The incredible experiences are piling up so fast I can’t write about one without the next one happening and clouding the details of the one before. (I am even breaking the rules by working on my computer on the day of rest.)
Today, after church, I was invited to the chiefs’ lunch, or to’onai, with the leaders of the village—only seven people—five men and two women… and me.
gift from one of the matai
Sitting on “fine mats,” in the main fale overlooking the bay, each leaning against one of the support columns around the perimeter, we are served food on “plates” of fresh breadfruit leaves on top of woven placemats, by young men and women.
to'onai prep area and servers
For me, the palagi (“foreigner”) with strange eating habits, I am limited to taro, breadfruit, palusami(coconut-creamed taro leaves), and cocoa. The others are served a variety of fish and chicken dishes, as well. Everything has been collected or caught within the day and prepared in the umu, hot stone “oven.” The concept of “farm-to-table” would be laughable to the villagers, as what other kind of food is there? They ask me, “Why you no eat? Is ‘natural’ Samoan food!” Since I can actually see the chickens walking around the fale, and the bay where the fish is caught, and the jungle where the rest of the lunch was procured, my answer falls on deaf ears—truly. Luckily, they probably think it’s a religious thing.
yam, breadfruit, palusami
You eat with your hands and there is no conversation during the meal. More food keeps arriving and cups are filled until you push your placemat away. As each person finishes, his set up is removed and a bowl of fresh water brought to wash up. In another area, off to the side, it’s time for the attendants to eat—fresh food, but also any leftovers of the group. Theirleftovers will go to the chickens, cats, dogs, and back to the ground.
With everyone sated, the talking begins. (Did I mention I thought working in Samoa was going to be a bit easier than Sri Lanka because English is widely spoken? Wrong. English is not well-known in the villages, and not in one as remote as Matafa’a.) The speeches are incomprehensible to me, but I can see an order in the speaking from highest matai (chief) to lowest, and around again. I can understand the word “Jon” on occasion, as they are either thanking me or describing the progress of the canoe project, as Rev. Fepai later explains.
The talking lasts for a couple of hours and has the arc of a tropical downpour: fast and furious, then gradually subsiding. Outside, a true downpour begins (normally, once a day) and sends sheets of water cascading from the roiling grey clouds above the village. (Rain is so common in Samoa, that no one changes their behavior, in the least, when it happens: people don’t run or cover of put up umbrellas, they just go about whatever they were doing and get wet.)
boys coming home from school soaked
After the speeches wind down, I am told that I do not have to stay. My hosts are being considerate, but I also think there are more private things to discuss. Although, I might be wrong, because there is no real concept of “privacy” in Samoan village life—there are no private sleeping rooms, locked doors, or secrets… maybe. I retire to my room—on Sunday, there is a rule against working, swimming, even playing cards—it’s a day of rest and religious reflection… and eating. I lie down on my cot under the mosquito net and fall fast asleep in a food coma induced by “natural Samoan taro, palusami, breadfruit, bananas, and cocoa.”