The proprietor of a small beach resort on Upolu’s south coast

Samoa is a remarkably neat country. Carefully manicured lawns and flower-beds line the main roads, kilometre after kilometre – just one signal of the Fa’a Samoa, the traditional ‘Samoan way’. Each village has a council, the fono, made up of the heads of extended families, the matai, who, among their other local government functions, ensure regular garden inspections. Look beyond the gardens and you will see the fale, the open-sided houses used for family and village meetings. Then look up and be impressed by the biggest buildings by far: two or three substantial churches per village, encompassing most Christian denominations. On Sundays, when the capital, Apia, becomes a ghost town, Samoa’s rural roads are thronged with families resplendent in brilliant white headed for their service.

The Samoan islands in the Pacific were settled around 7,000 years ago. Then from the 1800s they were colonized, mostly by missionaries. The eastern group of islands became – and remain – the US territory of American Samoa. The western islands passed first through the hands of Germany and then New Zealand, before gaining independence as Western Samoa in 1962. In 1997, the country changed its name simply to Samoa – over the objections of American Samoa.

Samoa’s two main inhabited islands, Upolu and Savai’i, consist of green hills of volcanic origin dotted with waterfalls and small ‘plantations’ growing breadfruit, bananas, and the root vegetable, taro, that provides many people with a subsistence living. Tourism is important to the economy. Some visitors head for swish hotel-style resorts; others prefer to rent from small family businesses that offer thatched fale on the beaches. Almost all the land is communally owned, which helps protect family incomes but can frustrate entrepreneurs wanting to establish new businesses.

Still classified by the UN as a ‘least developed country’, Samoa has nevertheless made steady progress and in 2007 had the highest human development ranking in the Pacific. With strong family structures there is little severe poverty, though a fifth of the population are below a ‘basic needs’ poverty line, largely because of high food prices. Almost all children go to school, even if standards in some of the rural areas are low. And the main health problems now are those of lifestyle and diet. Samoans are typically hefty, and have produced some famous international rugby players who play for foreign clubs such as Leeds, but overall fitness levels are worrying: in 2003, 57 per cent of Samoans were classified as obese and another 28 per cent as overweight. In the few buildings in Apia with elevators, notices plead with those going to lower floors to take the stairs.

In common with other Pacific nations, Samoa suffers from its remoteness, which makes exports difficult and imports expensive. Many educated young people, seeing few opportunities in the rural areas, migrate to Apia, which now houses a quarter of the population. But work is scarce there too, so often they emigrate: around a quarter of Samoans work overseas, about 50 per cent of them in New Zealand; their remittances provide the equivalent of a fifth of GDP.

By Pacific Island standards, Samoa has been politically stable. This may reflect traditional structures which encourage or impose consensus. Nevertheless, elections are vigorous. A plethora of candidates, often from the same party, may contest a single constituency – sometimes followed by a flurry of court challenges with accusations of corruption. Even so, Samoa seems to have become effectively a one-party state dominated by the conservative Human Rights Protection Party. In part this is because of the weakness of the opposition. But it is also because the governing party has the power of patronage, which encourages defections, and has also made constitutional changes that inhibit the formation of new parties.

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At a glance

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  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)