Fa’a Samoa! It is the word used by the local to talk about the Samoan culture.
What is it this mysterious word and what exactly is the culture of Samoa? There are simple answers and complex answers to this. It is not as cookie cutter as some would think.
Realize that this is the vantage point of a white middle class American backpacker who spend a few months in Samoa. It is not written by a Samoan with emotional ties to cultural ideals. I think this disclaimer is important to give.
The simple answer is that Fa’a Samoa is the Samoan way. Simply put.
The more complex answer it is that is the way of life but it is very different in different contexts. How the Samoans live in the hills above Apia is very different they how the Samoans live in suburban Tufuna in American Samoa. In fact, the version of the Samoan culture in American Samoa is quite different than what is present on Samoa’s main island of Upolu.
At the core of both of them is titles, chiefs, and a strict protocol. To what degree that these are followed and kept vary from family to family and village to village.
Samoan culture is about the titles
As an outsider, I am amazed at all the titles that people have in the Samoan culture. To me, it seems like every man has a title. It reminds me of the old saying in Missouri, “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” I also think having too many people with a chiefly title loses its’ influence. It is not rare anymore.
There is chiefs, taking chiefs, high talking chiefs, paramount chiefs, village mayor, and the list goes on.
As a visitor to Samoa, it is important to know all these men with titles have unlimited power in their villages. They can run you out if they want. They can even use force to do it if they desire. The government of Samoa will back them up unless it is a major politician against the chiefs in the village. I was in Samoa when a chief burned down a family’s home over not paying a fine to him.
What you need to know about the Samoan culture?
It is important that you get on their good side if you want to do something in the village. This is why I say to always bring them Samoan Ava when you want to do something, make sure you are overly respectful, and try to check the joking to a minimum.
The only place I would say to draw a line if they ask for a huge amount of money to do something in the village. If they ask a few dollars, that is one thing. If they want $50 USD for the right to use a beach…. just walk away. It does not happen often but some of the village chiefs let the power go to their heads.
In the Samoan culture, some ava, respect, and being nice will get you on the good side of the Matai!