Village wisdom reaches boardrooms - learning from Fa’a Samoa

Story by Rowena Bahl

The old days of brand invasion – where an international brand introduces a cloned product irrespective of country or culture – are hopefully close to extinction.

To be successful, smart operators are learning from the country and culture they enter. In Samoa, there is so much to learn from Fa’a Samoa, “the Samoan Way.”

Samoa is determined to create a visitor economy that’s in balance with Fa’a Samoa. New developments and changes appear to be heeding the call.

Obsolete business models that reeked of colonial arrogance and misplaced superiority are being replaced by a willingness to learn from village grassroots custom and wisdom.

Isolation, separation, space, time are meaningless. No anger-ridden teens hang here, no heavy materialism – just a simple way of living.

Family is at the core of Samoa. It is the hearth, the centre. This is where everything emanates from. It is a family concept perhaps unfamiliar in westernised society. 

Sose Annandale, from the Sinalei Resort, tells me a story of when she was in a class at university in New Zealand where there was a discussion on the simplicity of the people of Samoa.

Her lecturer said that he always thought Samoans were too simple, that they frequently stated the obvious.

When he was going to the beach once, someone asked him, “Are you going to have a swim?” His first thought was, “Well, I have my towel in my hand. I’m walking toward the beach, what does it look like?”

Obviously he was going to have a swim, so what was the need of asking the question. He later realised, as he got to know the people better, that the question was not actually that simple.

It was an interaction, a way of connecting, and a lot more special than the words associated with it. We often rely so much on words for communication that meaning is lost.

In Samoa unity is the thoroughbred.

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The scenarios of, “Whose turn is it to do the dishes next?” or “Who’s cooking tonight?” or “ “I need my personal space” are non-existent. Tasks are a celebration of togetherness rather than chores. Interaction is paramount and enjoyable at all times of the day.

Isolation, separation, space, time are meaningless. No anger-ridden teens hang here, no heavy materialism – just a simple way of living.

Simplicity’s contradiction is that it is actually quite complex. One may think Samoans are “simple” people but in actuality everything they say, everything they do, everything they are has a much deeper meaning than visitors may perceive.

As I step off the plane at Faleolo International Airport, the first step in embracing ”island time” is a delightful contrast to Tokyo’s scary Narita Airport that I’d visited just a week earlier.

My first symptom of achieving “island time” is getting lost (something I do rather well most of the time), and then not caring (something I am not so good at as I usually panic). I casually walk up to the first person holding a sign to Aggie Greys, the resort I will be staying at, and follow them to the transfer van.

After 15 minutes of sitting in the van I remember I am meant to be meeting someone from the Samoa Tourism Authority. Sure enough, he arrives at the van and asks, “Is one of you Rowena?”

 “Would you like to come to the other van? Or you can just stay here”. He doesn’t seem phased by my carelessness at all, the difference being he's “carefree” and I am “careless”.

I am embarrassed and fumble that I have even managed to pack my bags in the wrong van. He assures me it's okay and my luggage can just come with them and I can come with him. Thus begins the transition from “careless panic” to “carefree non-worry”.

When we arrive at Aggies that evening, just around the corner from the airport, it is already time for bed, so after a few introductions we head to our rooms for some rest. 

What a treat it is to awake to the sight and sound of the South Pacific.

A canny property owner once told me: “Give a person a view and they probably won't complain about much. It is without a view that all the nitpicking begins and they will find just about everything that is wrong with the place”. 

Upon opening the slider doors to the balcony I am greeted with that heavy, hot island air. Ah. How strange it is that air so heavy actually releases my body of stress and worry.

Breakfast is served buffet-style in the Fale restaurant. There is a large selection to choose from - the usual arrangement of hot foods, breads, jams, fruit, teas, coffee and juices. I sit down with my breakfast and take in the happenings around me. The smells and sounds are those that only the islands can bring.

After breakfast that morning we meet our host Anthony in the lobby for a day full of Samoas property developments and a “big secret” the Samoa Tourism Authority will unveil later that afternoon.

As we drive toward our first destination, a new development called Return to Paradise, I am mesmerised by the rural landscape, the fale meeting houses and churches being the only relief in the panoramic evidence of diligent villagers working their land.

The “paradise” development site is huge and just weeks from opening for weddings, conferences, spa treatments and resort escapes.

In yet another significant step for Samoa’s tourism, we attend the signing of the memorandum of understanding, the first stage in moving the Aggie Grey's hotel to Starwood management.

We learn the Sheraton and Aggie Grey's trademarks will be combined in the proposed names of the hotels - Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey’s Hotel and Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey’s Resort and Spa. This move opens Samoa to Starwood’s millions-strong client base.

After the formalities, it is time for some impressive sightseeing. Last for the day is the To Sua Ocean Trench, a deep hole in the seabed where the adventurous can climb down a flimsy ladder to explore the deep, aqua blue waters.

Back at the resort, our team of visiting journalists gather for dinner and swap notes about these significant new developments for Samoa.

The conversation touches on a wish that Samoa will continue to have control of its own tourism industry - that tourism will both enrich the experience for visitors but also ensure the money they spend benefits the Samoan villages and people.

I am reminded of the words to the Pocohontas’ song Colours of the Wind, written by Stephen Schwartz:

You think you own whatever land you land on – the earth is just a dead thing you can claim. But I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name. You think the only people who are people are the people who look and think like you. But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger you'll know things you never knew, you never knew.

Schwartz said: “So in essence, it's a consciousness-raising song ”. It was used to address the euro-centrism of Pochahontas'  lover, John Smith. 

Sure, this was a song made for a Walt Disney movie, but I feel it addresses conscious travel. 

Pocahontas, the host who raised awareness for John Smith. Following Pochahontas' lead, perhaps Samoa’s businesses can now help raise awareness among visitors?

Mass tourism is unsustainable and the trend is already on the decline as people move away from “cheap thrills” and are drawn to a more meaningful experience.

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