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A Postcard from Samoa

1 August, 2014 0 Comments

By Lyle Dunne

I’ve recently returned from a week in Samoa, accompanying my wife at a conference. It was a useful reminder that Christianity is not centred on the Anglosphere.

Polynesian Romanesque

We arrived, and departed, in the wee hours of successive Sunday mornings. (Whoever thought a 6am departure, necessitating a 3am wake-up call, was a good idea, was not acting in the best interests of Samoan tourism.) I attended (Novus Ordo) Sunday Mass twice, the latter occasion a vigil. I’ll say more on this later. But first, a few points about the country.

Samoa is a Christian country. Not in the “In God We Trust” sense of the US, or the established-Church sense of the UK, but in the sense that the monument dedicating the nation to God mentions each Person of the Blessed Trinity.  (Mormonism is however popular – apparently because their clergy only want 10% of people’s income. Baha’is are an influential minority; the previous king was a member.) Samoans’ idea of “One Nation Under God” seems to mean, for example, that in the Parliament building there’s a diagram showing the structures of government – directly under a life-sized image of The Divine Mercy. There’s a similar picture, albeit smaller, above a small altar. In the Chamber.

Machinery of Government?

The big festival, as in the Indigenous Spirituality of the Torres Strait Islands, celebrates the arrival of the London Missionary Society, in 1830. (Samoa, like Australia, was formally founded on 1 January, but prefers a different date for a party.) Catholics didn’t arrive until 1845, but about 20% of Samoans are Catholics – and I suspect a larger proportion among the chiefly class.

Every village has at least one church, invariably the grandest building by an order of magnitude.  The Catholic Cathedral in Apia was destroyed in a cyclone.

They’ve just opened a new one (in the last month or two), in a style I can only describe as “Polynesian Romanesque”.

On Sundays, supermarkets and vegetable markets open early (from around 5am), when fish are also on sale by roadsides, so families can obtain provisions for their Sunday feast. Then shops shut, everyone buries the food – fish, vegetables, the pigs and chickens which run wild in every village – with hot rocks, and goes off to Church. Afterward they come home and feast with extended family in an outdoor pavilion constructed for the purpose, usually larger than the house. Then they sleep.

Samoans bury their revered ancestors in the garden (or sometimes the house). When I first heard this, I imagined a grassed plot, with grandparents gently bio-degrading. Not quite. Think of the sort of grave favoured by second-generation well-to-do European migrants in Australia: great slabs of polished marble or granite, with gold lettering. Of course, they double as garden seats.

The traditional economy is a kind of family-based agrarian socialism of the kind favoured by some Catholics, based on generous gift-giving, and hedged about with strict honour codes, rather than contractual and legal obligations. As with indigenous Australian society, it is bedevilled by the free-rider problem. Thus Samoan is apparently replete with verbs without equivalents in English, meaning “to sponge from one’s relatives”; “to go on an extended visit to relatives”; “to endure an extended visit from one’s relatives”; “to be infested with rodents or relatives”; “to hide in the forest to avoid a visit from relatives”; and the like.

The Samoan political system is complex. For example, opinion is divided on whether Samoa is a monarchy or a republic. Traditionally there was an elected monarchy, with the king chosen from among the paramount chiefs of four noble families. (It might be more strictly correct to say that the kingship was the result of the amassing of titles in the gift of the families.) However the 1960 Constitution limited terms to five years, and did not formally provide for candidates to be restricted to the main families. (I believe the situation where not all the rules are written down is relatively common in island societies like Samoa – and the UK.)

The present incumbent, Tupua Tamasese Tupuola Tufuga Efi, is the son of two previous Kings. He was educated at Catholic Schools in Samoa and New Zealand, and Victoria University in NZ; served as Prime Minister in the 1970s and 80s; and was previously an adjunct professor (NZ) and a PhD examiner (ANU). He is known formally as “O le Ao o le Malo” – literally “Chieftain of the Government”, generally translated as Head of State, addressed as Your Highness, and referred to informally as “the King”. It was surprising to hear him quoting Newman in a speech that managed to integrate Westminster traditions and an ava (kava) ceremony.

MPs have to be chiefs, apparently (this category can include women). Party politics seems to be about family loyalty rather than policies. It also seems that, as in some other island polities, there is also a religious dimension – and another about which side you were on in the civil war.

There were in fact a couple of small-scale civil wars in the 1880s and 90s about succession, complicated by the involvement of Germany, the US and Britain. All sent gunboats, most of which were destroyed in a cyclone in 1889, except the British corvette Calliope, which famously sailed out into the teeth of the storm – Banjo Paterson has a poem on the incident, The Ballad of the Calliope.

According to the account of RL Stevenson (of Treasure Island fame), the leader of the rebels, who ultimately became king, conducted his campaign while managing to attend Mass daily.

The disastrous shipwreck, which cost hundreds of lives, seems to have caused a re-think that culminated in Samoa being divided into American Samoa and German Samoa (later Western Samoa, now just “Samoa”) in 1899. German rule lasted only until the First World War, however, when New Zealand annexed German Samoa, staying on until independence in the 1960s. Many Samoans, including noble families, still bear German Christian and/or surnames. Lederhosen never caught on, but beer remains popular.

Singing and dancing appear to come naturally, in all forms from traditional – glorious vocal harmonies enlivened with fire-juggling and dances which I’m fairly sure involved simulated cannibalism – to karaoke and disco. A senior politician turned out to excel at singing in the manner of Frank Sinatra; but as he was about six feet in any direction, and listed his interests as rugby, boxing and body-building – and Catholicism – there wasn’t much chance of his getting booed off, in any case.

As to Mass, on the first Sunday when we arrived – significantly sleep-derived – we were told English Mass was at nine. We arrived just before nine, to find the church almost full, and a Mass in Samoan, with glorious vocal accompaniment, in full swing. One congregation filed out; another (almost as large) filed in. The Bishop arrived, in full regalia, with a couple of accompanying priests, and about ten servers, including a cross-bearer and thurifer, all wearing cassocks, red velvet tunics with white lace trim, white gloves – and bare feet.

(To be fair, this last appeared to be about respect rather than local custom: quite a few appeared to had shed shoes at the door. As I recall, the clergy were allowed thongs, ie flip-flops.)

The singing was again in Samoan, the Gloria and Creed in Latin, and everything else in English; the sermon was lengthy, and vigorous – but our attention was flagging.

I always worry a little about kneeling for Communion in foreign parts: will the priest be scandalised? Will he refuse? (I always think that if you have your eyes closed, it’s harder to refuse.) As it happened, I was worried over nothing: everyone received kneeling.

We staggered out at about 11:30, and went to bed for the afternoon.

We struggled to understand the mural in the tympanum, which showed an ava (kava) ceremony, with a couple of patriarchs apparently in attendance, and surmounted by what appeared (on re-examining the evidence of a surreptitious bit of cameraphony) to be the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin.

Ava Maria

The next weekend, we were due to leave on a 6am Sunday flight. We found a 7pm vigil Mass, in Latin. Novus Ordo, but with a silent canon, and the Last Gospel. Again a fairly lengthy sermon, but in Samoan.

There were about ten people in the congregation, but they still managed to fill the Cathedral with harmonies.

Tempting to think “What couldn’t they do with chant?” – but having always been inclined to glass-half-full-ism, I found myself thinking “I could put up with the NO much better if it were always like this”.

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