What is special about Samoa

Samoa at a glance

At the turn of the millennium they were in the headlines again, the Samoa Islands. They are only 35 kilometers away from the date line, at about 14 degrees south latitude, 172 degrees west longitude and a good 1500 kilometers south of the equator. Samoa is the last country to greet the new day and the last country to say goodbye at sunset. At the "Millennium" celebrations, this phenomenon attracted many curious people and brought Samoa worldwide popularity.

Young dancers at the fiafia at Aggie Grey's Hotel (Apia)

Originally, all islands were peaks of a mighty volcanic massif that rose up to 1,850 meters above the water and rises steeply from the 4,000-meter-deep seabed. Dense rainforest, waterfalls and crater lakes shape the interior. The coasts are surrounded by fertile strips of alluvial land. Coral reefs protect the islands like natural breakwaters, preventing excessive surf erosion on land. Wide sandy beaches, turquoise lagoons and coconut groves enliven the dream of the South Seas paradise that foreign visitors bring with them.

In contrast, the dark lava fields and bizarre lunar landscapes of Savai’i are reminiscent of the active volcanism on this westernmost and largest island in the archipelago.

For the Samoans, the areas directly on the coast are the preferred settlement area. The less inhabited interior of the island is used as planting and grazing land. Thanks to the volcanic soils and the generally frequent rainfall on these high islands, a relatively lush natural vegetation thrives with various types of palm, bamboo, flowering trees such as fire acacias, frangipani, hibiscus and bougainvillea bushes and fascinating orchids. While the fauna of the sea and the lagoons with their diversity and splendor of colors delights underwater athletes, the natural land fauna of Samoas is very modest. Of the reptiles, only skinks, geckos and the Pacific boa are represented. The only native mammals are the fruit bats, which are threatened with extinction because of their tasty meat.

Scientists suspect that Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) sailors settled in the Samoa archipelago around 3000 years ago. This is at least proven by the shards of Lapita pottery found there. The Samoans themselves see their islands as "the cradle of Polynesia". According to legends, the island of Savai’i is said to be old Hawai’ki, the place where the Creator God let all Polynesian life begin. Undoubtedly there have been many contacts between the individual archipelagos such as Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and the islands in the west of the Pacific in the course of history.

The French explorer Louis de Bougainville, who was impressed by the local knowledge of seafaring and boat building, gave the patches of land sighted in 1768 the name "Navigator Islands". The first European to actually set foot in Samoa four years later was Jacob Roggeveen from the Netherlands. Soon trading ships of several nations were visiting the distant shores, attracted by reports of the fertile islands in the Pacific. Especially England, the USA and Germany showed the flag in front of and on the Samoa. The Godeffroy merchant family from Hamburg also settled in Apia in 1857 and gradually expanded their trade in copra (dried coconut meat) across the entire South Pacific.

Several royal families who had ruled Samoa for generations were feuding with one another at the time. Welcome opportunity for the major Western powers to send their warships to Apia. In competition with one another, they supported the various local adversaries. The quarrels over dominance ended in 1899 with the Samoa Treaty of Berlin. England renounced its share and got Tonga and the Solomon Islands for it. The east of Samoa came under US administration, the west with Upolu and Savai’i fell to the German Empire. The division of the islands is a prime example of Western power politics. The Germans, economically strong through the Deutsche Handels- und Plantagengesellschaft (DHPG), were eager for prestige and agricultural property, the USA was looking for a safe whaling station and a strategically important supply base for shipping between America and Australia.


American Samoa includes the small islands of the Manua group (Ofu, Ta'u and Olosega) and the island of Tutuila with the protected natural harbor of the capital Pago-Pago (pronounced Pango-Pango). The modern age, the “American way of life” and the almighty dollar soon established the Polynesian way of life. In German Samoa, the islanders experienced what many of their descendants today call "the good German times" for fourteen years. Although the locals were subjected to reprisals such as poll tax and the forced cultivation of coconut palms, Samoa is the harmonious exception in the colonial period under the imperial eagle, which is far from being so peaceful in other parts of the world German planters enforced the protection of their land rights and a certain self-administration. In economic terms, the German colony of Samoa, which lived mainly from exporting copra and cocoa, was successful. In 1914, at the beginning of the First World War, Western Samoa fell to New Zealand, which designed its "trust administration" to be very authoritarian. After a three-year military presence by the USA during World War II and subsequent patronage by the United Nations, Samoa became the first country in the Pacific island world to gain independence on December 31, 1961. Malietoa Tanumafili II, who is still in office today, was elected head of state for life. The two Samoan states maintain good relationships, and family and cultural relationships have remained just as close. There are no serious efforts towards reunification - the status quo is definitely beneficial for everyone involved.

The important personalities of Samoa are still the matais, the around 15,000 chiefs or, better still, heads of families. Members of Parliament, who until 1991 also had the sole right to vote, are elected only from among their ranks. They are the guardians of fa’a Samoa, the traditional way of life.

Fa’a Samoa - this describes the orientation of the Samoans to traditional rules of conduct and cultural values. First and foremost, it concerns the strict hierarchical order in all social matters. Young people in particular must show full respect for the traditional leaders, the matai. It is understandable that this attitude often collides with the ideas of free personal development that Western schools and media convey. In addition to the economic constraints, this cultural dichotomy is the main reason for the continuing emigration of many young Samoans to New Zealand, Australia, American Samoa and from there to the USA.

Fa’a Samoa also stands for the cheerful and generally cheerful attitude of the around 170,000 residents. She and Samoa, which has always been swarmed around as the "heart of the South Seas", attract the admiration of the palagi (pronounced palagi), the strangers. The great storyteller Robert Louis Stevenson, who settled on Upolu to alleviate his tuberculosis disease, called the country "the friendly islands".

Fale, large meeting house in Apia

Apia, the small capital with 35,000 inhabitants, also welcomes its visitors who arrive at Fale’olo Airport and as passengers on cruise ships at Pilot Point in the eastern part of Apia Harbor. A disaster had occurred in the harbor basin in 1889. English, American and German warships had been smashed by a hurricane on the reef, 200 seamen had drowned miserably because the captains of the three colonial fleets had remained close to land despite the danger that was recognized in good time. Suspicious of the roadstead and lying in wait, none of the competitors had wanted to leave the coveted port to the other.

As a visible landmark in the city, the cathedral, built in 1905, rises up in Apia with its two angular towers. Opposite the tourist office informs. German family names on company signs and in the telephone directory are evidence of the numerous descendants of the former colonial rulers. The Mulinu’u Market is worldly and casual, where the people who have come from the villages often sell their fruit and vegetable products until late in the evening. Those on the lookout for hand-woven mats and clothing will find them at the flea market near the water on Mt. Vaea Road. Not far away are the stalls of the fishermen who offer their fresh catch for sale early in the morning. The clock tower commemorates the Samoans who died for the British in World War I. There where the Ifi-Ifi-Straße turns into the interior of the island, there is a jagged spectacle every morning from Monday to Friday. The police corps, dressed in uniform skirts as is typical of the country, moves out from the headquarters to the sound of the band to perform the flag parade in front of the new government building on the headland west of the port.

A very special kind of institution awaits visitors just behind the bridge over the Vaisigano River: the Aggie Grey's Hotel. As the epitome of Samoan hospitality, the house founded in 1930 by Aggie Gray - daughter of a New Zealander and a Samoan woman - attracts illustrious guests from all over the world. In addition to multitudes of American GI’s during World War II, film stars, politicians, writers and even the royal family enjoyed the charming flair. The facility, partly built in the traditional fale style, is the scene of the fia-fia, a festive spectacle with Samoan dances and a lavish buffet, every Wednesday.
Entertainment is also provided by numerous bars and pubs, all of which serve the popular “Vailima” brand beer, which is brewed in a German-Samoan co-production.

To the west of Upolu, between the airport and Mulifanua, where the ferry to Savai’i departs, the land is covered by large coconut plantations. Before that, one village after the other, churches everywhere testify to the success of Christianization. Often in the immediate vicinity of the fales, large meeting and community houses that are open on all sides. Small boats run to the offshore islets of Apolima and Manomo, where white beaches, lagoons and seclusion pamper visitors. The southwest of Upolus also offers beach relaxation such as Return to Paradise Beach - named after James Michener's novel - Manureva Beach and east of the village of Lotufaga uta, Coconut Beach.

Waterfall in the interior of the island, Upolu

From the south coast the Cross Island Road leads over a pass back to Apia. From the road you can marvel at the 100 meter high Tiavi waterfall and get to the Lanoto’o crater lake, where lots of goldfish swim. The Gray family's farm with the grave of Aggie Gray and the only Bahai’i temple in Oceania are further attractions along the well-developed south-north slope. A few kilometers from the capital, Mount Vaea rises 470 meters above sea level. In the posh suburb of Vailima, the former residence of the Scottish writer Robert Lous Stevenson is definitely worth a visit. The spacious wooden house known as “Villa Vailima” now houses a museum that honors the world-famous author of “Treasure Island”. Stevenson is always popular with the Samoans, whom he met with a great deal of understanding and commitment to their culture. They called him Tusitula, the storyteller, and in 1894, according to his wishes, buried him on the summit of Vaea.

If you turn east on the coastal road from Apia, you will soon come to the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, a protected area along a reef ideal for snorkeling and swimming. The residents fish here twice a year for the Palolo reef worm, which they call "caviar of the South Seas". Past the Piula Methodist Theological College, the first Methodist mission school in Samoa, and a few villages, the road leads steeply up to the Lemafa Pass. On the other side are the Afulilo reservoir and the Sopo’aga waterfalls. In the Aleipata district, the beaches on the calm sea and a few, mostly uninhabited islets off the coast are particularly worth mentioning. Small huts (beach fales) can be rented in Aleipata for overnight stays and picnics. After around 30 kilometers on the south coast road, the O Le Pupu-Pu’e National Park offers the opportunity to explore the forest on paths and, with luck, observe some of the rare fruit bats.

Diverse nature, particularly impressive in the contrast between tropical vegetation and the lava fields frozen in bizarre shapes, beckons on the much larger sister island of Savai’i, whose economic center is the Salelologa ferry port. A day tour from Upolu, including the one-hour crossing, is easily possible. Visitors with more time can use the hotels and pensions in the island towns.

Mount Silisili rises 1858 meters inland, only a few dirt roads and narrow slopes lead up the rugged slopes. The island can be circumnavigated on a mostly paved road, but unlike Upolu, the island buses only run irregularly. About 30 kilometers northwest of Salelologa, just behind the village of Samalae’ulu, extends the youngest lava field, which poured from Mount Matavanu (402 meters), which was explosive from 1905 to 1911, all the way to the coast. Mount Elietoga in the west of the island, which is more than twice as high, spat out an even wider lava flow in the 18th century. Savai’i is still extremely volcanically active. In many places, cyclones have severely decimated the trees in the rainforest, as can be seen in the Rainforest Reserve on the northwestern Falealupo peninsula. The route in the south of the island runs along a breathtaking cliff, legends tell of sharks and turtles that people revere in their understandable fear of wild nature. She shows her strength dramatically when at the Alofaaga Blowholes up to 80 meters high water fountains shoot out of lava tubes on the rocky coast.

In front of a second forest reserve, the Tafua Savai’i Rainforest Reserve in the southeast, a visit to the Letolo coconut plantation has an archaeological surprise in store: Pulemelei. The step-shaped embankment, bordered by rows of stones, measures at least 50 by 60 meters and is ten meters high. Tombs, ramparts and platforms have been discovered in the area. Little is known about the importance of this site. Even in the third millennium, Samoa still keeps one or the other secret ...

Albrecht G. Schäfer

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