Date: 22nd May 2005
Subject: Bible bashing
Place: Satuiatua, Savai’i, Independent Samoa
Stuart had a talk with Matthew and Cameron over breakfast. “Sunday is a very special time for Samoans. They go to church and then spend the day resting with their families and enjoy a special lunch together. We’ve been invited to join in; so we’re going to set some ground rules. You two must sit still and don’t dare make any noise. If you fidget, squeak or mess about, then the punishment will be terrible.” The boys stared up at him, absorbing every word. Stuart searched around for a suitable retribution. “The Samoan police will be on duty in church, and they’ll take you off to prison if you misbehave,” he continued in his sternest voice. The boys looked fittingly anxious.
We returned to our falé and rooted around for something appropriate to wear. Our travellers’ wardrobe had been diminishing over the last few weeks, as our cycling clothes had been sent home, binned or left abandoned in various parts of the globe. Samoan people all wear white for church and we had been briefed to wear light colours.
“Ok Stuart, I’ve got a yellow Family on a bike T shirt, a multicoloured lavalava, a black Big Coast cycling top and a pair of black tracksuit pants. What do you think?” I held up the contents of my wardrobe which I now managed to fit into a small child’s rucksack.
“I think we’re going to stand out like a sore thumb.”
The church awaits the congregation
Outside the church there was a throng of white flowing skirts, beaded straw hats and prayer books. All the men wore white lavalavas, shirts and ties, and every child was immaculately dressed in sparkling, pressed white outfits. We were a colourful crumpled addition. Leilua, the owner of our falé complex, had invited all her guests to church and lunch. Her other guests were an international collection of surf dudes who had put on their best shorts and ‘white stuff’ T shirts for the occasion. Brian, Ben, Janelle and Jamie made a donation to the man at the front desk and ambled in, looking slightly uncomfortable. One of them carried Leilua’s handbag as she escorted her blind mother into church. The building filled slowly and the organist played his opening notes. The choir then took over, singing in strong harmonies, their voices filling the church. Flies buzzed in and out of the open slatted windows and the big white building absorbed the chorus, stained glass windows filled with sunlight. High, high on a pulpit the minister appeared, the singing ended and the church became silent apart from his preaching. Deadly silent. Matthew and Cameron climbed onto their benches. Cameron caught his brother’s eye and squeaked; the beginnings of their well rehearsed mousie game. “There’s a policeman there, and there, and there. See, those men in white,” Stuart pointed out in a fierce whisper. “One more squeak and they’ll take you off us.” The children froze.
The minister delivered his service and sermon and all around us the children of the village stood absolutely quiet. The women waved straw fans in their faces to ward off the heat, and the men dutifully read their bibles. Then a small child in front of us turned to his sister and poked her in the stomach. Without taking his eyes off his bible, a burly man next to them reached over with a fan, and with a short sharp, almost imperceptible whack, the child was reprimanded and fell silent. As the service progressed we noticed the small thuds coming from all around the church; as any child so much as moved, it was brought into line by a touch of a fan, or the lightning strike of a bible descending onto their head. Perhaps our police story had been a mild threat after all.
“Brian…blah blah tala.” The minister was announcing who had given what in the collection, a regular naming and shaming device to ensure each family donates a percentage of their income to the church, to cover the minister’s salary. Brian, the American surf dude who had just been named, shuffled uncomfortably in his seat. Matthew and Cameron sat quiet and unmoving.
Organised religion is everywhere in Samoa and has a massive hold on its people. Almost everyone in every village goes to church. Some villages with just a scattering of people manage to house three or four different churches; Catholic, Methodist, Mormon, Assembly of God or Seventh Day Adventist, the choice is yours as long as you go. The chiefs of the village make sure everyone attends and dispensation is only allowed to those who are cooking the Sunday lunch. Consequently we are told there are many volunteer chefs on a Sunday. Services are held in the morning and afternoon and the community attends both. We have asked many people why religious belief is so strong here, and have received many different replies. “The English missionaries started it,” a waiter told us accusingly as he served our breakfast. “We have always prayed, it is part of our culture,” said a local shop owner. “The bloody Mormons come in and build flash temples and bribe them with computers and a university in Hawaii,” said Steve our guide, a firm non-believer. “We simply like to sing,” said one of the hospitality staff of the beach resorts, as she prepared to entertain us for the evening.
Bus loads of people, bibles and fans. Attendance is virtually compulsory.
Back at the beach falé, Leilua came to round us all up. It was now ten in the morning and lunch was being served over at the family home. But we had only finished our breakfast at eight, and were unprepared for the early feast. In a large falé , Leilua’s family sat crosslegged on mats. On plates made out of leaves the now familiar traditional Samoan food was awaiting us. A parcel of leaves containing tarot leaves and coconut cream baked in the ‘umu;’- a special ground oven, the tarot vegetable; a starchy substitute for the western potato, a bowl of cabbage soup and three types of meat, accompanied by a cup of Samoan cocoa.
Leilua was charming, welcoming everyone with a big smile. “My mother is blind but she hear everything,” she said, gesturing to the old woman sitting next to her. “You are nosey aren’t you Mother?” Her mother sipped her cocoa in silence.
Stuart picked at the tarot leaves, unable to bring himself to touch anything with coconut milk in it after his bout of food poisoning. I tucked into my food, with Cameron’s plate sitting untouched beside me. “You have that one as well, you are eating for two,” Leilua cried with delight.
“I’m hungry,” said Matthew rejecting his plate. But Leilua understood. “Tell Maria and she will make you some chips later,” she briefed him, “and weren’t you good in church Matthew?” Our son smiled broadly at her praise.
“We told him the police would come and take him away otherwise,” Stuart told her cheerfully. “But next time we might just bash him with a bible or a fan.”
“You noticed that?” Leilua shrieked, her laughter filling the falé . “Yes, our children are very good in church. And you could say our bibles are well used in Samoa.”
Leilua rewards the boys for good behaviour in church. Better than a bash with a bible eh boys?.