Cyclone Tusi (1987) | Sa

The Beard posted a great recap of our Christmas adventures on the islands of Savai’i and Upolu in (Independent) Samoa on his blog, so I will refrain from writing more about how awesome “the other Samoa” is. (He also posted some great pictures so I highly recommend you follow the link.)

Friday is the final day of first semester (which was pushed back/extended at the start of the year due to sanitation issues). Friday is also Cyclone Tusi  Remembrance Day in the Manu’a Islands. Tusi was a category 5 tropical cyclone that slammed directly into Manu’a in 1987 and destroyed most of the infrastructure here. From what I’ve heard, the only thing left standing in Ta’u and Faleasao was the Ta’u church tower. Miraculously, though the storm leveled houses and uprooted trees, nobody was killed.

Every year since, January 17th is marked by a full-day sa, which can be thought of either as a legalistic, horribly restraining house-arrest, or a wonderful act of reverent thanksgiving for God’s great mercy, depending on what mood you’re in (and maybe where you are on the cultural adjustment curve). During the day-long sa, nobody can be outside from midnight to sundown. The first year we were here, I was told that you couldn’t go outside, period; if for some reason a person needs to leave the house (say he needs to run to the store), he must alert the aumaga, who will either run the errand for him or accompany him on it. (Sometimes referred to as “the young men’s matai” and other times as “the village police,” the aumaga is made up of men who do not have a matai [chiefly system] title but who are responsible for performing other duties in the village.)  Since then though I’ve heard you can walk from house to house, you just can’t go on the road or to the beach. (IDK.)

Sa is generally translated into English as “curfew” but is a little more complex that that; sa means both “forbidden” and “sacred.” At first glance those two words might seem incongruous; having learned to think of them as one and the same (in terms of sa) has changed the way I think of the word “sacred.”  I had always thought of it as merely synonymous with “holy” or “set apart”–reserved for a particular use having to do with church-y things. Now though there is a connotation of fear, a poignantly reverential aspect in there there that I had never paid much attention to before.  (The idea of something being “forbidden” is a central to the meaning of sa, and it can be used in that way [separated from the religious] as well. You often see it on signs to signal that you should not do something [Sa le ulufale! Do not enter].)

Sa is most often used to refer to the evening prayer which begins every night around dusk. For that sa, there are three bells: the first is to alert the villagers that sa will begin soon (and so they should begin making their way to their houses), the second is to alert them that sa has begun (and so they should not leave their houses), and the third marks sa‘s end (and so they are free to return to whatever they were doing before).

Our village has recently re-instituted a 9:00 sa (okay so this is a curfew) for children and teenagers. I’m not really sure how it works because sometimes they ring the bell again at 10:00 so I don’t get it. (Me, every night: “Is it over? Are the children free to roam as before?”)

Sunday, on which the Sabbath is emphatically observed, is called Aso Sa in Samoan (translated: “sacred day”). Sunday is dedicated entirely to church. Sunday school (for children only) begins at 7:30ish and lasts until about 8. The bell for regular church rings at 8:00ish  as sort of warning that you have 30 min to get your body in the building. Church itself consists of a series ritualistic routines that always make me feel like I’m partaking in some historical society’s production of a Victorian-era protestant service. It generally lasts 1.5-2 hours. Shortly after church is to’ona’i, or brunch.Then, of course, everyone in the village retires for a wonderfully refreshing Sunday nap. The Biblical mandate that none should work on the Sabbath is taken pretty seriously here; if the smoke from your family’s umu (the traditional rock oven) is still billowing at sun-up, you can be fined. Palagi are less prohibited from partaking in daily routines;  while we certainly would not attempt to sweep our yard or go swimming, it is generally accepted that Americans need to walk about and so our being out of the house on Sundays is tolerated. After napping for most of the day, there is a longer evening service. The Sunday sa ends around sunset. 

I love this word, sa, because it encompasses a deferential spirit that is somewhat rare in the West. It is an attitude that we generally reserve for the most difficult events (September 11th, school-shootings), yet here it is practiced daily. Now, I’m not saying that everyone in Samoa gets out their Bibles or reflects on the fullness of life or the vastness of the universe or whatever wonderful, mystical thing you might think people are doing during evening prayer. But it is nice that taking a moment to reflect and worship everyday is ingrained so deeply in the culture.

The idea behind the Tusi sa, I believe, is that villagers will spend time that day thanking God for sparing their lives in the storm, but mostly I think everyone just watches TV and sleeps. Now that we live in the middle of the village, we can’t really skirt the rules. (At the end of the village, though, nobody can see you sunbathing beside your house. It’s a perfect day.) 

Though I was 3 years old and 7,000 miles away in 1987, when the winds were howling and men sought safety in the trunks of Banyan trees,  I will join in the observation of sa tomorrow. I’m thankful for the opportunity to rest and reflect on both the many times the Lord has spared/rescued me (though I did not deserve it), and on the gift He has given me by allowing me to spend 3 years of my life here–on this island, immersed in this culture, and with these particular people.

Monday, of course, is a holiday. And then second semester, our final at MHS, will commence. (tear, tear, tear). I try to avoid thinking about this time as “our last six months in Samoa,” but sometimes I do and then all the feelings sneak in.

*You may be wondering now what moa means. The word moa has many meanings but I’m only going to tell you this one: chicken. Thus,  Samoa – Sacred Chicken.*

**I am not even close to being fluent in Samoan nor do I claim to be an expert on the language or culture. If I’m wrong about something, please let me know (but ya know, nicely.)**

About Cat Q.

For three years, I lived on a tiny little island in the South Pacific called Ta'u, where I taught elementary and high school English. Much of this blog is a chronicle of my time there, and of the travels we were able to do while we were on that side of the world. Now, I'm doing a different kind of travelling in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia with my husband and two children.
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3 Responses to Cyclone Tusi (1987) | Sa

  1. shinegogo says:

    10:00 sa- is for the ones who are not in school…

  2. mike says:

    One of my first experiences on Ta’u involved my grandfather being fined two fine mats because I didn’t properly observe Sa. He didn’t hold it against me though. It hasn’t been strictly observed since the Cyclone from what I have noticed, I can’t believe it started again. My great uncle was injured during that terrible cyclone, and passed a short time later. I ‘came of age’, so to speak, in the time I spent there in Manu’a from 1977-1979. I attended MHS, and had the pleasure of being taught by two fine visiting teachers, Tony and Pat Beondi. I have returned many times, but it’s never the same as it was during those years. My favorite uncle went back to Manu’a in the early 90’s and is keeping up the traditions somewhat, but it’s still not ‘the good ole days’. Anyway, I truly enjoy your blog and hope you continue to post stories and pics and maybe I will visit again before you and your husband leave. I would love to meet you both. My family name is Filoialii, please see my uncle Ale if you are in need of anything, and tell him Michael sent you.
    Stay Encouraged in the Lord, Michael Laauli Hayner

  3. john moore says:

    Are you guys hanging it up after three years, the next semester, as in returning to the contiguous mainland? When I first heard about your plan to go teach in samoa, I was so intrigued….sort of caught off guard. Anything of the sort had never crossed my mind. I continue to be so proud of you, and mindful of your excellent act of servanthood. The children you have taught will forever remember miss cat and the beard (whatever they call you), just as u remember your teachers. You will be a part of the local memories for years to come for the contributions to the development of their youth – no doubt even the future of the island. I could go on and on how wonderful a couple you are….just suffice it to say I am touched by your example of sacrifice to serve others. Thinking of you.

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