Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Notes of a papalagi (part one)

[I apologise for the infelicities in these very unfinished notes, which have been typed at great speed in an Apia internet cafe. I'm sorry if they tend to focus on the dark side of the history of a nation which contains much happiness. I have been especially remiss in not discussing Samoan buses, which are magnificent.]

O - zero
Tasi - one
Oa'u - me
O'oe - you

They come down the aircraft corridor with their gaping green cotton mouths, handing out the little yellow forms. Dear Sir/Madam, do you have any of the symptoms of swine flu? Samoa is on swine flu alert. Please take the time to fill in this form. This is what independence means: the right to inconvenience sweaty, cramped, half-pissed papalagi, to make them put their heads between their dodgy middle-aged knees, as they scrabble under their seats for the pen one of them threw away with the crossword, to listen to It wasn't like this going to Cook Island, Cecil to listen silently It's not like we're going to be using their hospitals.

In 1918 it came by boat, the microbes swarming like stars in a midsummer sky, in a pool of mucous coughed out by the trader, by the missionary, come to spread the good word, come to take a quarter of the population, as Commissioner Logan refused to embargo ships, and rejected American offers of assistance, and the papalagi doctor on Savai'i limited himself to dispensing medicine through intermediaries. Bodies lay in circles round the village wells. They have not forgotten: cotton covers mouths at the airport, at hotels, post offices. The schools, the Wesley Theological College, are closed. Pray to God that the sickness avoids our country, says a letter in today's Samoa Observer.

aiga - family
papalagi - you

On Beach Road at five o'clock girls in orange lavalavas wait for buses to Lepea and Falelua; groups of young men in red lavalavas walk by, slowing their pace a little, on their way to Bad Billy's Bar, where pool tables thud and creak on the veranda raised by German colonists. A pair of dogs limp in the other direction, trying to growl at anyone who looks down at them. This is the ground, these are the hot slabs of pavement, where Tamasese lay in his own blood, as the Lewis machine gun worked away on the porch of the old police station, firing and jamming and firing again, working as inefficiently, as mercilessly, as the outdated typewriter in Commissioner Allen's office down the road, coughing out spent magazine cartridges like the redundant asides that the former mayor of Morrinsville liked to include in his reports to Wellington, to the League of Nations I have already noted that the native resembles an ape, on no account must the white man descend to dialogue, see my earlier report for further proof of this point, etcetera etcetera, bangbangjamBANG. Saturday, the 28th of December, 1929. Black Saturday.

Talofa lava - hello
Talofa Soifua - goodbye
O l'o igoa o . - My name is [silence]

The history of Samoa is the history of rocks. Upolu and Savai'i, Manono, Apolina, Tutuila are lava cooled and hardened into rocks. Some of the oldest rocks have decomposed into soil; most still resist the plough and digging stick. At Vailele, on the northwest coast of Upolu, rocks lie over the foreshore, rocks lie on both sides of the road, rocks lie underneath the rough wooden fale. Men, women, and children squat on the edge of the village, picking up, piling up rocks, loading rocks into woven baskets, as if they were freshly harvested taro and shelled coconuts intended for the market down the road in Apia. Nobody in the group looks up from their work as we drive past, spraying small rocks from the edge of the road in their direction.

sa - forbidden

It is even hotter inside the taxi, but the driver's neck and forearms are dry. I ask him to take me to Tamasese's tomb out on Malinuu peninsula at the western end of Apia harbour, the place where a group of matai and al'i improvised Samoa's first national government in the 1880s, amidst the civil wars stoked by competing German, British, and American imperialists. In the 1920s Mulinuu became an open air prison, where hundreds of members of the pro-independence Mau movement were guarded by a few dozen frightened New Zealand policemen. Today the cratered road down the peninsula passes Samoa's parliament building - deserted, because of the swine flu alert? - before breaking into gravel, and turning past a series of elaborate scoria tombs. Some of the graves are shaped like limestone stacks; others resemble giant urns. None bears a name. 'This is Tamasese' the driver says. 'That was a long time ago.' He keeps the engine running, as I step out to take my photo. 'Would you like to visit Robert Louis Stevenson's house now? We have a very nice soap factory in the hills...'

Later, I check a map of Apia, and see that Tamasese's tomb is located at the extreme end of the peninsula, not at the spot where my reluctant tour guide pulled over. Did he really not know where Samoa's national hero was buried, or did he simply want to keep a sacred site undisturbed by a papalagi with a camera?

pule - power

I get drunk in the bar of the Outrigger Hotel with a guy from Hamilton called Mike. He is Tainui; he whakapapas to Raglan and Paeroa. We watch the news from home, which is piped through to Samoa three hours late. 'See those subtitles - it's Maori language week' Mike says to the Samoan woman behind the bar. 'They won't be there next week.' Mike works in Customs, at Auckland International Airport. 'Americans, they're the funniest. They're so dumb. Chinese are aggressive, but Japanese, they're really nice, really polite. The South Americans - well, the poor bastards, they're always gonna get hassled.'

malaga - a journey
manuia - blessing

In the northeast corner of Savai'i concrete coffins have been laid over the lava fields that flow away to the sea. The ground is too hard for digging, here, where the last eruptions are still a memory. Albert Wendt has written about how the lavafields offered him a sense of individuality, of escape from the collective: like the hero of his story 'Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree', he wandered here and plotted rebellion. In a place as inescapably social as Samoa, existential isolation must be a difficult feat. Perhaps Wendt's rebellion is shared by the Carmelite nuns who have holed up behind rusty iron gates on the slopes of Mt Vaea, overlooking Apia, after taking vows of silence and lifelong isolation. How can their aiga comprehend such a radical rejection of the intricate web of obligations in which most Samoans are enmeshed?

aitu - a spirit or ghost

The Austronesian ancestors of the Polynesians pushed out from the eastern coast of Asia about five thousand years ago, and reached the archipelagos of Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga - the 'Polynesian triangle' - about three thousand years ago. In this region, and in Samoa especially, Polynesian civilisation, with its intricate cosmology of Gods and superheroes, its collective patterns of land ownership and labour, its aquatechnology and navigational skills, and its weaving and carving, evolved over a thousand years, before the great exploration of the eastern, northern and southern Pacific began. The Polynesians, or proto-Polynesians, as archaeologists prefer to call them, rode the currents and winds east, through the Cook Islands to Tahiti to Rapa Nui and beyond, to the coast of South America. Later migrations battled against the sea and the weather to reach Hawai'i in the north and Aotearoa in the south. About seven hundred years ago, a group of Polyneians reached the Chatham Islands, in the subantarctic ocean far to the east of the South Island of Aotearoa. If Samoa was the cradle of Polynesia, then the homeland of the people who became the Moriori was the end of the line. Except for Antarctica, there was nowhere left to discover. The priority of Samoa in Polynesia is reflected in names: both Hawaii and Hawai'iki, the paradisal homeland and afterworld of Maori, refer back to Savai'i, the largest island in the Samoan archipelago.

filemu - peace

The fale is an efficient and versatile piece of architecture. If a storm blows up or a cool night comes down, mats or a tarpaulin can be draped from its pillars, to protect the family that sleeps or rolls dice inside. Many families boast multiple fales, which are devoted to different functions - cooking, eating, sleeping, entertaining. Some fales have curved thatched rooves, but others have flat rooves made from corrugated iron. On the southern coast of Upolu, which was brushed by the tail of a cyclone in 2004, many fale stand abandoned; pieces of their iron rooves are scattered in nearby bush. With their pillars holding up rubble and the grey weight of the sky, the fales of the south resemble the classical ruins of the Mediterranean.

onosa'i - be patient
paopao - outrigger canoe

In his writings on customary law in eighteenth century England, EP Thompson emphasised the intricacy of the informal regulations that governed the use of what urban-based voyeurs might consider 'rustic' or even 'unspoiled' countryside. Every inch of soil was accounted for, every piece fruit on every tree allotted. Thompson would have understood Samoa, where boundaries between villages are announced by roadside signs, and argued meticulously in the office of the national Land Commission. Within each village, the allotment and use of land is decided by a fono (council) of matai, who are selected from the general population by a form of consensus. Land is not owned, let alone inherited, individually. In 1903, a frustrated German colonist complained that the communistic ways of the natives were an insuperable barrier to economic development. Today, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund use more diplomatic language.

pulefa'atoaga - plantation inspector
sapelu - bush knife

General George Spafford Richardson, the New Zealand Commissioner to Samoa in the first half of the twenties, was determined to 'modernise' the patterns of land ownership and village organisation on the islands. Exasperated by the constant bickering between settlements about land ownership and appalled by the 'messy' way in which fale were situated amidst trees and plantations, Richardson arranged for the villages of Lepea and Vaimoso, on the western outskirts of Apia, to be demolished and reconstructed along 'rational' lines. Palms were torn up, taro plots were covered, and fale were arranged in tidy rows, beside a mown field that might have passed for an English village green.

Richardson's 'model villages' were deliberately positioned on the boundary between two worlds. As early as the 1870s, European traders had established a crude local government in Apia; in 1889 the Germans, British and Americans agreed to make the town into a de facto independent realm, run by its own President and blessed with a set of Western laws. Even after the beginning of formal colonisation in the twentieth century, a gulf existed between the traditional law and patterns of social organisation that existed outside Apia and the island of 'civilisation' that was Apia. By 'civilising' Vaimoso and Lepea, Richardson hoped to make them into examples to the more far-flung parts of New Zealand's largest colony. But the Commissioner's attempts to individualise land titles in Lepea and Vaimoso soon faltered, and the fales he had arranged in tody rows were soon abandoned. They still stand empty today, on the road from Apia to Samoa's international airport.

paepae - the foundation of a house

Pulemelei Mound features in all the guidebooks and internet sites that promote Samoa to would-be visitors, but only a small, handwritten sign advertises the turnoff past the village of Salupaitea, on the southern side of Savai'i. 'There's a road all the way up' I assure Skyler, as our hired car slams into a pothole big enough for a child to hide in. After a few more craters, a large stream cuts across our path. Beside the stream a woman sits in the shade of a rough fale, braiding her daughter's hair. 'Five tala, to the mound' she says. 'You can walk'. In Samoa, the central government owns little outside Apia, and it is normal for villages to charge for access to beaches, mountains, and historic sites. Skyler takes a look at the muddy track on the far side of the stream, and decides to accept the gatekeeper's offer of a cup of tea and a conversation. I make my way alone up the hillside, through a mixture of plantation, bush, and fallow land that mocks Commissioner Richardson's demand for ordered, 'civilised' countryside. The light turns green as the foliage gets thicker, and I imagine that I am inhaling the scents of every plant on the ancient island of Savai'i.

The mound surprises me: it is a monument of rocks, fifty metres wide and a dozen metres high, rather than the earthen barrow I had for some reason expected. A thousand years old, the largest prehistoric monument in Polynesia, it would have required a huge amount of labour, and suggests that Samoan forms of government may not always have been as decentralised as is sometimes believed. 'It belongs to olden times' says the woman beside the stream, after Skyler and I have lounged in a pool to cool off. 'It is not very important to us now. Archaeologists come here, though. A group of Maori archaeologists came last year.'

totolua - two-blooded

Samoa has more churches than Rome, despite having less than five percent of the population of the supposed capital of Christendom. Small villages boast structures larger and more intricately beautiful than the cathedrals of important New Zaland and Australian cities. For Samoans, Christianity simply made a detour through Europe and the settler states of Australasia, before finding its pefect home on Savai'i and Upolu. The missionaries who arrived full of agitated piety in the 1830s and '40s were met without surprise: a mouthpiece of Nafanua, the old Goddess of war, had recently prophesised the arrival of a new faith from faraway. Traditional Samoan cultural practices - dances, and arranged marriages - were accommodated by the new faith.

Toifa Soifua - goodbye
Soifua - to live!

On either side of the chandeliers, five fans turn like the rotors of some huge engine. The rotors turn faster and faster, and hum louder and louder, as if the engine is straining to lift this rocket-shaped building off the ground, to send it toward the heaven that is depicted in pastel colours on the portal-shaped window at the end of our pew. A couple of teenage boys shuffle in, smirking, behind their grandmother, who wears a purple dress hat strung with pearls. With every new arrival the air gets hotter: I wipe my brow again, feeling like one of the fat white candles melting beside the pulpit. Mary is caved in the wall at the far end of our pew: her flaking face has an expression that combines piety and satiety, and I imagine that a stream of blood or freezing water might burst at any moment from her swollen belly.

Now the priest, who has already delivered sermons today in Latin and English, begins to speak in Samoan. He speaks for half an hour, but the only phrase I recognise is 'swine flu', which occurs four or five times, and is each time followed by a shouted sentence - an invocation, or a warning? - and a clenching and unclenching of fists. On his banyan cross, in the light cast by a chandelier's bulb, the brown body of Christ seems to glisten with sweat.


Blogger Nathaniel said...

Did the priest really deliver a sermon in Latin?

8:17 am  
Blogger maps said...

He sure did. We would have heard it if we'd gone to Sunday morning mass, but we were lazy and turned up for the four o'clock Samoan language mass.

9:36 am  
Blogger busycorner said...

and the matai system still lives, 4000 years later. Gone: Rome, Byzantium, greece, Holy Roman and British.

Who's the wiser?


11:33 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Travel writing is basically a conservative genre, whichever way you slice it. Why do you think it's virtue to go off to obscure places when in this day and age you can study them using a library and the net, if you want? And of course you choose perversely to focus on places that are of little importance to the central developments of our day - backwaters in the globalised world of the 21st century...

your method is bourgeois.

11:32 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anonymous said: "Why do you think it's virtue to go off to obscure places when in this day and age you can study them using a library and the net, if you want? ...
your method is bourgeois."

On the contrary, very intelligent and not bourgeois at all. Your comment, on the other hand, both tedious and churlish. Well done for your nteresting blog.

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