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An Introduction to Samoan Custom

CHAPTER V — A Samoan Village

page 53

A Samoan Village

In Samoa, practically within the limits of Apia itself, and certainly in outer districts only a short distance away, Samoan life, with some small concessions to modern methods and standards of living, follows a pattern very little dissimilar from that of generations past. A full study of modern Samoan village life is not possible within the confines of this book, but a description here of a typical Samoan village and some of the daily happenings may contribute to a better understanding of certain other chapters.

The Samoan people are conservative, and in their adoption of European amenities, highly selective. The structure of social organisation and many of the economic usages have not yet crumbled before the impacts of other cultures. There have been some changes, it is true, because no vigorous culture is static, but Samoans still find satisfaction in the essentials of their own way of life, and the lay-out of a village at the present day is, in its fundamentals, on the old plan. There has been no general adoption here, as in Tonga, Rarotonga and elsewhere in the Pacific, of European styles of dwelling or dressing.

Most villages are coastal, abutting either on the beach itself or lying only a short distance from it. The lay-out follows one of two principal plans. Either a single line of principal houses faces the beach with the malae, or ceremonial area, before it, or two lines of houses face inwards with the malae between.

Each family in the village has its customary house site with an area in the rear for subsidiary buildings. The principal line or lines of houses are guest houses of a type constructed only by artisans belonging to the guild of carpenters, who page 54 are most skilled and respected members of the community.* There are not necessarily skilled carpenters in every village and it may be necessary to engage them from other places when their services are required. Although it is not common, it sometimes happens that the family lives in its own guest house, but this is usually reserved and available at any time for the use of expected or unexpected visitors. Behind the line of guest houses (fale tele) there is a less imposing line of houses (fale o'o) in which the family lives and sleeps. Such structures as these are not the work of the guild but are erected by the family itself. Further behind still is a line of cooking houses (tunoa), which are no more than thatched shelters over the cooking hearths, and a little further inland one is likely to come to a stone wall about four feet high which marks one boundary of the village pig compound. Breadfruit and coconuts are planted at intervals throughout the whole of the village, together with kapok, hibiscus, citrus, mango and other fruit trees, and not far from the houses a few taro, ta'amu and bananas may be seen in small patches. The principal coconut plantations together with larger areas for cocoa, taro, ta'amu, bananas and other foodstuffs, are usually located further inland, although confined to a coastal strip of a mile or so that provides ready access and minimises the distance over which heavy loads of produce have to be carried. All such areas have usually been apportioned by the village for the use of particular families or perhaps have been under the control of known families from time immemorial. Customs relating to the allotment of bush land for the use of families vary in different villages. Behind the cultivated area lies the untouched forest extending to the central ridge, and it is from those timber stands that the materials for the building of boats and houses are

* Houses are not erected entirely by the artisan or his assistants; custom prescribes what the share of the family is to be in the undertaking. They cut and transport all heavy materials from the bush when these have been chosen by the head carpenter (matai tufuga) and they must also assist in the erection of the construction scaffolding. When the middle section of the house is complete, it is thatched at once by the builders with material supplied by the family, since breadfruit, from which many of the heavy timbers are cut, is very susceptible to damage from rain; the ends of the house are also thatched promptly when they are erected. The family are also responsible for providing and affixing the blinds, and for building up the floor and the terraces or pavement, if the latter are required. During the progress of the work, the matai tufuga and his assistants must be regaled on the best food obtainable, and certain stages of the construction, especially the completion, must be marked by formal feasts. The head of the family must display the most respectful interest by attending at all stages of the work, lest the head carpenter take umbrage and leave it uncompleted, in which case no other member of the guild will proceed with it. Apart from the good food and lavish feasts provided, the head carpenter is paid for his work with fine mats, bark cloth, and, at the present time, money.

This is the form of the word that has been adopted for European use; the Samoan word is taro.

page 55 obtained. Generally speaking, it is the usual Samoan custom that villages control the areas lying behind their own coastal lands as far as the central ridge. There are, of course, some exceptions based on geographical and other reasons.

All pigs of the village, except a few young pet pigs (fagafao) are, or should be, in accordance with the law, confined within the village pig area. Pigs of separate families may bear a distinguishing mark, or alternatively, may simply have been taught to come when the owner or a member of his family calls them together for the purpose of feeding them with coconut meat or other scraps. Pigs belonging to particular families are usually fed in separate spots in the pig compound, and if any stranger pig should come for feeding with another group, he will be pushed aside. Regular feeding of pigs is done as much with the object of indicating ownership as for the purpose of nourishing the animals.

Further on, another stone wall marks the inland boundary of the pig enclosure and both walls have to be negotiated by means of notched coconut logs placed against the fence, forming a rude and, in wet weather, a somewhat precarious type of stile.

The malae itself, and the environs of the principal houses, are always kept in good order. The grass is cut short and at regular intervals rubbish is collected and burned. The areas in the rear, naturally enough, do not always receive the same attention.

If there is a good stream running through or near the village, washing of clothes and bathing will take place there. There may be springs, and if so, one will be reserved for drinking purposes and others will be made available for washing clothes and bathing, subject to certain local village regulations made by the ali'i and faipule or Women's Committee. Visitors should always be careful to ascertain and pay regard to such regulations. In some villages, principally along the north coast of Upolu to the west of Apia, there are water supplies piped from good sources in the hills. At many parts of the coast, fresh water seeps out at or near high water level, or there may even be strongly flowing springs. In such cases, water is obtained at suitable stages of the tide and in some instances, springs have been enclosed with concrete walls.

In most villages the pastors of various denominations conduct what are termed Grade I schools and in many others there is a Government Grade II school. If there is page 56 a Government school, a separate building will usually have been set up by the village, and here a Samoan teacher, either male or female, will conduct classes during the prescribed hours. A neat fence or hedge may enclose the school compound.

Dotted throughout the village area, or near to it, there may be one or more trading stores operated by Apia firms, in most cases with Samoans acting as traders. Such stores are usually built on native land leased formally from the Administration* for the establishment of a trading station and a copra or cocoa shed, since the purchase of those commodities is an important feature of trading in Samoa and supplies the income for the purchase of imported goods.

Apart from the principal hospital at Moto'otua inland of Apia, there are at intervals throughout the islands of Upolu and Savaii 13 subsidiary hospitals and dispensaries staffed by Native Medical Practitioners and Samoan nurses. There are some villages, therefore, that have set aside an area for hospital purposes, usually on the outskirts of the village, for the accommodation of the sick of that particular district. Villages co-operate eagerly in the establishment of new hospitals.

The village area may be covered in grass or lawns which are well kept, or the entire area may be weeded to present a stretch of clean white or dark sand. Others are situated on lava or are paved with stones, pebbles or similar material. The shore may be a stretch of white or black sand with a quiet lagoon and a passage through the reef opposite the village, or possibly an iron-bound or lava coast against which the waves are dashed with all the weight of the broad Pacific. On a sandy lagoon shore, small canoes (paopao), which any one with the necessary energy and skill may make, will be drawn up above high water mark, or the more valuable and complicated bonito canoe (va'aalo), constructed only by members of the guild of carpenters, may be raised on a staging of timbers above the level of the ground. Where the village possesses a long, clinker or carvel-built boat (fautasi), this will be carefully housed in a low, thatched boat-house, with a line of wooden rollers or coconut fronds for the facilitation of launching operations reaching to the water's edge. In many coastal villages wooden privies are built along the beach out beyond high water mark. Where the fishing is good, string nets many fathoms long will

* In terms of the Samoa Act, 1921, all Samoan native land in Western Samoa is vested in the Crown.

page 57 perhaps be seen spread out or hung up and drying in the sun. An iron-bound coast often provides the spectacle of blow-holes, tunnels in old lava flows through which spouts of sea water are driven with tremendous and impressive force.*

No village is complete without at least one church. Indeed, churches are one of the significant features of the local architecture, and are among those concessions most willingly made to European civilisation. The iron roofing of the church or churches often serves as a water catchment area, especially where rivers, springs or water holes are not readily accessible, and a concrete tank may commonly in these days be seen alongside a church. There can be as many as four or more churches in use in a village, one for each denomination represented, and the construction of a new building on another site may be undertaken by one denomination without removing the original edifice. Many other churches may be seen in an unfinished state, as construction sometimes proceeds for years.

Inland villages follow as far as possible the usual pattern with two lines of houses and the malae in the centre. In any case, local conditions even in a coastal village may require a special disposition of buildings, but there is always the central open area, the malae, reserved for formal social and ceremonial purposes.

Graves or impressive burial mounds or terraces (tia) may be dotted here and there about the village, possibly quite close to dwelling houses. Burials in other than approved village cemeteries which are usually located a short distance inland, are not now permitted by law except with the special permission of the Administrator on the advice of the medical authorities.

It may be noticed that not all the fale tele are of the same height above the ground. Care must be exercised in this matter by families building Samoan houses, as delicate issues of status and precedence may be involved. The

* There are also in certain inland areas old lava tunnels, the exploration of which may provide somewhat eerie experiences for visitors who are not subject to claustrophobia. Two such tunnels which are portions of what was originally one channel, may be seen at Falepuga at the western end of Upolu. One is dry, with a broken, rocky floor that proceeds for some hundreds of yards underground until finally blocked by one of numerous falls of debris. The other is smoother and almost circular in section with the explorer soon wading in water which deepens steadily until it reaches the roof of the tunnel. Progress which begins by walking along the floor is possible later only by clinging to the sides, and the final stages can be negotiated only by a swimmer who pushes before him a small wooden float supporting a torch or other form of lighting. Such tunnels are far from rare. They are, in fact, quite a feature of the local geology and have even played a part in Samoan history.

Note that in Samoa the malae was not a village religious centre, as the marae was in other parts of Polynesia.

page 58 leading chief of the village is the person entitled to have the terrace of his house highest above ground level and it would be possible to secure an injunction in the Native Land and Titles Court against any presumptuous person who raised his house high without proper reason. So also, in a different type of house from the fale tele, a building of long section known as an afolau, the number of principal beams is regulated by custom, and no one whose status does not entitle him to do so should aspire to too pretentious a dwelling house with more than a certain number of principal beams (utupoto). Not all houses are raised high on terraces, or with varying numbers of courses to indicate status, but none are built actually at ground level. Floors are raised sufficiently, even if only a few inches, to provide the conditions necessary in a country with such a high rainfall. The height of the floor must be decided upon before construction commences so that the dimensions of the principal posts may be accurately calculated. The terraces or pavement adjoining a house are often planted with citrus, hibiscus or other small trees or bushes, or perhaps even ta'amu, to relieve the bareness of the stones, and a certain variety of lautalotalo, a plant rather similar to a large leek, with long, shiny, flax-like, yellow and green leaves, is much in favour for use as a border.
The permanent houses themselves which must be built by experts, are either beehive-shaped (fale tele) or longer in section (afolau), with floors of polished and smoothed loose coral segments over which mats of varying fineness are spread as required by the occupants. The walls are wholesomely open to the four winds of heaven except when coconut leaf woven blinds, strung in rectangular sections, are lowered against the elements, and the roof is a thatch of sugar-cane leaf that lasts for seven years if the proper technique is employed.* The roof components appear to be supported at the sides by posts at intervals of two or three feet; actually, however, the fale tele is supported centrally by one or more heavy posts, and the afolau by a system of principal inner posts in two lines joined by heavy

* The narrow sugar-cane leaves, about three feet long, are folded in half obliquely and fitted closely over a light rod of cane the thickness of a finger. They are then pinned securely close to the rod with the dry midrib of a coconut leaflet. A special fixation technique ensures that the leaves do not slip off over the ends of the rod. The rods used are from three feet in length, and a completed section of thatch is termed a lau. Vertical rows of lau are bound to the thatch rafters with coconut sennit, commencing nearest the eaves and working upwards. The amount of spacing between the rods of successive lau, and hence the degree of overlap of the thatch itself, determines the effectiveness of the work. The closest spacing possible is achieved when the rods of the upper lau adjoin those of the lower, but this is not often seen. Some Samoans claim that the longest possible life for the roof depends upon the closest placing of the lau, although this method calls for a larger number. There is, however, another opinion that insists that too close a thatching technique results in an earlier rotting of the lau than is the case with wider spacing. Generally, there are two to three finger breadths between the rods, spacing out perhaps to two or three inches or more in the upper levels of the roof. Two to four thousand lau are required for a roof, depending on the size of the house and the closeness of the thatching. This accounts for the fact that if a leak develops in a certain spot, it is usual to replace that portion of the thatch only, giving the roof a rather patchy appearance. The lau are prepared by the women and affixed to the rafters by the men. Pending consolidation, new thatch is frequently weighted with heavy coconut fronds to prevent displacement by breeze or storm.

page 59 beams. The outer posts add to the symmetry of the finished building and provide support for the backs of seated occupants and visitors; they also serve as a retaining framework for lowered blinds in boisterous weather. Furniture in dwelling houses is sparse; incorporated in the woodwork of the house itself are beams that serve as shelves, and there are perhaps a bed, rolls of floor and sleeping mats, a kava bowl and a bucket, a cupboard for use as a pantry, mosquito nets and the old style bamboo head-rests or pillows, and usually one or more wooden chests or boxes for personal belongings. Chairs and tables for the use of European visitors can generally be produced when required.

The expert construction of the best types of Samoan house probably represents the peak of Samoan material culture. They are solid structures, attractive in appearance yet designed within the limits of indigenous technique to resist the effects of winds of gale force, a circumstance that may well be considered remarkable when it is realised that in a genuine Samoan house no nail is employed. The heavy timbers are carefully fitted or supported, the artisans and assistants making use of the scaffolding erected by the family, and then all components are lashed firmly with miles of coconut strand sennit. It is true that from an engineering point of view, there are technical weaknesses in construction, notably where the ends join the middle section. In that region, there is some danger that a strong wind may lift even old consolidated thatch and take a section of the roof with it. Preparations for stormy weather therefore include the straddling of the thatch or ridge with heavy coconut fronds or banana stems; lines of the former may even be seen upended against the sides of the house to protect the blinds from the full force of the wind.

The day's work begins with the dawn or earlier if special circumstances warrant. Cocks crow at an early hour and light begins to creep through the stirring village. Sheetswathed figures sit or move about sleepily. The old men sit against posts and, especially if there are visitors in the village, perhaps direct the preparation of a bowl of kava to help dispel the heaviness of sleep. The sun rises and a little page 60 later if it is the cool period of the year, the trade-wind begins to stir the coconut fronds.

Elder children are charged with the care of those who are younger. Others take metal strips curved and sharpened at the lower end (taivai) and with long, swinging strokes expertly cut the grass, for this is best done in the cool of morning or late afternoon and requires almost continuous attention, especially in the wet season. If the day promises to be fine, coconut meat (copra) and cocoa beans are spread out on mats to dry in the sun, and a careful watch is kept for approaching showers or squalls which may spoil the produce or delay its sale. Properly dried copra or cocoa is placed in woven coconut leaf baskets and taken to the local trader for sale, either in cash or for goods.* Even the very young have their trifling tasks, the toddlers keeping watch over the drying copra to ward off marauding hens or perhaps a stray pig.

Families or individuals may partake of an early snack meal from cold, cooked food left over from the previous day, or tea and bread or rice may be served to the older members of the family. The chiefs and orators, if occasion requires it, especially on Monday mornings, meet for the conduct of village business. The young men will have been early astir. Friday is plantation day and a large store of food must be brought down from plantations inland, especially for use during the week-end. Half way through the morning the boys will return, well laden, and set about preparing the first principal meal of the day, which is taken about an hour before noon. Fish, taro, ta'amu, bananas, breadfruit, and coconut cream dishes will be prepared, and the smoke of Samoan ovens heating the stones for the cooking rises above the trees. Others will have departed on fishing excursions and if they are fortunate will return before midday with the catch. The steaming hot food is taken from the ovens and brought by the untitled people for consumption by their elders; this is an important feature of service in Samoan custom. The others eat later.

The day is wearing on. The wives of chiefs and orators may have spent the morning in conference relating to their own affairs or they may have assembled in the house reserved for all classes of weaving work. Women and girls may have left the village to gather materials for thatching

* Both copra and cocoa are at present extremely valuable crops. Copra sells in Apia at 25/9 per 100 lbs and in the most remote districts at 25/3 per 100 lbs. Cocoa brings 122/- per 100 lbs in Apia and 118/- in the furthermost villages. A time can be recalled during the last depression when copra in the far districts was worth only 6d. per 100 lbs and that price was paid not in cash, but in goods.

page 61 or weaving, or others have proceeded to the lagoon or reef if the tide is suitable to collect shell-fish or other small sea-foods. Perhaps all return now and after the meal the village becomes quiet during the period of noonday heat, for Samoans feel in regard to the hottest part of the day as did a discerning person who wrote about mad dogs and Englishmen. The sun beats down and the trade-wind sings through the trees; the palm fronds bend to the breeze, the trees themselves leaning always towards the ocean and the thunder on the reef. A squall may approach and the village be drowned temporarily in a smother of flying rain. Blinds are let down to seaward and raised as soon as the squall has passed to allow free passage to the cooling air.

The village stirs again and man goes about his business. Work on a Samoan boat or fautasi, or the erection of a new house by an expert carpenter is resumed. Community fishing under the direction of the head fisherman (tautai) may require the attendance of certain groups or on occasion of every able-bodied person in the village. Tasks suitable for the cooler part of the day proceed. Coconut is grated for expectant pigs and chickens. The shadows grow longer and people who have been employed elsewhere move towards home. Plantations are deserted, for only benighted travellers are found in such lonely places after dark and they do not tarry.

The long day begins to close. There is activity around the cooking fires and the sharp, pleasant smell of wood-smoke at twilight marks a stage in the dying day. The chiefs and orators finish their labours and the group disperses to separate houses. Lights begin to gleam throughout the village, either pressure benzine or kerosene lamps, or in times of yore or acute present-day depression the burining of oil or the roasted kernel of the candle-nut. Darkness falls and the trade-wind dies away. There is a quiet interval and those free to do so proceed to the bathing pool for evening ablutions. Then the silence is broken by prayers and hymns from each house as the matai leads his family in evening worship. The meal follows prayers, young people waiting until elders have completed theirs, and then assembling for their own in the backs of the same or other houses, while dogs wait patiently for allotted scraps. Elders, replete with good food, make desultory conversation and slap at mosquitoes.* If the alii and faipule wish to assemble

* It is a fallacious assumption that Samoans become impervious to the attacks of mosquitoes and do not find high temperatures and high humidity trying.

page 62 again for business they will do so, or families or groups will meet for casual gossip or to make plans for another day. The matai may give his people instructions for the morrow, young people depart for a belated bath or to hunt for lobsters or crabs, and so the evening is spent.

If the cool land breeze springs up, as it commonly does in coastal areas, attendants will lower the mat blinds on the inland side of the house, and later in the evening will place the mosquito netting about any beds that are in use. Other beds of mats must be made up every night for various members of the family, young people often contenting themselves with sleeping under a wooden bed wrapped in a sheet. If there is a moon, they are permitted by custom to spend a fair proportion of the night hours sitting about, courting, talking, laughing, singing, dancing and playing guitars, after first having attended to any requirements of the elder members of the family. But if the night is dark or stormy the village will retire at not too late an hour, the chiefs and orators perhaps having kava together or taking it separately in groups of families before retiring.

In many villages a curfew sounds. Children cease their shrill cries and hasten indoors. Quiet figures move from house to house, lights wink out or are turned low, and gradually the village sinks to rest; the last uneasy sounds of man die away. The lights of fishing flares on distant reefs may still shine eerily across the quiet lagoon but the Samoan night has touched with its soft magic a serene world of stately palms etched against a starry sky; the incessant complaint of giant breakers foiled by minute nature* is borne more clearly on the still air; the day is ended and the village sleeps.

* Coral reefs are composed of the skeletal remains of vast colonies of many different kinds of coral polyp, an animal related to the sea-anemones which reproduces by a process of budding or division and secretes the carbonate of lime dissolved in sea water. Under the common name coral are included many species which are roughly classed either as the horny corals consisting chiefly of a horny secretion from the polyps, or the lime or stone corals composed almost wholly of lime firmly united in a solid mass; but all possible gradations between these two types are to be found. The growth of reefs is mainly dependent on the stone corals. The calcareous or horny deposition begins when the polyp is single, adhering to a rock or other surface on which the coral grows or is built up; as the individuals multiply and crowd one another closely, the older ones die away and the hard deposits of former generations form the base to which those of their progeny are attached. Living polyps in a large mass are therefore confined to the surface; below that there is “coral rock”. Reefbuilding corals are found in clean fresh sea water which is not over 125 feet in depth and never cooler than 68 deg. F. The polyp does not grow above the level of the lowest tides; in some cases it is no larger than a pin's head and has been aptly described by Robert Gibbings in “Blue Angels and Whales” as an “organism so simple in construction that it consists of hardly more than a digestive cavity fringed with tentacles.”