Samoan cricket can be a murderous game

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The Independent Online
IT IS only 25 miles from Apia, the capital of Western Samoa, but it might as well be 125, given its isolation: the sea on one side, and cut off from the rest of the island by a range of extinct volcanoes on the other. Until last September, Fagaloa, a district of five small villages, was no more remembered than any other dot on the vast South Pacific - but in three weeks, the six Samoan chiefs who run its district council will go on trial for incitement to murder.

The case, which has already seen one man sentenced to death for murder, another given life for arson, 20 villagers jailed and the district's inhabitants collectively 'fined', has highlighted a rift between traditional society and modern government that many Samoans thought had faded away.

The violent death of Faitala Nuutai Mafulu, who had returned home after 20 years making his fortune in New Zealand, spread echoes across Polynesia. It was a case of a 42- year-old man rich enough to turn his back on tradition, and being killed for it.

The crime showed how uncomfortable the relationship is between imported Western- style laws, based on individualism, and the communal ways of the South Pacific.

But it was a cricket match that sealed Mafulu's fate.

It all began four years ago when Western Samoa was devastated by a cyclone. Mafulu, who had worked in a paint shop in Auckland and run a taxi on the side, came home to set up business among the devastated settlements. From the beginning there was an element of mistrust. A family elder had been banished from the village, leaving Mafulu and his relatives excluded from the Fagaloa's day-to-day affairs, and answerable only to themselves.

Using his funds from New Zealand, he set up a general store in direct competition to existing smaller ones. He bought an electricity generator to power a refrigerator, which gave him the edge on his competitors by allowing him to stock a much larger range of goods.

His business grew rapidly. Then he bought a bus, which he operated between Fagaloa and Apia - and he became richer still. The villagers, envious of his success, said he became arrogant and ignored rulings by the chieftain-controlled village and district councils.

Then came the cricket match. Western Samoans may be better known for their rugby prowess, but kilikiti is the islands' national sport.

Adapted from the English game soon after Protestant missionaries landed last century, it involves some 20 players on each side - including drummers - using a three-sided war club as a bat. The ball is made from hard rubber sap and the stumps are saplings.

Whole villages take part, dancing and singing for their side as the opposing team and its supporters stage hakas and ridicule each batsman.

It is a great social occasion; a pretty ritual that has replaced warfare. None the less, the 'bat' has been used to settle arguments between teams: 10 years ago an umpire and a player were killed.

Malfulu's fault was that he chose to play for a rival village in the national championship, and ignored his own village's request to use his bus to take its team to the venue 25 miles away. Worse still, the other village won a humiliating victory - and the district council ordered a boycott of Malfulu's bus and store.

Several days later, he chased off his land a young man who had come to ring the 'curfew bell', a traditional practice signifying the end of the day and time for prayers.

Outraged at this show of 'disrespect', the Fagaloa district council ordered that Malfulu's property be destroyed - but he was not told of this decision, nor was any attempt made to mediate. His store, his bus and a pick-up truck were set on fire by a mob, which also stoned his house.

When Malfulu came out, knelt in front of his dwelling and begged for mercy, a shot rang out from behind the mob, hitting him in the chest. Badly wounded, he dragged himself back inside as the hail of stones began again.

The villagers yelled for him to come out. Followed by his wife, a son and daughter, he re- emerged and was shot in the head at close range, dying instantly. His body was dumped in front of the Fagalao district council meeting house. The council has admitted that its members incited the arson, but has denied that any of the chiefs ordered that Malfulu be punished by death.

They offered the police two scapegoats - the gunman, Afoa Sasela, and the villager who had led the mob - and a levy was imposed on each member of the district and paid as compensation to the victim's family.

But this was not enough in the eyes of the law.

The role of the chiefs in the affair is not questioned. Samoans believe that they had every right to impose their will on the community. It is the taking of a man's life in such an arbitrary fashion that has caused dismay: only the state has the authority to do that.

And here lies the confusion. In Polynesia's dual system of law, the dividing line between tradition in the villages and the imported conventions of the West are thin indeed.

(Photograph omitted)