Sister McBride writing this time: Until we get a real nurse here in Samoa, Elder McBride and I have been given the responsibility of caring for the missionaries who fall ill. As crazy as that sounds, it works out because the Church has a doctor (the “Area Medical Adviser”) located in New Zealand that I call and send pictures to for advice. Plus we have Maurice’s brother, Dr. Dane McBride in Virginia, who has a heart of gold, who also helps us. After nine months of this we now see a lot of the same problems over and over again – boils, rashes, diarrhea, dog bites and mosquito-borne illnesses such as Zika. This has got to be one of the hardest missions for missionaries.
Last week another missionary couple serving here called me. The wife is originally from Samoa and has relatives here. She asked me if I would go and check on her 63-year-old brother who lives in a nearby village. I reminded her that I am not a nurse and am not qualified to do that. Knowing this she still asked me to please go over to his house with her and check on him. It would mean a lot to her, she said, so I went.
The family had her sick brother on a bed in the living room. I went over and sat down where he was lying to take his temperature and blood pressure. I sat down with a thud. Samoans generally do not sleep on a mattress; they sleep on either the floor or on a bed with a board for the mattress.
He had a fever and his systolic blood pressure was 180 and he was semi-conscious. They could wake him but he would drift back asleep after a few moments. He had been like this for at least a week. I asked the family if he takes any medicine for his blood pressure. They brought me a bag with blood pressure medicine, antibiotics, and pills for his diabetes. He hadn’t taken any of this medicine for a week! We were able to get him to take his blood pressure medicine and one baby aspirin. The family told me that two weeks ago he was fairly healthy, walking around outside and feeding his chickens. (As we visited, the chickens were wandering in and out of the house.)
I suggested that they take him to the hospital but they were reluctant to do so because they knew that the most the hospital will do is give him an IV and then send him back home. They have been trying some Samoan folk medicine instead, where they massage and apply herbs to his body.
The next day I went to his doctor to ask for his help. Let me explain here that this particular doctor is better than most on the island. Sometimes calling a man here a doctor is like calling me a nurse. The requirements to hold the title of “Doctor” are not quite as stringent as they would be in the U.S. Most doctors here only have a two year medical degree from Fiji. This particular doctor can at least order x-rays and blood tests, and he is really good at lancing boils. We bring missionaries to see this doctor several times a week, and he has been very helpful.
I asked him to please oversee this man’s medical care at the hospital. He explained that that isn’t the way it works in Samoa; he can’t do that. I told him that if I take him to the hospital all they will do is give him an IV and send him home, and that if he doesn’t help us this man is going to die. He said he simply wasn’t in a position to help us. I had with me the sister to this man who was sick. She burst into tears and started to cry and this seemed to soften the doctor a little. He gave in just enough to say that, if they wouldn’t give him an antibiotic with his IV at the hospital, we could call him.
I have to inject here that I was really impressed with what the sick man’s sister did. As I mentioned earlier, she and her husband are also serving a mission here. This is their fourth mission. One of their missions was in the Philippines where her husband served as the Mission President. I was amazed at how well she knew how to get to this doctor.
To shorten this story, an ambulance came and took him to the hospital. There he was given an IV and a shot of antibiotics. Of course he rallied a little and they sent him home -- and he died six hours later.
This man’s name was Seto Lealaisalanoa. He was an active member of the church and worked as a guard on the temple grounds for many years. He was a kind man and will be missed by his family.
The second part of my story is about attending his funeral. A Samoan funeral is not anything like an American funeral.
The night that he died the bishop and local family were called. They promptly came to the house where what might be called a “wake” was held with family talks and expressions of love and sorrow. After about three hours the morgue came and took the body away. (It took six hours for the ambulance to come to take him to the emergency room, but the vehicle from the morgue promptly came. Go figure.) The family had to pay the morgue but the ambulance to the emergency room is free because they have government run health care.
The big village funeral was set for five days later in order to allow time for family members living abroad to get here, and because of the time needed to prepare for the very elaborate funeral.
The first part of the funeral took place in the local ward house. It was pretty much the same as funerals in the States. The Bishop and Stake President and the widow spoke and songs were sung. The casket was made of wood with a window on top so as to allow a viewing of the deceased’s face.
During the final song several women got out of their seats and walked to the front and gave the widow a hug and kiss, and I think some money.
After the funeral we followed the funeral procession back to the family’s home where Seto would be buried in the front yard next to his mother and father. It is common in Samoa for the grave to be placed in the family’s front yard.
Land stays in the family for many generations and this confirms that this is your family land and it helps keep someone else from claiming it as their land. Sometimes the graves can be very ornate; others are more modest.
His grave was only about 3 feet deep with a one foot high concrete wall above the ground. They placed the coffin in the grave and then covered it with a heavy concrete lid. There will be no dirt put on the grave.
In about five years family members will come back and open the grave and take out the bones, oil and polish them and replace them back in the grave. (If I understand correctly, this practice is similar to how tombs are treated in some parts of the Middle East today. You will recall from Genesis 50 that, although Joseph was embalmed in Egypt, he wanted his bones taken back to Canaan, and when Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, he took Joseph’s bones with them.)
At the family home two tents were set up in the yard with chairs in each facing the other.
As one website explains it, there now begins an elaborate “ceremonial exchange of finely woven mats, monetary gifts and food between the families of the person who died and the families of those paying their respects. The importance of mats harkens back to when they served as the currency of the Samoan people. Nowadays, these mats act mainly as decorations during the funeral and then are stored away.”
Two main groups attend the funeral. One is the family of the widowed wife and the other the guests attending the funeral. There are one or more talking chiefs, or orators, to represent the two. At this particular funeral the local bishop happens to be the talking chief for the visiting group.
I was surprised to see that a woman was the talking chief for the wife’s family. If you look closely at the picture below you can see she has a specially carved staff or to’oto’o and a flywhisk or fue over her shoulder. The fue is made by plating strands of coconut husk to form rope which is bound to a wooden handle. The to’oto’o and fue are symbols of the orator’s status.
She makes several speeches and then the bishop with his staff stands and makes a speech back. Then food is brought out for all the people to eat.
After everyone has eaten the talking chief for the wife’s family makes another speech. Then a parade of mats, money and food is brought out and given to the visiting family members.
The food is mainly frozen chicken and cans of corned beef. They gave enough chicken that day that it took a small refrigerated truck to take it away.
The bishop took all this food back to the church and divided it up and gave it away. There was easily enough chicken for every member in his ward to have some.
Funerals cost families a great deal of money. In the United States our tradition might be to give money to the deceased’s family but here it is just the opposite. The deceased’s family gives money to everyone else.
Each person in his family and the village he lived in will be told by the village high chief to make financial contributions in the form of actual money or perhaps a certain number of pigs for the funeral.
The LDS Church has tried to discourage the more elaborate displays of this tradition because of the financial hardships they have on families. But the customs continue to be a matter of pride for the family and the village.
Now after all these gifts are given out the people quickly gather up the gifts and leave and the deceased family will take their seats and the ceremony will start all over again. Once again the talking chief makes a speech and a talking chief for the deceased’s family makes a speech and loads of mats, food and money are given to this family.
All this sounds a little strange to European/American ears, but for the Samoans it represents a strong belief in the importance of families in this life and in the hereafter. The graves in the front of the homes are constant reminders of ancestral heritage. The coming together of entire villages maintains a strong sense of family connectedness. For the LDS community, and for other religions as well, having the local ward bishop or minister involved is a clear indication that, while old customs persist, they can be nicely assimilated into religious culture without infringing on Christian thought and practice.
Elder McBride and I continue to bask in the beauty of these islands and thrill to be living in a land which is unabashedly religious. “Fa'avae i le Atua Samoa” is the country’s motto: "Samoa is founded on God."