I’m not a social scientist or an economist or a politician or a lawyer. (For those kinds of very intelligent posts, check out our friend NiuZila‘s blog.)

I AM an observer, though, who asks a lot of questions… and a recent chat with my mom about her growing-up days in Samoa got me wondering a lot about our national identity.

My mom was born and raised in a mountainous region far from the city area of Upolu, Samoa. Today we laugh about those ‘kua’ villages and make comments about how poor and uncivilized they are, but back in the 1950s and ’60s, my mom remembers flourishing plantations of every kind of crop – taro, fa’i, niu, ulu, mago, vi, kolo etc. – and that her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens, then hunted for lupe (wild pigeons) and pe’a (fruit bats) and collected fresh water shrimp and eels from nearby rivers.

These people never worried about a shortage of food.

My mom’s parents raised nine children, and worked hard to send every single one of them to school – not just elementary (primary) and intermediate school, but right through high school, giving all of them the opportunity to go to university, too.

It’s not only my grandparents who knew the value of education. I met a lady recently who’s well into her 70s and only retired from her cleaning job last year. Her mother was Samoan, so she spent part of her school years at Leififi College in Malifa.

She told me that parents in those days did everything they could to get their children educated, some even ‘adopting’ their kids out to relatives with Palagi last names so they could go to the (supposedly) more elite schools.

My mom didn’t have the fa’ai’u (last name) for any of those schools, but her parents did send her to live with cousins in Lalovaea so she could attend Intermediate in the Apia area. Every Friday evening she would go home to see her parents, then Sunday night they’d send her back to town with basket loads of food and money for her host family.

She eventually moved up to Samoana High School in Pago Pago, then on to university in Hawaii, where she became the first woman from her district to gain a bachelors degree. The hard work and dedication it took to graduate? That was all my mom… but the opportunity she had to go that far in her schooling could only have come from an environment where education is considered a worthwhile investment in the family’s future.

Last week, my mom and I were talking with an uncle and aunt who are on their way back to the USA after 11 years in Samoa. They told us stories about the state of Samoa today, how so many parents will pull their children out of school early so they can start making money.

But it’s not like it’s easy for anybody to find a paying job in Samoa, so these kids end up either working as housegirls/boys for better-off families (usually the same homes their parents work in) or on the streets hawking everything from Q-tips and rubber bands to popcorn and bobby pins.

When I was in Samoa earlier this year, I met a beautiful 7-year-old boy who is the sole breadwinner for his large family, which includes a bunch of siblings and his unemployed mother. The little mercy in this story is that he hasn’t dropped out of school (yet) and he manages to get top scores even though he spends his afternoons and evenings roaming Apia with an armful of things to sell.

I still can’t get over just how many people walk around town – into shops and restaurants even, knocking on doors and windowpanes – with something for sale. One time, a guy dragged a huge box of freshly cooked taro into the Internet café I was in and went around tapping shoulders to interrupt us with his pitch about desperately needing money for something or other.

I’d never seen anything like that before. While my heart went out to the guy, I couldn’t help thinking that the Apia I remember as a child was such a different place.

My mom says this kind of street soliciting was unheard of when she was young, but she concedes that it was just a different day and age.

Back then, if you wanted to eat, you had no option but to grow, raise, hunt or collect your own food. Education really was the key to progress and adventure in those days. For a lot of Samoans, long distance communication was not possible, so if your loved one traveled overseas, the farewell was as painful as a funeral… and receiving money from relatives in another country? That was something like a miracle.

My expat Samoan uncle and aunt have a slightly darker view of things. My uncle, who’s about the same age as my mom, thinks Samoans experienced a major shift in mentality over the last few decades thanks to the (financial) influence of other countries.

Where we were once all about hard physical labor and self-reliance, our kua villages are getting quieter every year. Everybody’s abandoning the plantations and flocking to the ‘fast money’ lifestyle of Apia… or we’re maneuvering our way into countries like New Zealand, with that generous fairy godmother called Social Welfare.

And why wouldn’t we? As a country we seem to be proud of the fact that most of our income is development aid or private remittances from overseas. Somewhere along the way, many of us never learned the importance of education – I know from experience that lots of Samoans in NZ, too, pull their children out of school to work.

From what I can see, this mentality that money is more important than progress, tradition and character – that it should be fast, easy and plentiful – is the reason we have so many overgrown plantations in Samoa’s mountains and villages. It’s why, for all our lush, volcanic soil, we can’t seem to maintain a strong agricultural export market. It’s why so many of our children are on the street, selling, rather than in school, studying. It’s why Apia is struggling to maintain a bunch of ornate but empty, power-draining, Asia-donated government buildings. It’s why Samoans abroad have a bad reputation for giving all their money away while their cupboards are empty.

This is not the Fa’asamoa that our parents and grandparents knew.

For a lot of us, though, this focus on money and lack of foresight sadly IS the definition of the “Samoan way of life”.

If we don’t do something to fix that now, this is the ‘Samoa’ we’re leaving behind for our children to despair over.

The good news is that culture is created by people.

What can we do to punch our culture back into a shape we can be proud of?