Talent Quest

In the last week of Term 1, my school held a program called the Talent Quest. We had the students separated into their houses (Red, Yellow, Blue and Green) and had each age group perform certain “talents.” Years 1-3 had to sing a song with English words. Years 4-6 had to pick a country and perform a dance depicting that country.

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But the main event of the day came from Years 7-8. We had picked a theme, “Keep Samoa Clean,” and students in Years 7-8 had to create clothing from different kinds of trash (Styrofoam cups/plates, plastic spoons and forks, old CD’s and DVD’s, bottle tops, pop cans, and empty chip bags). Each house had a different trash item to collect and make clothing out of it. Two students (one girl and one boy) from each house then had to give a speech on what we can do as a community to keep Samoa clean, such as properly dispose of trash or reuse trash to make something completely new.

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This was an awesome day! I was one of the judges of the Talent Quest, with one of my other teachers. We created a rubric for each of the categories, and added up the total points to determine a winner. I love watching my students perform something that they have worked so hard for – I got teary eyed because I am so proud of all of their effort! Parents and community members came, and it was so great to see them supporting the students! It is also a great way to raise awareness for different issues, such as the environment.

I am so lucky to be involved in a school and with a staff of women who create opportunities to include all community members in learning!

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Fa’amati

The fa’amati is an annual event in the church in which the deacon of each district travels to all of the churches to inspect the maintenance of the church, the pastor’s house, and to see the donations the congregation has made that year. These donations change per church, but include things such as woven fine mats, dishes for the church to use in events, towels, sheets, basins for washing hands, serving utensils, etc. Whatever the church needs that year is what the congregation will provide.

I wrote about being a part of the fa’amati last year, when I was the sua and carried a niu to the deacon’s wife as an important woman of the village. This year, my pastor told me that I would go with his wife, who travels with the deacon to all of the churches in our district. If I had known what I was getting myself into, I would have said no.

At 6:00am Tuesday morning, I was dressed in a puletasi and at my pastor’s house waiting for the car to come pick us up. We drove about 20 minutes to the start of our district, where we would begin the inspections. We sat at this village waiting for the deacon for 2 hours. Apparently they had some car trouble on the way, so they were late.

When they arrived, we inspected the church, and the pastor’s house. We then made our way over to the church hall, where the women had gathered to show us this year’s donation to the church. But first, the village matais gave speeches and held an ava ceremony for the deacon and his wife. After the ava ceremony was over, and I had been proposed to by multiple men, the women started the presentation of the donations. When this was finished, we then ate breakfast. Everyone had told me going into this day that I would have a lot of food. Knowing this, I paced myself and only ate a few things. This turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes I made all day.

Once everyone was fed, we had the final speeches and the exchanging of money and other gifts. We then packed up our things to go and went to the next church. By the time we left this first church, it was 10:00am. It was then that I realized this was going to be a long day. We had 8 more churches to go.

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The same thing happened at all of the other churches: the inspection of church and house, the presentation of gifts, food, and exchange of money. I was proposed to at all of the churches, all of which came from men at least twice my age. People were not lying – there was a lot of food. But the problem is we had so many places to go that there wasn’t enough time to actually eat. I returned home exhausted after 8:00pm with mats, necklaces, money, and trays and trays of food.

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While this was a different and interesting cultural experience, it was also one of the worst days I’ve had in Samoa. For starters, I was tired and hungry. And you know how grumpy I get when I am hungry. But it can also be very frustrating to see how much money people give to high members of the church, and how much money these high members expect each church to give. I know of many stories of people who cannot afford food or soap, but they give money to the church. While this is a great sentiment, and these people literally give everything they have to the church, it makes me sad that this is the reality. Most of the churches I’ve gone to stand up and say who has given what amount of money at the end of every service. Everyone knows if someone doesn’t have money in a given week. They spend money at church to save face rather than choosing to eat. And I was frustrated that I was there because it meant that the church felt obligated to give me money as well. I walked away with $50-$200 per church. I do not need this money, and the fact that I was there made me mad at my pastor for forcing these other churches to accommodate me, mad at myself for being an unexpected burden on an already lean time, and recognizing this anger at each of the 9 churches added to an already tiring day.

As I am on the home-stretch of my service (8 months to go!) I find myself struggling much more with some cultural aspects in Samoa. In my first year, everything I did was a new, cultural experience and I was just along for the ride. But now that I’ve been here for so long, and I’ve experienced all of these events once already, it is easier for me to judge and become frustrated with the way things are. And it is sometimes hard to let go of the thought that I am here to change things. I am not here to change the culture. Not only is that impossible to do within a 2 year period, but I also have no right to do that. Who am I to say that they are doing something wrong, just because it is something different than I’m used to?

As frustrated as I get here, there are also an equal number of things that bring me such joy. I was talking with another PCV the other day about how weird it is to think that we will be back in America at this time next year. We both agreed that there are moments when we think to ourselves “Get me on the next plane out of this country,” and in the next moment can think “I am never leaving Samoa.” I don’t think I have ever wanted opposite things equally as much before. To say the Peace Corps is a roller-coaster of emotions is an understatement.

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Samoan Baby Showers

The Samoan baby shower is a little bit different than the typical baby shower you think of in America. It takes place after the baby is born, and is more a prayer service and ceremony to celebrate the birth of a healthy child. Everyone who wants to can come – there is no invite list, although it is typically important members of the community (usually at least one matai will show up) and close family and friends. With the exception of the matai(s) and the pastor, there are no men who come to the prayer. The father and all of the other men are in the back preparing the food for the guests. I have been to quite a few of these ceremonies, and I have only been to one in which the father was present during the prayer. When I asked my sister why the father doesn’t go, she said it is because he is so busy doing all of the chores (preparing the food, cleaning the house, etc) to prepare for the ceremony while the mom and the baby rest. It sounds like a pretty good set up to me. J

People come bearing gifts of money, items for the baby (like blankets, clothes or diapers) and laundry soap. Before you knock it, laundry soap is one of the most common gifts in Samoa – it is frequently a prize for bingo – and it is also one of the most useful things that a person can receive. When you do laundry by hand, almost every day, you can go through it pretty quickly. The pastor and his wife come to read a Bible passage (or 2 or 3, depending on who comes), give a short sermon, and say a prayer for the beginning of this new life. Even though I do not fully understand what the pastor says, I still get teary-eyed as I sit in the room full of people who have come to share their love for a new member of the community. Some things have no language barrier.

After the prayer, out comes the food. As with all other Samoan events, the food is served in a white, Styrofoam plate. Usually there is fried chicken, sausage, chicken curry, some sort of beef/veggie stir fry, and taro. After people have finished eating this, they bring out the tea and crackers or bread and butter. Everyone sits around drinking tea, talking and celebrating the baby.

This is an awesome cultural experience, no matter how well I know the family or the people at the ceremony. However, last week, my neighbor gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, whom she named Rebecca in my honor. Traditionally when a Peace Corps Volunteer is around, there will be quite a few babies named after them, if they are born during the Volunteer’s service. As this is the first baby named after me, it was the talk of the town. Everyone was mad it took so long for this to happen, but are also very excited that there will now forever be a little Rebecca running around. And let me tell you, it makes you feel pretty darn awesome to have someone named in your honor.

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The Samoan Funeral

A while ago, I talked about the fa’alavelave, or a word that can mean any sort of problem that can arise in Samoan life. Most frequently, the word “fa’alavelave” (pronounced fah-ah-la-vay-la-vay) is used to describe a funeral. And let me tell you, Samoans do not mess around when it comes to funerals. These are multiple day events, people come back from overseas, and all extra-curricular activities in the village are put on hold until after the funeral has been held. Which means all rugby games, all bingo, all volleyball goes on a temporary hiatus out of respect for the person and the family.

The first day, they have the church service (what we would know as the actual funeral portion), in which all family members (and I mean ALL) get up to share stories about the person. There are always tears, usually laughs, and often, the family members get up and sing a song dedicated to the deceased. I have not been to one of these church services that has lasted less than 3 hours. As the people walk out of the church, some of the family members are there to hand out the Styrofoam plates of food and water bottles. The people then disperse to rest for a few hours until the next event.

Later on that night, after it gets dark, the choirs from all of the churches in the village gather at the house of the deceased to sing a few songs and say a prayer. This part of the fa’alavelave is called the leo. “Leo” is the Samoan word for voice or sound. This is the American equivalent of a wake. The body is in the front of the fale, surrounded by the family members. The choir sits facing the body as we sing and pray with the family. There are 5 churches in my village, and each choir sings for approximately 45 minutes to an hour.

There are very few times, even in game-like situations, in which I see Samoans more competitive than at the leo. All of the choir directors get there as soon as they can, and it is a race to see who can get into the house first. If a choir butts in line, it causes a lot of muttering among the other choirs. You might think it doesn’t matter, and that they should be more conscious of the fact that a person just died and we are there to show support. Before I had gone to a leo, I would agree with that. However, think about it: If there are 5 choirs, and each choir takes 45 minutes to an hour, it means you just sit outside the house and wait for your turn. And you wait for your turn. And you wait. Often you haven’t eaten because you will receive a plate of food (yep, in another white Styrofoam plate) after you sing. The leo does not begin until at least 9:00pm. There are many times when we have not even gotten up to sing until at least midnight. So, cutting in line justifies the other choirs in making comments.

The next day, another church service is held. This is almost exactly the same as the day before. The family members again get up to speak and share their stories. After this church service, everyone goes back to the family’s house for the burial. Samoans bury all family members in graves in their yards. They are usually unmarked, but everyone knows who is buried where. As the body is lowered into the ground, the people throw flowers, grass, or leaves into the grave and say “Manuia le Malaga” or “Have a nice trip.”

This is usually the end of the fa’alavelave that involves the community. It can often take place over the course of a week, or it can take place all in one day. It depends on the family or the situation. I have been to more funerals in Samoa than I have in my whole life. Death is such a natural part of the Samoan life. It is never easy to say good-bye to someone that you love, but there is an atmosphere of acceptance at these funerals. Samoans accept that death is as much a part of life as anything else. They know that it will be hard to continue forward without this person, but inevitably, life goes on. Being here, I’ve learned that all situations can be handled like a Samoan funeral: with a tears, laughs, support from community members, and an acceptance that life happens and we continue on no matter what.

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