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Samoa, South Pacific, Pacific Ocean, Oceania
A SAMOAN SONG
driver, Apu, was a big man, standing two metres tall and weighting 100
kilogrammes. He stood before us wearing a vivid ankle-length blue and
white lava-lava over bare feet, a crisp white shirt on his back, and a
jaunty red hibiscus in his hair.
We had been invited to Apu’s village for the monthly cricket match, known here as kirikiti, and our little international supporters’ group of three - one English, one Irish and one Australian – accompanied Apu to cheer on his team.
* * *
Once past the little 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 almost all 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.
Kirikiti seldom experiences a dull moment. The odd shape of the three-sided bat and the wickets that resemble thin bamboo poles, allow the totally unexpected to happen. Bets are often 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 hitched their lava-lavas up to their knees, rushing on to 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, echoing 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, smoking banana-leaf cigars.
The umpire picked up his guitar – left conveniently 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 thudding 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 or bowls and the teams occasionally broke into exuberant 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 twilight descended.
What sealed that day in my memory was not the match, 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, and 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 liked.
* * *
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 remember beyond ‘… the summer’s gone’. Finally, our voices quavered on the air as we nervously began 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. The entire village echoed to the massed voices of the two Kirikiti teams, their supporters and three visitors, as we all sang out con brio -
back, bring back, oh bring back my bonny to me, to me.
Cricket, has never been the same for me since.
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