Fa’a Samoa: Definitely Not About Girl Scout Cookies or ‘The Rock’

Adria Orr | KF 17 | Samoa

A view of Apia Harbor.

In case you're wondering...

Where exactly is that? Isn’t that a cookie? Common responses to my placement in Samoa. Given that few, if any, of my friends and family were able to point to it on a map, I believe I have arrived off the beaten path. In the last two and a half weeks, I’ve received an immersive eduction on my MFI’s policies and practices, the nature of microfinance in Samoa, and of course, Samoa itself.

In case you didn’t know, Samoa is a tropical island nation, consisting of two main islands (‘Upolu and Savai’i) and about 200,000 people. Since even my ridiculously-well-traveled fellow KF17ers have peppered me with questions about the country so small it sometimes doesn’t make it on the map, I figured I would focus on sharing some of the special things about Samoa I’ve experienced that you wouldn’t quite get from the Wikipedia article.

1) Getting chased down by a taxi driver to have money returned the next day. Taking taxis is how many people

get around Apia, so it’s best to carry small change because many drivers will pull the ol’ “I don’t have any change” routine. That’s exactly what I thought happened to me as I headed to work one morning. First the driver tried to tell me the 4-tala ride cost 5 tala, then he told me he had no change and asked where I’m staying so he could bring me change. Annoyed and definitely unwilling to give a strange man my address, I grumbled a bunch, told him to keep the 1 tala (about 50 cents) and got out of the car.

Lo and behold, the next morning I was crossing the street when I heard some honks and shouts behind me. I turned back to see the same driver, waving wildly at me to stay still. He then hopped in his car, passenger and all, made a U-turn and drove past me, handing me 1 tala without a word. After he drove away, I was left holding the coin, feeling bad for being so grumbly the day before and also pleasantly stunned that he returned my change to me when I had already written it off. I also felt briefly amazed that he had recognized me, but then I realized that when you are a foreigner in a town of 40,000 (no matter if it’s the biggest ‘city’ in the country), it’s pretty easy to find you. This was one of many interactions that showed me Samoa’s size truly is on a different scale than anything I’m used to. Especially moving from New York City — Apia is about as opposite as it gets.

Standard offerings at a neighborhood store. Cans, cans, ramen noodles, more cans...

2) Eating a can of vienna sausages for lunch. Okay, this is a barrier I have yet to cross, but I did shadow a loan officer who did eat a can of vienna sausages right out of the can as lunch. It’s not so much the individual action that struck me, but what it indicates about dietary habits and food access in Samoa. On one hand, thanks to the abundance of breadfruit and coconut trees, no one is really ever in danger of starving in Samoa. On the other hand, a dependence on cheap imports means that highly processed foods that are lacking or entirely void in nutrition are staples alongside traditional crops of taro, bananas, and yams. Cheap, fatty crisps and snacks from New Zealand, unparalleled (for me) stores of corned beef, and instant noodles are everywhere. Canned fish is increasingly replacing fresh fish, a scary notion in an island country. The meat they do access (aside from the chickens and pigs that roam freely in the streets) is often fatty and low quality, including meat that it shipped over because it cannot be sold in New Zealand.

Truthfully, Samoan-style cooking is not entirely healthful to begin with. Frying is common, starchy foods are dominant, and salt intakes are probably off the charts. Since food access is also an issue for many communities back home in the States, it’s been very interesting to see the same issue play out in such a different environment. For more thoughts on the food situation, check out my predecessors’ blog posts on taro and food access.

This is a pretty standard house.

3) No doors, windows, or walls…but there’s still a flat screen TV! Samoan housing comes in a lot of varieties, and it’s clear to see the modernizing influence in houses that have traditionally-unheard-of walls and doors. Brick-and-mortar variants typically have many, many windows with glass slats that open to catch any breeze, and often are a couple of large-ish rooms that serve multiple purposes. The more traditional and just as commonly found is fale-style housing. This is the modern iteration of the thatched-roof, open-air fale, and it usually entails a concrete base that is raised a few steps above ground level, wooden posts, and a corrugated aluminum roof. Sometimes this will be the front section of the house, while a smaller section attached in the back is enclosed. Kitchens and bathrooms are sometimes included and sometimes freestanding as separate structures/areas in the back.

In all honesty, while I understand the added value of privacy in homes with walls, I have to say that the open-air fale is truly the most optimal arrangement for catching a breeze on this hot, tropical island. Even on hot days, I have enjoyed relatively cool visits to borrowers with fale-style homes, while sweltering away to the point of misery in the more ‘modern’ houses. The sitting area, bed, and storage space all occupy the same place, redefining my Western ideas of ‘common areas’ in communal living. And although it further challenges those silly Western thoughts of what it means to be inside, there’s something undeniably pleasant about sitting on a couch basically in the open air, alternately watching rugby on a flat screen TV or the chickens wandering in and out, sipping a refrigerated soda.

The small white structure in the back houses a not-so-small grave.

4) They see dead people. Every day. Samoan family ties reign supreme in terms of forces that define society. They’re so strong that family members that pass are often buried in above ground graves laboriously constructed on their family’s property. This typically means right next to the house, since land plots are not overly large. As you can imagine, this incurs a significant cost, not only to put on the elaborate funeral services that are expected, but to cover the physical materials and/or labor to construct the grave.

Of course, to me this tradition is about much more than the surprise of seeing graves everywhere, sometimes with dogs lounging about on top or laundry drying on them…it’s a clear example of how close Samoan families are. Earlier, I said that people don’t really go hungry in Samoa–well they are also never homeless. It’s basically unheard of, because no matter what happens in life, you can always count on your extended family support you. Family is everything here, period. This is a really beautiful and defining aspect of Samoan culture, although not without its own issues.

Fa’a Samoa, by the way, means the Samoan way, or culture. I learn more about it every day, even when I’m not expecting to. Looking back on this list, it’s clear to me that there is no way these random tidbits could convey the rich Samoan culture–but how could I ever try to do so, in a single blog post? There’s a million things to add: the nation-wide love affair with rugby and their national team, MANU SAMOA (Go Manu!); their prime minister just switched them to the other side of the international date line (now they are 1 hour ahead of New Zealand instead of 22 hours behind, they skipped Dec. 30th, 2011 to do this); Zumba is embraced as a national fitness movement (as I found out after work on Friday)… For now I hope you’ll take away that hidden in the South Pacific is a fascinating country that warrants just as much interest as its larger companions in Kiva’s portfolio.

Adria Orr (KF17) is a Kiva Fellow serving with SPBD, living in Apia, Samoa. She is apologetically verbose but hopes you’ll take the wordiness as enthusiastic encouragement to learn more about SPBD and support our borrowers!

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