Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Samoan Christmas


Christmas in the U.S. is one of those monumental times. It is as if most of what we cherish is compacted into the holiday season. Christmas is an outpouring of generosity, love, and religious affirmation. It is hard to conceive a different Christmas than one’s own. Yet in Samoa, probably one of the most religious Christian nations on earth, Christmas seems very different.

Christmas is an important day here, too. Most of the churches have a Christmas Eve service, or one on Christmas Day. Catholics have both. However, with all the regular church services and daily prayer curfews, Christmas doesn’t have the religious fervor as in the U.S. It even seems muted and less attended in comparison to a regular Sunday service.

Christmas is the time for Samoan families to get together. Many Samoans living overseas visit their relatives now, probably because they can get time off and children are on break between school years. The roads become hazardous as foreigners in rented SUVs speed along the narrow and twisting roads. These alien visitors seem to always be in a hurry. Taxi drivers too rush to keep up with the bonanza of additional fares. What overseas relatives bring is cash and presents to replenish family members coffers. For Samoans, a relative living overseas is expected to help support those who live here.

There is little, if any, gift giving. White Sunday, the holiday for children in October, is the prime time for presents and new clothes. (I gave the children in our family Power Bars, sent to me by my daughter Teri. They were quickly eaten.) Some kids in other families got new plastic noise making submachine guns, a popular toy anywhere.

Christmas Eve is quiet and still. I mean really quiet. It is as if everyone is asleep or napping getting ready for midnight. Around 11:00 pm people begin to migrate to the road. In the distance is singing. As the sounds come closer, the music is from a group dressed in white shepard outfits. Later I find out the choir is made up a singers from all of Iva’s churches.

As for lights and decorations, a few houses have them. The village lights do blink on and off throughout the night due to several power failures caused by thunderstorms.

At midnight, one church rings its bell, people wish each other a Merry Christmas, air kiss one another on the cheek and head back to their homes to sit, talk, play cards, or go to sleep. I wait for the much rumored partying to begin. Alas, I can hear the clinking of a few beer bottles coming from dark places. Where is the all night partying and dancing in the streets? Maybe more is happening than I realize or I am not invited. Maybe the partying takes place on New Years.

At dawn on Christmas Day, people are out picking up the leaves which had fallen during the night before. They actually do this every day. It is still very quiet.

The storms during the night prevent my host family and me from going to the Catholic Christmas Eve service. They go to the Sunday morning service in another village. Not wanting people to think that without Mary I am on the road to perdition, I dress in my church outfit and walk across the village to the church du jour, this time the Assembly of God, only to find out they have only one Christmas service and that is on Christmas Eve. I hang my head in shame and walk back home. With this extra time, I make myself four cups of coffee and am juiced up for the rest of the day.

The big Christmas meal after returning from church has my favorites. There is a dish made up of fried pig’s lungs, heart, liver, and kidney with onion and laau pele (like spinach), another dish of chopped up chicken in a rice and noodle sauce, yet another dish of mutton flaps in a curried sauce with fresh green beans, and a side order of boiled breadfruit (see what you’re missing, Mary). In the Samoan tradition of reciprocity, I give the family a stick of imported Italian salami (hope you understand, Teri). Since we are always served first, with the best, and with more food than we can possibly eat. The uneaten portions are returned for the family children.

As the day progresses, volleyball games began in the hot sun; family members gather to be with each other. I bike to the Peace Corps office where I know I have access to the computer (no buses for the others to travel) to make this blog entry for anyone to read. It is now time to bike back and rest.

Wherever and with whomever you may be, may this holiday time be a reminder to the entire small planet we inhabit and the importance of one another.

Merry Christmas.

Home for Christmas


At midnight as Christmas Day begins, Mary’s once a week Air New Zealand flight leaves for the U.S. and a two week visit to see our children. She arrives 9:00 pm Christmas Day. There are three other Peace Corps Volunteers joining her on her leg to Los Angles. During her limited stay she is trying to use her time for our family. If she didn’t tell you she was coming, please don’t feel slighted. Triaging her time is hard. I thought it too soon to return after all the hardships of adjusting to life in Samoa. I also didn’t want to miss Christmas and New Years in Samoa.

The reaction by our host family to Mary leaving without me was unexpected. They had a hard time understanding why she was traveling alone and without me. They wanted to arrange a large gathering of relatives to escort her to the airport. It is what Samoans do. Mary did explain that in our culture it was permitted for a woman to travel alone. But one never knows what is lost in translation.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Talent Show Photos


Sorry about these late photos of the talent contest. With 50 acts and poor lighting, it is hard to choose what photos to show.

Church Decorations

One of the 16 dance groups

Duet Contestants

Peace Corps Judges, Safyia and Jacob, with Samoan Judge

Just enjoying the show

Iva, Month Four, Progress Report


Along with all the extracurricular activities, we actually have a Peace Corps job, funded by your tax dollars. Here are some of the things we are doing.

Village Telecenter and Computer Training
Our request for a village telecenter was set back because there are no possible funds until at least next June. This means the telecenter is at least a year away.

Our efforts to use the unused computers for training at the local primary and secondary schools also have been disappointing. The principal at the primary school ask me to start training teachers. We set up a schedule of two hour sessions to begin the next week after classes ended. When I rode up on my bike the following Monday, I found the school building completely locked up and won’t be opened again until the end of January when classes start again. Likewise the large computer room at the secondary school isn’t available because no funds are available for electricity to run the air conditioning. Lessons for the school principal who has had a computer sitting on his desk unused for a year also are on hold.

If the schools are not more receptive to train their own teachers or open up to train Iva residents at the end of January, then we will have to find ways to turn up the heat.

Sewing Machines
Success! Our proposal for seven manual sewing machines was approved by New Zealand Aid. Mary went to Apia, got the check, and placed the order for them. They probably won’t arrive until the end of January. The administration is to be done by the Women’s Committee.

Iva does not have a place to store the machines or a place to do the training. The grant for the machines may now generate a new proposal to build a Women’s Committee House. Problems exist because there doesn’t seem to be any available land. Stay turned for our next major project.

Village Youth
The talent contest was our first attempt at trying to unite the village youth. What a roaring success. In fact, it has generated a sense of community and pride. New youth events are in the planning stage. A new series of talent contests modeled after American Idol with a resultant CD and a sports day are scheduled for the coming months. This bringing together youth from different churches and those who are considered losers has been tremendously gratifying for Mary and me. When you hear from other villages and from Apia talk about the talent show, our lava lavas almost come off.

Demonstration Garden
Suddenly my little personal garden is turning into a project with the Ministry of Agriculture. The Ministry is hoping to encourage villagers to start their own backyard gardens to improve nutrition and to earn extra money. They say they are providing me with seeds and fertilizer. Samoans love vegetables, but seem reluctant to grow them.

I plan to expand the size of my garden after the holidays. It is nice to see villagers look into the garden and start to ask questions. I know that the first step is getting people curious. I might also start a nursery garden to grow seeds.

I am so proud of my cabbages. You would love them too.

Health Issues
As Mary is finding out, trying to cure the baby of scabies in our host family’s compound, tackling health issues is more than just providing medicine and a caring manner. Despite all of Mary’s earlier efforts, the baby’s scabies has reverted back to the original state.

Each issue or project undertaken leads us into new territory. As long as we continue to have the support of village leaders, we shall continue to gently push the agenda. What we are finding is that even the seemingly simplest projects have unknown cultural caveats

A Samoan Wedding


Iva’s much anticipated event of the year took place today, the wedding of the pastor’s daughter at the largest church in the village. The pastor’s family is also thought to be the richest. Hundreds of guests, many from New Zealand, the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Health, and we attended the gala affair.

Like other events of this magnitude, the bride and the groom knew almost no one. In fact, they have lived in New Zealand for most of their lives. No one we talked to had the remotest connection to the couple. But, weddings have always been statements. A Samoan wedding is no different.

For those into statistics, there were 40 attendants: 18 bride grooms, 18 bride’s maids, 2 ring bearers, and two flower girls. Five different ministers spoke during the ceremony. The choirs filled a quarter of the church with people and overflowed with the most marvelous music this side of heaven. White was the color of the day. All the pews covered in white linen, the choirs, and of course the bride.

The bride, probably the slimmest she is ever going to be, came down the aisle at about 250 pounds, the groom slightly less. The actual ceremony followed a familiar pattern. The signing of the marriage documents done as part of the ceremony was something new and very nice. No unity candle. The ministers spoke in Samoan about the importance of God as being foremost in their lives with sub themes of serving God and procreating. I think the bride and groom are lawyers.

The reception just blew us away. There was more food to eat then you can imagine a speech by the best man, no kissing, and of course, NO ALCOHOL. Pepto Bismo served to finish our dining.

The cake or I should say multiple tiers of cakes filled center stage. We couldn’t see the entire array of layers. Women fanned the cakes to keep the flies away. Yes, there was the traditional cutting of the cake with photographers trying to capture the moment and blocking the view. Whole tiers of cake were given to special guests. More than enough cake for everyone. As for the cake itself, it was like a Cuban Spice cake, filled with fruit. The ice cream was passion fruit.

What is truly Samoan is that the guests are the ones who receive the gifts, rather than visa versa. For well over an hour, there was an endless stream of fine mats, cases of corned beef, and money emerging from a tent behind us. Helpers ran helter skelter as fast as they could carry gifts. Oh yes, there was a freshly slaughtered cow, too. Truly amazing. We wondered if the gift giving would ever end and whether we would get any of the booty.

No guest leaves without something. We got a huge turkey baking pan filled with lobster, fish, and many other meats. We got to keep the ceramic platter as a party favor (Saves washing dishes; Mary’s initial concern)

There was some confusion about the water glasses. Some thought you could take them; others not. The ayes soon started taking the glasses. As we walked home with our tray, platter and glasses, a village matai offered to carry our tray, so we won’t have to in the heat. He spotted the glasses and told us we should not have taken them. After helping us home, he took our two glasses. Now someone will have to wash them.

There was a veil of sadness over the wedding. The bride’s father, pastor of the church for 34 years, died three days before. However, his wife never missed a beat as she conducted the choirs and filled in for her husband. The funeral is scheduled for next Wednesday. In Samoa, funerals are even bigger events than weddings.

The Ceremony

The Cake

Our Gift

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas in a Strange Land


Christmas is the time of year and time of life most filled with deep traditions. People go to great length to rekindle those traditions. Each year they make a certain cookie, hang an old ornament, and travel to be with others with whom they share a common history. It is a time of belonging.

Christmas in a strange land reemphasises the distance you are from your roots and from where you belong. You need to reconcile that you are an outsider looking in on what others hold dear and treasure. As much as you may try to bake that cookie, remember that ornament, you are still thousands of miles away.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Mary’s New Laundromat

Mary got a new washing machine.
This hard-to-get bucket is her pride and joy.
She never has to call a repairman.

Mayor’s Bonus


An unfamiliar pickup truck pulled into our, the mayor’s, compound. The people deposited a large pig in front of his house, and then drove off. The mayor was out of town.

In Samoa, if someone else’s pig roams into your garden, you can shot the pig and keep it. Instead of keeping the pig, the aggrieved party gave it to the mayor, a neutral party; to either not let the neighbors know what happened to their pig or to show the pig was not shot for selfish reasons. I’m not sure which. It may be something else all together. Anyway tonight we dine on roast pig.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Our Garden


Like many things happening to us in Samoa, we never know what word or action may trigger something beyond what we originally thought. Neither of us is aware as to how we actually got a garden or just how big it may become.

It started with a branch from a flowering shrub being stuck in the ground. A few days later our entire host family appeared and began clearing the land out side our house for flowers. Then a fence was constructed encompassing an even larger area for vegetables. I then got involved by clearing that area of grass and rocks. Before long they gave us bean seeds and cabbage sprouts.

Not knowing anything about tropical gardening, I went to the Department of Agriculture to see if they had some literature. The next day they sent out the head person on Savaii to see my garden plot. Now I am developing a demonstration garden for them, and they are to provide me with hard to get seeds. It seems people here do not have family gardens and just the fact that I have something planted gets the Department of Agriculture excited.

What is happening? People are not coming to see my cabbages. They are becoming curious as to what I am doing. I am now considered an information source for tropical gardening. It is amazing that in an agricultural country people don’t grow vegetables. I wonder if hemp, cocoa, and poppies can grow in this soil?

Just stick a branch in the ground. Presto, you have a flowering shrub.

Our host family starting the garden plot.

Mary helping our host mother.

No, they are not turtles.
Coconut husks protecting seedlings from the enemy, the sun.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Samoan Tale


It is said that Polynesians can only truly love something after they have ruined it. Here is my paraphrasing of a story by Epeli Hau’ofa from his “Tales from the Tikongs”.

An English volunteer was working in an office when he asked his Samoan boss,
“I say, where is everyone?”
“At the feast”
“What feast, may I ask?”
“A family feast”
“Do you mean to say everyone has gone to a family feast during working hours?”

The Samoan boss pretended not to hear. This is the most effective way Samoans have in dealing with nosey foreigners.

The Englishman asked,
“ Where are all the department vehicles? I suppose they have also gone to the feast.”
“That’s right”
“But department vehicles have nothing to do with a private family feast”

Speechless, impotent, and utterly indignant the Englishman stalked out, went home, and drank a bottle of whiskey. Over his next year of service, his health continued to deteriorate until he became a sick, old looking man. His Samoan boss loved him.

On the Englishman’s final day, a huge feast, lasting nine hours, was given in his honor, complete with prayers and speeches. He got even sicker and miserable as he said his farewells. He died on his flight home. He became forever revered by his boss and fellow Samoan workers.

The Englishman’s Peace Corps replacement turned out to be a hopeless case. Coming from a growth-crazed society he refused to be affected by anything around him. He decided to outdo the Samoans at their own game. If they used a department vehicle once a day, he would use it twice. If they called in sick twice every week, he would call four times. When he heard other foreigners decrying the rampant Samoan corruption and nepotism, the Peace Corps Volunteer merely said, “So, what else is new in the world?”
Since his Samoan boss could not drive him into self-righteousness and hence into early old age, he was heartily despised.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Witnessing a Traditional Healer


The baby with scabies living with our host family is almost one year old. Ever since we have been in Iva, he has been sick. Mary’s attempts to provide medicine to treat the scabies and recurring infections by taking the baby to the hospital have met with mixed results. In addition to the above ailments, the baby has developed high fever, swollen throat glands, isn’t eating, and coughs up mucus. It seems the family has lost faith in western medicine. At the advice of a local town woman whose baby just died two weeks ago saying that if she had taken her baby sooner to the taulesea (traditional healer) the baby would have lived, the family decided on a traditional healer..

The baby was taken to home of a very poor woman in her late 30’s with four small children. Mary went with six other family members. The healer asked our host family to bring a certain fruit which grows in a distant village and some chicken feathers.

The treatment consisted of first massaging the baby with oil hard on the cheeks and throat, proceeding down the sternum. The child’s teeth and gums were then rubbed with a cloth. The chicken feathers were dipped into the unknown juice and forcing the child’s mouth open to swab the inside of the throat. The child cried most of the time, vomiting after each swabbing. The procedure ended with wiping the mouth.

The idea of choosing traditional medicine over western medicine was difficult for Mary to endure. Yet, the faith you place in what healing techniques work is at the heart of any medical practice.

Mary is using all the strength she has to resist forcibly taking the baby to a western doctor.

Fine Mats on Parade


Fine Mats on Parade

Drums beating, women shouting, a parade went down the village road. The Women’s Committee were displaying their fine mats. These mats were also shown to Samoa’s Head of State, along with mats from other Savaii villages the prior weekend.

Fine mats are like money. They are usually given as gifts at very special occasions. Each mat requires hundreds of hours of painstaking labor to make. Mat making is a traditional Samoan skill much treasured. There are great attempts to maintain this skill among the younger women.

The Women’s Committee has set a goal for every family in the village to make at least five sleeping mats or be fined. Sleeping mats are of a much lesser quality, but still need to be hand made. As the Christmas deadline approaches families are busy weaving. Like other places, many wait to the last minute.

Iva Talent Contest


Some events are beyond description. You just have to experience it to get any grasp as to what happened. Miracles fall into this category for not only are they unexplainable, but have no logical explanation how they took place. The Iva Talent Contest was just such an occurrence.

The two days of rain stopped, over 50 acts put on four continuous hours of show until 11:30 pm, each act more amazing than the one before, no rehearsals, no run through, no technical problems, hundreds of spectators covering every patch of ground within eye sight and ear shot of the church step stage, emcees, judges, decorators, fund raisers, old and young, straight and gay, from all of the village’s six churches, everyone together to show their talents and make a statement to those doubters of the abilities of the village youth.

The first time ever village wide event is a major step in having the youth feel they are an important part of the community and when given the opportunity are a resource for the future development of Iva.

Peace Corps Helpers
Renee Moog, Nick, Safiya Mitchell, Paul Sylvester, Jacob Burney

Hopefully more photos coming.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Iva Talent Contest: Asides


There are too many occurrences challenging our way of thinking to list, but here are a few you might enjoy reading.

“The Sound of Music”- What a beautiful thing to experience as you listen to different groups practicing for the talent contest. The groups usually consist of mixed ages and gender. The joy they get out of signing and dancing is better than Julie Andrews on a mountaintop.

“Don’t tell them the rules”- If the contestants know what the rules are, they may change their performances.

“We have only $300 for prizes and need $1,200”- No problem, the mayor and an associate went off to Apia to collect money from villagers with jobs.

“What you cancelled a talent category that we have been practicing for a week?”- Don’t worry, we just add those groups to another.

“Do you know what that recorded sound is?”- It is a train whistle on the CD. I showed them the motion to pull the whistle chain. Big hit. Samoan’s may have never seen a train, but they sure know how to pull one’s chain.

Iva Talent Contest: Run-Up


It began about two months ago as a suggested way to have Iva youth feel a part of the village and has turned into a 50 act talent contest to be held December 8th. What is amazing about this first ever attempt to do such a thing is to view the developmental process via Mary’s and my western eyes.

There have been a number of meetings, none of which have started when stated, many of which participants are not aware, no agendas, and almost all of which is spoken in Samoan; yet, somehow participants register, prize money is collected, lights and sound systems are arranged, decorations planned, emcees appointed, and guests housed.

Our reactions are predictable. Mary’s concern is for the people who sit and wait for the others to appear. She also worries about where our guests are going to sleep? What are they to eat? I worry about how it is possible to schedule 50 acts within a 2 ½ hour program.

Our Samoan friends say “Aua Popole” and “Onasai” which mean Don’t Worry and Be Patient in Samoan. Of course, they know what they are doing and we…well, they are taking us along for the ride. What a wild trip it is!

Chicken Polygamy


Top Cock

Living among chickens and being somewhat an observer, I noticed certain patterns of behavior amongst my avian friends.

Being a rooster is a full-time job. He not only has to covet his hens from other roosters who want to mate and kidnap them, but he has to protect his feeding grounds from others.
His job begins in the middle of the night while still in his tree roost, by crowing to other roosters that he is on guard and ready to claw the breast of any intruders. As he roams around with his harem during the day scratching up bugs for the hens, he must keep them close by. Those hens who wander off are promptly screwed and given a peck on the head.

The top rooster currently has six hens. I really don’t know how he does it or how long he can keep it up. I think he began with two hens just a couple of weeks ago. Since there should be a 50-50 split between hens and roosters, I wonder what has happened to the other roosters. Maybe I am eating one now!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Cerebral Wrestling


The Peace Corps experience puts you in a place and gives you the time to do a lot of thinking. Few of us are prepared to meet our own thoughts and difficult questions our brains ask us.

Some wrestle with questions of did they make the right choice, some with is their time here going to make a difference, and others with life in an autocratic-theocratic society. For me, the main mental struggle is how can I, a person of immense relative wealth, integrate into a primarily subsistence economy?

Here I sit, in a room with a propane gas stove, electric refrigerator, a mountain bike chained out side, all of which magically appeared, drinking a cup of coffee with a pen in my hand writing on a pad of paper to be transcribed onto a computer to be posted on the internet, watching children dangerously climbing a mango tree to get their breakfast. It seems what I require for subsistence living can only be attained in a dream by many around me. Yet there is a peace in their lives.

A family boy is able to create beautiful Samoan designs on cloth. The final products of beauty are given to others because beauty and his talents are to be shared. I now enter the picture providing money to buy more cloth, t-shirts, and inks in hopes of selling these items for money that the family desperately needs. What am I doing? Am I turning a thing of beauty and love into a commercial commodity for tourists? Am I inadvertently forcing my way of life on him? What does he think of me?

Those who contemplate joining the Peace Corps or a similar endeavor should be prepared. The struggles of climate, hygiene, language, and food pale in comparison to the wrestling match you are to face with your own values and way of life.

Kipi vs. Keepy


There are certain dangers when you hear a Samoan word that sounds like it could be an English word then assume they mean the same thing.

Our host father was going to cut back a flowering tree at the rear of our house to make room for a fence to keep out pigs and chickens from our new garden. Mary was standing by to give her opinion as to how much he should cut back. He grabbed a branch to cut and asked her “kipi”? Mary said, “No”. He took another branch and asked “kipi” again. Mary said, “No”, again. Now both seemed to be getting irritated with each other with each branch selected, when I realized what the problem was.

Mary thought he was saying “keep” in broken English while he was saying “kipi” in Samoan which means “to cut”. We all had a laugh, learning a little bit more about each other. (Samoan “I” sounds like a long English “e”.)