Growing up can be a harrowing affair
In many countries, you have to go out of your way to find something you think is authentic; in Samoa it is always close.
On the super-laid-back Pacific islands of Tonga and Samoa, the extended family is everyone’s social insurance system.
On Tonga, I stop to chat with a happy fisherman putting out his catch to dry, while his many children swing on a rope above the water nearby. “Our ways are still the best,” says his niece, who just returned from America. Many Pacific Islanders spend time abroad working for various lengths of time.
“There is hardly any work and I have eight children,” says the fisherman. “But at least I can do things our way.” The Tongan way means at a snail’s pace and keeping it in the family. Hunger, loneliness and overload may not exist, but neither do individual wealth or privacy.
Everything is shared – one reason most shops seem to be run by Asians, as Tongan store-owners would soon have to give their stock away. The language has no different words for brother and sister, nephew and niece. Aunts and uncles are called parents. The King of Tonga, Tupou VI, – despite some recent changes in the parliamentary system – remains in charge, helped by a few noble families. It is not surprising that foreigners are the main driving force behind the diving and surfing schools, restaurants and beach resorts, bringing western ideas of service and efficiency.
The modern age may have reached Samoa, with my comfortable beach huts and the good asphalt roads, but the traditional way of life he was enchanted by has by no means disappeared. Enormous families of supersized people live side by side in open wooden houses with carefully raked gardens.
“We all live in one house, with our parents and grandparents,” says a woman. “My aunts and uncles live nearby. I love it, I can not imagine being away from my family for a day! Three of my ten brothers and sisters live in New Zealand and I miss them so much.
“They also live together in one house. Of course they do. You cannot be Samoan and be a private person. It’s just not possible.” With 15 children quite the norm, it is common for a sister to park a few more while she leaves to work abroad for a while. Deceased family members lie prominently buried in the front garden, kept close even after death. ”My grandmother is buried in our garden, so are our great-grandparents,” she says. “You in your country could never do this, but we live in the same house for generations and generations.”