Alison Efford in Samoa–on serendipity and field research

Dr. Efford continues her account of recent sabbatical research trips to New Zealand and Samoa.  Here she reminds of us the importance of serendipity when doing history. 

My first research trip to Samoa had its frustrations. Internet access was unpredictable. I usually turned up to appointments damp with sweat despite being scantily clad by local standards. My contact at the main university had left for New Zealand a week before I arrived, and the archives of the Catholic archdiocese were unavailable after being hastily relocated twice since the 2009 tsunami.

While the challenges of working in a small and tropical developing nation (when “Samoa” is unqualified, it refers to the islands that are not American territory) were rather predictable, the rewards were quite unexpected. I had not counted on Samoans being so willing to help out a sweaty palagi (white) woman who turned up asking odd questions about events long ago. Fa’afetai lava (thank you very much) to Amela Silipa and Vaveao Toa at the Ministry of Education, Sports, and Culture, to Rev. Father Kolio Kelekolio, the Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Samoa-Apia, to Lalotoa Mulitalo, a legislative drafter and doctoral student at Australia’s University of Queensland, and to Leasiolagi Dr. Malama Meleisea, a distinguished historian who now serves as a judge.

The Apia clock tower with a billboard marking the fiftieth anniversary of Samoan independence.

Ordinary Samoans were also prepared to talk history. Taxi drivers, waiters, and school children were eager to discuss the fiftieth anniversary of Samoan independence from New Zealand. Apia, the capital, is preparing for celebrations in June with a rash of construction and beautification.

When I wondered aloud whether all this activity was mostly for the benefit of foreign dignitaries, everyone assured me how much the anniversary mattered to them—and not just because it will be marked by a week-long public holiday! Samoans are very proud to have shaken off colonial rule before their Pacific neighbors.

A casual conversation about independence led to one of the week’s most pleasant serendipities. Aunoa Ta’avale, a history student, was reading old newspaper accounts of campaign for self-determination when I met her. After just a few minutes of chatting in the public library, she was ushering me onto a bus headed for the National University of Samoa (NUS). (The ride really deserves its own post. From what I could tell, the cramped little buses in Samoa did not stick to set routes or schedules. When the seats were full, passengers sat on each other’s laps. The whole experience provided another motive to learn Samoan: to understand all the jokes at my expense!)

At NUS, Aunoa conducted me past the guards, showed me the library, and invited me to a Samoan class. When it was over, I met her lecturer, Matiu Matavai Tautunu, who has written in English and Samoan on Samoan history, language, and culture. He welcomed me into his office and described his recent research on the Aleipata district. In addition to being enthusiastic and generous, he clearly has a gift for preserving and analyzing oral tradition.

Next time, I will need to spend more time in the archives, but I have learned to make time for the unexpected, especially when it means listening to the Samoans who care about their past.

Alison Efford’s work focuses on late nineteenth and early twentieth US history and immigration.  Her first book, “German Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship in the Civil War Era,” is under contract with Cambridge University Press.   She recently traveled to New Zealand and Samoa to conduct research for her next book project.


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