Samoan Culture: Useful things to know about Samoan life before you visit

Posted by on 16 Sep 2022

Talofa lava, ‘welcome to Samoa’

One of the best things about a visit to Samoa is that traditional culture is not something that’s only on show at tourist attractions. People still live with a strong focus on Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way) – a way of life that stretches back more than 3000 years and is still reflected in most aspects of Samoan culture and society today.

Rather than functioning in a nuclear way where individuals fend for themselves, life in Samoa is all about being part of a community that looks after each other. Samoan values and this communal way of thinking means people are very sociable. Samoans don’t just keep to themselves to themselves – they welcome new people with their trademark smiles and open arms.

Whether it be dance and music, cooking, art and craft, a village visit or an ava ceremony, Samoa offers a wide range of authentic experiences that allow visitors to explore and understand the ways of Samoa.

Dance the night away

You'll find plenty of opportunities to watch, or even join in with, a dance performance. Many resorts and hotels host weekly fiafia nights, which normally include dancing and dinner cooked in the traditional way. Dance demonstrations can also be found at Samoa’s Cultural Village in Apia.

Samoa’s beautiful dances are quite distinctive from other Polynesian cultures. Slow and fluid, the siva is a graceful storytelling dance that is traditionally performed by a young woman. At the other end of the spectrum, the fast and energetic fa’ataupati is performed by men wearing traditional lavalava and women wearing puletasi. And for a bit of theatre, siva afi is a spectacular fire knife dance where young boys or men twirl a large knife with burning flames around their bodies to the beat of a wooden drum. It all makes for impressive viewing.

Feed your love of sport and fitness

Samoans love sport and fitness, particularly rugby union and league, soccer, netball, village volleyball and Kilikiti (a Polynesian version of cricket which is often played in villages). Samoa’s capital city Apia has a wide range of sports facilities, many of which were built or refurbished when Samoa hosted the 2007 and the 2019 South Pacific Games, including the Apia Park National Stadium.

Besides rugby fields and cricket ovals, you can enjoy Samoa’s golf courses, tennis courts, beach volleyball courts and gyms. Or you could just ask to join in with a casual village Kilikiti match.

Learn the local lingo

Samoa's national language is Samoan. English is spoken by many younger Samoans, but fluent English isn't commonly spoken outside Apia and Samoa’s main resorts. If you intend to explore smaller, outlying villages and islands, it pays to learn a few basic Samoan words and phrases. The effort to learn the language also shows respect which will be appreciated by the locals you meet.

Tala faasolo: Listen to our stories

To know Samoa is to hear its stories. According to Samoan mythology and legends, its people descended from the gods and heavens to inhabit these tropical Pacific islands. Many of Samoa’s ancient stories are told through dances and music, art, crafts, and traditional tattoos. They are also told through the artefacts in Samoa’s museums and several interesting archaeological sites that are open to visitors.

Samoa’s other stories come from more recent historical events that shaped the country as it is today. This includes Samoa’s relationship with its neighbouring Polynesian islands, the arrival of Europeans, the civil war that split Western Samoa from American Samoa, a devastating outbreak of Spanish influenza, and the events that led to independence from Germany, then New Zealand.

The importance of religion and Church

The church is central to the Samoan way of life. Christianity arrived in the islands in 1830 by way of missionaries and the Christian faith integrated with Samoans' beliefs in gods for the sun, earth, heavens, and sea.

Today, most Samoans identify as Christian and attend church services at least once a week. Sundays are observed as a National Day of Rest. While many tourist attractions are open, you are expected to behave quietly and travel slowly through the villages. If you are staying at family-run accommodation, you may find your hosts will not provide a cooked breakfast on a Sunday.

If you are attending church on Sunday, women are asked to wear a dress or blouse and skirt and men, trousers and shirt. In select villages, Samoans observe a compulsory evening prayer curfew called Sa, or sacred, normally between 6-7pm. Sa is marked by a bell or blowing of a conch shell and lasts for 10 to 20 minutes, ending on a third bell.

Sacred ink: how tattoos the story of Samoa

Samoan Tatau (tattoos) are part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Tatau are like treasure which empowers the wearer every day and indicates that respect has been earned. Samoan’s wear tattoos with extreme pride as it is a beautiful part of traditional culture.

In contrast to Western culture where a tattoo is often a personal fashion decision, being tattooed in Samoa to commemorate an individual milestone or loss of a loved one, is often considered a rite of passage as well as a demonstration of inner strength and resilience.

Malofie – is the name given to a traditional tattoo for men. It is a dense pattern which completely covers the lower body from the waist to the knee. After having it done, a young man is not only accepted as a full member of the aumaga (untitled men) but is also allowed to serve the matai (chiefs).

Malu – is a less dense version of Malofie that runs from the upper thigh to behind the knee. For women it shows that they are ready and mature to take on responsibilities within the home and community.

Top Tips for a Respectful (Fa'aaloalo) Visit To Samoa

As with every country, it’s worth knowing a couple of things about cultural dos and don’ts before you visit. Samoan villages and families live according to modest, traditional values and so when visiting Samoa, it is important to respect several everyday protocols.

Avoid wearing any revealing clothing. It’s better to cover up when leaving the beach to venture into the village (bikinis are fine at resorts). Guests are asked to wear a lavalava (sarong) pants or shorts and t-shirt. Topless swimming or sunbathing is a definite no-no.

Most land and areas within a lagoon (or bay) are the property of a village, family or individual, so ask permission before you enter. Even if it looks like no one is around, wait until a local comes along and expect to pay a small entry fee. And always ask permission before taking photos.

There are few rules around entering fales (traditional homes). One of the most important is that shoes should always be removed. When elders are seated in a fale, you should not stand. When sitting in a fale, avoid pointing your toes at others by crossing your legs or covering your toes with a lavalava (sarong) or mat.

Unsure of anything? Ask a friendly local or your host for advice.

Credits to Samoa Tourism Authority

When experience matters