When I was a Mormon missionary in Samoa in the early months of 1967, my companion and I were assigned to live in Samata, Savaii, in the Falelima district…where we experienced what some have called a miracle. Now, I experienced a number of miracles during my missionary days in Samoa, some of them even humorous, but you decide about this one, First, however, some background:
Technically, Tu’ifao Tufuga was my “junior companion” because he had just arrived back home in Samoa from Laie, Hawaii, where I now live and he had studied for a couple of years at the Church College of Hawaii (renamed BYU-Hawaii in 1974) and worked at the fledgling Polynesian Cultural Center; but as far as I was concerned, he was already an outstanding missionary. We formed a very quick rapport, partially due to the fact I had also gotten to know his family almost two years earlier when I was assigned to the area in Tutuila that included the former Latter-day Saint Mapusaga High School [now the campus of American Samoa Community College]: His father worked there in maintenance, and his twin sisters, Elanoa and Elavila, were students.
Samata was a beautiful place, famous for growing bananas which were packed into boxes (fai pusa fa’i) and exported to New Zealand and Australia. We were often given whole big bunches of them, which we would hang in a little shed behind the apartment where we lived that was attached to the Latter-day Saint chapel built there by labor missionaries a few years earlier. We would eat the bananas as they ripened (fa’i pula), and as the district leader I often took hands of ripe bananas to the other missionaries in the Falelima area.
Like the island of Hawaii, Savaii is Samoa’s “big island,” and the Falelima district was huge, starting at Taga and extending to Asau. We had a rugged Toyota Land Cruiser to do district business, and needed its four-wheel-drive low-gear-ratio capabilities to get down the so-called road to Tufutafoe…or when we crossed the submerged causeway at Gataivai, on the way to-and-from the distant wharf in Salelologa. It could take as much as three hours to drive from one end of the district to the other; otherwise, Elder Tufuga and I usually walked the length of our area, which stretched at least seven miles to the south of Samata. If we were lucky and we planned our proselyting right, we could sometimes catch the once-an-evening bus that was returning from the wharf. Otherwise, it was actually unusual in those days to see much-if-any traffic on the unpaved auala tele or main road during the day.
Many Samoans at the time were well versed in the Bible, and some used the scripture found in Mark 16: 17-18 to describe the divine protection and capacities afforded to Latter-day Saint missionaries: And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them: They shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Elder Tufuga and I unwittingly had the opportunity to experience something like that first-hand one day: Sö’ë [the ‘o’ and the ‘e’ are Samoan long vowels, but from here on out I’ll write his name as Soe], a prominent Latter-day Saint matai or chief in Samata who had invited us to eat breakfast at his fale [house] and then teach one of his friends, another matai.
Soe and his sons were well-known for their hunting (wild pig and wild cattle) and fishing skills, and would often share the success of their efforts with the whole village. For example, one day after church the whole congregation ate to’ona’i [Sunday lunch] together, with a pua’a ‘aivao or wild pig they had caught as the main course: It was so delicious. The day before our breakfast one of his sons had caught several large pusi [moray eels], which his family sliced into round sections, boiled in coconut cream, and served to us that morning. Not shy about eating a good breakfast, Elder Tufuga and I had some of everything, including the pusi.
Here’s the “fly-test” part: Some time after we had eaten and before we left Soe’s, the other matai said he thought the pusi was spoiled, and told us one way to tell was to watch if any flies landed on it. None did.
At that point there wasn’t much we could do, but we felt okay and went on our way . . . walking and proselyting for about five miles down the road. No bus ride that afternoon, so as we were walking back to the chapel in Samata late that afternoon, we were surprised to see a large flatbed truck filled with about 20 very sick people in the back — who had waited most of the day for the truck to come back from the wharf and take them all to the distant hospital.
We were quite surprised to learn they had all gotten food poisoning from eating Soe’s eel. Likewise, they were surprised we had eaten it, too.