My recent post in Silent Sunday of an image of a Samoan house brought me not a few ‘phone calls from friends who read my blog but sadly, don’t comment. They all reminded me of an article I wrote some 30 years ago and which has been re-published many times by magazines in different countries and even won a prize back in the day for best published journalism from the Society of Women Writers and Journalists.
I have no photos of the event, it was in the days of transparencies and the last magazine to use them lost them, but I was well compensated for the loss as was the custom in the days before digital – would you believe £90 per trannie?
It’s strange reading it now and thinking of how travel writing has changed but I thought I’d put it up as a blog – so here it is.
Apu, our driver, was a big man, two metres tall and weighing about 100 kilogrammes. He stood before us, barefoot in an ankle-length blue and white lava-lava, a crisp white shirt, and a jaunty red hibiscus in his hair. Like most young men in Western Samoa, Polynesia’s most traditional and gentle island, his arms and legs were covered in tattoos, lending him an appearance that inspired awe in those who met him.
We had been invited to Apu’s village for the monthly cricket match, known as kirikiti, and our international group of three – one English, one Irish and one Australian – were the travelling supporters come to cheer on his team.
Once past the wharf and modest row of wooden offices and shops that line the harbour road of Samoa’s capital, Apia, we swung inland through small plantations of coconuts, yams and the pagoda-like kapok. Within an hour we had arrived at a clearing in a coconut plantation where the cricket match would take place.
Kirikiti is the Samoan version of a game only marginally recognisable as cricket. Rules are widely flexible and, since most of the young men and many of the girls like to be involved in the game, the number of participants is unlimited. The only proviso is that each team fields an equal number of players. Matches can last several days, with the losing team able to buy itself back into the match by donating a generous sum towards the host village’s catering bill.
There is never a dull mlment in Kirikiti. The odd shape of the three-sided bat and the wickets that resemble thin bamboo poles allow the totally unexpected to happen. Bets are made as to where the ball will land, with spectators and players kept in a constant state of suspense.
The players on the field were a wondrous sight. The 23-a-side teams had hitched their lava-lavas up to their knees and were rushing around the pitch waving to their friends and blowing tin whistles. They were followed by a group of only slightly less boisterous girls.
Apu’s team was sent in to bat first. The opening batsman strode to the wicket with a fierce look on his face, clutching his three-sided bat like a club. Even the yellow double hibiscus he wore in his hair which echoed the yellow flowers on his lava-lava barely managed to dim his ferocious appearance.
The warrior like Samoans scorn protective gear on the face and legs and I flinched as the ball hurtled towards the batsman accompanied by what sounded like a war-cry. As it cut through the air towards his hip, he drew his bat back and whacked it clean out of the clearing to murmurs of appreciation from the rest of the team most of whom were lying around the pitch like exotic birds at rest. If Samoan cricket can be said to have a fault, it is that anything less than a hefty swing of the bat is regarded as a serious weakness in the player. Usually the ball – light, and made from strips of raw rubber bled from local trees – flies way over the boundary, resulting in a long search through the undergrowth or in the sea, depending on the location of the pitch.
In this case, the ball flew into the nearby plantation, prompting two fielders to saunter off in search of it. During the ten minutes they were gone, the remaining players and spectators sat and gossiped and smoked banana-leaf cigars. The umpire picked up his guitar – conveniently left by the side of the field before the start of play – and began strumming. Others joined in singing. No one seemed to mind the game stalling, and it would have been churlish of us to complain.
Thwack! The second ball went the same way, soaring overhead to more appreciative whistles from the spectators who followed its flight with shaded eyes. We listened for the sound of it thuddng against the earth, but heard nothing. This one would take longer to find.
Some village boys and girls and two opposing team members vanished into the undergrowth. Two minutes passed, then five, ten: fifteen minutes elapsed before they emerged holding the ball aloft, three of them now wearing leis of blue and purple morning glories around their necks.
Those not fielding or batting sang and danced on the sidelines. It was difficult to know what attracted the spectators more, the cabaret or the cricket. Whistles were used throughout the game to emphasise good hits and the teams occasionally broke into exhuberant bursts of dancing.
Play continued for the rest of the afternoon, interspersed with singing and guitar playing when the ball was out. Apu’s team was losing the game as evening approached, prompting a heated debate as to whether it should continue. In the end, finances dictated that they concede the match, just as the tropical night descended.
What sealed that day in my memory was not the match, however, but what happened after it was finished. Samoans love music and their rich, melodic voices entertained us with a song about the events of the day, in which we, their visitors, figured, ending on a plaintive note of farewell.
Then they sat back and looked at us expectantly. It dawned on us that local etiquette demanded we return the compliment. We protested our lack of music, our harsh voices, and our inability to sing like the Samoans, but all in vain. Gently, but firmly, it was explained to us that the day could not conclude without our offering a song. There was no hurry. The night was still young and we could remain there as long as we wished.
We huddled together, desperately trying to think of a song the words of which we all knew. Waltzing Matilda was discarded early; Danny Boy nearly won but none of us could get beyond ‘the summer’s gone’. Finally, our voices quavered on the air as we nervously began to sing the only song we all remembered from childhood.
No one laughed. Encouraged by the looks on the faces surrounding us and by their evident enjoyment at our attempts at a cappella, we embarked on a second and third verse in louder voices.
Samoans have an uncanny ability to pick up a melody garnered from years of harmonising in church, and as we came to the final chorus, their rich, deep voices blended effortlessly with our reedy falsettos and the entire village echoed to the massed voices of the Kirikiti teams and their supporters, as we all sang out con brio –
Bring back, bring back, Oh bring back my bonny to me, to me.
Bring back, bring back, o bring back my bonny to me.
It was the first, and last, time I’d cried at a cricket match.