Spare a Tala for grassroots wisdom

Apia Diary

Dev Nadkarni

The longish drive from Faleolo Airport to downtown Apia is always a great opportunity for a grassroots view of the goings on in Samoa – especially when your driver, even if loquacious, is eloquently so. Views from the street are more often than not strongly biased toward the hoi polloi but they’re straight from the heart and valid opinions nonetheless. The cabbie barometer is one of the best tipping tools a scribe can ever have anywhere in the world. It’s always perceptive, even philosophical.

“From New Zealand?” asks chatty cabbie. Before I even utter ‘yes’, he continues: “Lived there a few years ago. Very nice place, nice people, nice roads, nice houses, but I came back in a year.” “Too cold?” I ask. “No. Cold is okay. Too expensive – you pay for everything, for eating, drinking, you need money for everything. Not like here. In New Zealand, no money, no life, no good.”

No need for money in Samoa? Not so much, he says. He lives in a nice ancestral home. There’s plenty of family, extended family and friends for support. There’s a patch to cultivate vegetables and fruit. There’s lots of fish. And it’s free. No money needed for day-to-day living. “Then how do you pay your bills?” I persist. “Sell the extra veggies and fruit by the side of the road, work a few hours, don’t work when you don’t need to, no pressure. See? Not like New Zealand.”

Come to think of it, all island societies – just like indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world – have not just survived but thrived without a monetary economy for millennia. And they’ve done so sustainably, without polluting, without taking more than what they need. They’ve grown food naturally and organically, without making a fuss of it or clamouring for some sort of expensive certification. They’ve treated ailments with traditional remedies and dealt with day-to-day problems with collective wisdom.

We first world slickers call that ‘subsistence living’ as though it were some lower form of existence. We desperately want to bring ‘up’ those living standards with ‘development’. Paid for by aid and cheap loans so that they may better participate in the modern global economy. So that they can pay for cheap, unhealthy high fat-salt-sugar-laden processed food and drink, which their digestive systems are scarcely attuned to. All of it produced in factories that belch carbon into the air, pollute the water and use questionable chemicals to prolong shelf life.

So, maybe the measurement and yardsticks of development ought to account for the harm it does to the traditional, natural lives that indigenous people have lived so well for a thousand years and more. Maybe Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, whom I meet and chat with later, is right about development yardsticks being seriously flawed, though his reasons might be somewhat different.

The worryingly high incidence of non-communicable diseases like type-II diabetes, a range of coronary ailments and runaway obesity rates are all consequences of development and of aligning with a modern, globalised economy. And then you find fault with ill equipped countries like Samoa, which also have inadequate human capacities to deal with these problems, of not achieving goals according to a one-size-fits-all standard that’s set by some ‘expert’ in some faraway ivory tower.

As we trundle along newly resurfaced roads to welcome some 3000 visitors from every corner of the world for the region’s biggest jamboree, I ask what he thinks of the event. “Very good for Samoa. Everyone will know Samoa. We learn from them and they learn from us.” What does he think ‘they can learn from us’? With a reflective glance over the endless ocean and with an ever so slight smirk he rather haltingly says, “If everyone lives like how we have always lived, everything will be all right.”

So earthy, so practical, so straight from the heart: but is the world listening? As it squabbles about how to prevent half-a-degree’s rise in temperature while fiercely arguing who will spew out less carbon, the still, small voice from the grassroots stays unheard.

Apt sobriquet

I quite like Samoa’s ‘model state’ sobriquet. It’s stable socially and politically, has reformed its economy slowly but in sure, small steps and has performed reasonably well in the development indices, though some might have a different view on this last bit. I often wonder what might be behind Samoa’s stolid social stability, unlike, say, that of Fiji’s, where things always seem to simmer beneath the surface.

As I meander through one of Apia’s bustling markets on a crowded Saturday morning I can’t help but notice the sheer diversity in facial features. Some are decidedly oriental. Some are completely Pacific island. Some are a bit of this and a bit of that. But unlike in other multiethnic melting pots anywhere in the world, everyone is called Samoan. There is no hyphenated, double-barrel description. Like Fijian-Indian or Indo-Fijian or Italian-American. There are no labels like Chinese-Samoan or German-Samoan in common parlance. Everyone is Samoan. Period.

One reason might well be that unlike Fiji Samoa doesn’t have to bear the cross of British colonialist legacies. Three powers fought over its territories in history – Germany, America and Britain. Fiji was ruled solely by the British, who left behind their toxic divide-and-rule legacy in many parts of the world: Fijian versus Indian just as in India it was Hindus versus Muslims. Which these divisions to this day continue to threaten havoc, both in Fiji and in India and in other former British colonies. Samoa was spared of that.

It’s a true melting pot. Chinese and European legacies are valued and celebrated but in the Samoan way. Absorption, accommodation and assimilation are the unique attributes of the Samoan way. But there is a new wave of immigrants that seems to be hitting Samoa’s shores and I notice them in bigger numbers during every subsequent visit. There are more Chinese coming in as businesspeople, traders, workers. Some Samoans are worried. They are unsure how this escalating influx will affect the Samoan way in the decades to come.

Meanwhile, everyone is excited about hosting the biggest show the country has ever seen. No one clearly knows what it all means and what benefits it will bring Samoans in the long run. When I ask the vendor selling fresh albacore and yellow-fin tuna in the Apia market, she does not quite know what SIDS is. Or how it will benefit her and her family.

But she thinks it will be good for her country that so many people are coming – she hopes they’ll take back good memories of Samoa with them. And pointing to the bright new twin cab van that roars into the parking lot says, “Maybe we’ll have some good sleep now on.” It’s the dog control van fresh from New Zealand that’s been in the headlines all morning.

First appeared in Islands Business magazine, September 2014