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A Culture of community in Samoa

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Ava or kava ceremony
The 'Ava' ceremony with Chief's daughter

Samoa was the first country (1962) in the Pacific to gain independence from the Colonial powers. The Samoans believe that this has helped them, compared to other Pacific islands, to preserve more of their culture. And they are keen to share it with visitors.

In Apia, there is a Cultural village where you can learn how to weave coconut leaves into a dish, headband or basket, where traditional Samoan food is cooked using hot stones, there are demonstrations of wood carving and traditional tattoo technique. In addition, there is an attempt to explain local cultures and traditions, including the regular community meetings. Such meetings start with the 'ava' greeting ceremony.

It is the responsibility of the chief's daughter to prepare the 'ava'. It is made from the roots of the pepper plant (which needs seven years before the roots are ready). The roots are grated and then squeezed, before being mixed with water. The first cup of ava is poured onto the ground as a 'gift to God'. Then everyone is offered a sip and, before drinking, should utter the word, 'Ia Minuia', or 'Be happy'. Given that the drink affects the central nervous system in a similar way to alcohol, this may be a given!

These regular (usually weekly) meetings form the basis of 'community level' government. There are separate meetings for the women (charged with making the village beautiful), the chiefs (who discuss new issues and create by-laws to resolve them) and the 'untitled' who work out how best to fulfil the bylaws and serve the chiefs. One example of the women's initiative can be found throughout Samoa today. The Samoan national government launched two projects. The first was to try to make the Samoan villages more attractive (for tourism). A second was to reduce the burning of old car tyres. Through the meetings forum, one village proposed using the tyres as plant pots. In the photo below the tyre has been turned inside out, one rim patterned and the tyre painted. Today, many of Samoan roads and private driveways are lined with this form of decoration.

Flower pots rubber tyres
Flower pots made from old tyres

The traditional tattoo can only be administered by a 'tafuga', the tattoo artist. He must be born into the families who 'own' the art and is taught by his father. Men may get the leg and lower body tattoo once they are over 16. In reality it happens much later. The full tattoo requires 12 sessions of 6 hours and is extremely painful. The pattern is decided by the tattoo artist and his take on the history of the individual, his family and Samoa in general. Ink is administered through a 'comb' of needles attached to a stick. The artist then used another stick to drive the comb through the skin. The 'wood on wood' sound is the 'tat'. The reaction of the patient (' Ooo') completes the word! The 'patient' is usually accompanied by his family during the traditional tattoo process. Possibly for moral support, possibly so they can witness his courage at withstanding the pain. In French Polynesia we were told a man gets the lower body and leg tattoo to demonstrate he accepts responsibility to look after his wife and future family, so is done when he gets married. In Samoa today, commercial considerations are important. The cost is very high and men need to save for many years before they are able to afford it. Given the pain involved, I see a reason to remain low paid for as long as possible! We witnessed someone going through session 3 of the process. Unfortunately no photos were allowed.

Even after death family is kept close. It is common here to bury family members in the garden!

Graves in garden
Family graves in the garden

We attended a fire dance show. The story behind it offers another example of the Samoan community at work. A chief had wanted to help the children of street vendors (typically very poor) and give them a purpose. Twenty years ago, he founded a school to teach the traditional fire dance skills. The finance came from his brother, who had built a successful business. Twenty years on, they have formed troupes who tour the world demonstrating this part of Samoan culture, thereby providing a living for the (now) young men.

Fire dance Siva Afi
Samoan Fire dancing (Siva Afi)

Although the 'culture classes' and fire dance shows are clearly targeted at tourists, they absolutely did not come across as superficial, or as 'just a show'. We were struck by how genuinely proud the Samoans are of their culture and the passion and joy they display when explaining it to anyone interested. The country has recently been reclassified as a 'medium income economy' (from 'low income'), with little watering down of traditional values. Although their standard of living (based on material wealth), is still far behind French Polynesia, the average Samoan comes across as prouder and more contented. The culture of community and teamwork in Samoa shines through.

In Apia, every morning around 09.00 a.m., there is another unusual custom. The entire police force, accompanied by the police band, march from their HQ to the main government building for a flag raising ceremony. The ritual began in the 1970's although we have been unable to find out why.

Police band flag raising ceremony
Police Band marching to the daily flag raising ceremony

Samoa is a devout christian community with the highest number of churches per capita of any country in the world. These churches are huge, even in small villages. I find it hard to comprehend how the church can justify extracting the necessary costs from the relatively poor local communities. Every Sunday families put on their 'Sunday best', usually in white and head to one of the churches.

Churchgoers Sunday Best
Samoans in their 'Sunday Best' (usually all white in the countryside)

Samoa is also home to one of only eight houses of worship for the "Baha'u'llah" faith. We had never heard of this faith until we visited the temple. The founder believes that all the most common religions (Hindu, Jewish, Zorostrian, Buddist, Christian, Islamic) actually refer to the same God and that, generally, the beliefs are the same. Any differences between the religions can be explained as different local interpretations which are minor compared to the overall commonality. Therefore differences should be tolerated and accepted. In fact, any faith is welcomed into a Baha'u'allah temple and allowed to worship in their own way. The idea of emphasizing common ground and tolerance to others strikes me as a far healthier approach to religion than using the differences as sources of conflict, which the rest of the world seems to have decided is the way to go. The grounds of the temple were some of the most beautiful we have seen anywhere.

Baha'u'llah temple, Samoa
Annick with Susan (SV Freya) and Helen and Steve (SV Cerelean) in front of the Baha'u'llah temple

Robert Louis Stevensen (RLS), author of' Jekell and Hyde', 'Treasure Island' etc, lived in Samoa for the last four years of his life. The house that he built and lived in is now a world famous museum and a highly recommended visit. The house also contains the only two fireplaces in Samoa. It seems they were never used (it is always warm here) but the idea was to remind RLS of his Scottish roots. Included in the collection are first editions of his three most famous books, presented by Queen Elizabeth II as a gift from the British people.

Robert Louis Stevenson Museum
Robert Louis Stevenson Museum

Before he died he issued a request to be buried at the summit of Mount Vaea, above his house. He died suddenly and, at that time, there was no path or route to the summit. There was also no refrigeration and bodies were typically buried within 24 hours. Yet RLS was loved by the Samoan people. Known as 'Tusitala' (the Teller of Tales), he had become involved in the politics of colonialism, writing letters to the Times exposing the colonial powers strategy of 'divide and rule' and their role in promoting the Samoan inter-tribal wars. He was also instrumental in helping bring peace between the chiefs. He immersed himself in the culture and even started writing in Samoan.

The local population turned out en masse and, through the night, created a path to the summit. It is said that, the next morning, his coffin was not carried up the mountain but passed, hand over hand, all the way to the summit. For this reason, the route is now known as 'The Path of the Loving Hearts'. What better example of a community working together.

We still have more time in Samoa, with much more to enjoy. So far, the impressions are very positive.

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