I remember it well, spending three hours at Gatwick Airport in the UK, while the Customs agents tried to locate one of their people who knows what a Samoan passport looks like, to verify the existence of my country. They found an agent finally, who came over, took my passport and declared: "Sorry, this is not Somalian."
The feelings I had at that point ranged from a deep anger to a sense of amusing dismay at the fact that my beloved island Paradise of Samoa in the middle of the South Pacific, was mistaken for a war torn country in Africa. But my immediate concern was for the fact that I would not be allowed into the UK, thus not making it to my orientation week at the University of Oxford: "Sir, the country is Samoa, the code is WSM as it was previously known as Western Samoa, but it is now known as the Independent State of Samoa, if you need verification of its existence, I will give you a direct line to the Prime Ministers office, or just Google it." The three customs officers looked at me and decided that maybe indeed the country that issued my passport, in fact existed. A few minutes later, they stamped my passport and let me through.
This is not a one off incident, it happens often, to many who travel on Samoan passports. I remember arguing with an Air Canada ground staff in Frankfurt because he refused to let me on the plane due to Visa restrictions on Somalia residents. It's like me thinking that someone from America is from Armenia, or that an Austrian is Australian. Just because they sound the same does not mean it's the same country.
So to save me and 182,000 other Samoans from the hassle of having to explain that our country is not Somalia or American Samoa, or a figment of our imagination, here are ten facts that not only prove we are legitimate country, but that indeed we exist:
1. We have cows: A classmate from Ethiopia once asked me a few years back: "Are there cows in Samoa?" He had just learned of the existence of Samoa, and then he wanted to make sure it was indeed a country with cows. Not only do we have cows, we have pigs, chickens, geckos, birds, fish, ants, centipedes and a few other things that tend to come with tropical islands, or countries that are indeed located on earth.
2. We have a Prime Minister: Yes, believe it or not, since we are an actual country we have a governance structure. Samoa has a democratic system of Governance, which means a Parliament and everything. Our Prime Minister has one of the longest names among world leaders. He is Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi, honestly, that's his full name, and all journalists in Samoa know it off by heart. In 2007 he won a silver medal in the South Pacific Games in Archery, among his many other accomplishments. He is a High Chief, an economist and a keen fisherman.
3. High Chiefs live here: The Samoan culture is based on a Chiefly system, which revolves around family ('aiga) kinship, based on immediate and extended family relationships. Chiefs govern families, the village and districts, it is only with a Chiefly title that you can be elected into Parliament. Both men and women hold Chiefly titles, bestowed upon them by the Chiefs of their extended family. Traditionally, you receive a Chiefly title by serving your family through direct support or bringing honour to the family name in your service elsewhere. This is a simple explanation, to understand the Chiefly system you have to live and breathe the culture for at least 50 years, and even then, you still won't fully understand it, because it is ever evolving.
4. We have a language: Again, like many countries who have an authentic identity, we have a language, it's like nothing you have ever heard before in your life. It's full of vowels, and when spoken by High Chiefs, it is deeply meaningful, eloquent, and insightful and more romantic than any Shakespearean prose. We have the spoken everyday language, the written language and the Chiefly language, that is basically all metaphors and references to oral history. In case you're wondering, the language is called Samoan. Like other humans who are educated and connected to the world, many Samoans, like yours truly, are fluent in English. And by fluent I mean, we read, write and speak the language. Samoans who are educated elsewhere also speak an array of other languages.
5. It's not American Samoa: I am from the Independent State of Samoa formerly known as Western Samoa, and now simply known as Samoa. The Samoan islands were partitioned in 1899, the eastern islands became a territory to the United States, and is known as American Samoa, the western islands are now known as Samoa. In 1962, we gained independence. We are the same people, we speak the same language, but American Samoans play NFL and serve in the US military, Samoans play rugby and eat a lot of pigs and play a proper sport called rugby which uses no padding, the same team plays offence and defence, and a lot more blood is spilled on the field. I'm just saying.
6. There are cars here: Like many countries with proper infrastructure, even the poorest have vehicles. We have all types, small four doors, buses, pick-up trucks, ambulance vehicles and fire engines. Yes, and they are red.
7. We have a currency: It's called the Samoan Tala, it has pictures of breadfruits, bananas, faces of brown men and women, and traditional Samoan structures. One US dollar is equivalent to about two Samoan tala. Fine mats and traditional materials are also treated as currency but only in traditional
8. Our men wear skirts: The Samoan man wears a knee length wrap around skirt to work, just like our fellow brothers in Tonga and Fiji, our Government Ministers wear these at all times on the job. For Samoa, there are different skirts depending on the occasion, ie is a casual sarong for home or swim, ie faitaga is the formal skirt with pockets, it can be pin striped for corporate wear and the ie satini which is a large velvet or silk single coloured skirt that is wrapped thickly at the waist, usually worn my higher ranking Chiefs. If I may say so myself, Samoa has some of the most beautiful men on earth, ok so some decline in looks after their 40s, but before that, they could be walking advertisements for any fashion house, in a skirt.
9. We have very cool names: The history of this country is passed through stories, speeches, songs and metaphors, prior to pens and papers, oral history was the way we recorded significant events in the past. To assist in marking those milestones, when a child is born, they are named after a significant event that occurred around the time of their birth, anthropologist Trevor Durbin referred to it as memory pegs. I have a cousin named 'Saofai' translated 'title bestowment' as he was born on the week his father received an Orator title. Others are named after places their parents visited, such examples include Queensland, Pakistan, Thailand, Pretoria, Texas and Romania. Some of the most common names include Tasi (one), Lima (five) and Sefulu (ten). My daughters name is translated Sky Gatherer, because she was born an hour before a cyclone was due to hit Samoa.
10. We have a third Gender: Better known as fa'afafines, the Samoan third gender is a transvestite, cross dresser or flamboyant gay man. Although not officially acknowledged on paper, fa'afafines are very much a part of the Samoan culture. There are men dressed as women working in the public sector and in management positions in Government, Private Sector and NGOs. As a sign of this respect for the third gender, the Prime Minister is the Patron of the Samoa Fa'afafine Association.
So there you have it, Samoa exists, it's a legitimate country, a member of the United Nations with skirt wearing men, a third gender, and populated by people with great names. If you should feel the urge to see for yourself, by all means catch the next plane headed to Samoa through Fiji, New Zealand or Australia and you will eventually get to this tiny little dot of a very impressive nation.