Finding Samoan roots in Indonesia
Where did the big brown-skinned people of the Pacific Islands originate? For Samoan public servant Tevita Simeki there’s no doubt his ancestors came from the Indonesian archipelago.
Thousands of years ago people from China slowly migrated south and then east. The evidence is based on DNA research, pottery fragments, farming methods and a few words.
Lua (dua) for two, lima for five and sefulu (sepuluh) for ten are widely quoted as examples of a distant shared past.
It’s a theory supported by many anthropologists, linguists and historians, though those who know Javanese are small, wiry-limbed people find the idea hard to grasp.
Tevita has no such qualms, and his beliefs were reinforced by three months in Java as a guest of the Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs studying culture.
“I learned so much from Indonesia,” he said. “Samoan culture is under constant assault from Western values and entertainment. Indonesians seem to have resisted this international pressure, holding on to what they have while still accepting Toyotas and McDonald’s.
“In Yogyakarta I was impressed to find a modern, developed city with Western technology yet the people are maintaining their own music and dances. There’s no sign the culture has been corrupted by outside influences.
“It’s the same with meals. Everywhere I went in Java I ate local foods, like fresh ayam kampung (village chicken), now hard to find in Samoa because so much food is imported and frozen. There’s a lot that we can learn in the Pacific from Indonesia.
“A big problem we’re facing in Samoa is the way families try to gain status by putting on lavish and costly ceremonies such as for weddings and funerals. These events are done to impress, but they can be financially crippling.
“That can happen in Indonesia but it seems to me that people in Java are able to keep these things in check.”
Tevita, 26, was educated in Fiji at the University of the South Pacific where he studied history, politics and geography.
After returning to his homeland he became a public servant and a rapid riser. He is now a senior internal affairs officer in the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development charged with preserving Samoan culture.
Last year the Samoan government approved his bid to take an all-expenses paid Indonesian Art and Culture Scholarship, joining 15 other handpicked bright young folk from other Pacific nations. The program, also involving applicants from other nations, has been running for seven years,
Tevita and his colleagues face a huge task trying to slow down the tsunami of Western civilisation threatening (along with rising sea levels) to swamp their isolated tiny communities.
Although Samoan families tend to be big, the population of Western (properly known as Independent) Samoa is less than 200,000 spread across 17 islands, some little more than sand spits. An estimated 70,000 live on American Samoa, a separate state.
As in Indonesia, tens of thousands have migrated overseas seeking work and better opportunities, though Samoa’s tropical laid-back villages look appealing to stressed-out city dwellers.
Samoa is about 4,400 kilometers northeast of Sydney and 3,700 kilometers southwest of Hawaii. It was previously a German colony, then administered by New Zealand. It became an independent republic in 1962.
It lies east of the International date line and like Java is just below the Equator. Though lush and fertile the soil is not worked intensively as in Indonesia.
More than half the 260,000 Pacific Islanders living in NZ are Samoans, some gaining fame as rugby players. Around 55,000 also live in Australia. Their remittances along with foreign aid help keep the Samoan economy alive. Local wages are low by Western standards, about three tala (Rp 10,000) an hour.
Tevita’s department is using television documentaries to promote Samoan culture, but the programs tend to be static discussions. The idea of getting across social messages using Indonesian sinetron (soap operas) where dramatic story lines reinforce traditional values is attractive, but there’s no money for big budget productions.
Tevita, who is also a dancer and musician, said he’d been impressed by the formal training of Javanese dancers in Yogyakarta. He liked the fact that artists could make a living displaying their skills and talents at important functions – something that hasn’t happened in Samoa though cultural groups do perform at tourist resorts.
Pacific island dancing, usually accompanied by rhythmic drumming, is vigorous, unlike the slow refined movements of hand and eye by Javanese performers. The Samoan handicraft industry is not well developed.
“We have limited resources – we’re used to that,” Tevita said. “Indonesia is resource rich but it’s the way you’re using your culture that I find so impressive. It’s not just in the hands of the old people – youth are widely involved and they are doing so with passion.
“We have museums in the Pacific but not arts centres as in Indonesia. This is something I want to introduce where young artists can be trained and our customs recognized, respected and preserved.
“It comes back to people knowing their true selves – who they are. Samoa needs to get back to its roots. Like Indonesians we are community people with decision-making undertaken at the local level through big meetings. The way to power and authority in Samoa is through service. This is what I believe and want to do.
“Our language is hierarchical, like Javanese. Different words and tones are used depending on whether you are talking up to authority figures or to ordinary people. The young are forgetting this.
”A particular issue not experienced in Indonesia is the influence of returning migrants who import Western ideas. This is something faced by all Pacific nations.
“Naturally Jakarta and the other big cities are a shock for people from the Pacific but we were all made to feel welcome. Although only one member of our group was a Muslim the rest who were Christians went without daytime food during Ramadan (the fasting month leading up to Idul Fitri) to give him support.
“I never felt homesick. Maybe our ancestors really do come from Indonesia.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 May 2010)