Volunteering in Samoa

Beach in Samoa

It must be strange to lose a day. Twenty four hours disappear entirely out of your life never to re-appear again. Admittedly that’s what happens to anyone travelling across the International Date Line in one direction, and you experience the same day twice in another. But, somehow, losing an entire day, when standing still, seems so much more peculiar.

That’s what happened to the people in Samoa in 2011 when the date line was moved to run around the group of islands which make up what used to be known as Western Samoa, and now just Samoa, cutting it off from American Samoa (a little over 100 miles to the east). This isn’t the first time the line has shifted in the South Seas. The Samoans, to ally themselves more closely with America, had the original line moved westward more than a century earlier. But by the twenty-first century the economic benefits of being closer to New Zealand and Australia – at least by sharing the same date – were deemed worth the loss of a day so the line has been moved back again.

The links with its much larger neighbours start with more Samoans living outside the country than in it, mainly in New Zealand. And a country that produces almost nothing and is dependent on grants and aid from any country that will give it, particularly those generous neighbours, as well as money sent home by families abroad, just reinforces the closeness of the links. As a tourist you might never know that the economics of this laid-back nation appear to be on a bit of a knife-edge.

There are very few hotels, but they are all attractively designed and beside some of the best beaches in the world. The sea is blue and warm, all year round. The vegetation is lush green with enough rain even in the supposed dry season to keep it that way. There are no ‘nasties’ like snakes or malarial mosquitoes. You can buy fresh coconuts alongside any road (on the whole the roads are less pot-holed than the roads in Britain) and someone will cut a hole and hand you a straw for the unique taste that is never quite the same out of an English supermarket cardboard carton.


So for a week you could laze around the pool, scuba dive, or visit Robert Louis Stevenson’s last home, where he stayed having sailed across the world trying to find a climate that would save him from a death from TB. He found Samoa, loved it, and was loved by the Samoans, but it didn’t save him. He is buried there, a place of pilgrimage by tourists and book lovers. There are waterfalls and waterholes to visit along with the main town – well, the only town – where its parliamentary building is shaped like a bowler hat.


But that tells you nothing of real life in this Polynesian group of islands half way between New Zealand and Hawaii. I was there for two months, living with two very different local families (one very poor, the other more middle class) and working as a volunteer to help children who were slow learning to read in English. The government wants everyone to be bi-lingual Samoan/English though, in truth, some of the children in my classes were slow in any language and one or two had serious problems that would never be diagnosed there let alone treated.

Living and working in Samoa showed there is a stark flipside to the happy-go-lucky sunny lifestyle of the Samoans; a culture slowly changing and acquiring what might be described as the less civilised attributes of western living without the economic stability to balance it with the benefits.


To begin to understand a little of the country just sit in the airport and watch the flow of people leaving and returning. The goal for most Samoans is to have dual Samoan/New Zealand citizenship. I stayed with a family who had it, and twice a year the ritual was to stay with relatives in New Zealand who kept cold weather clothes there for them. They visit a health clinic and stock up on free medication. Their suitcases are empty when they fly out and full to bursting when they come back because everything – especially food – is cheaper. So they will bring back fresh fish, frozen meat, even vegetables. If a family flies into Samoa for a funeral they will bring boxes and boxes of frozen meat for the wake which will then sit in a kitchen defrosting in the heat until someone eventually gets round to either cooking it or putting it in a freezer.

It’s a place with lovely fish in the market – but most of the deep-sea fishing rights have been sold off to foreign factory fleets. Everything is imported; even milk comes from one single supplier in New Zealand. Internet access is very expensive. There is no postal service. And because you can’t send post to people the only tax that can be collected is if people are employed. So the self-employed – which I reckon is the majority – do not pay tax. Hence, revenue for the government is very limited.

With no collection system everything has to be pre-paid using cards. Even schools have to pay for water and electricity using a pre-paid card which then has to load up on the meter. When the lights failed in school one day there was frantic scrabbling around to find the card and restore order.


Samoa is rich in fruits. As well as coconuts, there are small bananas, lemons, limes, mangoes, oranges, paw paw and pineapples. But what do the locals predominantly eat? Deep fried chicken and taro (a large root vegetable cooked as a dry lump in the oven). Not surprisingly, there are health issues relating to diet among many Samoans. But I saw little evidence of the obesity that I am told is prevalent in American Samoa with its US fast food cafes.

Evidence of the dependence of Samoa on New Zealand and Australia is everywhere. The headmistress of my state school was in hospital with major health problems. When I visited, the hospital appeared modern and clean but her treatment was entirely dependent on whenever the next team of New Zealand doctors was likely to arrive to diagnose and treat her. A woman connected to our volunteer office had a stroke. Strokes there are treated as a disease with just two days of antibiotics before being sent back home with no therapy or follow-up. Luckily, there was a physiotherapist among our volunteers at that time so she visited to provide what no-one else could.


Tourist guides will warn you of two things. The first is that if you have an accident outside the main town it is quicker to hire a taxi to get you to hospital than wait for an ambulance. Even in town that seemed to be the attitude. A lad of about 10 in my reading class was knocked down by a truck outside the school. His friends just flagged down a cab and bundled in the boy with a serious head wound and sent him – alone – off to hospital. It didn’t occur to them to call his teacher for help.

The second warning is about dogs. Everyone has at least one dog. The guides tell you to either carry a stick or, if one starts to chase after you, bend down as though picking up a stone, and they will – usually – run away. Samoans love having dogs but don’t necessarily love them or treat them well and with just one vet to serve the islands if the dog has a problem they don’t get treated at all.

Perhaps the biggest gap between Samoa and any major western culture is the relationship between church and school. The missionaries brought Christianity and there are churches of every variation of it around the islands (no other religion exists). They range from modest little buildings to a blue and white wedding cake confection for the main town’s Catholic Church to the vast art deco style of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. You can spot the Mormons since they are the only ones in shoes and suits; everyone else wears flip flops or goes bare-foot and wears shorts or lava lavas (a kind of wrap around skirt worn by both sexes).

Each village is responsible for the upkeep of their own churches and providing the income of the pastor (who is self-employed so pays no income tax) and as their homes are maintained by the village too it’s a pretty good career. Even the most modest village maintains its churches with beautiful wood clad interiors, shining with polish, with not a mark or hint of dust anywhere. It doesn’t matter where you go but every one shows the money and effort that has been put in to support and maintain them.

The village also has a duty to maintain its local state school (primary education is up to 14 when there is an exam and kids are supposed to go to college, though many simply disappear into the job market by helping their parents in whatever they do). The state pays the teachers, and recently grants made by New Zealand and Australia have enabled money to go to schools to help cover basic costs such as water and electricity. The physical structure of the two schools I was involved with – one in the town and one in a village – was appalling: wooden barge boards falling off; a classroom with insufficient chairs and tables for the children; no text books; and teachers using flip-chart-sized paper to write on as their blackboard. How some of the children at the back could read anything was a mystery since not one in a school of 900 kids had spectacles.

I went to the government education department to put forward a proposal to run a national competition in the Samoan newspaper to generate some good stories for children in Samoan which would then be printed and circulated to schools. In a beautiful modern air-conditioned building with a double-height reception area and soaring dazzlingly-white columns I was told it was a good idea but was asked without irony: where would the money come from?

Samoa is a country going through a cultural change. On the surface it’s a collection of South Sea islands with an under-developed tourist industry so it is definitely a good time to visit to enjoy a relatively unspoilt environment. But underneath it is struggling with the worst of change and unless there is investment in creating an economically viable future – so it can afford to look after its citizens – it will continue to lose its brightest people to anywhere else in the world other than home.

Now is the time to visit if you like the kind of place which has yet to discover the ‘Kiss me quick, squeeze me slow’ style of tourism. If you want to go ‘native’ choose a beach fale – a kind of round open sided hut – a mini version of the traditional home of which there are still plenty on the islands.


Hotel resorts are beginning to be built on the main island of Upolo. Perhaps the oldest resort hotel is Aggie Greys, now owned by the Sheraton group. Aggie Grey was a smart girl who, I was told, made her money by realising that American soldiers staying on Samoa for R&R during the Second World War yearned for the kind of food they got at home. She specialised in providing it and she was made. Her first hotel is a colonial style affair in the main town but there’s also a resort with a golf course and all the water sports you can want. There are a number of newer resorts just built or in the process of being built further to the south where the beaches are even bigger and better.

Experience local life by going on a bus, garishly painted, many with religious messages and all blasting out bootlegged pop music. But beware, there are no timetables, they finish early, and don’t run on Sundays.

To really get around, hire a car and make for the best and never-crowded beaches such as Lalumanu – like Woolacombe in Devon, but with miles of hot sand, palm trees, year-round sunshine, warm seas, and not many people even at its busiest. Get a ferry and stay overnight on one of the small islands. No hotels, just fales there, so bring your own nightlife.

If you go at the beginning of September there is a cultural week with examples of local skills on show in the main town of Apia. Don’t miss the tattooing done in traditional styles, differing for men and women, using a kind of hammer instead of a needle. And you must see the statue of the last cannibal king, complete with the story of how he lost his taste for human flesh.

If you are adventurous, go at the end of October or the start of November just when the full moon rises and the Palolo worm upsurges in its millions to spawn in the seas between Upolo and the next island of Savaii. As caviar is to Russians so the Palolo worm is to the Samoans. There’s a kind of tension in the air as Samoans wait in eager anticipation of the harvest, watching the moon for just the right time. As soon as the worms begin to rise, Samoans are there too to scoop up the wriggling mass. This is expensive stuff and Samoans living overseas always hope their family will freeze some so they can have the ultimate luxury next time they visit. Sitting in a small dish it doesn’t look like much; bluish in colour like a lump of slimy gloop. What does it taste like? I couldn’t say. But don’t let me put you off; it could be an experience that lasts a lifetime.

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