Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Nick and the Kava Stick

August 30, 2011
To most people it looks like a stick of wood.

To Departments of Agriculture it may contain destructive insects in its which must be properly wrapped and certified pest-free before leaving Samoa.

To Customs Officials it is a drug (Piper methysicum, intoxicating pepper).

To missionaries it leads to sin and degradation.

To airline baggage handlers it is a pain in the butt.

To Samoans it is an important symbol of the Ava God, as the Peace Pipe is to American Indians.

To me it is one of the most important gifts I received in Samoa.

To the Chinese it is money worth trying to steal.

I really don't know the history behind this kava stick I was given by the village high chief during a Ava ceremony welcoming me to the Village of Tufulele before a health training session I was part of with the Ministry of Education, Sports, and Culture. I do know being offered the first cup of ava at the Ava ceremony means you are the honored person, or I have never seen one of the three sticks ever given to anyone else, or the fact that some of the ceremony was done in English for my benefit rather than in the highly formal spoken at village councils that even most Samoans do not understand. This is a very important piece of cellulose containing some great alkaloids.

So at the Honolulu airport baggage claim after customs, I set the kava stick against the wall along side of my luggage. A few moments later I see my stick moving off into the distance being carried by a well-dressed middle-aged Chinese woman. I run after the thief as she hurries away, grabbing the stick out of her hand. "What the hell?", I say to her. Since she probably does not speak English and I am too dumbfounded to say more, I just stand there in a dazed state as she disappears into the crowd.

Only a few billion people in the world understand the importance and significance of kava/ava, South Pacific islanders, China, and some Peace Corps. As for my kava stick, it needs to find a prominent spot in my Minneapolis house where it may hang until someone throws it into the fireplace on a cold winter's night and unexpectedly feels a sense of euphoria known to others for centuries.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Departing Thoughts

August 25, 2011

Was it worth it? I mean leaving my family to return to Samoa as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer.

For me, yes. For others, I guess you have to ask them.

What I wanted to do more than anything else was to significantly impact the way Samoans relate weight to health. Obesity is the “Elephant in the room”. It is so big as to be almost unrecognizable by those in the room and seemingly too big to tame. Yet, obesity is the reason why so many Samoans suffer from its effects of diabetes, hypertension, sleep disorders, gout, and joint problems. It saps the strength of this tiny and once vigorous nation.

Call it a gimmick or a stroke of understanding, but 5,000 pink vinyl wristbands, a Samoan BMI chart, and Biblical verses served as my entry into the Samoan mind. They served to demonstrate how a simple program, offering a simple message, and being demonstrated in a simple, yet Samoan way, can affect people’s behavior. The monster could be tackled, only if the “man in the mirror” cares to recognize the problem as his own.

It is now time to collect and analyze the data. A concluding report needs to be written and hopefully read. The data and report cannot convey the feeling of a woman who is having sex again or a person who feels better because a wristband can be slipped off a once chubby hand, or people walking, or drinking water, or taking the salt container off the table. Samoans, like anyone else in the world, want to look, feel, and be better.

What is next for me?

For the Peace Corps there is a report on ways volunteer teachers can provide some health education for children, parents, and teachers where none exists today, and to see if an organization would sponsor another Peace Corps Response Volunteer.

For my nascent efforts with the Ministry of Education, Sports, and Culture, their Sports for Development program and the Australian Sports Authority who are sponsoring that program, I have a sense of a continued relationship in the months ahead. Their combined resources are what are needed to affect real change.

Finally, it is off to a West Virginia mountain top camp, along with others who served with Mary and me, over Labor Day weekend to attend the wedding of Hannah Goldman and her Samoan fiancé, Jay. Then there is a trip to The Gambia in Africa next month to visit another Peace Corps Volunteer.

My Peace Corps luggage tag reads, “Life is calling. How far will you go?”

I wish I knew the answer.

I do know how lucky I am to have the opportunity to apply what few skills I possess and to have an understanding, supportive family.

Now it is time to start my 48 hour journey back home to those whom I love.

Dinner with Dale

August 24, 2011

Dale Withington is the Peace Corps Country Director in Samoa. He is also a former Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines and Country Director of Peace Corps in Micronesia. Probably his most noteworthy achievement is to marry, Lucy, whom he met while living in Indonesia. Besides being beautiful, Lucy is a great cook, and I love Indonesian food.

For my last dinner in Samoa, Dale invited me to join his other guests for one of Lucy’s “little meals”.

Dale Withington. Lucy, and family.
Lucy's meal.

Goodbye to Nick and Mary

August 22, 2011

The Nick and Mary I am talking about are the two children named after us. It is I who is saying the goodbye.

Sister Losa, nun and Kapeli's sister; Easter, Kapeli's daughter with her children, Malia and Nicholas at their new house in Moamoa, Apia.

Visit with Kapeli Family

August 21, 2011

It is hard to describe the inclusiveness of a Samoan family. A Samoan family is like a magnet pulling others into its arms and embracing them whether you want to be or not. Once within this field you are one of them forever. To visit is a misnomer because it is more of a reuniting. Such is my stay on my last weekend in Samoa after having to text them of having to return to Apia for missing wristbands and cutting my stay from two to one night.

There is no such thing as one family picture for the family is an ever changing kaleidoscope of those within its grasp.

Falani, son. with cousin, Tui, preparing Number 2 size pig for the umu, Samoan pit oven.

Manuli, daughter; Lucia, daughter; me; Saloti, wife; Kapeli, husband wearing St. Patrick's Day shamrocks on head which I brought and everyone wore; and little Lawrence, the baby Mary used to hold.
Tali, daughter; big Lawrence; Fa'apisa Sr., Lawrence's wife and sister of Kapeli, Fa'aputa, son; Manuli, daughter. Front row: little Lawrence with assorted cousins.
Lawrence Sr and wife, Fa'apisa, used to live in Hawaii and now are building a house at this site on the Kapeli family plantation. Lawrence Sr., never happier.

Back row: Salafai, son of Ime and Tupe; Manuli, Tali, and Taitaia, daughters. Middle row: Tui, son of Ime and Tupe; Fa'apisa, youngest child and daughter; Fa'apiano, daughter of Ime and Tupe. Front: Saloti, Kapeli's wife; Kapeli; Fa'apisa, Kapeli's sister; Ime, Kapeli's sister; Tupe, Ime's husband.

The family had prepared a concert for me in their open Samoan house. Since it was Sunday evening, they had to sing softly.

Ben's Garden

August 20, 2011

Ben Harding is a volunteer from my original Peace Corps Group 78 who married to a Samoan beauty and is staying on living with her family at his Peace Corps village on Savaii. Ben and I share a passion for gardening. Ben is more serious and successful than I ever could be.

Ben Harding and his garden

Ben's special variety of Bok Choy, Chinese Cabbage, grown for more seeds.

Stolen Wristbands

August 20, 2011

Nothing is ever stolen in Samoa, things just go missing.

The next morning after the Rock da Boat experience, I take the ferry to deliver awards to some of the volunteers on the island of Savaii who did not make trip into Apia, to spend the next two nights with my old host family in the Village of Iva, and specifically to have a rare Sunday meeting with the head nurse at the hospital on Savaii to deliver 120 wristbands for the island’s hospital staff.

When what to my panicky eyes should appear at the farthest point of Savaii is my car sans wristbands. The wristbands are the reason for my trip.

The missing wristbands can only be at one of the following: the Peace Corps office, the Maona Blue Restaurant, or my house, all of which are in Apia, a long and ferry ride away.

I have to admit to driving slightly above the 25 mph Samoan speed limit to reach the last ferry of the day three minutes before it leaves the wharf.

No wristbands at the Peace Corps office in Apia.

Next, the floating restaurant where the employees proudly show me their wristbands of which I have no recollection of giving them. An empty wristband box under a table is an indication I may be on to something. Upon further inquiry wristbands emerge from deep within a drawer behind the bar, and my surgical scissors from the manager’s purse. Everyone is happy.

Early the following Sunday morning, it is back to the ferry and Savaii to continue my trip minus an unknown number of pink wristbands.

Rock da Boat Recognition Dinner

August 19, 2011

One of the nagging issues with being a Peace Corps Volunteer is not to be recognized for your service. No one seems to care or notice the fact you are in some remote, dirty school, trying your best to teach children English so they can get a job later in life.

Being in sympathy with their plight and having reallocated my Health Challenge Grant, I held a Recognition Dinner on a floating restaurant in Apia harbor, Maona Blue, followed by a harbor “Rock da Boat” cruise. Also all 30+ participating Health Challenge volunteers received a hand sewn gift made by the beloved Peace Corps nurse, Teuila Pati.

Below are some pictures of the event:

Dinner aboard the "Maona Blue" floating restaurant

Chelsea Kovacs, Lilly Watson, and Rachel Goldstein
A Vailima bottle, Chelsea, Rachel, and Matt Kaplan

Chris Rocchio with Clint, a pharmacist at the National Hospital

and supplier of my diabetes testing equipment.

Rivka Rocchio, Olivia Hanson. Kate Klane, Rachel Camp, and Mike Jeter

Jenny McCracken, Dan Butterfoss, Mike Aboraand, and Kalien O.

Alberta Malielegaoi, the Prime Minister's daughter, and me

Robert Gonzales Kareoke with Jenny Sutherland and Rachel Camp

Da Boys on Da Boat

Mike Jeter, Chris Rocchio, and Devon Childress

Samantha Marenell at Falefa

August 17, 2011

It had to happen, the last primary school to be tested and receive wristbands.

This one is in the Village of Falefa. The Peace Corps Volunteer teacher is Samantha Maranell from Wascea, Minnesota.

Many schools have a day where teachers all wear the same outfit. This outfit is one of my favorites. In the middle is the school principle. Two down from her left is the he/she teacher appropriately dressed in a different outfit. You have got to love Samoa!

Falefa children wristbandized.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How many Samoans can you fit into a bus?

August 13, 2011

Guessing the number of Samoans you can fit into a bus is more difficult than guessing the jelly beans in a jar. Here is the calculus.

The average adult Samoan weighs 210 pounds, not including baggage. The bus has a listed capacity of 33 persons. Everyone by law must be seated. Children or an adult sitting on a lap is permissible.

Common sense prevails in a tightly packed bus which needs to travel a couple of hours; nothing can move or fall to be injured. The law then begins to break down, as no one is ever denied a ride. The police are there to help squeeze one more person on board.

Hand of God

August 13, 2011

When Divine Intervention happens, you should not question the how or why. Here is my D.I. story.

While rushing to catch the ferry back to the island of Upolu and being hungry because there was no power at the Sekia Pizza stand on the north side of the island, I heard a strange knocking sound coming from my rental car’s engine. I pull into a parking spot in front of a Salelologo store where there is usually a person selling barbeque something. No barbeque, but also no starting of my car.

A panic begins to settle in as my ferry is at the dock and waits for no man. I mentally start to run down the list of possible problems. Battery, no. Gas, no. Must be under the hood. But as I emerge from the car, a man is already lifting the hood. He checks the oil. No oil. The radiator. No water. My God, this is serious. Father’s Day weekend in Samoa is like Christmas Day in the U.S. You may not get help until after New Year’s.

The man tells me the store sells oil as he sends a boy to get water for the radiator. He confidently adds oil and water, turning the engine with each addition to insure proper lubrication and cooling.

Who could this man be? I ask him his name and tell him mine.

“I know”, he says as he puffs on his cigarette, “you lived with the Kapeli family in Iva. I am the acolyte at the Catholic Church in Saleavalu.”

“I didn’t recognize you without your robes”, I humbly say, swallowing hard.

Such is Samoa, a small island country touched by the Hand of God.

P.S. The car seems to be running fine. Hope it lasts for the next ten days.

Exercise, Samoan Style

August 12, 2011

Samoans relate exercise to health. In fact next to prayer, exercise is the elixir for a long life. When I mention a “health program”, Samoans immediately think it is an exercise/dance program; the idea of what or how much you eat just isn’t even a passing possibility. There is little wonder that the millions spent on loudspeaker systems and “exercise” programs has done next to nothing in combatting the tsunami of diabetes and hypertension.

One can hardly accuse Samoans for their health situation when even their government refuses to acknowledge what all their leaders are, obese. Yet despite all obstacles, Samoans are extremely interested in their health and will get up early in the morning or afternoon to do what they have been told makes them healthy, size or diet never being mentioned.

The following video shows an exercise session in the Village of Patemea, on Savaii. Normally there are about 30 women who participate, but this Friday afternoon before the major holiday of Father’s Day, only a few showed up for exercise. Later after I joined the dance group, it became apparent they could be weighed, showed where they stood on a BMI chart, and receive a bottle of honey, the numbers grew.

Testing on Savaii

August 12, 2011

Here are some more photos of Peace Corps teachers helping in the screening for diabetes and hypertension while trying to inform the citizenry about BMI and the relationship between weight and health while distributing flyers and wristbands to school children.

Olivia Hanson

Jenny Sutherland

Rachel Goldstein and Sina

August 11, 2011

Rachel Goldstein is a rural primary school Peace Corps teacher. Whenever I have the opportunity, I try to show these volunteers my and their government’s appreciation by taking them out to dinner after a day of testing. This time I had the honor of having Rachel Goldstein join me for dinner at Stevenson’s Resort in Manase.

Of course Rachel is lovely standing before the gigantic carved mural. The mural depicts a Samoan legend, dear to all Samoans, of how the coconut, Samoa’s most important food, came to this island in the middle of the Pacific. But what is fascinating, besides Rachel, are the words above the mural. In English, it is “Sina and the eel”; in Samoan, it is, “Sina ma lana tuna.”

The Samoan language has gender neutral pronouns. You intuitively add the gender possession to the sentence’s subject. Back to Sina.

The translation from Samoan to English should be, “Sina and her eel”, tuna being the Samoan word for eel, lana the pronoun. As every Samoan knows, the legend is a very sexual one, as the tuna seduces Sina. “The” instead of “her” completely changes the whole relationship of the legend, changing the mural from a deeply significant relationship, full of questions for the unknowing, into an interesting carving of a girl and an eel.

“Sina and her eel” typify the problem of understanding between peoples and cultures. What sounds like bombastic rhetoric when translated from another language to English, may be nothing more than flowery poetic words or visa versa. We may never know the meaning and the exact translation may be impossible; yet we must try.

Living in amidst a different culture is like “Sina and the (her) eel”. It is a constant struggle of getting through each day, thinking you know what is happening, but really being totally clueless. At the end of the day, you collapse from the exhaustion of simply coping. Of course, there is a solution of simply killing them all, but that is job for the other “Corps”.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What I am learning

August 7, 2011

When I look back on these past months and weeks, I feel they have been more of a learning process in attempting to find ways to better Samoan’s health and lives. Here are a few of my thoughts.

Ignorance is Not Bless

There is almost no attempt by schools and health departments to educate Samoan adults and children about the effects of obesity. Simply weighing people and determining what color on a Samoan BMI chart (red being obese, yellow overweight, green normal) raises their attention level and concern. Providing easy-to-read health tips gives some information they can use to reduce weight. The National Health Service does screen rural villages, but unless they are critically ill, which many of the elderly are, they receive no preventative medical information. The schools likewise have no consistent health program for students or parents. When authority figures from the Prime Minister and other governmental ministers, to nurses, to teachers, to village mati, to ministers are among the most obese, it is understandable of their reluctance to tackle the subject. But, tackle it they must, if they are to serve the citizenry. It is not that Samoans think being obese is beautiful or their fate; it is they simply don’t know how to prevent obesity and its consequences.

Role of Peace Corps

All Peace Corps Volunteers in Samoa are now teachers of ESL in rural primary schools with a secondary mission of community health. The school is their world and any health program needs to have as its base, the school. When teachers are screened or find out what color they are on the BMI chart, obesity becomes a personal subject affecting them. They realize their role in teaching youngsters about obesity is also their role of parent and spouse. The teachers get the message making it easier for the Peace Corps Volunteer to conduct health education, not only in the school, but bringing them in contact with the wider community. The Peace Corps experience becomes more rewarding.

The Bible

Samoans may not understand Western concepts of BMI ratios, nutrition, calories, vitamins, cholesterol, etc., but they do understand that what is said in the Holy Bible is an indisputable fact. Fortunately, the Bible has passages on taking care of “God’s body” and the sins of overindulgence and gluttony. The Bible is how to be understood in Samoan.

The Message

The concepts of obesity and resultant diabetes, hypertension, and joint problems are difficult for anyone to comprehend, let alone change life-long which are the leading causes. The message needs to address the major causes in a language which is understood and is doable. Since the causes of obesity are many and varied, one needs to choose the message and cause carefully. Water and salt are messages I find easily understood and doable.

Water: Samoans drink very little of it. The water they do consume is sweetened in the form of koko Samoa, tea, and soft drinks. The amount of sugar consumed in a day by the average Samoan can range from 10-100 tablespoons of sugar a day. Samoans start heaping tablespoons of it when they get up and throughout the day, ending just before going to sleep. Sugar is probably the single biggest expense any family spends on food. How this habit started, I don’t know, but I do know a lot of what they drink is because they are thirsty. Their body’s grave water, their taste buds trained on sugar.

My message is “Water comes from God (the sky, heaven), unsweetened. Sugared drinks are to make money, not for your health. Drink two glasses of water when you wake up, and 10-15 minutes before you eat. You won’t be as thirsty for sweetened drinks. Carry water with you. Drink it when you are thirsty or hungry”. I bring a bag of only 150 tablespoons of sugar and a Coke bottle with a corresponding amount of raw sugar as a demonstration. Of course, they ask whether I plan to leave the bag of sugar at the conclusion of my demonstration. My homily is longer than this, but you get the message and the depth of the problem.

A liter of bottled water cost $4 WST, a liter of Coke costs $5 WST, and a liter of beer $10 WST.

Salt: The consumption of salt by Samoans is only exceeded by sugar. Salted canned meats, salted corn beef, handfuls of salt go into a pot of soup, dumping heaps of salt on the food you are served even before tasting, it is on everything. Little wonder combined with obesity the levels of high blood pressure are among the highest in the world and why they are so thirsty. Like sugar, salting of food is a habit, done thoughtlessly.

Since I can’t turn people into pillars of salt, I ask why they don’t drink sea water. After all 250 milliliters of sea water contains about a teaspoon of salt, the minimum daily amount. I show them a small can of corned beef and canned fish in tomato sauce which each contains the same amount of salt as 250 milliliters of sea water. They drool over the can of corned beef which is like giving a bottle of good wine in the U.S.

I am having trouble finding a biblical passage about consuming too much salt, so my words fade in the sound of the pounding surf. “Just don’t put the container of salt on the table”, I plead.” There is enough salt in what you eat to keep you healthy.” Habits are hard to break, including mine of sounding like Jimmy Swaggert.

Of course, I have learned a lot more, including of knowing when people have read enough of this blog.

Week 17

August 5, 2011

This past week was a whirlwind of activity, staying overnight in places of luxury and “rusticness”, screening people for diabetes and hypertension, adding schools and school children to the program, and distributing 1,000 bottles of virgin coconut oil and honey, as I travelled to visit all the participating Peace Corps Volunteers in Samoa. As a little extra, there was training for the Ministry of Education, Sports, and Culture personnel on Savaii. Here are some of the highlights of the past week.

Samoan View

Vaisala Bay, Savaii
Chelsea Kovacs and school teachers
Rachel Camp leading her class

Rachel's class with pink wristbands

Wild screen as Rachel's class leave for home

Olivia Hansen and Iva Women's Committee

Iva women displaying wristbands after being weighed and taking the "Pledge"

Getting BMI during training of employees from Ministry of Education, Sports, and Culture

More wristbands on more Samoans. Ministry changed name of their program to "The Pink Challenge"

Drinking water instead of sweetened drinks with lunch, a first for most.

Karen Corey weighing children at her school

Karen's class of 6-8th graders Children of Matautu, school of Jenny McCracken Kalein O'Connell and her school

A typical Samoan teacher who has what I call "Teacher's Disease"