Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Taro Farming


I am now in the agricultural phase of my Peace Corps adventure. It may be difficult for those who read this blog to grasp that most of the world lives on family farms which not only produce the food they eat, but also is the primary source of the family’s cash. These farms vary little from one part of the world to another with the exception of the crops they grow. In Samoa the main food and cash crop is taro. We live with such a family.

Taro is extremely nutritious. It has nineteen times the food value of potatoes. When compared to polished white rice, it wins by a mile. Imported white rice and wheat flour are slowly replacing taro as food stables. These items are faster and easier to cook. They can be stored for long periods when compared to taro. Yet, Samoans still love taro. It is easily sold in markets and roadside stands.

In theory growing taro is easy. First you clear away the existing jungle. Then you simply take the leaves from a harvested plant, dig a small hole, stick the leaves in the hole, wait 5-10 months and dig up the new taro. No need to cultivate before planting. You can add a fertilizer pellet and spray with a weed killer to speed up the growth rate. Different species of taro can be interspersed to provide a continuous crop throughout the year. The perimeter of the taro field can be used to grow vegetables that do not require constant watering like cucumbers, eggplant or tomatoes.

Despite the ease of growing taro, taro production keeps dropping. There are hundreds of acres of fallow taro fields that have been overgrown by the jungle. To me, the main reason for this drop is lack of sustainable manpower. Talented people who used to work and stay on the farms are being siphoned away to school and then to salaried jobs to provide the family with cash. Samoans tend to blame lazy young people who stay behind in the village for not working the fields. Certainly some of these do exist. What is happening in Samoa is happening to small family farms around the world as the serendipitous winds of change blow people into waters not of their world.

How to Grow Taro

First Start with Some Jungle

Get a Good Woman with a Knife

Clear a Field. Stick Taro Leaves in Ground.

Examine Your Work. Wait Five Months Till Harvest.

Selling Cabbages


Today the last of the cabbages was harvested. Some was eaten by the family. The girls quickly sold the rest within the village. They collected about $10 (US).

As you push your cart down the supermarket aisle, I hope you keep this picture of a happy family in mind.

100 Books


The Peace Corps used to give each volunteer a chest with 100 books when they were sent to their permanent post to help them fill the many empty hours. Things haven’t changes too much from those earlier times. Although there are now computers with DVD drives and games, portable CD players, and cell phones, nothing beats a book. Departing Peace Corps have been behind hundreds of books for their replacements. There is no better legacy.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cabbage Lessons


Cabbage (Bok Choy) can be a great teacher. Briefly, our Samoan host family did most of the work in preparing our flower and vegetable garden. Our host father also got the cabbage sprouts from a local farmer to hasten the process. Soon my cabbage patch became the center of attention for both neighbors and the Ministry of Agriculture. It seemed my cabbages grew exceptional fast at the time of year when others did not plant them. My excitement grew as I foresaw the possibilities of helping others start their own family garden plots.

At harvest time problems began to arise. I innocently gave some cabbages to families who had given us food. When all the cabbages were ready to harvest, I decided to let our host family cut down and sell the remaining crop, leaving three cabbages to produce future seeds. A woman across the road came the next day to “talk”. She reminded Mary that she had said she could have some cabbage. I told her that we only had the three seed cabbages left. She said, “Yes, but…” Away went the three seed cabbages. Then the woman behind us who probably saw the first woman walk away with the remaining cabbages quickly came over to “talk”. She wondered why she did not get any cabbage. Fortunately, I had given her family some cabbage when she was out of town.

What seemed like a straightforward transaction was anything but that. We had figured, according to our way of thinking, our host family who helped to clear the plot and got the sprouts, as well as, us who watered and weeded, should share the spoils. We could give away some cabbage to whomever we wished; they could sell and keep the money.

Fa’asamoa (the Samoan Way) doesn’t work that way. Just how it works, I am not sure. I do know there now is even more interest in my garden as people come to see my new plantings. I also am beginning to realize that when people come over, sit down, and want to “talk”, they usually want something. This can be a humbling experience, but it is nice to know we have something to give or loan.

Benj's Visit


Last night Benjamin Harding, aka Peni, from our Group 78 stayed overnight. He was in the process of writing two huge proposals on the Savaii Peace Corps office’s computer for his village on the remote western end of Savaii, Nieafu-tai. One proposal to the United Nations Development Fund is for thirty-five water tanks for his village where the water supply is scarce and brackish. The other is to the European Union for a primary school fence. The deadline is January 31st. This morning he returned in a violent rainstorm to the office to complete the proposals. I just thought you might like to know what some other Peace Corps on Savaii are doing.

The Smell of Death


In my quest for a perfect life, I have taken up trapping the mice and rats that chose to cohabit our house. I really don’t mind them too much except for the nightly bitter patter of little and not so little feet. A few days ago I got a trophy size female rat. Now there is an aroma emanating from the space between our bedroom ceiling and thatched roof. It is the smell of something rotting, death personified. We can only guess what it is (Maybe, baby rats abandoned by their now deceased mother? A Romeo rat without his Juliet?), and await its return to dust.

Month Five Progress Report- Iva


Everyone said this past month very little Peace Corps business happens. They were correct. Peace Corps staff and volunteers, as well as, Samoans are either traveling (including Mary), have relatives visiting or are just overwhelmed with fa’alavelaves and church activities. It has been a frustrating month with wanting to do something, but finding no one in the mood to do them.

Village Computer Training/Telecenter
Schools are locked up with staff nowhere to be found. We just have to wait to restart our efforts at the primary and secondary schools to train teachers and to open up the computers for training Iva residents.
Our efforts with the telecenter are discouraging. Our original request letter can’t be located and follow up emails have no replies. We know that even the possibility of funds is not available until June.

Sewing Machines
A real bright spot. The machines have arrived, albeit a slight mix up with the order. The Women’s Committee is underway to construct a room for securing the machines and setting up lessons. They are doing the construction with their own money. They didn’t want to even wait to submit a grant proposal. The women get things done in this village!

Village Youth
Our January 3rd Sports Day was cancelled due to impact of the fa’alavelaves on the village. No new youth activities are currently planned, but there is great interest in having another, even bigger, talent contest with the winners making a CD.

Home Gardens
My backyard garden is now a Demonstration Garden for the Ministry of Agriculture. The goal is to interest villagers in starting their own vegetable gardens. So far there is interest, but no one has lifted a shovel yet. The ministry is happy to provide advice and take pictures of my garden. They don’t seem to have any money to help me out with seeds, and fertilizer. These I buy on my own. My original crop of cabbage is ready for harvest. There is no worry about it going to waste. I am starting a nursery to supply starter plants to those who have prepared a plot.

New Primary School
The Village Council (Matais) has decided not to wait for a proposal to be granted by the Japanese. A group of 20 Matais was quickly formed and flew off to New Zealand to hit up Samoans with Iva titles to contribute $150,000 (US). The existing school location is near the sea in a danger zone. Just when, where, or if we are to submit a proposal for a fence for the new school, is still unknown.

We notified the village that the European Union, a major grantor, now has an annual deadline for initial grant requests of January 31st. If they wanted, we would be happy to help submit proposals. My dream proposal, besides the telecenter, of a building a Savaii Cultural/Tourist Center for Iva has to wait until a location can be decided and land made available by some family.

Where We Live/Our Family’s Compound


General Description
Our host family’s compound or lot is on the Savaii’s main road, which circles the island, with fales/Samoan houses built from the road to the back. The compounds of other families are also strung out along this road around the island with poorer families living away from the main road. The poorest families or of lowest rank live back in the bush. The fales are a mix of completely open structures with no rooms or walls, some partially enclosed with an enclosed bedroom or two, and still a few completely enclosed (European Style). Usually, the nicer fales are nearest the road, getting more rustic as you move back in the compound. Behind the structures is the trash area for burning trash and plant materials. This is also the area where pigs live and also some fruit trees grow. The main plantation/farm is about a mile behind the compound up the mountainside. Our host family’s compound is fairly typical of the one’s found in rural village throughout Samoa. Dogs are not permitted inside living areas. A stone awaits any canine who dares to enter.

View from across the road

Map of Family Compound

Village Committee/Mayor’s Fale
This is the dominant structure on the compound and is used for the mayor’s monthly meeting with the Village Council. It is also used for other Village Council meetings. It is also a favorite sleeping spot, hang out, and play area for village children. There are bathrooms and water fountains behind the fale to accommodate Matais during their long meetings.

Front Fale
This is now an all purpose fale and is the oldest on the compound. We use it for our Peace Corps Committee meetings, to hang wash when it rains, and the family boys often sleep there. In the front of the fale are graves of the family’s great-grandparents and an aunt who once lived in the fale. The graves are a popular place for kids to sit at night and talk; older kids used it to smoke, drink beer, and hang out.

Our Fale

Even though we have the smallest structure on the compound, it is the newest filled with modern conveniences like an enclosed bedroom with ceiling fan, table, chairs, indoor toilet and shower. We have added a propane stove and refrigerator. We are blessed with grass and rocks around our fale, making it relatively mud-free during the rainy season.

Play Fale
The children use this fale now for playing, sleeping, and hanging wash. It is used as an area, from which to serve the Village Council during their meetings by the men who make up the strength of the village. It housed the family of the host father’s brother before he moved farther back to be closer to his plantation. It probably has an even longer history. The graves of the host father’s father and mother are in front, enclosed by a fence and garden. Children’s Fale
The host father’s parents once used this fale. As the family grew, older siblings stayed to live there until they moved out to their own compounds. There are two enclosed bedrooms, which are used by the three girls and an older son, and large porch. There is a shower and toilet just outside in the rear of the fale.
Main Family Fale
This is the largest fale now occupied by our host father and his wife. There are no enclosed rooms; the fale has no walls. The inside is divided into two parts by a low wall. There is a shower and toilet just outside in the rear of the fale. Sleeping and sitting are on mats. Blinds made out of leaves and can be pulled down to keep out the rain during storms.
Dining Fale
This is the eating area for the family. There is a large table with benches, and a sink for washing dishes. It serves as the main gathering area for the family as they discuss the daily events. No cooking is done, but food is often prepared here. Pigs sometimes join the family gathering.

Umu/Cooking Fale
The cooking is done on a wood fire with some food preparation done on a shelf. Almost all cooking is done in pots. Roasting is done on an umu. The umu is made anew each time by heating rocks, putting what is to be roasted (usually pig, taro, or breadfruit), then covered with banana leaves. He umu is used each Sunday for the main meal, beginning at about 4:00 am. Cooking in a pot is not done on Sunday (I don’t fully understand why).
Washing Area
Clothes are washed in a bucket then hung out on various wires around the compound and inside some fales to dry, or placed on rocks. When is out, clothes dry very quickly. In the heat and humidity, clothes need to be washed frequently. On some days, especially Sundays, people go through several changes of clothes. Mary also finds herself washing often.

Samoan Summer


South of the equator it is mid-summer. To me, summer means hot. But in Samoa, summer means rainy season. The skies darken for up to a week at a time as giant South Pacific cyclonic storms bring bands of rain and wind. Everything is green, damp, and COOL. Samoans walk around in jackets. They can’t understand why I don’t even wear a shirt. It is fantastic sleeping and reading weather. In a way this weather produces a Samoan version of cabin fever. Rain, rain, go away… Even in paradise there are cloudy days.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

No News


There are all kinds of deprivation studies. Most describe some kind of “osis” when a person suddenly ceases a habitual pattern. So what happens when an American is thrust into a “no news” world? How does one cope without the knowledge of outside events? How can you form an opinion? What dangers lurk just beyond your control? How do you fill news less hours?

I have no radio, TV, or newspapers. Occasionally I peek at Yahoo headlines for a moment. I may dwell for two moments on sports scores, but I really don’t even care about them anymore. I am becoming a “So What” person. There is a sense of liberation about being in the dark, ignorant of the world’s woes, freed from the fear of being cast as uninformed.

As to the importance of news… Who was Gerald Ford’s (former U.S. President) running mate? Who was the 2006 World Series MVP? Who won the 2006 World Series? What happened to acid rain, the energy crisis, anthrax, Harp seals, or Anna Nicole Smith’s baby?

How does your garden grow?


Little did I realize the impact of starting a garden. It become the center of my activity this past month. One section has flowers; the other vegetables.

In the flower section, all kinds grow of which I know none. People keep planting more. Amongst the flowers a corn stalk emerged. Nobody knows how it got there. It is almost sacred. A good omen, maybe?

In the vegetable section, my cabbage, (bok choy/kapisi), is being eaten by surrounding families after only one month. People say it is doing better than that of the farmer from whom I got the sprouts. I plan to let some of these supermench vegetables go to seed to share and propagate in other gardens.

Oh my la’au pele (a bush-like plant with nutritious spinach looking leaves), they grow like teenagers fed by the effluent of the kitchen drain, taking in Joy dishwashing liquid to accelerate their growth.

Of course, I don’t want to slight my cucumbers and beans. They are growing rapidly, climbing the fence posts and creeping along the ground.

My peppers are a challenge. These little seeds resist sprouting on schedule. My first attempt a failure due to my impatience. They are my slow learners, ADD handicapped.

I now have seeds for leeks, beefsteak tomatoes, and carrots. My host father wants me to enter my future produce in the government’s agricultural contest at the end of March. I love having black volcanic soil under my finger and toenails. Will this madness cease?
What is happening to me?

How about those cabbages!

Flower Garden

Ant Wars


Ants in Minnesota are summertime pests. In the tropics, they are formidable foes. They are tiny, but adding their numbers together, they become a Goliath. I have learned to live with them as uninvited guests, sharing my body and whatever I am eating... Up to a point... I draw the line at my Skippy Peanut Butter. Some things are worth a war.

Up until a few days ago, the ants were winning. Nothing could keep them out of my peanut butter. I screwed the cap as hard as I could. Then I put the plastic jar inside airtight zip lock bags. Still when I opened the jar, they just wiggled their antennae at me in defiance as they roamed confidently over that oily, creamy, hydrogenated, emulsified, chemically treated, sticky, sweet stuff. So I did what any other rational person would do, I ate them. Then a much wiser Peace Corps Volunteer suggested I build a moat around my jar. A dish filled with water did the job. Voila, it worked!

Joseph Conrad, the author of Lord Jim, says every worthwhile story should have a moral. I guess this isn’t a worthwhile story, but there is a picture.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Making Chicken Soup


Usually when Mary cooks, our little kitchen is filled with children who seem to want to help and are curious about her strange cooking methods. But, there are other reasons.

While making chicken soup, Mary removed the skin and fat from the cooked meat, then put them into the garbage along with the peelings. A twenty-year-old girl from our host family living behind us watched in disbelief at Mary’s actions. She asked if she could have the skin and fat to eat. Mary was visibly shaken by this request and bothered by other children vying for our garbage.

It is hard to determine whether these actions are from hunger, a feeling we are wasteful, or are a special treat. Preparing an American style meal is becoming an act of consciousness as eyes watch our every move. We feel we are being judged, wondering how we are perceived. It makes even having chicken soup with carrots and potatoes a chore.

What Gives Life Meaning?


Great minds have struggled over the question of “ The Meaning of Life”. That subject is beyond my petty brain, so I just disregard the question as an interesting, but a useless academic exercise. A more relevant question to me is “What gives life meaning?”. What conscience choices do we make to give our existence a raison d’etre?

As I spend more time in Samoa, I begin to realize that the answer to ‘What gives life meaning” characterizes both individuals and societies. For Samoans, praising and glorifying God/Jesus gives a meaning to their life. It puts into focus their daily actions. It is their measure. I don’t mean to infer that meeting the physical and biological necessities of life aren’t important, but they seem secondary. It helps me to understand why so much of Samoan time, energy, and resources are devoted to the church when according to my thought; they could be put to more practical use.

What then gives my life, meaning? Is it the accumulation of wealth? Does the person with the most toys win? Is it raising a family? Helping others? What is the lifelong theme of my existence?

As a biologist by training, maybe what I am meant to do is encoded in my genes. Reproduce. Perpetuate the species. Make sure the precious light called life is not extinguished. Life’s other activities may simply be invented fluff to disguise the crass fact that I really don’t have any choice in giving my life some meaning. But there are millions of other permutations of life to keep life’s fire lit. Why can’t I be the exceptional species to define what I think is important?

Life to me is serendipitous. I don’t think you can determine the path to a meaningful life. However, I think there are some guiding principles you can choose as the winds of happenstance blow you from one trail to another. The main rule is to try your best whatever you do not to mess up others during your earthly trip and to recognize you really don’t know very much at all.

At the end of my journey, I would like others to say, “He was an OK guy. Not too good; not too bad. The world may not be better off; but not any worse. At least he made the effort. Let’s give him credit.” That’s meaningful enough for me.

As I do my daily activities, I am finding just being an OK guy is a tough job.



Mary was asked during her recent visit to Minneapolis about the mechanics of this blog. I shall try my best.

First of all, I am happy some people enjoy reading my scribbles. However, this blog is really an extension of journals written during our travels. These journals on steno pads are stored in boxes, probably never to be read, and never written with the intention to be read. Keeping a journal is my way to better understand the many dramas around me.

I usually write early in the morning with a companion cup of coffee. The subject material is mulled over during the night from the thousands of potential subjects encountered everyday. A night of insomnia is helpful for remembering my thoughts until the dawn. I edit very little. When particularly moved, I get Mary’s opinion and feedback. My biggest problem is not subject material, but time. There is so much to write about in even one minute of every day.

I strongly encourage others to get into the habit of keeping a journal. It slowly becomes a habit. Writing also makes that morning cup of coffee more enjoyable and helps you to appreciate the many miracles of life.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Tense Time


It’s 6:30 am and the conch shell is being blown to alert the Village Council (Matais) that the Mayor’s Meeting or Aso Gafua is about to start. What makes this monthly meeting important is that our host father, who is the current village mayor, is seeking reappointment. The decision has great impact on our host family and for Mary and me. We operate under his guidance.

Last evening Mary and I had a long talk with the mayor on our porch. We discussed what he has done and what others think he should be doing. He talked about how difficult it is to be criticized by those who do nothing. We laughed at how people all over the world procrastinate, but once a decision is reached, want results now. His nervousness showed as he smoked one cigarette after another.

Our Peace Corps role in the village is also a factor in his reappointment. The Village Council seems to think we should be doing more, albeit what we should be doing they don’t say. The Council has failed to make the last two loan payments on the construction of our house and have not contributed food to our upkeep. The mayor was the main advocate in bringing us to the village.

We are like other Samoan Peace Corps in the Village Development Program. Expectations are high from the village when we first arrive. The Peace Corps is almost viewed as a silver bullet able to bring money and prosperity quickly. When the realization hits that we are not brining gifts or money, but instead are there to help them find ways to help themselves, enthusiasm fads as reality bites. This is the normal cycle of events, but it sucks when it happens. We must endure as the forces of expectation and reality come back into balance.

So, we anxiously sit and wait. Is there a new boss for us in the village to go along with a new Peace Corps Country Director and a new director for our program, or not? Whatever happens we shall try to do our best. It is an exciting ride if you enjoy speeding down the highway with your eyes closed.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Rainy Season


It has been raining now almost steadily for the past week with no let up in sight. I think we are finally into the rainy season. The nice thing about the rainy season is that the temperature drops whenever it rains. The bad thing is that when it stops and the sun works its magic, you are immersed in a pressure cooker. You sweat just sitting. Your clothes feel damp all the time. You are almost grateful for the next shower.

For Samoans, this is a time for children to play in the puddles and run in the downpours. For other Samoans, it is a time for long shelves shirts and jackets. They say this in the cold season. For us, it is time to just lie around and read. The village is just exhausted from having relatives live with them and drained from the fa'alavelaves. There really isn’t much else to do, except watch my cabbage and cucumbers grow.

This is also prime cyclone season (hurricanes south of the equator). The Peace Corps office called to say two storms were in the Pacific, one south of Tonga and the other south of Fiji, but posed no danger to Samoa. We should listen to our radios for hourly updates. Great advice. Of course, we have no radio!

Next thing they will tell us is that buttered microwave popcorn is bad for our health. Of course, we have no buttered microwave popcorn. No microwave either. You can never be too careful or fearful.

Proud Mary Returns


The gangway to her ferry lowered as it emerged from the mist. I anxiously awaited Mary’s arrival after being away for two weeks in the US. She came off the boat dragging a suitcase larger than the one she took in one hand and a large cardboard box in the other. She looked like a bucket of water had been dumped over her head. Her freshly applied make up was smeared, her new hair do looking like a mop, and her clothing soaked through as the rains poured down on her. How could you not love such a sight? Afio Mio. Welcome back to Samoa.

Fatigued though she was, she attempted to condense her two weeks into a few hours of conversation, interspersed with constant interruptions by people who wanted to welcome her back and me suddenly having to transcribe a letter in Samoa for our host father before he caught the next boat in 30 minutes. A meal of mutton flaps and green beans awaited her. Bedlam reined.

There were many high points to her trip. It started upon her arrival, as a night Christmas Day snowfall deposited large white flakes to create a picture postcard arrival in Minneapolis. Charges on our Visa card marked her days. It seemed no restaurant was left unvisited.

The booty she brought back consisted of several crossword puzzle books, novels, Good & Plenty candy, a CD player, and a new replacement laptop. In the large cardboard box, there were bicycle racks for some other Peace Corps Volunteers. For our host family members some gifts, which like Christmas gift's everywhere, are a hit or miss proposition.

She left behind the early anxieties about our children who have moved on to handle adult responsibilities without us, and friends whose questions about Samoa could not be adequately answered. It was good to know that Proud Mary’s wheels will keep on churning for the next 20 months of our stay.

Note: Please understand why pictures of her arrival do not appear on this entry.

Centipedes on the Plane


On Mary’s plane ride from Samoa to the US, a fellow Peace Corps passenger felt something on his leg. He flicked it off onto the top part of the seat in front of him. It was a six inch centipede! In true Peace Corps fashion, he calmly covered it with a cup. Samoans around him quickly pulled back in horror, as westerners gawked.

After ringing the call button, the Air New Zealand flight attendant said in no way was she going to touch that cup. She in turn got a male attendant to take the cup. The stowaway traveler was flushed at 35,000 feet into the Pacific. No one could find the centipede's mother.

Now, Samoans and Peace Corps Volunteers know South Pacific centipedes can inflict a terrible bite. I have been bitten twice and can verify their potency. So if you ever come face to face with a Samoan centipede, get the hell out of there!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Joy of Popcorn

Made popcorn tonight,
Was such a delight
For me to see
Smiles of mirth and glee.
A simple treat
That others could eat.
Made me feel
Their love is real.

Gift of Gas


Our host father’s sister and her American husband came to visit from their Hawaiian home last October. In true Samoan fashion, they bought gifts for their relatives, one of which was a stove and large bottle of propane gas. The families had been cooking over wood fires.

When I got home from my New Year’s trip, my own propane bottle was missing. My host mother came over to explain they had borrowed it while I was away. Borrowing without asking is something you just get used to in Samoa, but the borrowing is not the point of this entry. In truth, our host family can not afford to refill the propane tank. This well intentioned gift was given without thought to the continuing resources required for its sustainability.

Gift givers, be they individuals, institutions, or governments, want to see results. There is glamour in opening a package or cutting the ribbon, none for long term support. Gifts soon become junk or drain resources away from where they may more urgently needed.
This pattern of good intentions gone amiss is repeated as aid in the form of computers, telecenters, swimming pools, libraries, and schools deteriorate from lack of funds or training.

Assistance and aid are like having children. There is a moment of ecstasy followed by at least 18 years, 9 months of hard work and support. One can never predict the outcome, but it is a worthwhile endeavor anyway.

Send Money To Loved Ones


“If you can’t be there, your money can”, so reads the heading of a Western Union ad. The ad pictures a Samoan man dressed in shirt and tie looking down on a grinning girl in traditional Samoan garb. In essence, the ad captures what the Samoan economy is all about, people overseas sending money back home. The ad also captures the Fa’asamoa obligation to support your family and to share what you have, combined with good old Christian guilt.

Without the inflow of overseas money, Samoa would be even farther behind the western world than it already is. There is hardly any internal source of income to sustain the population. Samoa’s economy is based on raising children, teaching them English, and sending them overseas. We in the Peace Corps perpetuate this system by teaching English and computer skills or writing proposals to seek foreign aid.

What is happening in Samoa is like hundreds of other developing countries whose subsistence, barter based economies are thrown into the world of cash. The good thing is Samoans are ahead of the curve when it comes to training and sending children overseas for salaried jobs. The bad thing is those going are the best and brightest, never to return again.

The Peace Corps slogan is to “Help People Help Themselves”. I think we are doing that, but not in the way we imagine. Who am I to judge what Samoans do in their own best interest? My job is to help them do what they want me to do. So be it if that is to find ways to send more money back home, get a bigger piece of the aid pie, to support that grinning girl in the ad, and to maintain the man’s yearning for Fa’asamoa.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Why Learn Samoan?


The major emphasis and more than half the time spent during our 13 weeks of Peace Corps training is spend on learning Samoan. Peace Corps trainees are expected to reach the level of low intermediate as determined by international standards. The test is given by a certified independent language tester. The low intermediate level is what I call the “Survival Level”. It allows you to greet people, find out a little about them, buy food, and get around on public transportation. Language training is a period of great stress on trainees. Yet now living in a rural village for the past six months, I have to ask whether all the stress and emphasis placed on language training is really worth it?

Certainly knowing common greetings and customary phrases helps to establish rapport with Samoans. It shows you are making an effort to be a part of their culture, but to do my job as a Peace Corps Volunteer; I have to do it in English.

When Samoans are asked what they want most, they respond, “learning English and computers”. In the book “My Samoan Chief” written over 40 years ago by an American married to a Samoan, when asked the same question, Samoans responded “learning English and typing”. Not much has changed since then.

The entire Samoan educational system is geared to teaching English. If you know English, you get to go on to college, get an office or clerking job in the city of Apia. Government workers speak English. If you want to go to New Zealand, Australia, or the US for a job, you need English. Without knowing English, you are left behind, condemned to your rural village forever.

People in my village want to improve their lives. They want to learn some English so they are not intimidated when they meet a Samoan or foreigner who speaks it. Even those adult Samoans who had English while in school find speaking even a few words daunting.

I am coming to the realization that instead of worrying about my floundering Samoan, I should be helping adults improve their English. If I truly want to be effective in helping with the development of my village and to help them help themselves, it is going to have to be in English. This is my epiphany and gospel for today.

Friday, January 4, 2008



One of the hardest Samoan customs to understand is Fa’alavelave. This is the required gift giving assessed on people for important occasions like funerals, weddings, births, etc. This custom originated when Samoa was a purely agricultural society when locally produced food and crafts were given to honor these special events. The custom has now escalated to almost obscene proportions causing financial hardships on families who can least afford to contribute, many going into debt so as to not lose face. It is the Samoan form of “Keeping up with the Jones” gone mad.

What is puzzling is many Samoans understand what is happening and are resentful of the custom, yet feel trapped in what they consider a deeply Samoan tradition. To a large extent, the influence of wealthier Samoans living overseas keeps pushing the gift giving stakes higher. In this competitive society, no one wants to be outdone.

The family we live with has just given the biggest pig and last boar for the Fa’alavelave of the recently deceased pastor. It is put on a truck collecting slaughtered pigs and cows to be divided among the funeral guests, most of whom are well off and live outside the village. Other people we know gave their last livestock with little hope of replacing them.

The fa’alavelave system almost insures people are unable to save or even think about their future when they may be asked to contribute. Whatever they now have can quickly disappear when called upon to give to the next fa’alavelave.

Searing Hair Off a Boar

Truckload of Animals Going to Fa'alavelave

Miracle Razor

My Miracle Razor

Before coming to Samoa, I belonged to a health club that provided its members with disposable razors. I collected hundreds of them over the years and brought a huge bag of them to Samoa. Over the past seven months, I have been using the same razor. I wonder, “How long can this razor last?”

The scientist in me wants an answer. Is this razor different from others in bag? What is it that keeps its edge? What do I do differently? I lather with face soap, use the cold water from the tap, and am careful not to cut myself. My conclusion with a 94.9% probability is being sweaty all the time keeps my whiskers nice and soft. Maybe now that the humidity in Samoa is at its highest, I should try shaving by just rubbing my face.

New Years 2008


While my wife is plodding through the snows of Minnesota visiting our children and her relatives for the holidays, my New Years is on a beach in Samoa with some other Peace Corps friends. We are just a group of wild a crazy "guys".

Our daily schedule consists of swimming in the sea, talking about movies, with intermittant naps, reading, and cooking our own meals. At night we lay on the beach looking up at the sky and making wishes on shooting stars as Orion looks down on us from overhead. Slightly after midnight, we sleep only to repeat the schedule the next day.

We are the "New Peace Corps" in Samoa. No wild parties, orgies, or alcohol. We wear our bike helmets, eat taro, and shower every day. There are even a few volunteers who like George Bush!

A Wild and Crazy Guy

Doing our Homework

Our New Year's Retreat

Resting to Rest Some More