Beach fales on Upolu's Southeast coast, Aleapata District, Samoa

Author’s Note: As a YMCA volunteer from 1983-1986 in Samoa (formerly Western Samoa), I enjoyed weekends with my adopted Samoan aiga (extended family) on the tiny island of Manono, one of the four inhabited islands of Samoa known also as “The Cradle of Polynesia” in the middle of the South Pacific. While some things have changed since then – notably electricity – otherwise, much remains the same. Here is a taste of what life was like in those heady days on my favorite South Seas Island Paradise.

Samuelu, Sapini, Emore, and Fa’atiu, Manono Island (1994)

The trip from the larger island Upolu took 30 minutes and cost 50 sene (25 US cents). The small, extremely weathered wooden boat was overloaded with people and food – including a sacked pig or two. There was barely enough free-board to repel the swelling seas.

Rain was coming down in buckets. Someone calmly bailed while the boat threatened to nose-dive in the next trough. Amazingly, we did not go under. It was comforting to reflect that these waters were within the protection of the reef – which reduced our chances of meeting a shark.

As the boat approached the tiny island, half of the passengers hopped overboard to haul the soggy vessel through the shallows to a rock jetty. Palangi, palangi (name given to white people) came the excited cries of half-naked children gathering around – some brave enough to venture a quick touch of white skin or golden hair.

There are no roads, cars or dogs here. A sandy path lined with flowers and tall, sweeping coconut palms follows the coastline, and it takes just under an hour to stroll leisurely around this tranquil island. The place is Manono Island, one of the four inhabited islands of Samoa – the legendary birthplace of Polynesian culture and language – in the middle of the South Pacific.

My Samoan aiga – a family photo (1984)

There is a battery operated telephone box on the island, but it hasn’t worked for some time. One of the four villages that dot the coastline has electricity generated by a petrol generator. Power cuts off at 10:00 PM nightly.

Frequent rains provide fresh water for the approximately 600 inhabitants of this lush, tropical island. Messages broadcast on local radio alert the islanders whenever someone is coming for a visit. 

Fales (houses) are traditional Polynesian open construction, round or oval and have high peaked roofs of woven leaves or tin, and have no walls. Food is cooked in an umu (rock oven). Toilets (faleuila) are outhouses perched on stilts over the beautiful white sand beaches. As the tides come and go, these ‘toilets’ flush twice daily. 

Jim, Emi and Gary, dressed for church (1984)

In one village, a winning fautasi (longboat) is enshrined in a special fale along with its trophy until next year’s races. Nearby, children play kilikiti, a Samoan version of cricket.

In the evening, the fishermen take their outrigger canoes out to the reef. The women in the open fales – seated cross-legged on the floor – are weaving mats from dried flax, preparing food, or just chatting. Gravestones in front of many fales are reminders of family members who have gone before.

Presenting our customary oso (food gift), we are invited to malolo (take a rest) after our journey from the capital city Apia, before being fed our own food plus heaps of taro (starchy root) boiled bananas, coconut cream, palusami (coconut cream and fresh vegetables baked in young taro leaves), breadfruit, baked fish, pork, chicken, eel, octopus, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and Samoan cocoa. Seated cross-legged on the floor, we eat with both hands, as is customary in Samoa. 

Seated in front of us, the kids fan the flies away and will eat after the adults are finished. Pleasantly stuffed, we are each given a pillow and a woven mat, and join everyone for an afternoon nap, a sheet hanging down the middle of the fale – men on one side, women on the other.  

My Samoan Father, Uila (village chief) with Masi and Fala (1985)

Lounging in the main fale by the water’s edge, gazing out to sea, the cool breezes are soothing as light rain falls on the tropical greenery all around. 

Samoan life revolves around the aiga, and the enduring tradition of Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way of life) is the dominant social force. Strong obligation to the aiga under the patronage of the matai (elected head of the family) ensures security for its members in return. 

Uila, the pulenu’u’ (village mayor), asked me to be his son, along with Gary, a US Peace Corps volunteer. Our friend Emi, a young Samoan police woman, was also adopted into the family.

Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.

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