Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Legacy of Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson came to Samoa on the recommendation of its climate being potentially therapeutic for his tuberculosis.  He came for a visit and stayed until his death four years later in December of 1894. These were his best years as an adult, having suffered from his childhood with the constant illness and weakness of the disease. They were also the most productive of his writing career. He wrote thirteen booksduring his years in Samoa.

We have visited his home, Vailima, twice now since we arrived, and I’m sure we will visit there again before we leave. There is a wonderful spirit there. It is beautiful, peaceful, and full of history. Mt Vaea rises abruptly behind the home, or rather off to the side. It is visible from RLS’s study on the second floor where he did his writing. In the early ‘70’s, our young family in tow, we climbed the steep path to its crest where he is buried.  From the front veranda, looking across the groomed landscape, the sea is visible through the trees which surround the 350 acre estate. When the estate was new and being developed, Stevenson, his family and his host of Samoan help, had a clear view of the sea as the trees were not yet grown to maturity.

Stevenson put his heart into Vailima and into the nation of Samoa and its people. They gave him the name Tusitala, meaning story teller.  He was a true friend of Samoa, an advocate for the independence of her people from foreign rule, and an understanding and appreciative observer of their culture. It seems more than coincidental that the few short years he lived there were pivotal years in Samoan history, when Germany was entrenched politically and economically, and England and America were more than silent observers.  Two rival chiefs (matai) each with legitimate ties to the throne by lineage and both with large and loyal followings, had positioned themselves for war. Germany had sided with and exercised great influence over Maleatoa Laupepa who sat as king, while Mata’afa stood for the traditional Samoan way of selecting their kings and governing their country. RLS supported the rebels and considered Mata’afa a friend.

Following a bloody battle between these two factions, the Germans deported Mata’afa to the Mrshall Islands and took approximately 20 chiefs of Mata’afa’s camp prisoner.  Within a week they built a prison to contain them. Confined to 6 dark cells, these chiefs who knew nothing but freedom, were terribly despondent.  When Stevenson saw their conditions and realized what little food they were subsisting on, he pressed the European powers to allow them to build 8 fales to house themselves , and to allow their families to feed them and visit them. The prison commander, himself appalled at their conditions, went further and allowed some family members to live with their men in prison. Stevenson continued to petition the foreign government to release the chiefs, who he maintained were no threat to the government. Eventually his untiring efforts in their behalf were rewarded by their release.

By way of thanks, the chiefs built a road to Vailima, which Stevenson named, The Road of Loving Hearts. These high-ranking chiefs normally would not themselves be about road building. This was a gift born of gratitude that would endure as a symbol of their love for their Tusitala. They would take no pay, neither expect nor accept any food or supplies while work was underway.

On the Sunday following Thanksgiving in that same year of 1894, surrounded by family and his beloved and devoted Samoan staff, Stevenson offered this prayer at evening vespers:
“We thank Thee and we praise Thee. We beseech Thee, Lord, to behold us with favor. Be patient; suffer us yet a while longer-with our broken purposes of good, and our idle endeavors against evil. Suffer us a while longer to endure, and help us to do better. Bless to us our extraordinary mercies, be with our friends, be with ourselves. Go with each of us to rest. If any awake, temper to them the dark hours of watching. And when the day returns, return to us, our sun and comforter. And call us up with morning faces and with morning hearts, eager to labor, eager to be happy, if happiness be our portion. And if the day be marked for sorrow, may we be strong to endure it. Amen.” 

December 3rd, 1894 was to be his last day at Vailima. Surrounded by family, he passed peacefully into the next world. The diagnosis of the doctor was a blood clot to the brain. Sorrow settled on Vailima. High-ranking and ordinary Samoans came from villages far and near to pay homage to their friend, Tusitala. His oft expressed wish to be buried at the top of Mt Vaea  was honored.  Throughout the night the sound of machete and ax could be heard as those same chief’s who built The Road of Loving Hearts, chopped and slashed a path 500 vertical feet to the crest of the mountain. The next day his coffin was carried on the shoulders of his loving Samoan staff, up the steep mountain side, where he was buried by these adoring friends and servants.  As requested, he died with his boots on. The following verse was written by Stevenson years before, but seem prophetic.

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
Here may the winds about me blow;
Here may the clouds come and go;
Here shall be rest for evermo
And the heart for aye shall be still.
This be the verse you grave for me
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea
And the hunter home from the hill.

~ Robert Lous Stevenson

Vailima (Five Rivers)

The bed (with original mosquito net) where he rested and did some of his writing.

The Great Hall where mourners came to view his body.
This room was the scene of many happy celebrations and gatherings while he was yet alive.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


I received two responses to Going Bananas that I thought were worthy of addressing. First, my friend Liz McGuire shared this 'FWIW' information on the possible context of the Jacob and Esau story. I found it interesting and thought you might also.  I am indebted to Liz and Geri for their thoughtful responses.

In the [apocryphal] Book of Jasher, Nimrod has the garments which the Lord made for Adam ("with which Nimrod prevailed over the whole land"). Ham had stolen them from Noah (possibly the real reason Ham was cursed), and they were handed down to Nimrod. ....For unknown reasons, Nimrod is jealous of Esau (one is left to fill in the backstory and how the two might behave because of this). One day Esau is out hunting, sees Nimrod, and hides himself until Nimrod and two of his men are near. Then Esau jumps out and slays Nimrod. Esau fights desperately with the two men and kills them as well. But "all the mighty men of Nimrod" heard the cries during the fight and came to see. Esau steals the garments, runs, and hides them in his own house.

Then Esau took the garments and ran into the city, "on account of Nimrod's men" (presumably they're still hot on his trail). He goes to his father's house and meets Jacob there. He tells Jacob he's going to die that day, so what good is his birthright? "And Jacob acted wisely with Esau in this matter, and Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, for it was so brought about by the Lord."

Esau is never brought to account for the death of Nimrod, so we might infer that Jacob hid Esau and saved him from being found and killed by Nimrod's men...

So, perhaps Jacob should have helped Esau without condition, or perhaps this was as the Lord wished all along. Certainly, Esau shouldn't have gone around murdering and thieving... Either way, there's an awful lot of conflict between Esau and Jacob, not just in this story.

Geri Hooker was intrigued by the account of Cathy and Seig Arp sharing food with four families in one night. She wondered if this was unusual and if it is a cultural thing. The answer is, yes, and yes.  As Cathy once explained to me, all that is necessary for anyone asking for help of any kind is to extablish a family connection.  Here on this small island, that is not difficult. You don't have to go back far to come to a family relationship.  The family is critical in every part of Samoan culture. It controls land holdings, leadership and status (matai titles), and exerts great influence on politics, education, village life and on and on. There is an expectation that when help is needed, the obligation is to provide if at all possible. Sadly, in some cases, debt will be incurred to meet the request of someone in need. In the case of Seig and Cathy, as it is with many, they grow a variety of staple crops on their land, and could have and probably did provide without great out of pocket cost.

So now you know. Or think you know. Or wonder even more. That's about where I am. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013


We have been inundated with bananas. Have the banana trees only just recovered from the December cyclone? Why all the bananas? I don't have the answer. People are giving us bananas of different varieties everywhere we turn. We go to the temple and in the break room the table is full of bananas –not only bananas, but banana soup! There is one variety that is about the length of the bananas you are used to (here they are called palagi bananas), but at least twice as fat. They are very tasty—especially with ice cream and chocolate sauce. The little misilukis are anywhere from tiny to small, and very good, very good. I think bananas are fattening, attract mosquitoes, and may cause constipation (that’s just a guess because when a baby has diarrhea, bananas are part of the recommended diet). But bananas are what we have in abundance, and we eat them. On cereal, under a scoop of ice cream, alone, baked in coconut milk, or boiled in soup (for my part the latter is only eaten because of peer pressure), we eat them. 

Misiluki Banana

Today is Sunday. Leon taught the lesson in his priesthood quorum. The subject was Loving God More Than We Love the World. He used the picture of the monkey, his hand grasping a banana inside a jug, caught between his hunger and his need to be free.   He shared the story of Jacob and Esau from the Old Testament. You remember the account of Esau coming in from hunting, tired and hungry, and trading his birthright away to Jacob for a ‘mess of pottage’, which we commonly think of as hot cereal. Anyway, the response from the class to that story was totally unexpected, but on further reflection, totally fa’asamoan.  A brother spoke out indignantly: “That would never happen in Samoa.” Another chimed in, “He should have fed his brother.” They were totally in Esau’s corner.  And they were absolutely correct:  it would never happen in Samoa. Brother Macdonald said right out loud, “I hate that story!”

I also taught the lesson in Relief Society, however we are one lesson ahead of the priesthood, so my subject was Doing Good to Others. In response to my question as to whether anyone had ever pulled themselves out of a gloomy mood by serving someone else whose need was greater, one sister told the following experience. Cathy Arp is actually one of the two sisters I visit teach. She is a diabetic whose health is declining. On a particularly hard day, night actually, she was very tired when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was someone whose cupboards were bare.  Was her husband home? No, he was not. There was an apologetic request for the need of food and the lateness of the hour. Cathy responded by answering the need. No sooner was she home again a second request, a critical need for food, came from another family, again asking for Seig (Cathy’s husband). Before the night was over, she had delivered food to four families. In each case they were very apologetic, saying they had asked so many times before, and hesitated to ask again. But as each had prayed for guidance, Seig came to mind. So even at the late hour, need overcame humiliation and they called the man who had never turned them away. Cathy said that while her strength and patience were worn thin by the end of the fourth visit, she realized what a blessing it was to be married to such a man to whom the Lord would direct his children in time of need. I didn’t ask Cathy, but beside whatever else she provided, I’ll bet she took them some bananas.

In another sense, we are going bananas over a care package we received from home this past week.  Leon and I looked at each other and wondered and hoped that we had sent care packages to our missionaries when they were out. That was so long ago! We’ve since been assured that we did. I had no idea how fun it could be to receive any mail from home, but especially to have received a box full of ingredients for holiday cooking! Rather than packed in packing peanuts, it was packed in mini candy bars, which we sorted out like a couple of kids, setting aside our personal favorites and sharing others.  A few weeks ago we received another care package from the Fifes, who had personal knowledge of how valuable some of the contents of their box would be: namely the tp which they labeled, “For special occasions”.

As we approach Thanksgiving Day, we have to list near the top the modern technology that allows us to call home anytime with such clear sound that it’s hard to believe how many miles separate us. We check our email inbox daily and are grateful for the timely communication between friends and family, and especially hearing from our two grandchildren currently serving missions.  Skype is a modern miracle we plan to employ on Thanksgiving Day when nearly all of our family will be gathered together.  As for us, we will celebrate Thanksgiving with all of the senior missionaries on Saturday, November 30th, because that is the day everyone, including us temple missionaries, is free in the evening. That will be your Black Friday as we are a day ahead.  
Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!
Give Thanks and have some Banana Cream Pie!