New Internationalist

Western Samoa

Issue 222

new internationalist
issue 222 - August 1991

COUNTRY PROFILE

Richard Harrington / Camera Press Where is Western Samoa? Western Samoa enjoys a relaxed Polynesian lifestyle - albeit not exactly the 'free love' nirvana portrayed by anthropologist Margaret Mead - which conceals its earlier fate as a victim of colonial chaos, extravagant even by exotic South Pacific standards.

Predominantly Protestant missions were established in the last century, before traders arrived. Then the arrival of traders, chiefly British, German and American, in stem competition coincided with a recurrence of traditional tribal conflicts.

The traders persuaded their respective consuls to side with different high chiefs, and in 1889 seven warships from three navies lay anchored in the harbour of the capital, Apia. Six were sunk or damaged in a cyclone, epitomising the apparently providential nature of the cause of a free Samoa.

Finally, though, Germany annexed the west, the USA the east (still a US territory), and Britain sailed away - leaving the writer R. L. Stevenson, who had migrated there for his health and is buried on a hill overlooking Apia bay. New Zealand took Western Samoa at the outbreak of World War One.

Samoan nationalism was most strongly manifested in the Mau movement in the 1920s, finally violently suppressed. The country became independent in January 1962, since when it has been ruled by its matai (chiefs) who alone could vote. About 10 per cent of the population are matais. Of these, less than half are women. A referendum in 1990 gave universal suffrage to those over 21.

An agricultural economy with a low-key, laid-back tourism industry, Western Samoa depends on remittances from expatriate Samoans and aid for 70 per cent of its foreign reserves - which stand at a healthy 10 months' cover of imports.

It is through the export of its people, often the most talented and best educated, that the country has survived its 2.3 per cent per year birth rate. Many live in New Zealand, Australia and on the Pacific coast of North America.

The wily Prime Minister Tofilau Eti was one of the first foreign leaders to visit China after the Tiananmen Square shootings of 1989, and was rewarded as he had anticipated by a US$12 million grant for a new government building.

Elections earlier this year to choose a new Legislative Assembly (Fono) did not involve any ideological gloss on the traditional, personal power struggles. But they reflected the changing priorities of the new broader, younger (and more evenly female) electorate.

Samoa's shift towards greater democracy marks an important contrast with the move back to more tribally based, hierarchical structures in nearby Fiji, fuelling Samoa's long-held feelings of cultural superiority to its neighbour.

Rowan Callick

 

LEADER: Head of State Malietoa Tanumafili II

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $640 (US $19,840)
Monetary unit: Tala The economy is based on primary industry, and on imports obtained through remittances. In 1988 exports totalled $17 million, chiefly from cocoa, copra, bananas, timber and taro - while imports came to $90 million. Light industries provide local substitutes for some imports. But the balance-of-payments deficit and heavy aid reliance mean the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hovers nearby with a plan to cut the national debt.

PEOPLE: 167,000

HEALTH: Infant mortality (1985-90) 50 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)

CULTURE: Polynesian. The Samoans see their islands as the centre of Polynesia's stilt powerful, hierarchical culture. The fa'a Samoa, or Samoan Way, remains vivid, even among those hundreds of thousands of Samoans now dispersed overseas; the aiga, or extended family, remains the critical unit.
Religion: Christian, mainly the Congregational Church of Samoa, and the Catholic and Methodist Churches.
Languages: Samoan and English

Sources: The State of the World's Children 1991 and information supplied by author.

Never previously profiled

 

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The matais rule the clans and pull the purse strings.
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Over-
whelmingly dependent on remittances and aid.
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Improving thanks to equal educational opportunIties.
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Moving slowly towards open democracy.
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Almost universal literacy.
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Jailing of an editor in 1990 damaged a reasonable record.
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60 (men),
65 (women)
(US 76 years). Western illnesses such as heart disease increasing.
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