Mormon missionary life in Samoa, 1965

Story and photos by Mike Foley, originally published on December 7, 2008

Many aspects of living in most parts of Samoa in 1965 were very different for a person who grew up in an urban American environment. For example:

•    Many parts of Tutuila, American Samoa, especially those off the paved road which did not extend to the ends of the island then, did not have electricity; and except for Apia and a few generators, most of Western Samoa did not have electricity either. After dark, if we were lucky, we used air-pressure-type pump lanterns that made a loud hissing noise and attracted bugs, otherwise we used hurricane lamps (with a wick and glass chimney). We purchased kerosene in old soda bottles that used a piece of pulu (coconut husk) for a stopper. Of course, you always had to have matches and an extra mantle available, in case one tore or a moth flew into it.

•    Outside areas with electricity there was very little refrigeration, although occasionally we would come across small stores with kerosene-powered units (most American missionaries didn’t previously realize there was such a thing as a kerosene-fueled refrigerator). In fact, one of our missionary housing units in American Samoa had an old kerosene-powered stove we got working: Very icy! Food in such areas was stored in a sefe — a wooden cabinet covered with fine-mesh screen to keep flies and other bugs away. Each leg of a sefe was usually placed in an empty can with a little water in it to sorta’ prevent ants and other crawling bugs from getting at the food.

•    At its fastest, mail from the U.S. took at least one week to get to Samoa (that’s because Pan Am only flew in-and-out of American Samoa one day a week — early Sunday morning), but sometimes two-to-three weeks or longer.

•    There were very few telephones in American Samoa and even fewer in Western Samoa. I can count on one hand the number of times I used a telephone during my mission, and calling home was out of the question.

•    The educational television system in Tutuila was just starting up, but like telephones, only a small number of families owned sets. There was no television in Western Samoa, and in any case, it was against mission rules to watch TV. In the evenings, when the station played entertainment programs, neighbors would crowd around outside the house of families who had sets to watch — made easier by the traditional open Samoa fale. Walt Disney’s original TV series, Zorro, for example, was immensely popular in 1965, and kids all over American Samoa would make black masks out of strips cut from old black inner tubes and run around play-fighting with coconut-stalk swords. The station would also rebroadcast football games at least a week late, although rugby was still the game of choice in both Western and American Samoa. I clearly remember thinking at the time if Samoans ever started playing U.S. football they would be formidable.

•    Missionaries could go to approved movies as a district or zone activity, but these were also sometimes rented and shown at the mission home in Pesega, Apia, or at Mapusaga High School (which is now American Samoa Community College). I recall there was only one “theater” on Savaii, which missionaries could attend as a district or zone activity. It was really nice, because they had a kerosene-powered refrigerator, so we could buy cold soda which came in some unusual flavors.

•    Some villages did not have running water. For example, I lived in two places for a combination of almost eight months where we bathed in the ocean and sparingly used fresh water from a rooftop catchment system to rinse off.

•    In villages that did have a water line, missionaries bathed in cold water while wearing a wet lavalava (sarong or wrap-around), and then adroitly changed into dry clothing after drying off with a beach towel that doubled as a lavalava. In the village of Samata, Savaii, we lived at the end of a miles-long water line and just on the far side of a deep ravine . . . so there was only enough water pressure to reach our shower pipe between about 2-5 a.m. We had to set our alarms and get up early when we wanted to shower under the pipe, then go back to bed for a few more hours. Otherwise, we used a bucket and water from a catchment tank. Except for the mission homes in Pesega and Mapusaga, we didn’t have hot water for bathing. To this day, I do not mind a cold shower.

•    Most houses that enjoyed electricity had at least one “hot closet” — a closet with a low-watt burning light bulb that helped keep mildew off damp clothes.

•    Except for the mission homes in Pesega and Mapusaga (and possibly a few other places I am unaware of), the Relief Society washed the missionaries’ clothing. This was done, either under a pipe or in a stream, by soaping the clothes with bars of laundry soap, then pounding them on a rock with a stick.

•    Where electricity was not available, a heavy metal iron or auli that used burning charcoal inside was used to press the clothes.

•    Pigs and chickens ran wild in many places in Western Samoa, and the pigs routinely rooted up large patches of lawn. When it was time for the pigs to give their all, they were usually strangled by placing an amo pole across the neck. Such a pig’s gradually diminishing shrieks could be heard all over a village, a signal somebody was going to eat well that day. When a chicken’s time came, Samoan boys would chase and kill it with very accurately thrown rocks.

•    Missionaries rarely prepared their own food, often making arrangements with the local branch president or the family we lived closest to for most breakfasts. Breakfasts or ti o le taeao (morning tea) usually consisted of bread and Samoan koko (the world’s finest chocolate, bar none) or lauti (lemon leaf tea); or koko alaisa (chocolate rice) or koupai — a kind of flour dumpling in a soupy flour gruel (which I didn’t mind, but some missionaries could barely stomach; some cooks would toss in some carmelized sugar, or a lauti for extra flavor); or Samoan panakeke (pancakes, which I always found to be too greasy), sometimes eaten with butter (to make it extra lololo [rich, oily]) and jam but never syrup. After leaving the fale in the morning, missionaries usually ate while proselyting at the invitation of people we came in contact with. In fact, Fa’aSamoa (Samoan customs) dictated practically everybody had to invite us in and at least offer us food. We had to be careful in accepting, however, because if we accepted but the family didn’t have anything prepared — the tip off was usually to see some boys chasing down a chicken, kill it, pluck and cook it —  we would have to sit and wait for an hour or two. It was bad form once the chasing started to suddenly decline.

•    There were only a limited number of eating establishments in those days — calling them restaurants wouldn’t usually be quite accurate. When we ate in one of them, however, it wasn’t unusual to discover someone else anonymously paid for our meals when we went to the cashier (a similar thing often happened when we rode buses).

•    In traditional Polynesian fashion, missionaries and chiefs (i.e. the men) ate first. Women and children would eat later in the back of the house. Sometimes children would be brought out to fan away flies while the men were eating. Sometimes our left-over coconut-leaf food trays would go directly to the women and kids. In many Latter-day Saint families and Church gatherings, however, men, women and children would eat together.

•    Traditionally, we ate with our hands, and after a meal a pan of water (‘apa fafano) and tea towel would be brought for us to rinse off and dry our hands. We used to crack-up some families by calling for an ‘apa fafano into which we would put our metal cups of koko Samoa, which was often served boiling hot, even in the hottest part of the day. The water in the pan would cool the koko down so we could drink and enjoy it sooner. A little like modern coffee culture (what little I understand about that, as a devout Mormon), a lot of times the old chiefs would sit around sipping koko Samoa — served black, i.e. without sugar or cream — even when they sometimes had such luxuries, or else they would sometimes use coconut cream. It was probably a macho thing, because if you’ve ever had full-strength unsweetened chocoloate — such as cooking chocolate, you know it’s quite bitter.

A missionary breakfast shows us sitting on mats, eating with our
hands, and in this case spoons. Looks like koupai and hot chocolate.
Sometimes we’d get koko alaisa — chocolate rice, but some
missionaries had never eaten rice before and didn’t like it. 

•    We used American money and postage in American Samoa, but Western Samoa was still on the British pound-shilling-pence system: 12 pence to a shilling, 20 shillings to a pound. For example, a price marked 12/6 meant that item cost 12 shillings and six pence. Some Samoans carried a quarter or a selene (shilling) coin in their ear.

•    There were no mortuaries. When someone died they had to be buried within a few days at most. Funeral notices would go out over the national radio services,  WVUV in Pago and 2AP in Western Samoa — often including instructions that such-and-such a family should bring two pigs, fine mats, money, etc. Bodies were laid out in a home, usually covered with mosquito netting, and after the funeral service were wrapped in mats and buried in graves next to the home. Interestingly enough, my wife’s great-grandfather and great-grandmother Pa’aluhi are buried this way in Kalaoa on the Big Island of Hawaii.

•    Because private communications were extremely limited, WVUV and 2AP would also broadcast feau uaialesi (wireless messages) every evening that almost everyone in both countries listened to. Such messages covered a broad range of topics such as notifying the Mormon missionaries in remote villages to get their stuff ready for a transfer on a certain Saturday morning. Even if the missionaries weren’t listening to the radio — which was against mission rules — or the feau came after 10 p.m., which was our bed time proscribed by mission rules — someone else would always pass the message along. They all knew everybody’s wireless business.

•    There were only a small number of bakeries in Tutuila and Upolu, which had an interesting Mormon Church implication for remote villages: There was often no bread to use for the sacrament. In such situations we would use pieces of taro, breadfruit, or boiled bananas as a substitute, changing the wording of the sacrament prayer accordingly (e.g. “…bless this taro…”).

•    Not too many years previously, many Samoan women went topless, and even in the mid-1960s in remote villages some of them still preferred that style — remember, it was very hot & humid there, although most would usually cover up if they saw us coming, and would then lower their blouses as soon as we were past.

•    Samoans traditionally sat cross-legged (nofo fatai) on laufala (pandanus leaf mats) on the ground. Many Samoan houses did not have chairs, or at most only one or two. Even though a family might offer missionaries the chairs, it was not good manners to sit in one while others sat on the floor. Samoans back then acquired the flexibility to nofo fatai for long periods from childhood, but it is uncommon among people who haven’t done it all their lives, indeed possibly even excruciating after just a few moments. When nofo fatai‘ing, it was also important to try to keep your knees as close to the ground as possible, not squirm around, and definitely not point the soles of your feet at anyone. This was considered very bad manners (matag?); and if you had to sooner or later straighten your legs, custom required you cover them first with a mat. Sometimes after formalities were accomplished, a host would invite us to “straighten your legs.” To this day wherever I sit, you’ll can soon notice me crossing my ankles in a shadow of this custom.

•    Health care was a serious concern, especially for expatriate missionaries not immune to local microbes and such. For example, village medical practitioners would come around to make sure everyone, including the missionaries, faithfully took anti-filariasis (m?m? or elephantiasis) pills. Filariasis is a horrendously disfiguring mosquito-borne disease that afflicted quite a few people with large, hard cutaneous and subcutaneous swellings that could-and-did occur in any part of the body. Otherwise, village medical practitioners would usually dispense something akin to milk of magnesia, which was disastrous for those who really needed a treatment more like Pepto-Bismol™.

A hospital ward at Moto’otua, Apia, Western Samoa, 1966

•    When we checked into a hospital clinic in Western Samoa, they took our weight using the British system of “stones” (one stone equals 14 pounds, hence a small missionary might weigh 10 stone 5 — 145 pounds).

•    Some of the expatriate missionaries succumbed to hepatitis-A, usually caused by lack of proper hygiene, especially in food preparation. A serious case could wipe a missionary out for almost three months, while a mild case could go on for about a month: I came down with what I was told was a very mild case, which started with a severe headache, the sweats and fever chills, then I felt vaivai or weak for about the next three-or-four weeks. Only recently, Country Doctor Marc Shalchter in Laie said he thinks I probably had Dengue Fever instead, as if that were better.

•    There were no dentists in Samoa when I was there, but there dental practitioners at the hospital in Moto’otua, Apia, Western Samoa, and there was also a Public Health Service dental care person at the hospital in American Samoa. The dental clinic at Moto’otua was equipped with foot-pedal-powered drills.

•    Most people used privately owned commercial buses as their main means of transportation. These were usually called aiga [family] buses and consisted of a large truck chassis, engine and transmission upon which clever carpenters built a wooden bus fale [house] and benches. These came in a variety of sizes, and the pasese (fare, but also can mean passengers) started at 25¢ in Tutuila and a selene (shilling) — and up, depending on the distance traveled — in Western Samoa. Several aspects of aiga buses are worth mentioning:

•    Some had regular routes and schedules, while others — especially in the busier sections of Tutuila and Upolu — cruised back-and-forth. In the Falelima District of Savaii, for example, buses only ran once a day in either direction, adjusting their schedule to arrive at the main wharf at Saleloga in time to catch the first boat to Upolu, which normally left about 6-6:30 a.m. From Samata, where my companion and I lived, this usually meant catching the bus about 2 a.m., although sometimes it would come as early as 1 a.m. and as late as 3 a.m. The ride took approximately three hours. There were no other buses later in the day. When local people were traveling, they would usually send a child to wait sleepily by the side of the road to hail the bus. We, on the other hand, would set our alarm clock for 1 a.m. to get up and start listening for the bus, which you could usually hear coming in the still of the night.

•    That bus would then “sleep” at Salelologa for most of the day, and start its return run to the end of the line about 3 p.m. Some days in Falelima you might only see one or two other vehicles all day long on the road before the other district buses returned that evening.

•    You could hail a bus anywhere along the side of the road by waving your hand. You could also arrange with the bus driver to carry just about any type of cargo, including live animals or large trunks, with the driver and other helpful passengers helping to load and unload the uka. For some cargo, this sometimes meant the driver would go off the road to get the vehicle closer to a house.

•    Missionaries of all faiths were widely respected, and consequently were expected to sit near the front of the bus. If all those seats were occupied, someone would move.

•    You could ask the driver to stop en route at a store while you ran in and made a purchase, or if you needed to drop something off at another location. All the other passengers waited patiently while one person did this.

•    Bus drivers would stop anywhere you asked to be let off. They would sometimes even drive up to a house if there was a lot of uka to unload.

•    Sometimes others would anonymously pay our pasese for the bus ride, or the drivers would refuse to accept our money.

•    As a district leader based in Samata, we had access to one of the Toyota Land Cruisers, but we were only supposed to use it for district and zone business, not proselyting. Since there was only one gas station in Salelologa in those days, the mission arranged for us to purchase a 55-gallon drum of gasoline, which we transported in the back of the vehicle. We became very skillful at manipulating the drum and used a section of hose to siphon gas from it into the tank. We also became skillful at hot-patching tires that had leaks. 

Our sipi after crossing the submerged causeway
at Gautavai, Savaii, 1067 

•    Most people, as well as the missionaries, lived in Samoan fale in 1965. These houses took the shapes and sizes similar to those in the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Samoan village, some built on high rock paepae or foundations, with the height of the foundation indicating the significance of the chief who owned it. That situation was rapidly changing, however, starting in the urban centers on Tutuila and Upolu, and gradually extending into the less developed villages. For example, a Pan American Airways calendar picture from the late 1950s showed the village of Tula in American Samoa consisting entirely of fale, but by 1965 at least one-third of those had been replaced by fale palagi (European or American-style houses). Even though the traditional architecture of a fale makes good sense for Samoa’s tropical climate, the structures were no match for the frequent hurricanes which strike the islands. So-called “hurricane houses” started to go up in earnest in American Samoa following a very destructive storm in 1966.

•    We often slept under mosquito nets [ta’i namu] at night, on mats [fala lili’i] spread on the pebble-covered ground or (in some cases) a wooden floor. When the rain started to blow into the fale, missionaries could lower the pola or coconut-leaf blinds.


  1. ishmael stagner says:

    Egad, Mike: This is great stuff! You have dredged up memories from my too, too distant past, when Iwas a teaching missionary at Mapusaga High School from 1961-1963. Pete Lakatani was one of my first students at that school, and my old Halawa Ward Bishop, Alma Pratt, came down to Tutuila to become the construction director under Governor H. Rex Lee. It was Brother Pratt who finally finished the Tafuna Airport, the Turtle, and most of the roads, and buildings prior to the Sout Pacific Commission Conference of 1963. He later returned to Hawaii, and became Hawaii Temple Counselor under President Robert Finlayson. Keep up the good work. Ia Manuia, Ish Stagner

  2. MAHALO, Ish. Your mention of teaching at Mapusaga reminded me of a student there who lived about half-way between the school and Pago, whose family ran a bakery (I’ve forgotten the name of the village): They made the most killer Polynesian bread, which they would load fresh out of the oven into the trunk of their car and then drive back to Mapusaga to sell to the teachers…and, of course, the hungry missionaries.

    Fortunately, peanut butter and jam were readily available in American Samoa, as was great Anchor-brand butter from New Zealand: A nice change-up from breadfruit and boiled bananas (which I also like).

    Speaking of peanut butter, you know how the freshest foods are usually much more tasty? Peanut butter is a common condiment in Indonesian-Malay-Thai food, and during the year Sally and I lived in Bandung, West Java (1975-76), we could go into the stores and buy fresh-made peanut butter. In fact, there was usually someone right there making another batch. You ordered it by the half-kilo, dolloped out on a sheet of something like wax paper. The killer taste more than made up for the delivery system.

  3. Mike,
    Thank you for sharing your stories of Samoa. It brought back so many memories of living in Samoa. I went there about the same time and taught at Samoana High School. For Ke-o Meatoga Polvado and I being in Samoa was an experience that we will never forget. Being part Samoan, but not knowing Samoan language it was difficult adjusting to life there, but we managed. It was an experience that made us grateful that our grandparents moved the family to HI before we came along. We appreciated learning more about our Samoan heritage while there.
    I think the bakery you wrote about was in Matuu. It made the best bread. On our way home from “town”, we were able to buy our bread hot from the oven. Many times, we couldn’t wait to reach home, that Anchor butter and bread were devoured before we got home.

  4. NETTIE, talofa…and fa’afetai tele for supporting my new blog. One of the reasons I started this thing was because I wanted to get some of these stories down while the mind still remembers, and as Brother Ish suggested above, so a younger generation might have a little better picture of those days.

    I remember Ke-o in Tutuila but, sorry, I’m not sure if we ever met back then & there. Of course, I’m not surprised that both of us remember the fresh bread. It was to die!

    Right after the hurricane in 1966, I was transferred to Western Samoa. An oge or famine of sorts ensued: All the mea mata — taro, green bananas, breadfruit, produce — was wiped out for about a year, which makes me wonder how the ancestors must have suffered through their own oge. Those were the days when missionaries really started getting used to koupai — flour dumplings and gruel — for breakfast; but surprisingly, flour was also in short supply: It was not unusual to buy bread in Apia, and find it full of weevils. Usually dark in color, the weevils would turn bright red after being cooked. Some people took the time to try to pick them out, others just kept eating.

  5. Beverly Amaral says:

    Aloha All,

    Gosh, I am so happy that I came across this site, as I just recently subscribed to the Kaleo newsletter.

    I remember Ishmael, as I met him at the Alu like center in Kahalu’u and listened as he spoke to Mr.Parker on Olelo. It’s funny, cuz, I was in American Samoa from 1964-1966 and I know all that you are talking about – boy what memories! And they were good memories. I remember Gov.Rex Lee, as we had the same color & type of station wagon as he did, so whenever we drove around, everyone thought that it was the Governors car! Yes, I remember that bakery in Matu’u and I can still see that baker. It was a small bakery, but the bread was ono, especially with that Anchor Butter – it was the best. But you know, they had another bakery in Leone too. Can’t beat hot bread and butter in the mornings! It was da bomb and that was out lunch too!

    As for the storm in 1966, I remember it well. The next morning we could see clear to the ocean, as there was nothing left. We lived in Iliili. All the trees,bananas,taro were down. What is clear in my mind is when the delivery of food rations/staples came in. Military type. The powdered milk – yuk! everyone started eating potatoes until the taro and ulu came back – we persevered! it was tough, but we did it.
    And I know Alva, as she was a friend of my mothers, but I met her here.And I love her dearly. In fact as we speak she is in Vegas on vacation. She was well liked in American Samoa.

    Mikaele, you described in detail all what I have forgotten, but now, remember. mahalo.

  6. Ke-o Polvado says:

    I am so glad that Beverly directed me (she knows me as Elva)to your site.

    You have brought back many powerful memories which I had forgotten during my first 3 years (1994-1966)living in Tutuila. Memories when I worked at Mapusaga High School,in 1966, as a 7th grade teacher. President Oaks announced to the faculty that Mapusaga High School will be closing within a few years because by then the American Samoa Government will have built enough High schools for all the children to attend,including students of Mapusaga High School. President Oaks also announced that when that happened the Government wanted to purchase Mapusaga High School facilities to convert it into a college. A few years later Mapusaga High School was closed, and American Samoa Community College(ASCC)was introduced to the public.

    Your Stories bring vivid memories and experiences to life, not to mention give a glimpse of the past of what it was like to live in those days. It did for me. Keep up the good work.


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  1. […] Life in mid-60s Samoa could get a little strange for a guy who grew up in urban Salt Lake City. Here are just two examples: […]

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