An Introduction to Samoan Custom
CHAPTER III — The Malaga
In the islands of Upolu, Savai'i and Manono there are some two hundred and seventy miles of coastline which the roads or tracks in most cases follow fairly closely. There are also a number of cross-country tracks, especially in Upolu, one of which during the war was converted by United States forces into the Cross-Island Road between Leulumoega and the south coast. No road or track is impassable for pedestrian traffic even in the worst weather, except temporarily owing to the flooding of rivers or watercourses that are usually dry, but there are many sections of lava or other types of rough country which at the best of times are negotiable only on foot. Visitors who are travelling merely for interest or pleasure are well advised to arrange if possible for visits to outer districts to take place between April and September, which has already been shown to be that part of the year in which, although there is a considerable precipitation, there is not usually so much rain as in the wet season.
One's wardrobe should be planned with some regard to the heavy rainfall experienced in the Territory. Sufficient changes should be provided to allow of comfortable walking and dry garments for the evening, as it is sometimes difficult in wet weather to dry clothes under Samoan living conditions. Foot-gear is important, but personal preference, as to which some difference of opinion is shown, is an important factor in this matter. Some walkers prefer heavy boots under all conditions, but with certain experienced patrol officers, rubber-soled tennis shoes (sandshoes) are much in favour. For those who are used to it, this style of foot-gear offers most of the advantages of the Indian moccasin, but for those who are not, there is the undoubted disadvantage that the first few days' walking, if over very broken country, may result in bruised feet. The writer and page 26 other Government officers, however, have found that sandshoes, used with care, are by far the most satisfactory foot-gear. In any case, slippers or comfortable, roomy shoes should be provided for use in the evenings, and for day use the type chosen should be loose enough to permit of the comfortable swelling of heated feet, but not so loose as to chafe the heels or cause blisters.
Supplies of adhesive tape and antiseptic are well worth the small trouble of taking along. Dispensaries or Hospitals staffed with Native Medical Practitioners and Samoan nurses are spaced at regular intervals, but the application of a little antiseptic and adhesive tape to a chafed heel or other abrasion at the right time can add a good deal to personal comfort and enjoyment of the malaga, in regard to which care of the feet is perhaps one of the most important factors. Even if no chafed heels develop, the application of methylated or rectified spirits helps to toughen the skin of bruised or tender soles. Ill cared-for and complaining feet can fill one's entire mental horizon at the end of a long, hard day.
Loose, khaki clothing is most suitable for walking tours in this country, and particularly in wet weather, shorts for men will be found convenient, as the cuffs of long trousers when soaked and muddy can present a very bedraggled appearance. Ladies will probably avoid unflattering comment if they do not wear shorts. If men who are unused to that form of dress wear shorts, care should be taken not to risk too much sunburn, especially when travelling by boat, as severe sunburn, followed by a week or more of muddy malaga, may result in a troublesome infection. Badly sunburned tissue, especially on the legs, has a tendency to break down under the influence of unusual and sustained exercise, and in particular, infections, abrasions or coral scratches involving the ankle or shin-bone should receive expert treatment with as little delay as possible. Infections in the areas mentioned may develop quickly into tropical ulcers, which are not easy to heal.
A rain cape or even an umbrella, of which the latter is an item of equipment in great favour with Samoans when supplies are procurable, can be very useful. People unaccustomed to a tropical sun should certainly cover their heads, although sunstroke is not common in this country. An unpleasant headache can, however, result from overexposure of the head or neck.
Arrangements for the malaga itself warrant some care. The length of each day's march should be decided upon page 27 after reference to a map and if possible a discussion with someone who knows well the type of country to be passed over, as in some cases it is imprudent to base estimates of distance or the probable time to be spent in walking merely on references to the existing maps. The first and second days should not be long ones. Regard to this point assists one's own feet to get into walking trim and also helps the carriers to shake down and establish their routine. The luncheon and night stops, should be planned and adequate notice sent forward to the hosts, mentioning both the day and the date.* This not only ensures comfort on arrival, but spares hosts the embarrassment inseparable from being required to offer hospitality without having made suitable preparations. This is a genuine feeling on the part of Samoans; they definitely prefer to be given the opportunity to make adequate arrangements and to provide anything special in the nature of local foodstuffs that the district has to offer. It is a pleasant commentary on Samoan custom that a guest has only to announce his intention of paying a visit to have no effort spared in preparations for his comfort and entertainment.
For those who wish to travel with dignity, a good interpreter, if possible a matai and preferably an orator, should be chosen for the trip. An untitled person acting as interpreter or orator would probably be an embarrassment both to himself and to his Samoan hosts (although they would be the last to complain), for in order to support the dignity of his employer he would find it necessary to say and do things that Samoan custom would not permit on his own account. Carriers should also be arranged, allowing a sufficient number to transport what is required speedily and efficiently. Where rivers or inlets have to be crossed, it saves time if word can be sent ahead for a canoe to be in readiness. Current wages for carriers can be ascertained on enquiry at the Department of Native Affairs.
* All villages are provided by the Administration with calendars in the vernacular.
The carriers are generally well-built youths who are used to carrying heavy loads of food from plantations. Suitcases are placed in specially woven coconut-leaf containers, and two are then slung at the ends of carrying poles or yokes called amo, made of a carefully selected, strong but light wood, usually from the fau tree. The yoke is placed across the shoulders and heavy loads can be carried in this way for many miles. In this, as in most other specialised occupations, there is a trick that calls for careful balancing and a mincing type of step, which together operate to prevent any swaying of the load and a consequent chafing of the carrier's shoulders. Europeans who have not mastered these fine points would not go very far in comfort with a typical Samoan load.
Incidentally, fau is one of the woods from which fire can be developed by friction. Fu'afu'a is another. A groove is cut in a larger base piece which is held firmly by one operator, and a pointed stick which fits the groove is then drawn quickly backwards and forwards in the groove by another. Considerable pressure is employed to shave off fine rubbings of the soft wood. As these accumulate at one end of the groove they become heated by the friction, and when they have reached a charred stage, a gentle blowing while the operation continues produces fire. Both components of the apparatus must be made of the same kind of wood to produce the best and quickest results. Under competitive conditions the writer has seen a light produced for a cigarette by this method in under two minutes. It is not as easy to accomplish as it looks, and attempts to do so may enliven a rest period by the side of a bush track. Young Samoans engaged in hunting wild pigs, clearing bush land or tending plantations are not yet dependent on the modern box of matches for the preparation of a cooked meal.
Most tracks in Samoa are narrow and permit only of proceeding in single file. Young people will step off the track to allow the malaga to pass and if they are carrying page 29 burdens on their shoulders they should in strict conformity to custom set these down or lower them below shoulder level while titled people pass by. If working at clearing bush by the side of the track, they should pause respectfully. Chiefs and orators met on the road will stop to exchange greetings and possibly shake hands. It is polite in Samoan custom to express an interest in the destination of a malaga party and there is usually no reason why this should not be explained. If for any reason it is not desired to do so the answer “Yonder” is quite sufficient. Untitled people do not usually presume to exchange greetings or offer salutations, and one may often judge the status of Samoan travellers met on the track by observing whether or not they propose to speak when drawing near. There is a characteristic air of dignity and quiet assurance about the heads of families in this country and it is a fact that one grows sooner or later to be able in most cases to recognise a matai merely by his appearance.
Old women have a privileged position in the Samoan community. As previously stated, women take their status from that of their men-folk, but even apart from this it is a fact that an old woman or especially a group of old women may say things that no one else would dare to say. An old woman greeting the malaga party is probably the wife or widow of a chief or orator.
It will occasionally happen that a malaga party overtakes another proceeding in the same direction. Untitled people may be passed without stopping, but it is courteous and proper to greet chiefs and orators who are thus overtaken. After a short conversation the malaga party may proceed, but in such a case it is polite to excuse the fact that one wishes to go forward first and thus to leave behind the party overtaken. One's orator will attend to the proper courtesies in these circumstances.
From time to time it may be noticed alongside the track, especially near a village, that certain coconut trees are bound with portions of coconut leaf or fau bark, or they may even have one or two dried mature coconuts hanging from the trunk. This is an intimation that the owners of the trees have reserved the produce thereof for a certain purpose and that they do not wish any of the nuts to be taken for drinking purposes by members of the malaga party. Such a traditional form of prohibition is much more effective in practice than the erection of a fence or the posting of a notice. A malaga should be careful to respect such a prohibition and allow no member of the party to break it. page 30 Where malaga parties proceed regularly round Upolu and Savai'i it will be found that there are recognised resting places, and at these spots it is usual and permitted by custom for the carriers to climb trees and to take drinking nuts where the road is close enough to the sea.* A stick with a sharpened upper end called a mele'i is driven into the ground and the nut husked on it with several deft twisting movements. A few light taps on the nut at the pointed end opposite that which carries the eye-holes, either with another nut or the back of a knife, splits off a circular cap, and the nut is ready for drinking.
The best nuts for drinking are those that are not fully mature; when the liquid has been consumed, the nut may be cracked open and the soft, jelly-like, growing meat may be scraped off the inside of the shell and eaten, the cap serving well as an improvised spoon. This is a quick, refreshing and strengthening meal that is popular at reststops, especially with the carriers. At the other end of the growing scale is the fully mature nut that has sprouted. At that stage the original cavity of the nut has become filled with a spongy, edible mass and the liquid has all been absorbed. This spongy, sweetish growth is termed o'o and on coral atolls forms an important part of the food of the inhabitants. During its growth it absorbs a good deal of the oil from the meat of the nut which then becomes unsuitable for the preparation of commercial copra.
To allow a shower or squall to pass, it may be necessary to seek shelter in some isolated house or in a village through which one is passing. The owners of the house may not be expecting the call and will hurry to place mats if these are not in readiness. Chairs will generally not be available in such circumstances. The host or hostess, after the preliminary greetings and some conversation, even if coconuts have been offered for the refreshment of the party, will politely regret in a set form, the fact that no meal or more substantial refreshment is available. They should be warmly thanked for their polite regrets and informed that as the call is sudden or unexpected, the lack is of no consequence. If the wait is likely to be a lengthy one, there may be an offer to prepare kava.
* The coconut does not flourish at a much greater altitude than 400 or 500 feet, although the tree will grow and produce a poor yield at a higher level. In this country that is tantamount to saying that the coconut is rarely found very far from the coast as the trees are not often planted as high as the marginal level.
A travelling party, especially where the members of the party are known, is invited in almost every village through which it passes, perhaps by an individual official or matai, who will come to the roadside for the purpose, to enter a house to rest or to take kava. This is a display of good manners on the part of the person making the offer and may be accepted or not as convenient. Such an invitation should, of course, be courteously acknowledged if it is not accepted. Occasionally it may happen that a village is assembled in council when a party passes through and an orator will turn in his place in the council house and respectfully invite the party to enter. If the village is not a scheduled stop, one's orator may reply that it is advisable to proceed according to the programme laid down, and after thanks and mutual courtesies the party may proceed. During this exchange, any umbrellas in use should be lowered and carriers awaiting a decision should set down their burdens. If a function is in progress, an orator of the village may press the party very strongly to stay for a short time; if that cannot be done, it is likely that a food gift will be presented informally for which of course proper thanks should be rendered before the malaga proceeds. When an invitation is called from a house, greetings are fairly informal, but if a matai or orator comes out to the roadside to present an invitation, formal greetings are usually exchanged before other matters are discussed.
There are numerous courtesies and indications of respect associated with the movement of animals and the carrying of burdens through villages or past assemblies or groups of matai, especially on the malae, the ceremonial central area of the village. Horses may be employed in visiting some of the distant districts. Care should therefore be employed to ensure that a horse is never galloped across a malae or past a house in which ali'i and faipule are assembled in fono. It is good manners to dismount and lead a horse through a village and this prohibition must be most strictly observed in certain important villages where it is the custom to lead animals or carry burdens along the beach, rather than to desecrate the malae.
There are conventional forms of greetings and replies page 32 when meeting people on malaga and when arriving in or departing from a village, but these form part of the study of the language rather than to warrant specific mention in these notes.
It may sometimes happen that part of the malaga has to be undertaken in an open Samoan boat (fautasi). These are long narrow clinker or carvel-built vessels* which in a heavy sea have a rather peculiar motion. They may be propelled by as many as 30 to 40 rowers. Visitors sit usually in the stern, forward of the steersman, and as a loaded fautasi cannot be beached satisfactorily, guests are usually carried to and from the boat. This may be done by either of two methods. One boy may clasp his hands behind him, and into the loop so formed one inserts a knee and clasps the boy round the neck or shoulders. Or two boys may clasp hands and form a seat on which one takes one's place, balancing by clasping each boy round the neck. Any amusement caused to the crew or onlookers on the beach by these means of transportation is legitimate enough and should be taken in good part. A jocular reference to one's weight, if knowledge of the language permits, is not out of place, and is actually part of the fun.
The interdependence and mutual recognition of the two groups in Samoan society, titled and untitled people, receive a good illustration in boat journeys. The rowing is usually the function of the young men, but from time to time the steersman, or other chiefs or orators on board, will thank the rowers courteously for their efforts, and they will continue with obvious satisfaction, lightening their labours at the oars with typical Samoan songs.
At the end of the trip it is appreciated if one says a word of thanks to the crew, not forgetting special mention of the steersman, who is deemed to have had the lives of all on board in his hands during the trip, especially if it has been necessary to proceed outside the reef and to negotiate any difficult passages to and from the open sea. Samoan custom is generous in these matters. The skill of a steersman, or even of an automobile or omnibus driver, is always the subject of courteous thanks and is something of a rebuke to our own easy-going European ways.
* Clinker-built vessels are constructed with planks that overlap each other, in the style of weather-boarding; the hull of a carvel-built vessel presents an even appearance with planks that fit smoothly together.
On the north coast of Savai'i there are stretches of open or sparsely overgrown lava. Travellers who wish to study their comfort will arrange to cross such stages in the cool of the morning; those who attempt them in the heat of the day for the sake of the experience should not expect to enjoy it too much at the time. The heat from the lava is, of course, less unpleasant in the trade-wind season. Visitors who propose to climb the volcano Matavanu should not go without a good guide and should allow ample time for the trip, a full day. On the higher, unclothed slopes of the mountain, one's weight breaks through a cindery crust of ash to ankle depth; boots therefore provide the best form of protection on this particular excursion. A very cool, or even cold wind is frequently blowing at the summit, and if one plans to lunch there an extra wrapping, especially after the exertion of the ascent, can be a comfort. The lip of the crater is crumbly and dangerous, and a descent into its depths to secure a souvenir from the sulphur deposit in the vent should be attempted only with a really trustworthy guide.
The lava field that flowed from the volcano Matavanu is interesting in that it presents the spectacle of a comparatively recent phenomenon. Very sparse growth is now making its appearance in cracks and fissures, but the general appearance is that of an immense extent of lava that has only lately solidified and which in many places still preserves the imprints of the trunks of fallen palms or other trees. In certain parts, the field presents an eruptive or exploded appearance due to streams having been engulfed; in others it suggests that a swelling, uneasy sea was suddenly frozen solid. The stone walls of churches or other buildings show above the level of the surrounding lava; in one instance the molten mass surrounded a church and flowed backwards through the entrance, leaving untouched a section of land in the rear of the church which is now used as a graveyard. Perhaps the most remarkable freak of the lava which swallowed up the entire lagoon and rolled page 34 on into deep water, forming the present typical “ironbound” coast, was the complete and neat encirclement of a girl's grave to a depth of approximately six feet in such a manner as to follow closely the margin of the grave and yet leave the grave intact.* This is one of the sights of the lava field, close to the western boundary. At the points of crossing, the field is about five miles wide; the volcano itself lies some five miles inland in a direct line but it is necessary to walk further than that in order to reach the summit.
Generally speaking, if it can be avoided, it is not good manners to enter a village through the cooking areas or the pig enclosure. On occassion, if a party approaches from the land side, this is unavoidable, in which case it will not cause comment, but where there is a choice, the approach should be made from the front and well cared for part of the village. To enter unnecessarily from the rear is equivalent to a visitor entering the back of a house; this is also not customary.
On malaga it will probably be found that personal susceptibilities and idiosyncracies differ a good deal; one person may do with impunity what will cause another considerable discomfort. It is possible, however, that attention to some of the hints in this chapter may make all the difference between an enjoyable trip and one that, although affording material for humorous anecdotes at some future period, may prove to be something less than pleasant at the time.
We are now ready to consider what happens on arrival in a village; some aspects of a typical welcome ceremony (fesilafa'iga) can best be examined in a fresh chapter.
* An inspection of the grave while this chapter was being set up disclosed that the lava edges have collapsed as a result of weathering and a recent earthquake. It can still clearly be seen, however, that the lava flow never at any time encroached on the grave itself, although the appearance is now not so spectacular as it was previously.