Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mary, School Teacher


Mary started an English reading program for grades 4-8 two mornings a week at the Iva Primary School. Little did she realize how great the children are and the paucity of resources when she offered her services.

She has basically has no syllabus to work from, no prior program which to refer, no materials with which to work, no assistant to help translate, no idea how large her class will be, no blackboard, no idea what materials are appropriate, there are no school books to get some idea of the reading level, and no air-conditioning. She is totally on her own as she feels her way. Using gestures, acting things out, and trying to identify a child who can speak some English, she is an amusing, if not educational sight to behold.

Teaching is a tough job no matter where you may be. I do think Mary is carrying non-verbal teaching methods to new levels. She loves it and is good at it. They feed her as well. The kids love her too. Mary is quickly becoming a celebrity in the village. The feeling of doing something worthwhile makes the other hardships of day-to-day living that much easier.

Max's Visit


Max Lupushin is a Peace Corps Volunteer with the newest arrivals last October. Max is originally from Minsk, Belarus, but grew up and went to school in Atlanta with a major in History. He teaches computers at Palauli-Sisifo High School in the Savaii village of Salailua. He is implementing the teaching of the 20+ computers earlier obtained through the efforts of another Peace Corps Volunteer, Derek Marshall.

His immigrant parents questioned his wanting to join the Peace Corps. Why would you want to go to a third world country when we worked so hard to leave Belarus for the United States? Like other Peace Corps faced with the same question, he said the Peace Corps would look good on his resume for future employment or graduate school. What parent can resist that reasoning?

Iva Sewing Bee


Sewing classes have just begun with the machines purchased with the New Zealand grant. The women spend most of the day learning from more experienced seamstresses in the village. Everyone is happy with the machines and the program continues to expand as word gets out. Like sewing bees everywhere, one cannot overlook the social importance of being and working together. I thought you might want to see what village life is like.

Where Sewing Classes are Held.

A Typical Class

A Happy Student

Cutting Cloth

Time for Tea

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Doing Business in Samoa


Learning how business is done in Samoa can be a perplexing experience. It is hard the fathom a business whose main objective is not to earn a profit. Yet in Samoa it seems earning a profit has a low priority. There are so many other things that come before what we accept as good business practices. My Western trained mind is just befuddled with trying to understand how Samoan business operates.

The first befuddlement is one’s word. In business when you say you are going to do something, you do it. In Samoa, “I will do it this afternoon” may mean a hundred things.
Of which the least likely is it being done this afternoon. You never know what is said will be done without knowing all the possible diversions between now and then.

The second befuddlement is price. To me price should have some relationship with the cost of doing business. Not so in Samoa. Pricing is based on getting some money. If you sell something for less than it costs to make, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is you end up with some money in your hand.

The third befuddlement is the value of labor. Your labor, working for money, has little value compared to church work, yard work, or weaving mats. When you do work for money, there is little difference between working hard and putting in your time. Missing work for any number of reasons is accepted practice.

The fourth befuddlement is objectives. This is truly foreign to most Samoans. For example, last Saturday my plan was to turnover a garden bed for replanting. I couldn’t call it a day because I had not finished my task. I went out at the end of the day and did it. This behavior is difficult for others to comprehend. If not done, it would have to wait until Monday; Sunday is a day when no work is done. If the sun was out, wait until clouds. If rainy, wait until the earth dries. Early afternoons, during the heat of the day, are for resting. Late afternoon is for prayers and talking a shower. It really doesn’t matter what it is, objectives are strictly a white person thing.

If I think Samoan ways are strange, certainly they think mine are too. How can a white middle class wage earner understand subsistence level living where the concepts I hold dear are unknown or considered less important? How can I possibly grasp a life where money is not the central focus of living? Yet Samoans do want and need money, but not to the same extent we do. I sense my garden is becoming the site where our two worlds meet. It may be the common ground to transcend our cultural differences; a place to ease both of our befuddlements.

Center of the World


Samoan legend says that the world was created around Samoa. The isolation of being in the middle of the ocean, lack of news, and the relaxed atmosphere helps to reinforce the legend.

As a student looking at the map of the world in a U.S. classroom, I always thought the United States was the center of the world. Samoa, always tough to find on geography quizzes, was located as a dot on the very edge of the map.

When you get a Pacific Centered world map, you have a better perspective. Even if the map is biased to making the Northern Hemisphere larger than the Southern, Samoa, albeit still a dot, is at the center of the world and the Pacific Ocean is a big ocean indeed. It certainly is the center of my world.

No One's Special


Living in the land of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, everyone is special and above average. Praise is almost a mantra to be given for even the most mundane activities. Stickers, ribbons, medals, trophies, and plaques festoon a person’s room from the cradle onward. Fear of permanent psychological scaring or even a lawsuit may result if a person’s self-esteem is not elevated to stratospheric levels. In Samoa it is just the opposite.

Samoans are the most self-effacing people I have ever met. The common description of their fellow countrymen is that they are lazy. The only time I have heard anything resembling praise is for academic awards at the end of the school year where Bibles are given for high achievement. Yet, the people seem very happy and well adjusted.

It is strange to watch a rugby match without cheerleaders or even cheers from the bleachers. One of the boys in our host family kicked the winning goal against the arch rival team as time expired to win the match. He just unassumingly joined his team, only to return home to feed the pigs. Unimaginable in the U.S.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Mark “Maleko” Leaves


Last Friday morning, Mark “Maleko” Miller from our Group 78 left Samoa for a 40+ hour trip back to his home in Tennessee. The reason may best be described as irreconcilable differences between Mark, the Peace Corps, and Mark’s village chief/host father. The different ways each party looked at the situation left no real alternative other than for Mark to return to the U.S.

The tragic part is that Mark has no desire to leave the Peace Corps. Fortunately for him and the Peace Corps arrangements are being made for him to be reassigned to another country within the next six months. This would mean starting over again as a new trainee but with the knowledge he gained from Samoa behind him. He is requesting a more structured program than the Village Based Development program.

Mark was one of the younger members of our group with a cheerful attitude towards his job and life. We all will miss him and wish him the very best wherever his new assigment may be.

Mark “Maleko” Miller

Mark Going Native

Monday, April 14, 2008

Cabbage Patch Doll


The Cabbage Patch

The Cabbage Patch Doll

Indirect World


As an American living in the United States we may forget just what a direct people we are. We ask a question and expect a straightforward and truthful response. We respect people who “Tell it like it is”. We just don’t hanker to beating around the bush, secret agendas, or evasiveness. Well let me tell you most of the world ain’t like us. In fact they are just the opposite.

Coming face to face with the “Indirect World” is a frustrating experience. In this world custom, traditions, personal relationships, and unspoken agendas are the rule. They can’t figure out why we are so rude. We can’t figure out why they don’t tell us anything.

Selling cabbage brings these two opposing ways of interaction to light. I want to price my really super big cabbage at a price higher than lesser-sized cabbage sold in the past. I have told other cabbage growers my intention and that we should not be selling cabbage at a lower price than the island’s market 3 miles away. They agree to my suggestion.

Now enter members from related families who say the new price is too high. To which I reply, grow it yourself here is the hoe, go to island market, or don’t eat it. I think that many feel they should get it for free. All agree that I work very hard in the garden. None want to grow their own.

I thought we should start selling the latest batch of cabbage last weekend, but deferred to my host father who said his family members would sell it this weekend. He kept asking me about the selling price. I could hear women talking loud enough for me to hear that the price is too high. This weekend comes and no one is available to sell the cabbage. It feels like our host family is shunning us because they are the quietest towards us they have ever been. So we, set up a table at the road to sell the cabbage while the family goes off to church.

After church our host father stops by the stand and tells us that two other stores are also selling cabbage. He asks if we have sold any. We had sold some at the new price, but still had lots more ready to sell in the garden. So I do the only thing left to do. I go to the stores selling cabbage and ask them if they want to sell my superior product. We all agree to sell it at the higher retail price. They get a high markup from me. They are delighted. I am delighted. We are doing business without reducing the retail price. It seems that I now have retail outlets for my cabbage and future vegetables. No longer do I have to rely on how my host family feels about the selling price.

I have no idea how many Samoan taboos I have broken; taboos I know nothing about, nor have been told about. I am operating blindly in this strange Indirect World. I do know that they have been exposed to American entrepreneurship, as ugly and as greedy as it may be. Standby, this rocket ship has blasted off into worlds unknown.

A Samoan Family Reunion


Our host family hosted a first ever 1-½ day reunion for their extended family. A reunion they did not wish for, did not initiate, but accepted. Their family, the Tofilau family, is really BIG. There are over 200 extended family heads with the title of Tofilau, about 100 attended. The recently deceased and most revered Malietoa, the Head of State, was related to the Tofilau’s. His Prime Minister was a Tofilau. Tofilau’s live mostly in our home village of Iva, but a sizeable, more prosperous number, live in Apia or overseas.

In many ways, family reunions are the same worldwide. There are cliques, black sheep, and children running excitedly around with their cousins. People stay up late catching up on the latest gossip about other family members. Of course, there are differences too.

Appearances are everything. In the U.S., it is the inside of the house that needs to pass the critical eye of relatives. In Samoa, it is the outside. Tens of people spend hundreds of hours making sure the grass is finely trimmed, every blade swept up, every weed in picked from the walkways, every post is covered with palm fronds, and flowers displayed everywhere. Their fastidiousness about the outdoor appearance would make my old Minnesota neighbor green with envy.

A special mass is held to bless the family. For ½ day, a business meeting is held where everyone has a say about the future of the family and improvements, which need to be done to the family’s large land holdings. The meeting starts and ends with a clergyman citing a long prayer. There is food, lots of food. Everyone sated. In the end, there is the customary group photo. People return to their lives completely shot, filled with renewed acquaintances, stories of others, and wondering whether it was really worth it.
A Tofilau Family Meeting

Sweeping the Grass

Turkey Elbows


You have heard about such Western delicacies as pig’s knuckles, ox tails, and such Samoan stables as, pork arteries, mutton flaps and neck, and turkey necks and tails. Now you can add turkey elbows to this list of epicurean delights.

A turkey elbow, imported as all “meats” at the store are, consists of skin and bone. If one really looks hard, you may find a small piece of meat that the food processor somehow overlooked. A beef soup bone is a steak compared to a turkey elbow.

There is a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who claims he is being fed canned dog food. This is hard to believe since I have never seen a can of dog food in any store. Samoans just don’t look at dogs the same way Americans do. But if this is true, he should consider himself an honored guest and enjoy the meat. I am jealous.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Agents of Change


The Peace Corps assigns us the task of being a Change Agent, to work with the village to bring about changes they want. This definition seems straightforward enough until you wonder just what change we are to bring about and how this is to be done.

Most people want and endorse change, but it is usually change for the other person. It is easy to see what others should be doing. Bringing about change is another matter. Our Peace Corps job is somewhat like President Harry S. Truman’s lamentation, “I’m the most powerful person in the world, yet no one does what I want done”.

The changes the villages want can better be described as “stuff”. They want the Peace Corps to help them get things. In my village, they want sewing machines, computers, and a fence for a yet to be built new school. Nowhere in their request for a Peace Corps Volunteer do the villagers ask us to change their behavior, to do anything differently from what they are currently doing.

As a volunteer we see hundreds of behavioral changes that we think should be made. These changes make complete sense to us. Yet we are baffled when the seemingly obvious to us means nothing to others; or even it they are obvious to others, why they do not something about them? It is H. S. T.’s dilemma on a smaller scale.

Frustrations mount as each attempt at instituting behavioral change meets failure. To quote Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady”, “ Why can’t a woman be like a man? Perfect in very way.” The frustration makes one want to scream, become bitter, or quit as some do. Coming to grips with the human paradox of wanting change, but not wanting to change makes you realize your own limitations. You begin to question, is what I am doing here changing anything? Am I simply a vehicle for stuff?

When faced with challenges in the past, I usually look in the mirror. The problem and the solution are many times looking at me. What would I do if someone, anyone, wanted me to change? Especially if I didn’t ask them to be changed or thought they were operating on their agenda, not mine? (Expletives deleted!)

As I toil away each day in my “Peace Corps Garden”, I hope at least one person catches the spark to start his or her own garden to earn money and feed their family. In the meantime, I am learning how to grow and sell all types of vegetables. As to the unused funds I have earned and set aside to help others with their gardens mount, I have decided to built a monument to myself in the middle of the garden with the inscription, “ He came to bring change. He failed at change, but succeeded in selling you vegetables you could have grown for yourself. This memorial was built with those funds.”

Whether we are aware of it or not, we do end up being Change Agents; not in the way the Peace Corps thinks it should happen, or the village hoped it would happened, nor in the way we dreamed it could happen, not even to the people we intended to affect, but this Grand Adventure changes us all. As I witness those Peace Corps leaving at the end of their two years, they seem different than those just arriving. This whale called Samoa may have swallowed them and spit them out transformed. Maybe it is we who return differently to implement the ways we have learned to make of our homes a better place.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Mortein Mary

Mortein is a popular insecticide with a sweet, orange scent. When sprayed directly on cockroaches, it kills them almost instantly. When sprayed on surfaces and eaten by roaches, they die a slow agonizing death. This miracle chemical product can last up to six months. For Mary, Mortein is the weapon of choice in her battle with these harmless, but annoying bird-like creatures of the night tropics.

Mary’s readiness to use this instrument of death was not always so. Just a few months ago she worried about breathing Mortein’s sweet fumes. However, she soon realized that insect repellent and hair spray are also effective insecticides. Her fears about Mortein’s toxicity somewhat subsided. Before bedtime, she can be found, Mortein in hand, hunting before retiring.

A Samoan Conference


Today, I was a guest at a conference held by the Ministry of Communications for villages with existing telecenters. This was an opportunity to politic with those who will select the new telecenter sites, hopefully for my village of Iva.

Conferences are basically the same worldwide. Power Point presentations serve as the scripts for presenters. There are boring speeches by mucky-mucks who have need to remind others that they are mucky-mucks. There is numerous staff and office support personnel who usually outnumber the attendees and who also help make the mucky-mucks feel at home. Finally there are a few people who actually want to get information from the conference, which they can use.

Samoan conferences have the entire above, but with a Samoan twist: food and lots of it! There is food when you arrive at 9:00. The morning break at 10:30 is a feast for a king served to you by colorfully dressed women of the host village. One is unable to eat it all, or even try a bite of each morsel, before it is taken away. Then an hour later it is lunch. Each individual meal can feed an entire kingdom, all stuffed into Styrofoam containers. The leftovers are repackaged and taken home by anyone who can still walk after lunch (which is all the Samoans).

Instead of some hotel meeting room, the conference is held in a huge open building with the sea and barrier reef to one side, and the mountains on the other. Ocean breezes serve as the air-conditioner. My mind drifts off. The flowered lei given to me helps to cover the B.O. from my bike ride. But in the end, it is the important politicking for your own interest that makes it a conference worthwhile.

Fear the Sun


The power of the tropical sun is something to respect for both light and dark skinned peoples. Too much sun can make you sick. Samoans actually fear the sun because they believe it can cause numerous diseases. In fact almost all Samoan diseases seem to be blamed on the sun. Maybe that is the reason why so many lay around for most of the day. My first reaction to their torpor is laziness, but now I know it is for good health.

One can laugh and call their behavior silly. However, I wonder what they would think about staying out of drafts or a chill causing a cold, etc? What about stress? What can’t that cause?!

Jessica’s (Sita) Visit


Jessica Akerman, Sita, is a Peace Corps Volunteer from New London, Minnesota. A marine biologist by training, she teaches marine science at her village’s high school in the sea resort area of Aleipata. Her science class recently entered a South Pacific wide contest with a proposal and action plan for improving the health of the sea. She finishes her Peace Corps time this May.

Jessica is a woman comfortable with outdoor adventure and physical challenges. Before the Peace Corps, she worked for a year observing walruses, many times repelling down cliffs at remote Alaskan beaches. She lived in an isolated cabin, reachable only by floatplane, and had to carrying a shotgun whenever she went outside to protect herself from the ever-dangerous grizzly bears. While in Samoa she has been active in preserving marine environments and protecting the huge turtle population a few steps outside her home. Jessica has done over 160 dives and bicycled just about everywhere you can go in Samoa. A job in the Alaskan wilderness awaits her upon her return to the U.S.