Samoa: July 22nd — August 2nd, 2012

Posted on: September 19th, 2012 by admin No Comments

We had arrived in Western Samoa exhausted and more than a little spacey from lack of sleep and jet lag.  After leaving the States we had a 20-hour layover in Fiji, which we spent in a moldy and run-down hotel on the beach, where Katie fell in love with an amiable, 3-legged dog.  That night upon returning to the airport for our flight, we were told it was delayed until the next day, and they put us up in a much nicer hotel close by.  The next morning we ate made-to-order omelets, and since the food was free, we ordered lunch not long afterward, scarfing it down before fleeing back to the airport.  Arriving in Samoa, the heat and humidity hit us as soon as we stepped off the plane.  Western Samoa, along with it’s neighbor American Samoa, lies far, far away in the South Pacific, in the Southern hemisphere.  Fiji, Tonga, and several other tropical islands are distant neighbors, and New Zealanders make up most of the relatively few tourists who vacation there.  I imagine it is similar to Hawaii a couple hundred years ago–unspoiled and mostly self-sustaining with fruit trees and coconut palms, and not much in the way of shelter is really needed since the weather is generally sunny and unbothersome.  In other words, it is seemingly idyllic in it’s lush tropical beauty and friendly people.

We were greeted in the luggage-collection room by three men playing ukuleles, smiling and singing, and Katie filmed them and the luggage moving sluggishly on the belt, while I waited somewhat impatiently to leave and meet my parents.  They greeted us with lei’s that smelled like ginger, made by their neighbor Dolly, and drove us back to the village of Saluafata, where they have lived for a couple years.  Luckily (for them), they moved there from another village on the southern coast of Samoa only a week or so before the recent devastating tsunami hit, killing more than 300 people.  On an island with a small population, this means that at least one person on the island knew, or was related to someone who died.  A sobering thought.

After a couple days of resting, we got to work seeking connections in the fa’afafine community.  Fa’afafine literally means, ‘like a woman’, and fa’afafines have been an integral part of the Samoan culture for hundreds, if not thousand of years.  They are men who choose to live their lives as women, and take on the roles of women in their households: washing clothes and cooking, taking care of children and elders.  After interviewing a fa’afafine who is the president of the Samoan Fa’afafine Association, we learned that a person becomes fa’afafine because it is their natural expression of who they are, not because their family places them in that role (a common misconception).

Fa’afafines, in the role of womenfolk around the world, have the shared responsibility of carrying forth the Samoan traditions, through story-telling and teaching children the ‘fa’asamoa’–the way of Samoa.  From the ex-president of the Fa’afafine Association and leader of a growing LGBT network, we learned that religion has had varying degrees of impact on the fa’afafine community; the older, more established churches in Samoa (such as the Methodist church) are accepting of fa’afafines, letting them wear the traditional women’s pulatasi (dress) and letting them sing with the women in the choir.  However the newer churches (Mormon and Evangelical) do not seem to fully understand this tradition, and speak harshly against fa’afafines, letting them attend services only if they agree to dress and act as men.  Not attending church is not an option in this extremely religious country.  There is a large church in every village, and the older churches expect a large tithe from every family; the contributions are stated aloud in the weekly services, and families are shamed if they do not give a large part of their (often meager) earnings.  The newer churches, while expecting some donations, do not read the donations aloud, so there is a huge incentive in joining up, especially if one cannot afford the hefty tithe.  As more people join these churches, it seems likely that discrimination against fa’afafines in Samoa may increase.

We learned from our first interviewee that some fa’afafines do not believe that they are part of or should be connected to the LGBT community–they feel that their situation is unique, and they therefore tend to stay away from gays and lesbians–who are often discriminated against, and ostracized by many straight Samoans.  Other fa’afafines feel that it is important to band together with other members of the LGBT community there, taking them ‘under their wing’ by offering them some protection through their own status of acceptance.

We were sad to leave Samoa.  We met people who were amazingly friendly and hospitable; in addition to interviewing gracious and patient fa’afafines , we attended a traditional ‘umu’ (meal preparation), we swam in a waterfall with Dolly and her children who beat their chests, chanting and laughing before diving in from high cliffs.  We walked around the small city of Apia, where we ran errands, bought souvenirs and sought internet cafes.  I got to spend some much-needed time with my mother and step-father, and realized (as I have often lately) how fast we are all aging, and how rarely I get to see them, since they are so far away.  Samoa was a perfect beginning to our journey–we spent time with family, learned from fa’afafines about their tradition and culture, and spent some much-needed time relaxing and regrouping after a hectic and stressful departure from the States.  We can only hope that the next places we visit will be as intriguing and hospitable:)

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