My Experiences with a Samoan Fofo in American Samoa

There is a saying by Murphy’s law: “Anything that can go wrong will.” My purpose in echoing these words is to narrate by giving the audience some empathy of what it is like to be a person who would become– if not acted upon– someone who almost lost her three fingers of the right hand had she not turned to a Samoan fofo for help. In short, a person who was on her way in becoming a disabled finger less;’ woman at the age of thirty-three years old.

My definition of a Samoan fofo is, a medicinal healer of ailments. Usually, a fofo can be a Samoan man or woman of late 50’s or older who has specific talents for healing any pain on the body of a person. To become a Samoan fofo requires talent of the mind, spirit, and guidance by a chosen few in many Samoan families. Learning from an elder who has healing powers takes practice. This custom is bestowed upon a member who was destined or chosen through a blessing to carry on a secret recipe that lasted for many many years. This secret recipe was the use of herbs/from extracting juices from a variety of outdoor plants. How different recipes are made belong only to the family who knows just “how much” and of “which plant” for best results worked. Each Samoan family has their own remedy that is usually kept within the family. Here is my story:

During the time that our one and only hospital in Pago Pago, American Samoa ran low of pharmaceutical supplies at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Hospital in 1992, I was careless in not treating a tiny skin rash on my right ring and little finger because I took life for granted that my rash would fade away without any problems. Therefore, I continued to wash clothes and use laundry detergent. Also, I continued to immerse my hands in water during house cleaning. It was incredible at how itchy my fingers felt during the day but worse at night when I slept. I had sleepless nights not knowing that my skin was not healing. I tried vehemently not to scratch, but my urge to scratch overpowered me during sleep. I slept well after I soothed my eroding, rough skin on my fingers by slapping and scratching in my sleep. Nevertheless, when I had awakened, I suffered immensely at the oozing sting on my hand. I went to the hospital to have my hand checked and was given Grisactin pills to help fight what the physician says is growing fungus. Feeling embarrassed, I faithfully took my pills. Two tubes of Mycelox were used to apply twice daily on my hand.

In May, I went back again to the same doctor and gave him an update on my hand. My skin appeared to be getting worse because the tiny skin rash that became irritated by concentrated laundry called Cheer, grew larger. I reported that I finished my medication of Grisactin and the Mycelox cream caused skin irritation.

He said, “Oh, just try smaller amounts of Grisactin and if I don’t feel better just discontinue use.” Perhaps, the physician was hard of hearing. I followed my instincts and discontinued the cream. The pharmacy at LBJ did not have the available supply of creams in supply. Or, another different cream called Mycolog which through prior experience was the best. Slowly, my feeling of helplessness grew. I relentlessly checked the pharmacy for days but to no avail there was no Mycolog to help control the itch.

In June, my nephew drove me to see a lady in Pago Pago who my in-laws knew as a Samoan fofo. The lady’s name is Tile. Tile has a husband who is an old friend of my mother-in-law. She was expecting me. She carefully diagnosed my hand as a growing terrible skin disease called “ma’i uku.” Her husband had the same illness and reminisced the suffering during his days of long ago as a school teacher in Pago Pago Elementary School in the late 1960’s. He saw my hand, shook his head and did not seem then to have a high opinion of the physician who saw me at LBJ. For one instance, the pills taken did not work. Meanwhile, his wife had already collected three falling mature Fuku nuts from her sister’s house nearby. Tile had made mention that she was fortunate to find the Fuku nuts from an old tree that had survived Hurricane Val of 1992. I watched as Tile pried the diamond shaped green nut open with a pairing knife. She used a cheese grater that had sharp stubbles on a rectangle silver metal to grate the inner core of the nut into tiny pieces. From what I could see, the tiny pieces looked like mashed breadfruit with pepper mixed in. Next, she used a clean tender leaf of the banana tree and placed the grated insides of the light-yellow tender Fuku meat on the center of the leaf. Then, she poured Samoan oil on the Fuku pieces while mixing carefully. Finally, Tile used a smooth strip of pandan leaf to tie the Fuku around the banana leaf to keep the extracting juices from the Fuku pieces from dripping. She summoned her daughter to bake her concoction on the hot rocks of the umu (Samoan outdoor oven) at the back of their Samoan fale (traditional Samoan house). I realized how appreciative the Samoan people of long ago depended on the environment and respect land by just taking only enough for the moment.

Tile’s daughter came back in five minutes with the now called, “Vai Samoa”. The lady had cut a piece of white linen material to transfer the hot fuku on it and placed on my hand. Wow! she did not waste any time applying the vai Samoa on my hand. The heat although hot felt good on my skin. She and her daughter quickly wrapped my hand with the cloth to keep the heat from escaping. The idea behind using the Fuku is to kill the Ma’i Uku as quickly as possible. There was a sigh of relief from my mind that perhaps after all, I will soon be on the road to recovery. I was during that time continually using small doses of Grisactin about the size of a dime until my skin could no longer feel better.

The duration of applying the Fuku is three days. Something in my mind told me not to go back to Tile. For one thing, I did not sleep well as I should of that night and secondly, my hand could not handle the heat. After my classes at the American Samoa Community College, I went back hesitantly to have Tile take a look at my hand. As usual she was expecting me. She had a worry on her face and questioned that I have been suffering for awhile. Tile said that out of pity for me she hesitated to use the Fuku remedy to others because in the Samoan belief, the families who help others get very sick. But, I was the last person to help because the hospital was of no help. The vai Samoa was applied on my hand for a second time. This time I told her I was afraid of the heat and she nodded to indicate that the usefulness of the heat from the plant is to bring relief. What was I supposed to do now?

The next day at my Qualitative Research Methods Class, my friend Labor Day met me in the hallway. She saw how hideous and swollen my hand looked. She called her Aunt Mili who lives in Asili, the Western side of the island of Pago Pago, American Samoa. Labor Day had the same experience with her hand with concentrated soap powder whereby her Aunt helped her apply Guava leaves which was extracted by boiling water to allow the juices to remain in a pot to cool. There was no heat in this Samoan concoction which I thoroughly liked. After class, we went to see her Aunt. In the meanwhile, my husband brought sterile gauze and first aid tape from the hospital to wrap my hand.

Mili was a retired school teacher. Her loud laugh and warm personality welcomed me into her brown thatched fale. She took one look at my hand and felt really sad because the rugged skin of my right hand was very dry and limply. I told her that I would appreciate her help and if I could come back the next day after my class.

That evening I told my mother-in-law that I am going to see another fofo. She was not too thrilled with the idea and told me why. I learned that in the Samoan process of seeing a healer, it is very bad not to finish the first fofo because of the spell on the family. In other words, someone will get sick and something will happen to me. Gosh! I did not know this. Respectfully, I went that same day to bid my fa’amavae’s (thank-you and farewell) to Tile and her husband in Page Pago. I gave some money and two boxes of chicken.

In Pago Pago, Tile was waiting for me in her cozy Samoan “fale” or house. She had gotten very sick in the morning and was happy I came back. My mother-in-law had called her earlier to expect my arrival. Tile was delighted that I came to tell her the truth about the heat on my hand and about seeing another Samoan fofo. She said that now I came she was not feeling ill anymore, which I was happy to discover. It appears that the Samoan beliefs are very strong because what if I did not come to see Tile? Tile would be too ill to carry out her house chores for example. There was one incident that someone died and me not coming back would mean bad luck for Tile’s family. My mother-in-law prepared a gift for me to take to
the couple. I could not accept the thought of taking the two boxes of chicken and money back to the village of Tafeta where I lived with my husband. I persuaded in conversation and convinced Tile and her husband that my mother-in-law would be miserable if I did not leave the chicken and money behind. They accepted the fa’amavae while I said my farewell by waving my hand before as I walked down the dirt road.

Finally, this month in July I started to see Mili another Samoan fofo in the green beautiful, breathtaking, remote village of Asili. The village lies on the Western end of Page Pago. This is when I started missing my writing class because of the early morning drive before 8:30 in the morning. For one week I would see Mili after my courses were done at the American Samoa Community College. My professor at the University of Hawaii at the time understood my dilemma and wished me well. But, I still had to keep up with my classwork. She became interested and wanted to see my hand get better. I had come in the morning with my own first aid tape, lots of white gauze, scissors, a bin and a small towel. I came with Guava leaves too! It really is a wise thing that I brought my own materials to dress up my hand because Mili did not have any on hand.

The first thing Mill does in the morning is to boil the water for the Guava leaves. After the leaves have turned to a very dark green juice, she pours the liquid into a deep small silver bin. I waited awhile until the liquid cooled down and my hand is place in the bin to soak for 25 minutes each morning. The feeling of soaking my hand felt real soothing. In the meantime, Mili goes into her kitchen and pounds another leaf into tiny pieces. This is a secret leaf she says and I am not to tell anyone. She winks at me for good luck. After my hand is soaked in the mixture of the extracted guava leaves, she brings two Nonu leaves (from the mountain apple plant) to wrap my hand in. Mili mixes the crushed leaves with Samoan oil and applies it on my hand after she makes sure my hand is wiped dry with my small white cotton towel. The best part I liked is the warmth of her hands as she massages my three ailing fingers. Next, she would wrap the Nonu leaves around my hand and places the gauze around it. The white tape secured the dressing. It was the first time I felt comfortable with my fofo and the fear of heat left my mind. The final stage was finding the A’ano (a root like plant) up in the mountains. The A’ano is similar to the root of a ginger and very yellow in color. I was grateful to her eagerness to climb up the mountain to look for the plant. She is a large lady but because her niece Labor Day asked for help, she gladly did so. Mili washed the dirt and scrapes the skin into small pieces like Tile did with the Fuku nut. A cloth is used to extract juice by squeezing the A’ano hard with strong hands. I saw a different way of how a plant is used for medicine and was amazed at preparation time. To prepare a Samoan home medicine is a sight I will always remember.

The weather has an important role in the fermenting of the A’ano. After two or three days depending on the weather, the A’ano converts into a mixture similar to cornstarch. The process is amazing!

After one week it is time to bid farewell. I came with another fa’amavae. This time my mother-in-law came to meet Mili and her husband, Noa. Noa is a fa’alupega or a very important, respectable chief of Asili village. I remembered chatting with Noa. He was a big man with a kind face who was coughing and fell ill from a high fever. His wife, Mill told my mother-in-law that out of all the ill people she had treated, the old man only asks about me and my hand. I remember always passing by Pritchard’s bakery in the village of Leone in my white Toyota ’86 Camry before coming to Asili and stopping by to buy a loaf of bread for the old man. He did not want me to spend money on buying bread but I think old people are a blessing. Just to laugh, talk stories with him and Mili, and watching my hand heal is one of the greatest experiences in my life. Noa is no longer alive today, but the memories of my hand will always be remembered among people who cared to see me get better.

Did the Samoan medicines help? Yes, in terms of going through the healing process and relieving my pain, I was very lucky. But, I still had to go back to the hospital and this time my sister-in-law convinced me to see a friend of hers who was a physician, In reality, the Samoan fofo had saved my life in terms of delaying or prolonging the infection of my right hand.

On Friday, July 24, 1992 I was on the way to a lasting recovery. I was healing on the outside. On the inside, I was not well and not getting better. My sister-in-law’s friend saw my hand and said that I was in bad shape. He saw my finger bones were changing shape and looked like they were ready to fall off. But, my skin kept my bones intact. I was allergic to taking more Grisactin than was needed. This is perhaps one reason why I could not tell if I was getting better on the inside. Immediately, an I.V. was administered through a needle pierced in my hand. In addition to the I.V. I was given double dosage of antibiotics that I should have gotten in the first place. As for the cream, the pharmacy had just gotten the order in. At last!

Murphy’s Law does apply here because anything that can go wrong did. When I think about my experiences with Samoan fofo’s, I am fortunate to be a part of a culture that has not lost its remedies. Or else, I would have been a disabled person with a few less fingers.

Share This Post

Leave a reply