Samoa is located south of the equator, about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand in the Polynesian region of the Pacific Ocean. The total land area is 2,934 km² (1,133 sq mi), consisting of the two large islands of Upolu and Savai’i which account for 99% of the total land area, and eight small islets.
These are the three islets in the Apolima Strait (Manono Island, Apolima and Nu’ulopa), the four Aleipata Islands off the eastern end of Upolu (Nu’utele, Nu’ulua, Namua, and Fanuatapu), and Nu’usafe’e (less than 0.01 km² – 2½ acres – in area and about 1.4 km (0.9 mi) off the south coast of Upolu at the village of Vaovai). The main island of Upolu is home to nearly three-quarters of Samoa’s population, and its capital city is Apia.
View of Falefa Valley from Le Mafa Pass, east Upolu.
The Samoan islands have been produced by vulcanism, the source of which is the Samoa hotspot which is probably the result of a mantle plume. While all of the islands have volcanic origins, only Savai’i, the western most island in Samoa, is volcanically active with the most recent eruptions in Mt Matavanu (1905–1911), Mata o le Afi (1902) and Mauga Afi (1725). The highest point in Samoa is Mt Silisili, at 1858 m (6,096 ft). The Saleaula lava fields situated on the central north coast of Savai’i are the result of the Mt Matavanu eruptions which left 50 km² (20 sq mi) of solidified lava.
Samoa was previously located east of the international date line but in 2011, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele announced his country would move the International Date Line to the east of the country, so that Samoa would lie to the west of the date line. This change took effect on the night of 29 December, so that the Friday was skipped altogether and the following day was Saturday 31 December.
Samoa has a population of 194,320 of which 92.6% are Samoans, 7% Euronesians (people of mixed, European and Polynesian ancestors) and 0.4% are Europeans, per the CIA World Factbook. About three-quarters of the population live on the main island of Upolu. Only the Maori of New Zealand outnumber Samoans among Polynesian groups.
Samoans’ religious adherence includes the following: Christian Congregational Church of Samoa 35.5%, Roman Catholic 19.6%, Methodist 15%,Latter-day Saints 12.7%, Samoan Assemblies of God 10.6%, Seventh-day Adventist 3.5%, Worship Centre 1.3%, unspecified 0.8% (2001 census). The Head of State until 2007, His Highness Malietoa Tanumafili II, was a Bahá’í convert. Samoa hosts one of seven Bahá’í Houses of Worship in the world; completed in 1984 and dedicated by the Head of State, it is located in Tiapapata, 8 km (5 mi) from Apia.
The fa’a Samoa, or traditional Samoan way, remains a strong force in Samoan life and politics. Despite centuries of European influence, Samoa maintains its historical customs, social and political systems, and language. Cultural customs such as the Samoa ‘ava ceremony are significant and solemn rituals at important occasions including the bestowal of matai chiefly titles. Items of great cultural value include the finely woven ‘ie toga.
Samoan mythology includes many gods with creation stories and figures of legend such as Tagaloa and the goddess of war Nafanua, the daughter of Saveasi’uleo, ruler of the spirit realm Pulotu. Other legends include the well known story of Sina and the Eel which explains the origins of the first coconut tree.
Some Samoans are spiritual and religious, and have subtly adapted the dominant religion of Christianity to ‘fit in’ with fa’a Samoa and vice versa. As such, ancient beliefs continue to co-exist side-by-side with Christianity, particularly in regard to the traditional customs and rituals of fa’a Samoa. The Samoan culture is centered around the principle of vafealoa’i, the relationships between people. These relationships are based on respect, or fa’aaloalo. When Christianity was introduced in Samoa, most Samoan people converted. Currently 98% of the population identify themselves as Christian. The other 2 percent either identify themselves as irreligious, or do not belong to any congregation.
Some Samoans live a communal way of life, participating in activities collectively. Examples of this are the traditional Samoan fale (houses) which are open with no walls, using blinds made of coconut palm fronds during the night or bad weather.
The Samoan word for dance is siva with unique gentle movements of the body in time to music and which tells a story, although the Samoan male dances can be more physical and snappy. The sasa is also a traditional dance where rows of dancers perform rapid synchronized movements in time to the rhythm of wooden drums (pate) or rolled mats. Another dance performed by males is called the fa’ataupati or the slap dance, creating rhythmic sounds by slapping different parts of the body. This is believed to have been derived from slapping insects on the body.
The form and construction of traditional architecture of Samoa was a specialized skill by Tufuga fai fale that was also linked to other cultural art-forms.