Samoan Ghost Stories: Living Superstition
“When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer, superstition ain’t the way…”
Stevie Wonder’s song, “Superstition,” thumped away on my iPod. What a perfect song to listen to on my walk to school in American Samoa.
A volunteer teacher, I stared open-mouthed at the kid in front of me. For the last hour, he and his friend (both my students) had enthralled me with the ghost (aitu) stories of their village in American Samoa. I had no idea that one tiny village could be reputed to have so many ghosts!
The last time I had even thought about a ghost was last Christmas, while watching Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol being performed in my hometown. The thought might have crossed my mind with Halloween coming up and all, but I hadn’t thought to sleep with one eye open.
Later that week, my roommate and I went for a run, and took the path up the mountain through our village. The next day, we were stopped by a very concerned fellow female teacher about our age (early twenties).
Why weren’t we supposed to go running up the mountain? Was it because we were palagi (white; non-Samoan) and they didn’t want us traipsing through the village?
“Did you guys go running up the mountain?” She asked us, very seriously.
Not catching on to her tone, we responded, “Yes! It was a great workout.” And, “It felt great to go running!” Our enthusiasm was squashed within milliseconds.
“Don’t go running by yourself,” she warned us with a frown. My roommate and I just looked at each other. Our fellow teacher didn’t elaborate, but instead, walked away.
We pondered this for the rest of the day. Why weren’t we supposed to go running up the mountain? Was it because we were palagi (white; non-Samoan) and they didn’t want us traipsing through the village? Was it because we were women, and the women tend to stay at home in the evenings? Was it because it wasn’t safe? What was there? Animals? Unsavory characters? Devil dogs (as I un-affectionately call the large population of feral dogs on the island)? Was it unsafe for just one of us to go running by ourselves? Was it okay if we ran together? Were we not supposed to ever go at all?
After a week of eating chocolate and not going running, I was starting to get stir-crazy. Why not run on a different path, you may ask? The answer to that question is because I live on a mile-wide island where the path up the mountain is the longest path available to run on. For a runner who likes her distances, this provides a challenge.
While Christianity and churches dominate life on the islands, many Samoans still believe in spirits or ghosts who come out at night, and can jump inside a person, and make him or her sick.
Luckily, later in the week, I found a source of information. The Faifeau’s (Pastor’s) wife, from one of the three churches on the island, was willing to talk to me about it. I repeated what we had been told. She looked at me in confusion. Then I told her another warning I had been issued earlier that week: when going to the back of the island, don’t wear make-up, don’t wear your hair down, don’t wear perfume, and wear old clothes.
Again, I hadn’t been told why. If you were hearing ominous warnings about walking around your new home for the year, wouldn’t you be worried too?
The Faifeau’s wife explained to me something I hadn’t realized. While Christianity and churches dominate life on the islands, many Samoans still believe in spirits or ghosts who come out at night, and can jump inside a person, and make him or her sick.
The most superstitious I consider myself to be is when I wear the same t-shirt every time my Alma Mater’s basketball team plays. (Rock Chalk!!) The evil supernatural is hardly something that I dwell on.
The most superstitious I consider myself to be is when I wear the same t-shirt every time my Alma Mater’s basketball team plays. (Rock Chalk!!) The evil supernatural is hardly something that I dwell on. However, as I’m living in American Samoa, and particularly being a woman living here, I have realized that while I wouldn’t think twice about spirits, they are still something I have to take into consideration.
The Faifeau’s wife explained that in the past, things have happened on the island that no one understands or knows the reasons for. This could be anything from deaths in families, to accidents, to tourists being robbed. The easiest reaction to this was for locals to assign blame to the spirits on the island.
First lesson learned in American Samoa—start learning. Learn what’s acceptable and unacceptable.
Every time I go for a walk along the beach outside of the school, the kids are quick to warn me about walking there at night, as there is a monster who lives in the tangled brush along the shore. In fact, some of them swear they have seen this monster at night. They say you will know when the ghosts are around, because the dogs will start barking. Well, as my roommate and I said flippantly, the dogs outside our house are barking every night, so there must be an awful lot of ghosts out there!
What kind of impact does this idea of spirits have for women travelers? Well, unless you believe in ghosts, nothing directly related to them affects you, right? If you’re thinking they’re not going to come find you in the middle of the night, well, you’re right.
Gallivanting out and about, particularly in what locals believe to be ghost-infested areas, doesn’t help one’s reputation as a woman in the village.
But, I have learned, it is so important to be respectful of the village’s ideas. Whether or not you agree with them, think they’re silly, or believe they don’t exist. This is a basic “political correctness” teaching, as we all know.
Unfortunately, I have observed, people tend to forget those “politically correct” thoughts when traveling. Especially in an under-developed culture, visitors and newcomers tend to want to waltz in and change everything they touch. Luckily, for the sake of diversity, culture doesn’t work that way.
Women, in particular, in American Samoa tend to spend their time at home on afternoons and evenings after work or school. Gallivanting out and about, particularly in what locals believe to be ghost-infested areas, doesn’t help one’s reputation as a woman in the village. My roommate and I have realized that it’s better to do Zumba and Yoga in our large, spacious living room, rather than try to go running up the mountain after school.
Especially in an under-developed culture, visitors and newcomers tend to want to waltz in and change everything they touch.
First lesson learned in American Samoa—start learning. Learn what’s acceptable and unacceptable. Learn the history and stories behind the village you are staying and living in, and learn to embrace them during the time you are there! Find out what it is and isn’t acceptable for woman to be seen doing.
You don’t want to be labeled the silly palagi! Most importantly, ask questions. Most people in American Samoa are all too willing to tell you what you should and shouldn’t be doing! Walking around alone is one of those things.
While I do not consider myself at all superstitious, sometimes these little superstitions turn into habits. After I heard the story from one of my students about showering at night after you swim in the ocean or the spirits will come find you, I figured, better safe than sorry, right?
Samoan Ghost Stories: Living Superstition
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Samoan Ghost Stories: Living Superstition photo credits: Jessica Shen