Thursday, February 26, 2009

Not Your Average Samoan


This is a 57 year old man from my village.

My Alter Garden


Peace Corps Volunteer, Trent Lobdell in Safotu on Savaii, has a Women’s Committee that is Gung-ho about starting a community vegetable garden. They want to sell vegetables to the vegetable deprived resorts in the nearby resort village of Manase. With Trent’s help, they have an excellent business plan, written a proposal for garden tools, and have cleared a ½ acre of prime land. Trent asked me to help him and the women with seeds and advice. I eagerly went to his village.

One big difference between his village and mine is Safotu has unused land loaned to the Women’s Committee for a garden, whereas mine has been unable to find anyone willing to share their land for such an activity. The issue of land being a heritage rather than a resource to be used to its fullest is one of the underlying problems Samoa faces in agricultural development.

Safotu has become my alter garden. I look forward to visiting there again. The women treat me great, maybe a little too cheeky, but the food and Trent’s seaside home makes seeing what I had hoped to accomplish take shape.

Trent's House

New Garden Fork with 5 Year Warranty, Now with Two Tines

Now with One Tine

Progress Report: Month XVIII


The past month has been a busy one for me with more ups than downs. I have a sense of accomplishment.

New Primary School
Ten acres of jungle has been cleared, plotted, and over 50 truckloads of sand have been brought to the site. On March 17th or 18th, the Japanese agency, JICA, officially presents its portion of the grant to the village for building materials. The village is responsible for site preparation and all the labor.

Measurements and a list of building materials is being gathered so that I can write my next grant proposal for a fence to protect the property from vandalism and pigs. A request also needs to be made for a rugby playing field. Again these requests are for materials with villagers supplying labor. The most likely donor agencies are the European Union and the United Nations Development Fund.

Testing villagers is in full swing with no end in sight. They want to be tested and weighed. The men are the most reluctant to be tested and hardest to reach (so what’s new here?). Testing is done at community houses, churches, people’s home, and at my own. My sports bag is now my testing kit with a scale, measuring tape, diabetes meter, and blood pressure cuffs for various size arms. I must be a sight carrying it from place to place.

My biggest surprise is the total unawareness by people as to how big they have gotten. Scales don’t exist, clothes being tighter attributed to shrinkage by the sun.

Disappointments continue to prevail about gardening in my village of Iva. The President of the Women’s Committee won’t release her land because she doesn’t want anyone else to be making money off it. She is growing grass/weeds. There are fewer gardens now than when I came, those that existed being replaced with taro. My neighbor and his young wife have given up their garden after pigs invaded it. I continue to grow for my own sanity and diet. A recent attack by young piglets getting through the fencing; chickens and insects continue to thwart my efforts.

Hope springs eternal as other villages and more recent Peace Corps Volunteers seek my help and seeds.

Sewing Machines
Sewing classes have yet to begin and the machines remain in a locked room, inaccessible by anyone. However, if and when a proposal for fabric and accessories is written and granted, classes shall start anew.
No new developments, except I really like mine.

Money Lender
I am taking a harder line, but how can refuse to lend money to someone who wants to give it to their fat pastor so he can buy more food?

What Does “Fine” Mean?


When there are limited resources, decisions need to be made as to who gets what. In health care the term is triage. This becomes apparent when some people tested, who had very high levels of blood sugar or pressure, said they were recently tested at the hospital and they were “fine”. I went to the hospital to find out how our results could be so different.

The hospital treats sick people. Anyone with glucose level below 10.0 mmol or systolic below 100mm is “fine”. This results in people being treated as generally aged and very sick, disregarding the younger population. To further complicate matters, the hospital considers blood sugar levels of 7.0 mmol to be normal whereas in the US this person would be considered diabetic, normal levels being 3.5-5.3 mmol. My results show the average to be 7.0 mmol. People are hardly ever weighed as part of hospital procedure and have no idea of their size or the relationship between weight and blood sugar/pressure.

The national public health program seems to be focused on increasing the awareness of exercise. The current jazzercise program is almost laughable as people in villages get up at 5:00 am to wave the arms and legs to rap songs. The village gets a large sound system with the program. There is no mention of weight control, not even a scale. My results show no difference between jazzercise people and others. I have found that telling people they are obese is not in the Fa’asamoan tradition and may hurt young people feelings. But people know they are fat, but they are not aware of the consequences, other than you no longer can move or you need two seats on the bus.

The good news is that when people are told of the relationship between weight and health many take it upon themselves to change their eating habits. This is apparent with those people tested last August and their current readings. They are my going to be my poster children and hopefully not only keep them out of the hospital, but also have them feel good about themselves, setting a new standard to “fine”.

Work: A Social Event


One of the difficult things to get used to is how Samoans view work. For me, it is a task to be done and when finished I can then go enjoy myself. For Samoans, work means getting together and enjoying each other. We get more done; they have a better time doing it.
Micro Loan Meeting

Preparing a Community Garden

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Church in the Wildwood


“Come, come, come to the church in the wildwood,
Come to the church in the vale.
No church is so fond to my childhood,
As the Little Brown Church in the Vale”

A little brown 150-year-old church in Nashua, Iowa was immortalized by this famous hymn and in the early 1900s became the theme song of the hit group, the Weatherwax Brothers. This wooden prairie church, brown from the mixing of different colored paints and the song written describing a site never before seen by the writer as the place where he would and did find his love, is now where hundreds of marriages take place every year, including mine on this date 31 years ago.

I can still hear the bell on that clear, below zero day announcing the beginning of our wonderful adventure. Happy Anniversary dear.

My daughter, Kim, at the Litlle Brown Church on a visit to Iowa

Scabies Baby Update

Many may recall the little grandchild living with our host family and Mary’s efforts to clear the child of skin infections. About 1½ years has pasted and the sores still remain, now complimented with scars. Crying still occurs in the night from the itching. The child seems to be well adjusted and happy. Who can resist not liking a snotty-nosed kid who now can say your name?

Max’s 23rd Birthday


Max is the one with hands over his head.

Yesterday, many of the Savaii Peace Corps and two pastor’s daughter celebrated Max’s birthday at our common watering hole, Lucia’s.

To My Valentine


From the land where February 14 is another day
Comes some words I must say.
Hear world of my infatuation
For you dear wife, my adulation.
Although you are not by my side,
Your text messages are still my guide.
Please realize that I am fine
Albeit, I miss you greatly, My Valentine.

The Five Tibetans


The Five Tibetans is a yoga exercise system also known as “The Five Rites of Rejuvenation”. Ben Harding of my Group 78 introduced the system to me. I periodically incorporate these exercises into my morning routine for fear that daily use could over rejuvenate me. Yoga terms like The Chakros, Kundalini, and paranayam creep into my brain. I wonder how much yoganidra, yogic sleep/relaxation, my already relaxed body can handle.

There is a “Sixth Tibetan” used in celibate monastic societies. This tantra exercise is to prevent the depletion of vital energy due to the loss of sexual fluids. The exercise is to control sexual urges, prevent ejaculation, and move sexual energy up the spine, transmuting it into spiritual power. I think it is time to add the Sixth Tibetan to my pantheon of strange gyrations.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Counting Laps


As a young swimmer at Butzel Pool in Detroit, I remember mentally counting laps during workouts. At first, I counted whole laps, each lap being back and forth. Then I counted lengths. As the years progressed so did my arithmetic counting using fractions, tenths, hundredths, logarithms, octal, and then binary. No matter what counting method I used, the stopwatch during swim meets never got faster.

Counting has replaced a watch in my life. I seem to count everything, weeds pulled, each peanut picked, sit-ups, the number of spider solitaire games on my laptop, and the striking of church bells. Counting is my substitute for conversation. No one with whom to talk, no problem, count something. The rate of time doesn’t change, just that the void doesn’t seem so empty.

Niko, Fomai (Dr. Nick)

Today marks the start of my insane idea to measure body-mass, blood pressure, and blood sugar for the entire village. With the help of the Women’s Committee, I make house calls and have a clinic at their meetinghouse. Early results of primarily adult stay-at-home women show obesity to be the clear leader followed by hypertension and high blood sugar third. There are a couple of people with normal in all three categories.

In Samoan fashion there are women to care for my needs, including a lunch of hot dogs, fatty mutton, fatty salted beef, noodles, and rice with sweet tea as beverage, then rest. This is going to be a long several months.



I rotate between Iva’s six churches and am visited by various missionaries. I wonder what they might all have in common. The only unifying theme to me is their religion answers the unanswerable, answers so unknowable they must be based on faith, myth, or fantasy.

As I watch people prostrate themselves, each devoted to their own special dogma, I wonder if Karl Marx wasn’t right when he described religion as the opiate of the masses or another philosopher who stated that if God didn’t exist, man would create one. Maybe the dream state of opium isn’t bad or fantasies about the unknowable or unattainable. Maybe the issue is when faith, myth, or fantasy is accepted as reality, but then again, if they weren’t, how could religion exist?

Off to the University


The boy on the left, Sefo, is off to the university for the first time with his cousin, Sala, in her second year. They are waiting the bus to go to the ferry, then to Apia where they will be living with relatives. Each student has a backpack. This scene may be familiar to college student parents, except for all the missing paraphernalia and emotional goodbyes.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

State of Mind


The events of the past several weeks has put me face-to-face with the shortcomings of others, maybe those of my own, to place me in a mental glen. Weaknesses in others can be depressing at a time when you expect courage and leadership. The village mayor, my host father, is the timid, unsure person he has always been, the President of the Women’s Committee is the arrogant, domineering person she has always been, and the Peace Corps staff remain without the ability to be anything but employees. I am still I. Then why do I feel the way I do? People haven’t changed; I haven’t changed. Maybe what has changed is my own expectation of others and myself to be more than we actually are.

From some of my past blog entries, you may have sensed the importance I place on expectations. My own expectations are what I expect reality to be. I base my life on these perceptions. When what actually happens doesn’t turn out to be what I expected, I can either blame others for disappointing or myself for not really knowing much at all, for being fallible.

My relationships with some are strained, never to be the same again. With others new relationships are emerging and with them new expectations of what the next six months have to offer.

Meal Planning


Planning your meals in a Samoan village is an oxymoron. Planning must exist but not in the way I can understand. For example, the last several nights I have been brought food late after I already made something for myself. Last night, I didn’t fix anything, nor did I get anything. During the hunger filled night, I dreamed of making a breakfast of eggs with freshly chopped basal, fresh tomatoes, Italian seasoning, and hot sauce accompanied with a side of buttered toast smothered with my own pineapple jam.

The next morning with eggs broken, herbs prepared, and bread in the toaster who should appear at my door but two women selling one of my favorite dishes fa’ausi*. How could I refuse them? I ate both.

* Fa’asui: made from grated taro baked in a Samoan oven (umu), cut into cubes, covered with a warm sugared coconut cream sauce, and served wrapped in banana leaves. Yummy!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009



Samoa has the highest suicide rate in the world. I can’t confirm the accuracy of that statistic. However while I was in America over the holidays, an unmarried woman in her 20’s hung herself from a tree in the family yard. She leaves behind one child.

My host sister, a journalism college student and part-time employee for the Samoan newspaper, was sent to photograph the lava lava cloth remnant still hanging from the tree.



Outside my house a hen with a broken leg is trying to raise her brood of chicks. She limps along, resting often, leading her offspring to bugs in the grass. Almost against impossible odds of dogs, pigs, and rats, she struggles to protect the next generation of chicken stew.

New Savaii Market


New Savaii Market

Opening Ceremony

For reason, unknown to me, but might be related to voting in the United Nations or a satellite tracking station, the Chinese fund and build with their own people some of the major building projects in Samoa. The latest is a new market complex on my island of Savaii. Today is the opening ceremony, attended by the Prime Minister, host of dignitaries, police, school groups, TV, and me. There are no shoppers for the market is not yet finished.

The market complex is really a wonder to behold. There are fountains, a bus terminal, sidewalks, globe streetlights, out buildings with beautiful wooden doors, and even a second level with numerous offices. The existing market can fit into one corner of the new structure. In fact, I think you could put all the people who live on Savaii into the new complex with room to spare.

One should not look a gift horse in the mouth, or is it a white elephant?



Sustainability is the current buzzword concerning project both domestic and foreign. Donors want to know whether their seed money or efforts can continue after initial funds or training subside. This is a reasonable request from the donor’s point of view, yet most projects fail to exist after the initial push. Samoa is a microcosm of this global problem.

A Peace Corps Volunteers spent most of her two years in Samoa obtaining and teaching computer skills in a small village. By all measures her time in the village was a great success. However after she left the computer center sat idle. When the villagers were asked why, they said they went to computer training to please the Peace Corps Volunteer.

Wanting to please a Peace Corps Volunteer, a gift giver, or your boss at work are really quite similar. People respect what the donor/boss expect. In the end people seem to revert to those behaviors, which they feel are in their own self-interest. Herein lies the challenge of sustainability, try and find out what projects are really meaningful to others, not just to you. It is a game we all play.