Sunday, April 15, 2018


When I was trying to find recipes for Samoa, I was surprised to find a ton of recipes for desserts based on the Girl Scouts cookie called Samoas. And that was entirely NOT what I was going for, although they are delicious. And the other part was that now there are two Samoas: the island nation of Samoa (I grew up calling it Western Samoa) and American Samoa (a US territory – for more information on this and other US territories, please watch John Oliver’s segment he did on this on his show).

The name Samoa most likely comes from the Samoan words sa meaning “sacred” and moa, meaning “center.” There may be other theories out there, but I couldn’t find anything substantial.

This island nation is located in the south Pacific. It’s slightly northwest of the island of Niue, south of Tokelau, and east of Wallis & Fortuna (belonging to France). There are two main islands (Savai’i and Upolu) along with four smaller islands. The US territory of American Samoa lies southeast of Upolu (American Samoa itself actually refers to five main islands and two atolls.). The climate here is tropical, with a rainy season that lasts from November to April. The islands used to be covered in lowland tropical rainforests, but nearly 80% of those have been lost.

It’s believed that Samoans landed on these islands nearly 3000 years ago, but from where exactly, it’s still somewhat disputed. They share cultures, languages, and genetics with other nearby islands (namely Fiji and Tonga). The Dutch were the first to arrive in 1722, followed by the French in 1768. English missionaries (through the London Missionary Service) and other traders began making their way to the islands during the 1830s. However, the Germans looked upon the islands with more of a commercial purpose in mind, mainly with copra (dried coconut meat) and cocoa production. At the same time, the US started taking interests in the eastern islands as a territory, and several became known as American Samoa. The Samoans entered a civil war, and the British, Germans, and US each began sending in ships to protect and control their interests. A storm hit and destroyed most of the ships, ending the conflict; they signed an agreement giving the eastern islands to the US (American Samoa) and the western side to Germany (German Samoa). During the German’s 14-year rule, an uprising took place. The response was to banish the leader of the uprising to the German-held Northern Mariana Islands. New Zealand then controlled the islands from WWI to 1962, when they became known as Western Samoa. They were hit hard by the global influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 (I didn’t fully realize how widespread this epidemic was). The Samoans weren’t really happy with New Zealand’s control either, and there were several uprisings, some ending tragically for the Samoans. In 1962, they finally gained their independence, making them the first small-island nation in the Pacific to do so. In 1997, they voted to change their name from Western Samoa to just Samoa (something American Samoa wasn’t happy with apparently, thinking it would be confusing and diminishing their own identity).

Located on the northern coast of the island of Upolu, the city of Apia serves as its capital and largest city. Historically, the city also served as the capital of German Samoa as well. It serves as the center of the government as well as center for most other services (financial, education, media, transportation, etc.). The Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson lived out his final years in Apia. The winters are probably WAY better than in Scotland.

Samoa is an economically developing country. Agriculture is still a top exporter, especially in taro root, bananas, cocoa, noni, copra, and coconut cream/coconut oil. There has been some investment in expanding the financial sector along with tourism.

Because of Samoa’s history of being controlled by Christian-dominant countries, it’s no wonder that Christianity has a strong stake here still. The largest denomination is the Christian Congregational Church of Samoa, followed by Roman Catholic and Methodist and several others. Despite the fact that Samoa’s constitution declares Samoa as a Christian nation (a change made only last year), there is also a sizable number of Baha’i followers.

English is the official language along with Samoan (known as Gagana Fa’asamoa). There are actually more Samoan speakers (including second-language learners) than English speakers. Samoan is similar to other Polynesian languages like Hawaiian, Tongan, Maori, Tahitian, and Rapanui. And there is also Samoan Sign Language for the deaf community and a Samoan Braille as well. 

Two things I read about caught my attention: in 2009, Samoa switched to driving on left, something they felt aligned them with other countries in the world. I always wondered what that process looks like in logistically getting everyone to switch over. I just imagine a lot of head-on collisions during the first couple of months. Another thing that amazed me was that in 2011, they moved the International Date Line so that they were in line with Australia and New Zealand. Previously they were 21 hours behind Sydney, the result of being set up in the 1890s to work with Californian businesses. Now, realizing they have much stronger economic ties to Australia and New Zealand, they are only ahead of them by three hours. It certainly makes a lot more sense.

Up next: art and literature

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