Samoa | Culture and Customs


Petra Shepherd selects Samoa in her search for Treasure Island and shares the cultural bounty of her trip with us.

I blame it all on Rex Harrison, well Rex Harrison in Doctor Doolittle and a parrot called Polynesia and the film South Pacific. I’ve always wanted to go to “Treasure Island” to see blindingly white beaches with towering palm trees dripping into mirror calm turquoise seas and yes, peaceful people dancing in grass skirts (your quintessential childhood image of the South Pacific). I chose Samoa, in the heart of Polynesia, five hours from Australia’s east coast aiming to get another new passport stamp and to see the cultural side of country. Samoa consists of 10 islands of which only four are inhabited, the main islands being Upolu, home to over two thirds of the population and the thriving capital Apia and wilder, remoter Savaii. 

Forget, going to San Francisco I was immediately charmed that everyone men, women alike wear flowers in their hair, including those in passport control on arrival. No serious faces and questioning looks here, just big smiles and even a group of musicians playing some form of welcoming song. All this for an economy passenger at an international airport.


Other first impressions was the total lack of litter anywhere, that most men (and all schoolboys) wear skirts called lavalava, a kind of sarong and that there are no road signs anywhere, no traffic lights and no bus stops.


I guess with just one road circling Upolu and another going across, the multi-coloured buses know where they are going. The latter are not difficult to spot, competing in garishness with the colourful “chicken buses” of Central and South America.


Always my first port of call and as good a place as any to get a taste of local life is city’s produce market. In Fugalei market in Apia, there are stalls selling all the things that you’d expect in the tropics, bananas of every shape and size, coconuts, I also saw women selling locally grown tobacco (best not to try!) and between the market stalls men playing checkers, their nimble fingers dancing across the board, milk bottle caps used as checkers.

Time honoured customs are still an integral part of everyday life in Samoa. Fa’a Samoa (The Samoan Way) is a 3,000 year old custom not found anywhere else in the South Pacific and plays a vital role in village and community life. It’s a guideline for every Samoan on how to lead their lives, celebrating and embracing traditional values, culture and visitors. Fa’a Samoa has three key elements to it, the matai (chiefs), aiga (the extended family) and the church. There are over 362 nu’u or villages in Samoa with a total of 18,000 matais.

Matai are the heads of the extended family unit and their complex role covers family, civic and political duties in the village. Churches of various denominations feature in every village. Sunday is observed as a day or rest with families visiting church and enjoying toonai (Sunday lunch), be sure to catch a service, I celebrated mass in the cathedral where even if you are not religious , it’s a chance to sit down for an hour and be charmed by the angelic voices of the Samoan choir.


Samoa is one of the few places in the world where tattooing is practised in the traditional way by tufuga ta tatau (master tattooists) using handmade tools of bone, tusks, turtle shell and wood. Striking examples can be seen on individuals, the pe’a being the traditional tatau given to men. It begins at the waist and covers just about every bit of skin, right down to the knees with intricate designs.

Food and dance are also central to Samoan culture and every hotel and many restaurants will host a Fia Fia night, showcasing Samoan dances and songs along with Samoan cuisine. Fia Fia means ‘happy’ an appropriate name as the singing, dancing, slapping, enthusiasm and energy within the dances is both contagious and joyous and I also got to see those grass skirts and elegant hand movements. At the end of every Fia Fia show and sometimes even by the hotel staff as you are leaving the “Tofa Mai Feleni” song is sung. The Samoan’s mournfully sing the words “Oh, I never will forget you,” ditto my thoughts entirely.

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