Tuesday, July 3, 2007

We are Palangi

June 15, 2007

Palangi the word Samoans use to describe white people. The literal translation is “Shatter the Heavens”. Palangi is a word with deep implications in Samoa.

According to the common belief, the story begins in the early 1800’s. The Samoans were fighting amongst themselves. A prophecy predicted a white savior would come from the sky to bring peace and prosperity to the warring groups. In 1830 a ship with white missionaries from England appeared headed by the Congregational minister, John Williams, to fulfill the prophecy bringing Christianity to Samoa.

Another, more historical, version of the story relates the custom of early sailing ships to fire their cannons before disembarking onto hostile or unknown lands. The prophecy story was added later to give credence to the missionary zeal of that era.

Whatever the truth may be, the fact is that Samoa is a very religious and Christian nation. There are several major denominations Congregational, Catholic, Methodist, Mormon, and Seventh Day Adventists being the largest. It is common for members of the same family to go to different churches. What seems to matter is not what sect you belong, but whether you attend church religiously.

But the word Palangi is more than a story, for being a Palangi immediately places you in a higher social position than granted to other Samoans of similar age or martial status. People give way to you, traffic stops for you, and you feel that you are different because you are Palangi.

There is also a respect given to a Palangi. It is hard to understand whether this higher social placement is based on the cultural Samoan tradition of hospitality and respect, the fact that we generally have more education, the subjugation by Western churches, or the submission to the power and wealth of the West.

There is a polite exclusion from those around you. Palangi implies being an outsider. Deference is given because of the Western skills and knowledge. Palagnis are generally looked up to. The Samoan stereotype of Palangi is for the most part positive, but some Samoans have had individual negative experiences with Palangis.

Gaining a deeper understanding about who we are as Palangi in Samoa is one of the greater challenges we, as Peace Corps, face as we are about to enter into the more traditional world of the village.

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