A Tale of Two Samoas

The two Samoas are divided by politics, economics, and a stretch of Pacific Ocean. Samoa, once known as Western Samoa, became the region’s first independent country when it separated from New Zealand in 1962. American Samoa, on the other hand, remains an unincorporated U.S. territory.

The larger Samoa is burdened with an almost feudal political system, while the smaller Samoa is subject to decisions made in a far-away capital. Independent Samoa, with 180,000 people, faces a crippling brain drain. American Samoa, with only 66,000 people, is disproportionately suffering the effects of the Iraq War.

Although they share a name, the two Samoas are heading off on two very different paths. The prospect of unification is becoming increasingly unlikely.

Pacific Poverty

Samoa is full of paradoxes. With a GDP per capita of $2,593, the island is very poor. And yet its citizens face some of the highest prices in the world. The Samoan government supplies international organizations with inflated statistics. Yet it is fighting the UN decision that it is ready to graduate from Least Developed Country status. Most of the long-term growth comes from outside the country. Although slightly declining in 2007, remittances still represent approximately one quarter of the country’s GDP.

Tourism is becoming an important source of income. With its stunning natural beauty, the island is now the third largest magnet for international tourism in the region, after Fiji and French Polynesia. But hostility toward foreign investors, as well as a lack of transparency and complicated set of laws, all hold back growth.

Out-migration is increasing. American Samoa is one of the main magnets for legal and illegal economic migrants from Samoa. It houses two of the world’s largest tuna processing factories, which pay higher wages in U.S. dollars. Its GDP per capita of $9,000, approximately 3.5 times higher than in Samoa, is still much lower than the U.S. poverty rate. Tens of thousands of Samoans have also gone to live in the United States and Australia. New Zealand has a “Samoa quota scheme” by which up to 1,100 people can legally migrate on a yearly basis. Overall, more Samoans live abroad than in their own country.

Samoans leave for more than just economic reasons. Samoa is a feudal and extremely oppressive society, a combination of imported democratic principles and the tribal rule of the so-called matai (chiefs). Ordinary citizens are controlled by the chiefs, the family, and religious institutions including the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The suicide rate is very high in both Samoas as is the rate of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and violent crime in general.

Boredom is another factor behind emigration. The entire country of Samoa boasts only one bookstore, which is really a bible shop rather than a bookseller. There is only one cinema. Samoa may be a paradise for a few, mainly retired, foreigners who call it home. But despite the bombardment from the government of nationalist and often xenophobic slogans, Samoa is hardly a paradise for the great majority of its citizens. Fa’a Samoa – the Samoan Way – justifies all manner of ills and inequities.

On the American Side

In the 21st century, American Samoa is a very sad place. Two tuna canneries harbor Asian ships and hundreds of illegal workers. Local youth hang out aimlessly around a capital city that increasingly resembles a U.S. ghetto. There are abandoned and burned-down buildings. Graffiti is ubiquitous. Everything is in a state of general disrepair. City residents are moving out to the suburbs. The only hotel in town recently shut down one of its wings.

American Samoa is also awash in yellow ribbons, as well as bumper stickers that read “Support Our Troops in Iraq.” On one of the most picturesque parts of the island, an enormous banner proclaims: “May Peace Be With Our Samoan Soldiers in Iraq. God Bless You All.” U.S. flags are everywhere.

American Samoans are dying in disproportionate numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is difficult to compile exact figures, but at least 15 American Samoans have died in Iraq. The death toll is tremendous, considering that the territory is the size of a small American city. Many American Samoan soldiers have come back with devastating war injuries. Post-traumatic stress disorder also plagues the returnees. Behind its barbed wire, the United States Reserve Te’o Soldiers Support Center offers a telephone number for the suicide hotline. It is posted near the entrance door, together with other emergency numbers.

On March 5th, 2006, when the death toll was still much lower, NBC News acknowledged that American Samoa is a recruiter’s dream. The recruiters come around to explain the benefits for young people to sign up, including perks like fully paid college tuitions. But American Samoa has paid a heavy price.

“It has the highest per capita death rate of any U.S. state or territory,” the NBC reporter summarized. “Among the victims was 22-year-old Tina Time, who was killed in a desert convoy accident. In the Samoan tradition, her crypt lies in front of the parents’ house, bedecked with flowers. Inside the house, her mother, Mary Time, has erected a memorial shrine, featuring many of Tina’s glamour photographs, medals, sympathy cards, and condolence letters from President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. With three other children in the U.S. military, Mary Time still supports American involvement in Iraq – despite her daughter’s death. ’She didn’t die in vain. We need to complete what we started, and I’m with the president that this war is for a good cause,’ Time says. Looking at her daughter’s photographs, and wiping her eyes, she adds, ‘I miss her, she was a good girl.’”

An old lady on remote Aunu’u Island told me: “Many people want to serve in the U.S. navy or army. They want to make money but they also want to join the army to escape boredom – to experience adventure that they are being promised. Many people are very poor, working for three dollars an hour. We have over 400 inhabitants here on the island, but every week someone leaves for the United States. To some it doesn’t matter what they are going to do on the mainland: whether they wash dishes or go to the military barracks.”

Samoa and American Samoa: one nation divided into two countries. One is ruled by an ancient and oppressive feudal culture. The other, a “protectorate” of a far-flung empire, remains shockingly poor. The gap between the two is growing. There is no movement on either side promoting unification. In a few years, the two Samoas may become too different to call themselves one nation.

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, journalist, filmmaker, and playwright, editorial director of Asiana Press Agency (www.asiana-press-agency.com), co-founder of Mainstay Press (www.mainstaypress.org), and a senior Fellow at The Oakland Institute. A contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org), he is presently living and working in Asia and South Pacific and can be reached at: [email protected]