A Fun and Gratifying Experience

A story came up on my facebook recently, a girl congratulating her sister for completing her Peace Corps service. Someone commented and said “what a fun and gratifying experience,” and it took a whole lot of will power NOT to contradict a total stranger on the internet.

 

There are a lot of words I would use to describe the Peace Corps experience, but “fun” is not at the top of the list. And a lot of the time, either is “gratifying.” I know you all see pictures of me in Samoa, and think that it is all just drinking coconuts and sitting on the beach. And I’m not going to lie, that is part of it. But what you might not understand is how much of a release that is. Village and school life is hard to say the least.

 

I think a lot of people think about the Peace Corps and picture Bono surrounded by a bunch of laughing African children and assume that is what life is like for 2 years. I’m sorry to be the one to burst your bubble, but…it’s not. The majority of my time is spent in the nitty gritty daily life. And in the future, when someone asks me “how was the Peace Corps?” I can guarantee that “fun” will not be the word I use.

 

Challenging. Messy. Frustrating. Never-ending. But also eye-opening. Heart-breaking. Life-changing. Joyful. Powerful. How is it possible to sum up 2 years of your life in just a few words? The word changes based on the moment in which you ask me.

 

The Peace Corps motto rings true: this truly is the hardest job I will ever love. Because at the end of the day, despite everything I go through, I love it. I know I don’t have a lot of experience in the job world yet, but I have a very hard time believing that anything I do in the rest of my life will be as formative as these 2 years in the Peace Corps. My service has pushed me to my limits, tested me in more ways than I thought would be possible. It has also expanded and changed my perspective of the world. It has opened my eyes to the benefits and difficulties that exist in all cultures and countries, including the United States. When I am back in America, I have no doubt that I will look back on this experience with rose-colored glasses. But even then, when everything I remember is great and wonderful, the word I use to describe it will not be “fun.”

 

“Fun” is for week long vacations. “Fun” is for a weekend away with friends and family. “Fun” is even for those few hours spent talking to friends on a random day. But the Peace Corps is so much more than that. The Peace Corps is about presenting America in a positive way, all the while respecting the local culture and customs. It is about integrating into the daily life while keeping your American identity. You will ask yourself many complex life questions: “who am I?” and “what am I doing here?” And many days, there will be no answers. But there are also those shining moments when everything becomes clear, and you suddenly know with confidence. The Peace Corps is full 2 years of transition that you willingly enter into: a time of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and questioning. Everyone faces these questions throughout their lives, but the Peace Corps makes you face them when you are down and vulnerable, with nothing familiar to turn to. If you can get through that, everything else is a piece of cake.

 

I think the most important question, therefore, to ask is not “how was the Peace Corps?” but “would you choose to do it again?” That, at least, is a one-word answer.

 

Yes.

 

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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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