Between the market stalls at Fugalei, there is an underground scene of collective souls connected by this game we call Checkers.
Affectionately referred to as ‘Mu’ here in Samoa, this past-time is generally associated with Ava drinking older men who crowd around makeshift checker boards using multicolored milk bottle caps as a checker.
No one can remember who exactly brought Mu to Samoa, it varies between the early American soldiers before they took over Pago Pago – the Germans who brought the home-brew and weapons now used in the plantation and the New Zealanders who held government for a period of time before the Independence of Samoa. The rules of Checkers played in Samoa are the basic American rules in which the argument of the Americans introducing checkers remains with the Yanks.
The nimble fingers dance across the board with hands showing wear and tear of a hardworking life, a dedication to working the family plantation, building the family home, the hand of a bible holding childhood, disciplinary cuts of a hand upon a child – once strong and useful to the Aiga these hands are reduced to the competition of a quick thinking mind and the reasoning of veteran conscience that dictates the outcome of this simple game.
To the naked eye of an outsider, the old men playing Mu is an equivalent of a bunch of alcoholics, but if you look deeper it is more than just a game that these souls play to fade away the lazy hot Samoan afternoon, but a last element of competition to show superiority and being a man in this culture of hierarchy and duty bound soldiers of a village, family, country.
Mu, is played in orderly fashion, you wait your turn, you play your game – win or lose, it carries on until the next – a coconut shell of Ava is passed around the crowd of players and bystanders, the slowing effect surprisingly makes the decision making in checkers easier bringing a slow motion effect and a focus shifting from the following move to anticipating the next three moves of your opponent – this is what you can refer to as the ‘escape’.
The escape and the joy of playing a game of war in which the only one that loses is not dependent on how bad you play, but how bad your opponent plays and how you anticipate the mistakes before they happen is enjoyed now by a myriad of different ages and levels of skill in the Art of Mu, the feeling of winning a game connects directly to diverting the depression held by one and becomes an addiction of finding fragments of a self-esteem booster.
In Apia, the tables of Mu are rarely a place of excitement nor is it an attraction for a tourist to hustle and bustle through the stalls of Samoan knick knacks to witness, but if you silently pass by and watch how these men dedicate hours of their lives to the game – you may be surprised at how fast they play and how hard the finishing move of a checker is slammed onto the makeshift board, it is a theatre show for where the v.i.p is truly only v.i.p once you are a player and once you are a player, you can’t help but want to play again.
Win or Lose, this game is better than life – and for the Samoan Mu player, this is all there is to look forward to.