If you say it just right, the island of Savaii rhymes with Hawaii. That’s because the ancient Samoans were thought to have colonized a lot of Polynesia and Melanesia – and they never forgot their home island. Or their underwater goddess, Nafanua. And they kept giving things similar names. Kind of like New Boston or New Amsterdam.
Scientists know that developing in geographic isolation is a mixed blessing. On the wonderful side, it causes unique birds and animals to thrive, like the rare Samoan flying fox. And isolation from most predators caused the Samoan rainforest to evolve without protective biology – the author says humans could walk through the rainforest barefoot. But a huge problem with isolation is when that protective shielding goes away – when the Native Americans were rediscovered by the rest of humanity, they were wiped out by diseases they had been shielded from for thousands of years, for example. It was no different for the Samoans when they were colonized in the late 1800s.
I don’t like change. I especially hate extinction. Like Paul Alan Cox, I was horrified to read that the rainforest near Falealupo village was about to be logged to death. That the American Fish & Game service was corrupted by Big Business into deliberately hampering efforts to save the endangered Samoan flying fox. (First they told Dr. Cox the species did not exist; then they counted hundreds of another species and informed him that there was no danger.) And I was distressed that the unique Samoan human culture would be dying as well.
It was deeply gratifying that Dr. Cox saved the rainforest by putting up his own money to fund the village school, so they wouldn’t have to get the money from logging. He later went on to found Seacology to save some of the world’s ocean ecosystems.
While I am grateful to live in a rich country like America, bits of Samoan life do sound like paradise to me. Living close to the ocean. The lack of polluting, stressful technology and machines. The slowness of time, the close-up beauty and peace. And the sense of community and connectedness that we in the West have either lost or never had. In Samoa, while you may have to work your guts out subsistence farming or subsistence fishing, you are never alone. The smallest unit of consciousness in Samoa is a village, Dr. Cox explains:
A man accidentally runs over and kills a small boy from a different village. His entire town makes themselves responsible to the grieving father. At sunrise the next day, there they are, 60 chiefs and other men from the driver’s village, sitting across the road in front of the father’s hut. They will not move until the other village forgives their village for the offense. Each man takes it in turn to rise and embrace the father, telling him how personally sorry they are, and giving gifts of money, pigs, and other items that can only be a sacrifice for such poor people.
This seems very sensible and very healing to me. As well as Confucian in its insistence on order, ritual, and right action for societal harmony.
Dr. Cox and the villagers are all sympathetic characters. Cox is fluent in Samoan, having learned it previously as a young LDS missionary to the islands. He and his family fit into village society as well as they can, much unlike a doctor friend who comes to visit. This small anecdote is the most shocking in the book and only reinforced my personal belief that Western medical practitioners are by inclination and training, too arrogant, too disrespectful, too impatient and too dismissive of anything they weren’t taught in school. Dr. Cox and his family even survive the worst earthquake (8.1) and tsunami in the island’s recorded history, right along with their Samoan friends and neighbors.
Confusing Country Names
Throughout the book I thought I was reading about American Samoa, because the author is American, and he was in Samoa. To make matters more confusing, Dr. Cox is listed on Wikipedia as having established the 50th National US Park – in American Samoa. But Falealupo village is in Independent Samoa. This made my head hurt. How about if the US just gives Samoa back to the people it belongs to?
Meanwhile, let’s clear up some confusion as best we can.
These 10 islands are in the western part of the Samoan island chain – four inhabited and six not inhabited. Known as “German Samoa” up until the Germans lost World War 1, they were then known as “Western Samoa” and controlled by New Zealand until winning independence in 1962. They joined the UN in 1976.
Savaii island currently has about 43,000 people living there while Upolu island has about 150,000.
NOT the setting for this book
These 5 islands and 2 coral atolls in the EASTERN part of the island chain have a unique (and in my opinion, horribly unjust) status. About 50,000 people live there. Active American interference as late as the 1930s suppressed a Mau independence movement here like the one that succeeded in the western part of the islands. About the same time as we overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii.
According to Wikipedia, people born in American Samoa are American nationals, but not American citizens. (Separate but equal, anyone?) They can’t vote, nor can they be taxed – thank goodness for some small measure of fairness. They do get to send one non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. (What’s the point?)
Although I learned a lot by reading the book and enjoyed some of it – some of it made me sad and angry about the state of our world and those in power – I did find it wanting in one respect. Some major incidents didn’t get closure. For example, during the hurricane, Mr. Cox finds himself forced to provide medical treatment to a little Samoan boy whose hand is almost severed by a flying piece of tin. He isn’t a doctor and the best he can do is to clean the wound, give the kid antibiotic pills, and split the hand.
There are only two chapters on the storm and then the next chapter takes place 8 years later. I did want some closure about the little boy and maybe an update about what all the characters are doing now.
It was also sad that Funio, the Samoan who jointly received the Goldman Environmental Prize along with Mr. Cox, for their efforts to create the first National Park in Samoa and save the rainforest, dies of cancer shortly afterward. I needed a better kind of closure there! Of course, maybe I’m really asking that one from life.
All in all, an eye-opening and enlightening book.