Thursday, November 1, 2007

40 years of Peace Corps in Sāmoa

Fire Dancer

We were lucky enough to arrive in Sāmoa in time for the fortieth anniversary of Peace Corps in Sāmoa. The celebration was the second weekend we were in town and RPCVs from the first two groups were in country for the celebration. These returned Volunteers were the first ones on the ground in Sāmoa in 1967 when PC started here. It was extremely interesting to meet them and to hear their stories.

We actually got an early taste of the RPCV when we ran into a group while we were out to dinner at the Rainforest Café. We were told they could tell we were new because some of us were drinking wine instead of the local beer, Vailima.


The first event for the several-day long celebration was a parade of sorts from the PC headquarters to downtown lead by the police band early Friday morning. Then there were speeches from the country director of PC, the charge d’affairs from the U.S. consulate and none other than the Prime Minister of Sāmoa. It was pretty amazing to see the prime minister of a country giving a speech in the open meeting fale to a small group of people with no pomp or circumstance. One of the RPCV also gave a speech; he had actually served as the country director in Sāmoa several years ago, in addition to being one of the original volunteers.

There were other events during the day, but we couldn’t stay because we were packing for our village visit that we would be leaving for on Saturday afternoon.

Friday night was the fiafia. Usually a welcome fiafia (party) is held for the new PC trainees their first weekend in town. The current volunteers put it on. However, because of these extraordinary circumstances, this welcome fiafia we held a week later and the RPCVs were the guests of honor. I mean, how often does a group of original volunteers return to Sāmoa on the 40th anniversary?

The fiafia was pretty cool. At the end of the ava ceremony, one of the original RPCV (have I mentioned that stands for returned peace corps volunteer) gave a fine, woven Sāmoan mat that he had received during his tour 40 years ago to Aaron, one of the guys in our group. During the events, he had discovered that he and Aaron were from the same hometown in Oregon. He charged Aaron with returning to Sāmoa in 40 years to pass it on to another volunteer.


After that the current volunteers put on a show for us with Sāmoan siva (dancing) and pesie (singing). It was pretty fabulous. I did have a little trouble because I had unknowingly sat at the end of the row in the audience. Anytime the dancers or performers wanted to pull someone in form the audience, it ended up being me. And you know how much I love being the center of attention and being awkward in front of an audience. Add to that I was tired and hot and hungry and I was a little upset for a little while after the performances.

We also had a fire dancer perform. She was one of the Year 9 girls from the school where the fiafia was hosted, Kolisi o Sānele. She was probably about 13 years old and she rocked. It was amazing.

After the show was the feast. The current volunteers had prepared for us a smorgasbord of food. It included two cooked pigs and other Sāmoan foods, but there were also refried beans and pasta salad and rice krispy treats and other palagi foods.

Something pretty exciting about the whole event was that the head of state came and sat in the front row with the country director and watched the whole thing. He didn’t want to be introduced and it was all very chill and under the radar, but still very prestigious that he was there. I know I mentioned earlier that the PM was at the morning events; this is a different guy. He is a little like royalty, the way the Queen in the head of state in England, but different. In Sāmoa every family has it’s own matai title and villages have high chief and orator matai titles. There are four families that have the highest matai titles possible and it is one of these matais (a first among equals of the other families) who is the head of state. He also happens to be the PC training coordinator’s uncle. I hope I have explained this correctly. If not, I will get back to you to correct myself.

On Saturday we went to a symposium organized for the 40th. There was a panel of RPCV who talked about their time here. One woman returned to the states to get her nursing license and work in public health when she was done with the PC, something she had no background in before. She discovered once she moved to her village, people came to her with their medical troubles because she had a PC medical kit and that sparked her interest in the field. Another man actually went on to be the country director in Sāmoa years later. He also was a graduate of the public health doctorate program at Mizzou, so I talked to him for a bit with that as an introduction.

During the panel he talked about how your PC experience will be what you make of it. He shared a story of a time in country when he was trying to build chicken coops, but he had no hammer. He found himself sitting there, wondering what he would do with out a hammer and so he turned, picked up a rock and used it as a hammer for his coops. He said not to focus on what you don’t have, but to instead focus on what you do have and make that work for you. Another volunteer talked about how there wasn’t one epiphany moment for him where PC changed his life, but he did say:

You will benefit. I promise you that.

We had to leave the symposium early because we were leaving for our host village — which is a story for another day.

— Sara

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