"Would you like fish or chicken
"Umm chicken sounds nice, I'll go for that."
"Sorry there is no chicken."
"Oh right. How about fish then?"
"Right. I'll have fish then."
"Would you like chips or rice with that?"
"Rice it is then."
There's a game that kids play in
Samoa. First they get a stick and draw a fish in the sand.
Any shape and any size they want. Then they colour it in,
with coral, stones, shells or flowers. Any colours they
want. Then they go swimming to try and find it. And with
countless varieties of fish living in the waters around
Samoa, there's a good chance they might.
But trawling is not allowed. Fishing
here is a mostly traditional affair involving an outrigger
canoe, a paddle and a short line. You catch your fish one
at a time, working the local lagoon with a dozen or so other
villagers. Many villages have laws which prohibit the use
of nets, fishing boats or other modern methods. The village
chiefs make the laws and police them too, and by and large
the villagers comply, or else. Retaining these traditional
ways is not just a throw back to the past, it's a way of
maintaining the Fa'a Samoa, ensuring traditions live on
and protecting fish stocks for future generations. There's
a kind of inbuilt sustainability.
Fishing the lagoon in the traditional way
That's not to say Samoans haven't
experimented with alternative fishing methods. At one time
a fashion developed for fishing with dynamite. Apparently
fish yields were good but the accident rate was not. And
then they realised dynamite was not only indiscriminately
killing fish it was also destroying the delicate coral reefs
and having an irreversible impact upon marine ecosystems.
Another initiative saw locals swapping canoes for powerful
motorised fishing boats, enabling them to head off-shore
for better fishing. Trouble was it was dead easy for fishermen
to head far out to sea but not so easy for them to find
their way back once out of sight of land and without any
proper navigational equipment or training. Quite a few fishermen
were lost at sea or paid unexpected visits to Fiji before
the need for proper training and regulation became obvious.
Development can be a treacherous business. No wonder elders
can be suspicious of it.
Matthew really loved the fish game,
snorkelling for hours with his bum sticking out of the sea,
his face stuck down below. He quickly cottoned on that the
game was easy if you always drew a black and white 'zebra'
fish and then went to find it. It's impossible to paddle
around here without a procession of the hungry little things
following you. When the islanders used to pump raw sewage
into the lagoons these little fish were known as the poo
eaters, recognising their important role in cleaning up
the mess. These days there's no raw sewage but these fish
still flourish; kids love to watch them thrash around after
food scraps and no-one wants to catch or eat them because
of their reputation. Once you've been told about their past
it's hard to put one in your mouth.
The abundant and redundant zebra
Feeding the zebra fish is a safe
pastime though and a way of saying thank you for the dirty
work they did. And while they will eat almost any food you
throw, the best thing for a feeding frenzy is a whole slice
of bread. Even before the bread hits the water you'll see
lines of fish converging on the approaching missile, estimating
its' point of entry and preparing for battle. When the bread
lands, the water boils; fish thrash, splash and jump around,
tearing the bread apart, butting one another to grab a piece
of the action. After thirty seconds of outright war they
disperse as the best of friends, in a peaceful procession,
hundreds of eyes on the lookout for more. You can't do this
too often though. Bread is too hard to come by.
"Could I have a couple of slices
of bread please?"
"Yes, some bread. I'm feeling a lot better now, but not
yet ready for a full dinner." The woman looked at me as
if I'd just asked her to take off her lavalava and dance
on the table.
"Yes, you know? Bread. Plain bread."
"Plain bread?" She stood and stared.
I'd met this reaction before. Asking for bread is one of
the surest ways I've come across to confuse a Samoan. Maybe
it's a religious hang up, you know, 'man shall not live
by bread alone' and all that.
"Yes please. Plain bread. To eat. It's all I want." I continued.
"Just bread?" she asked again.
"Please. Bread. With butter if it's easier." Something seemed
to click and she looked a little happier.
"You need to eat? Maybe fish and chips? I get the menu for
If we sound a little obsessed by
food then it's because we are. We've either been sitting
in front of mountains of food we don't like, or we've been
choosing from extensive menu cards where only one dish is
available; fish. And after a month of feast and famine,
we're feeling ready for the land of plenty and a few days
of bucket sized everything.