One thing you will notice as soon as you arrive in Samoa is that there are more churches than corner stores in this country. Every village, nearly every street has a church and it is almost impossible to avoid getting roped into going at least once while visiting and to be honest, there isn’t much else to do on Sunday so you may as well embrace the culture and go with the flow.
On my very first day at work in Samoa I was invited to visit my colleagues village on the weekend, this is very characteristic of how friendly and generous Samoans are and how much they love to show off their culture to anyone interested. During my twelve months in Samoa I was welcomed into numerous homes, offered meals and I have no doubt that most would have literally given us the shirts off their backs if we needed it (or had one on)
Spend long enough in Samoa and you will inevitable be invite to the traditional Sunday Umu and in standard Samoan fashion they will be more than happy to teach you every step.
I was invited on a Monday and I didn’t hear anything all week so assumed it was a passing comment, that was until Friday afternoon at 5pm as I was walking out of the office.
“I will see you at midday tomorrow”
“oh ok, what time will I be home roughly?”
One thing you learn very quickly about Samoa is that while Samoans can be very direct like “Oh you’ve put on weight” it can also be impossible to get a straight answer for just about anything. I assume this is due to the laid back pacific culture and general assumption that Palagis (Foreigner) can read minds AKA are tapped straight into the “coconut wireless” (The Pacific “grape vine”)
This was the first I had heard of it being a ‘sleep over’ and now I was getting worried, what would the sleeping arrangements be? Would I be sleeping on the ground? with the entire family? What about safety? All these thoughts raced through my head and I was fretting for the next 24hours. I was up and ready to go at Midday the next day but that came and went, followed by 1pm then 2pm. Finally I was picked up at 2.30pm, yep island time will take some getting use to.
After a short half hour drive with Justin Bieber blasting from the stereo, a meat pie from the bakery (the real authentic Samoan way of life) squished in with enough grocery shopping to feed an entire family we arrived in our village for the night. I was introduced to the family and sat down to listened to them talk (in Samoan) for over an hour. Our ‘conversation’ was interrupted when my friend decided that we’d done enough for the day and needed to have a nap.
The main church in downtown Apia, one of the most impressive churches in the country.
This was my first time out of Apia and I was so excited to be out of town that the last thing I wanted to do was sleep yet I agree and we roll out the traditional Samoan fine mats to have a nap in the open family fale (Samoan house) While I’m sitting there “napping” with my eyes wide open I hear a roar of voices cheering from the street outside our Fale and there is a huge parade down the main street of the village, the local rugby team had won the season and everyone was celebrating. Being a huge FOMO I did’t get a second of shut eye because I was thinking about all the fun and excitement going on outside. A few hours past and finally my friend wakes up:
“So what are we up to tonight?”
“Its time for choir practice”
I should mention that at that stage I had never been to a church before except for a wedding and a few funerals so I was feeling a little intimidated. If someone had told me a year ago I would be sitting in Church on a Saturday night singing I would have laughed my ass off but here I was attempting to Sing in Samoan for two hours. It is actually an excellent way to learn to read Samoan. Fortunately for me Samoans tend to be amazing singers, what I assumed has been learnt from a life of singing in choirs at church every week. They were so harmonious (when I wasn’t singing) that I nearly drifted off to sleep, I found myself doing this often during my time in Samoa.
Sunday best, a common sight when driving around in any village on a Sunday in Samoa.
Exhausted from our massive day I headed for bed, luckily I am not sharing with the entire family just my colleague. Hours later I wake up to find my friend in the bed opposite me chasing something with her phone light, I turned on the main light to see her topless in all her glory casually squashing an 8-inch centipede with a glass soda bottle, she looks at me and says:
“I felt something crawling on me in my sleep”
After a thorough check of my bed sheets I reluctantly switch the light off but I sat in bed until sunrise wondering how much a centipede bite actually hurt, I had heard stories, it couldn’t be that bad right? I finally nod off at sunrise.
I awake to a room full of smoke, naturally, I think the house in on fire and rush out to find everyone standing around the smoking umu. Excited that I might get to help out with the umu I found out that I had slept through the entire process, going to the plantation for the food, heating the hot rocks, preparing the coconut milk, packing and cooking the umu. Damn it.
While the umu was steaming away (for lunch) someone else had been preparing a huge breakfast, I stuff my face (still having not learnt that an empty plate is an invitation for another plate of food) and after our huge breakfast we waddle our way to church. Had I of known it went for two hours I probably wouldn’t have drunk several litres of water that morning. Did I mention the sermon was all in Samoan? but the priest was Jamacian? So funnily enough I didn’t understand one sentence the entire time. Church is much different to what I expect, its stinking hot and half the audience is sleeping while the other half are on their phones Facebooking. Definitely not what I had pictured. Half way through the service my bladder was screaming at me and I had to ask where the toilet was, instead of directions I was escorted to the neighbours house where I was invited in to use their toilet as the church didn’t have one. The home is so & so’s cousen’s, auntie’s, sister’s, step-sons house. This is a common theme throughout Samoa, being invited into strangers homes for coffee, koko Samoa or just to use the toilet.
Anyway we leave church and I am still waddling, well and truly still processing the gigantic breakfast we had before church. As soon as we get home I am ushered into the kitchen for ‘lunch’ I am seated at a huge table by myself while everyone else stands around. I am told to say grace and start eating as I am the guest and guests eat first followed by elders and then children. Finally others join in with me eating, I am still stuffed from breakfast but I eat a few token pieces to keep everyone happy but I basically gave up with a full plate of food. Everyone laughs at how little I’ve eaten, “something, something Palagi – hahah” I will get use to that word over the next twelve months. Finally my body resigns and now I understand all the sleeping, this feast brought an entire new meaning to food coma, I could have face planted onto my plate at any moment. After cleaning up everyone retires to the main fale for another nap and I somehow manage to talk someone into taking me home early because I could sleep for days in the state I am in. It’s a bumpy ride home but that’s ok because I’m fast asleep in the tray of the ute under the Samoan sun.
A Church in Savai’i that was overtaken by a lava flow.