Fa’a Samoa means “the Samoan way”, and in this sincere land in the South Pacific, Vincent Ross discovers a culture where Reality TV is still seen as a contradiction in terms.
Imagine a place where people don’t feel the need to lock their doors at night. In fact, most of their homes and regional public buildings don’t have doors.
Many of the homes in the rural areas are modest by our standards, but the lack of doors, and in many cases, glass-paned windows, has little to do with poverty.
The structure of the homes is partly defined by climate, but more importantly, by attitude and culture.
Most of what they have can’t be bought with money – a strong sense of community, family dedication, faith and cultural pride.
The people have not succumbed to hard-sell tourism – smiles are freely given and mostly easy and warm.
It’s not a shopper’s paradise. There are hand-crafted trinkets, carved wooden souvenirs and colourful print fabrics imbued with the vivid swathe of tropical flowers which grow on this small, but abundant handful of tropical islands.
The nation consists of ten small, volcanic islands, four of which are uninhabited, which lie east of the International Dateline, 2890km from Auckland.
Yes, there is a McDonalds restaurant in the capital, but only one, and city workers must contend with a couple of sets of traffic lights.
Fruit and vegetables grow well in the rich volcanic soil – bananas, taro, coconuts, pineapple and mango are plentiful.
As one laconic visitor put it: “You could push a brick in the ground here and it would grow.”
The surrounding seas are not fished out and the lagoons and protective coral reefs still provide a bounty of seafood.
The cattle look healthy, with chocolate-brown, glossy coats, from grazing on the grasslands which carpet the main islands from the skirt of the jungle-clad mountains to the coral-ringed coasts.
Chickens and chicks, pigs and piglets search out the next feast of fallen fruit as horses graze lazily on green village commons skirted by colourfully painted, domed, iron-roofed meeting houses, or fale.
The food is varied, good and affordable. Beef from New Zealand, local chicken and pork. There’s a good range of imported wine which is not wildly over-priced, and the locals make their own beer.
Vailima costs about $2.50 a bottle. It’s an easy-to-drink, light, refreshing ale that goes down a little too easily on a hot, tropical night as you watch the stars rise over a still lagoon.
There are a couple of TV stations, but the only “Big Brother” the children know here is their own, and “Reality TV” is quizzically looked upon by most as an odd contradiction in terms.
Their reality is different.
On balmy tropical evenings, the village lawns are filled with children chasing everything from balls to empty plastic containers in the pursuit of the national passion, rugby.
Big-built mothers and young women in colourful floral dresses watch and laugh as they chat amongst themselves.
Young men play more serious rugby, many bearing the intricate tattoos of their culture – full-body ink art called Pe’a, which covers all of their lower torso from knees to waist.
It’s a proudly displayed sign of their “coming of age”, not lost on the dark haired girls who look on.
On Sunday morning, the same gaggles of children are scrubbed spick and span, most of the boys and young men wearing crisp white shirts, sometimes red ties and the local lava lava (sarong); their fathers wearing the same with suit jacket and tie.
Walking along the grassy verge of the road to the village church, they are joined by little sisters looking like tropical angels in flowing cotton dresses, their mothers herding the small children along like clucky white hens, shaded from the sun by colourful umbrellas and broad-brimmed hats.
Inside the church, those same children and adults join voices to sing like an angelic choir.
Many fales are decorated with flowers and colourful curtains and tablecloths in readiness for the Sunday lunch, which brings family and community together.
In front of many homes is a low-roofed family tomb, again often decorated with fresh flowers, a sign of respect for family and parents.
The most decorated and opulent building is always the church.
The London Missionary Society, which arrived in the islands in 1830, did its work well. There is at least one, and sometimes four churches in each of the country’s 360-odd villages. English is widely spoken.
All photos @ Vincent Ross. All Rights Reserved.