Fa’a Samoa: A Guide to the Culture of Samoa
Beneath the surface of smiles and casualness is a complex code of traditional etiquette. As a result, life has changed very little among many Samoans with time-honoured customs still an integral part of life. “Fa’a Samoa” meaning “the Samoan way” is rigorously upheld and means everything to a Samoan. For the visitor, you certainly get a sense of authenticity and wonder as you are able to access the rich Samoan culture with ease. There’s no feeling of the country “putting on a show” for tourists unless, ya know, it’s a fiafia which even then is a show for local enjoyment as well. The culture of Samoa is unashamedly authentic, rich and a joy to discover as a tourist.
10 Ways to Experience the Samoan Culture
Before we get into the traditions and customs of the Samoan culture, here are some ways to experience the culture as a visitor:
- Immerse in local traditions at Samoa Cultural Village
- Watch, learn and paint-your-own piece of siapo at the Savai’i Siapo Demonstration
- Experience a fiafia night!
- Join in on your accommodation’s village walk
- Experience culture, cuisine and crafts at Samoa’s markets
- Do a plantation tour with Va-i-Moana or Ifiele’ele Plantation
- Learn about Samoan history at the Falemata’aga Museum of Samoa
- Paddle a paopao canoe
- Stay in a beach fale
- Experience a Sunday church service (and a Sunday to’onai).
All of these experiences are described in detail in the 15 Best Cultural Activities in Samoa. You may also want to check out How to Have an Authentic Samoan Experience. In the meantime, let’s dive deeper into the Samoan culture…
Samoan Societal Structure
Samoa society puts great importance on extended family groups, then villages and then the country as a whole. Everyone plays an important role within the family, where respecting your elders is of utmost importance.
‘Aiga: Family is Everything
‘Aiga (extended family groups) is at the heart of Samoan society. Often, the larger an ‘aiga, the more powerful it is in the traditionally-minded Samoan. Each ‘aiga is headed by a matai who represents the ‘aiga on the fono (village council), a political structure still used today. A matai is elected by all of the adult members of an ‘aiga.
Beneath the matai, members of the village are divided into four categories where close social interaction is generally between individuals of one’s own group. The groups are:
- Aumaga – Untitled men, traditionally responsible for growing food
- Aualuma – Unmarried, widowed or separated women, traditionally provides hospitality and produces goods like handwoven mats and ceremonial handicrafts
- Faletua ma tausi – Married women, traditionally serve their family and husband
- Tamaiti – Children, who are traditionally looked after by parents until the age of three, then they are looked after by an older sibling or cousin.
Within this ‘aiga structure, the psyche of Samoans is to benefit the “we” rather than the “I”. Life is not about individual advancement or achievement; it’s about serving and improving the status of one’s ‘aiga.
Fa’aaloalo: Respecting Your Elders
Arguably, the most crucial aspect of fa’a Samoa is fa’aaloalo (respecting elders). Everyone is expected to obey not only older immediate relatives but all the matai and people in the village that are older than oneself, even older siblings. That’s why the October event, White Sunday, is such a significant day in the Samoa calendar, as it is a rare day to celebrate Samoa’s youth.
Fono: The Village Council
The fono is headed by the ali’i (village high chief) and may also consist of a pulenu’u (mayor/police chief) and one or more tulafale (orators). The pulenu’u acts as an intermediary between the village and the national Government of Samoa, while the tulafale liaises between the ali’i and other outside entities, as well as carries out ceremonial duties.
Fa’afafine: “In the Manner of a Woman”
An integral part of Samoan society are fa’afafine which roughly translates to “in the manner of a woman”. In other words, fa’afafine are men that behave and/or dress like a woman. They traditionally fill an important role by doing the work of both a man and a woman, which is supposedly why you find many fa’afafine working in the public sphere in shops, resorts, restaurants and offices.
With the introduction of rigid Christian values into Samoa, however, you’ll find a paradoxically conservative attitude toward homosexuality. Therefore, fa’afafine is not usually likened to homosexuality or transsexuality as in Western cultures, but more its own notion.
Religion in Samoa
Samoa is a religious country, particularly devoted to Christianity. Christianity was introduced to the islands almost 200 years ago and has been going strong ever since. Christianity influences cultural norms, such as observing Sunday as a day of worship and rest, while the church plays a large part in social interactions, provides guidance and redistributes goods and services to those in need.
Every village in Samoa has at least one church, ideally more grandiose than its neighbouring villages. Churches act as social centres where many villagers are expected to show up each Sunday morning in their formal best. After the Sunday morning church service, a Sunday to’onai (feast) inevitably follows.
In some villages (but not all), sa is observed where a gong sounds between 6 pm and 7 pm for 10-15 minutes of silence and prayer.
Learn more about the history of Christianity in Samoa and which denominations are worshipped in The Guide to Religions in Samoa.
Samoan Dance and Music
If there’s only one aspect of Samoa’s culture to witness or experience, it has to be Samoan dance and music.
Fiafia means “happy” and was originally a village play or musical presentation where participants would dress in their Samoan best and accept donations. Today, they are known as “fiafia nights” and come in the form of a musical and dance presentation with siva afi (fire knife dancing) either starting or followed by a large buffet dinner of Samoan and international staples. Performers will put out a bowl toward the end of the performance for monetary donations.
Not only do fiafia nights incorporate traditional Samoan dancing, such as the slow-moving siva traditionally performed by the coconut-oiled daughter of the high chief, but they sometimes incorporate dance styles from other South Pacific islands, as fiafia nights as much for locals as they are for tourists.
Witness fiafia and siva afi for yourself with the 10 Best Fiafia Nights in Samoa.
Like with many cultures, music is a big part of everyday life in Samoa, whether its the beat of the lali drum on fiafia nights, the soaring choir harmonies at a Sunday church service, or the reggae/techno remixes blasting from the buses.
The traditional repertoire of Samoan music consists of action songs and chants accompanied by drums and body slaps, while songs were once written to tell stories of events or love stories.
Today, Samoan music takes influences from reggae and hip-hop with Samoan artists like Savage, King Kapisi and Scribe can be (or have been) made famous overseas and particularly in New Zealand.
Samoan Arts and Crafts
While traditional crafts were made for practical purposes, today, crafting is mainly reserved for gifts, souvenirs and for ceremonial purposes.
Siapo Cloth Printing
Siapo, commonly known across the South Pacific as “tapa”, is one of Samoa’s oldest cultural art forms. Made from the bark of a mulberry (or sometimes breadfruit) tree, the siapo is traditionally used as clothing or currency and is also an important cultural element in traditional ceremonies such as weddings and funerals.
While siapo is readily available to admire and purchase at Samoa’s markets and craft stores, the Siapo Demonstration by the Afu Aau Waterfall in Savai’i is a truly special experience to see the process from start to finish. Find out more about the activity in the 8 Best Cultural Activities on Savai’i.
One of the defining images in Samoan culture is the beautiful wood carvings that demonstrate fale buildings, ‘ava bowls, fishing hooks and other features important to the Samoan culture. View master artisans at work at attractions like Samoa Cultural Village in Apia, creating beautiful pieces of art out of nature.
Both men and women are apt at weaving all sorts of practical items out of palm fronds, including baskets, hats, plates, fale blinds and much more. There are many opportunities to try out weaving for yourself, as listed in the 15 Best Cultural Activities in Samoa. Finely woven mats adorn the floors of most Samoan fales and households, while intricately woven handbags are also a common feature at handicrafts markets.
One of the most important and fascinating features of the Samoan culture is the tatau (tattoo), which is a rite of passage that represents the spiritual and cultural heritage of Samoa. It is also a mark of one’s personal and spiritual maturity and commitment to fa’a Samoa.
A tradition that has gone unbroken for thousands of years, even down to the pain-staking application method of a sharpened tooth dipped in ink and forcefully tapped into the client’s skin, the art form has spread the world over. In fact, many believe that Samoa is the ancestral home of the tattoo and have theorised that the modern word for tattoo is derived from the Samoan “tatau“.
The Samoa Cultural Village gives visitors a privileged insight into seeing real tatau being performed on locals during their rite of passage. Learn more about visiting this attraction in the 25 Best Things to Do in Apia.
When it comes to national heroes, Samoa’s rugby team “Manu Samoa” are on all locals’ tongues! Sports in Samoa, however, are not just for the “heroes”; it is a community event where anyone whose anyone gets involved during the cooler hours of the late afternoon at the malae (village green).
On the malae, locals play volleyball, rugby or kilikiti. Kilikiti is Samoa’s very own version of cricket, which is played with a three-sided club, a rubber ball and as many players and cheerleaders as possible and who all contribute to the game! The best time to catch a game is between June and September.
On a national level, rugby union, rugby league and netball are all very important, with many Samoan athletes also playing for international teams in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and France.
Samoan Traditional Food and Drink
Like most cultures, food plays an important role in the Samoan lifestyle. While nowadays, Samoans enjoy a variety of international foods, particularly Asian and American dishes, there are a few traditional Samoan snacks and dishes that hold strong for family gatherings and fiafia nights.
For your complete bible to all things “food”, check out The Food Guide to Samoa: Places to Eat & Food Tours.
One of the easiest dishes to find is oka, raw fish marinated in coconut cream with a few other spices or chillis for extra flavour. You’ll find oka available as an entrée at many restaurants across Samoa, hopefully, presented in a coconut shell for a truly authentic island look!
An iconic Samoan food, palusami is taro leaves cooked in coconut cream to make a rich and creamy dish. It’s traditionally cooked in a hot-rock oven called an umu. What’s more, it won’t be difficult to find on restaurant menus and at fiafia nights across the islands.
The perfect comfort food, koko alaisa or koko rice is simply boiled rice, koko (Samoan cocoa) and coconut milk! Although it makes a nice dessert, most travellers will try koko rice for breakfast at resorts and beach fales.
Fai’ai elegi is fish cooked with coconut cream and a few other flavours like onions to enhance the dish. It’s typically served in the shell of the coconut that has been grated for the meal. Scooping out the creamy fish with a piece of talo (taro) is the way to go!
There’s a lot more where that came from, so head to our guide, Traditional Samoan Food: 20 Foods to Try in Samoa for more meals.
The Samoan version of hot chocolate, koko Samoa is where cocoa is turned into a paste and mixed with hot water and sugar, which has been part of the fabric of Samoan homes for generations.
Like in many of the Polynesian islands of the South Pacific, ‘ava or kava is a popular drink used for ceremonial purposes. ‘Ava is made from the root of a pepper plant that has been ground up and mixed with water. It has narcotic/sedative properties, but the quantity usually consumed by tourists won’t have much effect.
The Samoan version of fresh lemonade, vai tipolo is made with lemons, water and sugar as the base, while some establishments might have “secret recipes” to add an extra zing to their beverage.
There are also Samoa’s own brands of beer: Vailima and Taula!
For many more beverages to wet your whistle, check out the 14 Drinks in Samoa You Have to Try.
Samoa is home to two official languages: Samoan and English. While English is the language that will help you get by in Samoa, Samoan is the native language and the language used by locals.
The first thing to know about pronunciations in Samoan is that there are only 14 letters in the Samoan alphabet: a, e, i, f, g, l, m, n, o, p, s, t, u and v. The letters k, h and r are also used for colloquial language and foreign loan words.
Learn about the history of the language, how to pronounce the alphabet and how to say important words in What is the Samoa Language?
People and the Population of Samoa
The population of Samoa is approximately 206,180 with an ethnic makeup of predominantly Samoan descent.
There are more Samoans living overseas than in Samoa, but the majority of those living in Samoa live on the island of Upolu.
Learn more about the Samoan population, ethnicity and where Samoans live in our complete guide, Who are the People of Samoa?
As discussed throughout this guide to the Samoan culture for travellers, Samoan is a rich culture that, in turn, comes with a few cultural customs that should be kept in mind when visiting.
Clothing Etiquette in Samoa
When it comes to clothing, it is more respectful to wear modest attire, so avoid touring villages in your tiny short-shorts and tube tops. Although, this is generally Ok in Apia. Wearing swimmers anywhere other than at the beach or your resort is a no-no, so always have a lavalava (sarong) handy to wrap around any otherwise revealing outfits.
There is also some clothing etiquette to keep in mind for going to church, including that men should wear pants and a smart shirt, while women should cover the knees and shoulders.
Other Samoan Customs and Etiquette
Unless you’re visiting a traditional Samoan home, there’s not much more to add to the list of rules and etiquette for Samoa other than that tipping is not expected but welcomed, haggling is not customary, and to always seek permission/pay entry fees before using the beach or visiting a natural attraction. Go into all of the details of these customs in Samoan Etiquette: Samoa Customs & Traditions.
More About the Samoan Culture
That’s it for our guide to the Samoan culture, but the culture is so complex that we certainly have more to say on the matter! Check out our other guides concerning the culture of Samoa:
- Who are the People of Samoa?
- A Brief History of Samoa
- 15 Samoan Words You Need to Know When Visiting Samoa