In the light of the materialist philosophy that has swept across most parts of the world for more than a century, it might be refreshing and thought-provoking to recall the thoughts of a man from a society which ethnologist Claude Lévi Strauss would have described as primitive.
But first let us congratulate NGO ‘Plateforme Citoyenne’ for highlighting the importance of NGOs as mediators between individuals, governments and international institutions and for its work in raising awareness about the sustainable development of small islands including Samoa in the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) sphere. We do hope that the Mauritian government will give due support to the NGO’s commitment to achieve its goal.
Following the first report issued by the members of the NGO upon their arrival at Samoa and the emphasis put on the lifestyle of Samoans, let us remind the public of a book entitled ‘O Papalagui’ which was translated from Samoan language by Austrian ethnologist Eric Sheurmann in 1920.
A tribal chief of Tiavéa, Touiavii, a wise man, travelled to several European countries, and his observations on the ‘papalagui’ meaning ‘white man’ are hilarious, largely relevant and reasonably critical. The book was offered to me by a friend a few years ago, and some of the observations the tribal chief made are unforgettable. Today, these observations may apply not only to the white man in Europe, but to others whose societies have been westernised in many aspects, in politics, economics, education and lifestyle. Here are some excerpts:
On society: “In France, when people walk in the streets, they avoid looking at one another. They treat one another like enemies. They live in blocks piled up one upon the other with small openings. Similarly, if you want to pay a visit to someone, you have to press a button which looks like a woman’s teat; then the person takes care to check your identity before opening the door. The distrust and enemy culture is pervasive. A stark contrast to Samoan social organization.
“Men in Europe have defied the Great Spirit in creating the concept of Time and divided it into three parts: hour, minute and second. A round metal object regulates their life. People are obsessed by the round object; sometimes, when they look at the round object and see the position of the needle, their faces convey a deep sorrow. It looks as if they are affected by a serious disease.
“In their society some people possess a lot of objects, and are happy while others are poor and hungry. People do not give anything without asking for something in return. Generally, they need a lot of things because they are devoid of the things the Great Spirit knows. So they are always unsatisfied.
“Another salient trait is the importance of a round metal and paper which is also an obsession. It happens that sometimes when they do not have enough of it, they take a tube which spits fire, and they press it against their temple and kill themselves.”
Men, women and clothes: “Their bodies are stifled by loads of clothes and skin, and deprived of sunlight. Men and adolescents do not see the flesh of women and girls, so they become obsessed by it. They consider the body, which is beautiful and natural, as sinful. They dream of the female body night and day. In Samoan society, people go around almost naked, and a man takes a woman at a stage in his life and stays with her. Men do not make lewd remarks when they see women.
“In modern societies, the libido of men and adolescents strikes the Samoan tribal chief as a strange phenomenon, another disease.
“Men have invented a bottle with a rubber teat to replace breastfeeding of babies. Another odd thing.”
Touiavii goes on and on, and every page is a relish, simple, poetical and hilarious. To sum up, what he sees in Europe (now almost everywhere) saddens him; it seems that people are afflicted with strange, serious mental diseases. And he would not like his people to be like the strange white man who lives in Europe. As the Mauritian NGO stated in their report, Samoans enjoy a relaxed lifestyle centred on family ties, and values which are deeply embedded in society and influence their planning ideology. Seemingly, all the facets of modernity have not reached the shores of Samoa yet and it is still unspoilt by cultural and technical pollution.
A television documentary by a French journalist features the trip of a couple of tribal chieftains from the Pacific islands, maybe Samoa, who visited France and Britain, and were appalled by what they saw and reported it back home to their people who could not believe their ears. For instance, how elderly people live in boxes away from their families, and when they die, they are put in even smaller boxes. Sometimes the bodies are put in cold boxes for days. Awful!
Wars make thousands of victims, which is unimaginable to tribal people. A Frenchman points out the cemetery where thousands of Allied soldiers were buried in Normandy. Very shocking and sad; the chieftain shakes his head. So many people get killed. The tribal chieftain is probably unaware of the national character of the different western countries that went at one another’s throat for centuries, and he has no idea of the rancour, rivalry and hatred between royal families which fuelled nationalist movements across Europe.
When there is a fight among our people, when one person dies, the fight stops, he states. Brave old world. He just cannot imagine people fighting and killing on and on. From a traditional small island’s point of view, the civilized world is a big psychiatric hospital. As to political and social organization, we should think that homogeneous societies are more peaceful.
How are such societies categorized by the advanced world? – underdeveloped!
Commentaries from readers on the observations put forward in ‘Papalagui’ as well as other traits which characterize modern societies and discredit human conduct, lechery, greed, rapacity, aggressiveness, etc. are most welcome as they cannot be dealt with in this paper for lack of time.
* Published in print edition on 29 August 2014