We looked down to see that in the pew she had left behind her high heels and Blackberry. After returning to her seat, she checked her emails perhaps expecting God’s reply to have already pinged in!
The other main island of Samoa is Savai’i where we anchored off a small hotel that made us very welcome ashore. We got to know the friendly staff well and especially Sale the owner. He had had the full Samoan tatau (tattoo) called a pe’a done a few years ago. It is a long process taking several days and many hours of excruciating pain which he remembers as though it were yesterday.

We had watched one guy in Apia as he was going through the process and it looked every bit as painful as the photos suggest. Having it done is a combination of rite of passage and pride in your culture and certainly we met men immensely proud of their full tattoo and willing to show it off. The greatest shame for a Samoan man is to start a tatau and not complete it. So the whole process is not lightly undertaken.

See more of our photos of Samoa

So now the few days in Samoa had become a month and our visa was about to expire, so it seemed like the right time to leave. We are heading for Tonga and hopefully some further celebrations as the crown prince is expected to wed in July and, although our invitation hasn’t yet arrived we plan to watch the celebrations.

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Photo comment By Sherry: Devala, we are very much enjoying your postings! And I might add I'm just a bit jealous of your wonderful adventures! Fondly remember our fun time on your boat in Rangiroa, and the wonderful bottle of champagne you shared with us for our anniversary! Hope you have been diving and enjoying it!

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