Monday, February 28, 2011

One Stick at a Time

I have made it no secret to those I've talked to at home and some of the other volunteers here that the corporal punishment/child abuse that I see nearly every day is quite bothersome, to say the least. This post is a continuation of a past post entitled "Observations on Sasa."

My presence, which would hopefully prevent some corporal punishment, hasn't really seemed to accomplish that. Today may have been the first day at school I didn't see a child get hit really hard; probably because I was the one teaching them. (That's right, today was my first official day teaching my own classes! I teach Year 7 English and a remedial reading class for some of the Year 7 students. They're about sixth graders, but their US English equivalent is about kindergarten to 3rd grade). However, sometimes I do overhear in Samoan, "I'd hit you right now, but Sema's here."

A few weeks ago, I had my first (and only) triumph against corporal punishment. It was the first time in Samoa that I have felt like I did anything that I envisioned Peace Corps to be about. The Year 7 teacher, our only male teacher, hit three students in one day with a huge stick. And when I say stick, I don't mean some little branch. I mean a 5 to 10 centimeter width stick. To the back and to the legs. It was the first time I ever showed a reaction to a beating. All the kids know I don't like it when they get hit, so when these kids got beat with a stick, all their eyes were on me to see my reaction. Usually, I try to look judgemental or like I am looking my nose down at the teacher doing the beating. But this time, I couldn't conceal a flinch and a wince. I wanted to take the kids outside and comfort them, check for whelts. I didn't. But at interval (lunch/recess) I talked to the Year 7 teacher. "Can you not use the stick to hit the kids? It's really hard and it leaves marks." That honestly was the jist of my argument. He didn't say he would stop and just kind of tried to justify himself: "They make me so mad." Well, later in the day, I noticed him getting mad again, but he wasn't going for the stick or raising a hand. Then he explained half in Samoan, half in English that "Sema gave him some advice" and he won't use the stick to hit the kids anymore. One of the boys, Junior, turned to me and gave me a thumbs up. Another boy, William, mouthed "Thank you." At least for that one moment, my being here actually made a difference. ...........That, however, doesn't mean that the kids don't still get hit.

A few days ago, I was in my kitchen and I heard these loud whacks. I looked out a window and a group of kids was staring into the not-so-far distance. I looked out another window, and there was the faife'au (pastor) beating two girls with a giant stick. My first reaction was, "What kind of a place is this where 'a man of God' is beating children with sticks?!" But then another Peace Corps reminded me that, "Pastors back home rape little kids." That did not help. Besides, pastors raping children is not happening right in front of my eyes; it is not something that I can stop so easily.

This next one qualifies as a Peace Corps horror story, so if you're squeamish or have an all-too-romanticized view of the Peace Corps, turn away, and join me in the next paragraph. This story comes from another Peace Corps volunteer here in Samoa. The taule'ale'a (untitled men) were at his school cutting the grass with machetes (that's just how they do it). One of the men had his hand in a door. A kid accidentally shut the door on his hand. The man then sliced the kid's hand open with the machete and proceeded to chase the kid while the child's hand gushed blood. Not until a teacher yelled, "Stop. The Peace Corps is here" did the man stop.

Another kind of disturbing facet of the hitting culture here is that girls will even whale on other girls. Or male teachers will slap female students. Oh, and as a reminder, or in case I haven't said it yet, corporal punishment is illegal in Samoa.

Back when we lived in Tafitoala, the first time we ever went to watch youth siva practice, the woman in charge hit nearly every person there. (These are 15-23 year-olds we're talking about.) It became a game for Mikaele and I to guess who would get hit next; it was usually my host cousin Sene. Anyway, afterward, one of the girls came up to us. "Do you know why she was hitting us so much? It was because she was showing off for you two." Can we just remind everyone that showing your power or dominance by hitting someone else went out of fashion quite some time ago?

More observations:
The school kids do this thing when they get nervous or when they get an answer wrong or don't know the answer. The put up their arm and scratch their head. We were told in training that this was a mannerism a lot of kids have. But after being in the school, I think I've figured out where this conditioned response has come from. Brace yourself, 75% of the time that kids get hit in school is because they got the answer wrong. Kids put up their arm when they don't know the answer or get it wrong, not because their head itches; they're blocking a hit they think will happen.
It's also nice to know that if you're about to get slapped, puff out your cheek. Seems to temper the blow.

And here is a recent journal entry from Feb. 24th.
I think I just made a huge realization about hitting the kids....My pule said something I've heard multiple times before: Samoan kids need to be hit. They need to be hit; it's all they know; it's the only discipline they'll respond too. Basically, beating them is for their own good. And here's what I realized: we said the exact same thing about African Americans during slavery. The need to be whipped; it's all they'll respond to. As if Samoan children and black slaves were somehow genetically or biologically incapable of understanding any sort of discipline besides physical abuse. The kids aren't what need to change; it is the culture and the attitudes of those doing the hitting. I've often worried that the kids don't really care that I won't hit them, that they think or want me to hit them, and yes, they're right. Sasa is what they know, but that doesn't mean they like it or that it doesn't hurt.

Can I write something amazing about the beating of Africans during slavery in tandem with the "Samoan kids need to be hit" atttitude an present it to my teachers? Will the racism thing even translate (like what a problem it is)? Would racist comments be made? Samoa is very homogeneous and I've become aware that I miss diversity. Racism towards whites in Samoa doesn't exist; at least, I haven't experienced anything blatant. However, we have heard a few anti-Muslim comments. But, is that what they think, or what they think we as Americans, with our War on Terror, want to hear?

Can I just hand out copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin?

Samoan kids don't want to be hit. They just don't know it; after years of conditioning, they don't now there's another way.

And I'm not trying to compare the life of a Samoan child to slavery, although, their lives are very servant-like. I have said many-a-time that I'm glad I never had to experience a Samoan childhood.

You know what else is crazy? The smart kids are the ones whose parents encourage them to practice, to read at home, the ones who've been given an inch and taken an ell, to semi-quote Frederick Douglass, one former slave who really knew the value of an education.

...Another great argument that I've heard from Samoans is that "Fa'apalagi doesn't hit kids, but in the Samoan way, the kids need to be hit." But this can't mean it's just the "white way" to not hit kids because look at America. The "American," multicultural way is to not hit kids, so in this instance, "palagi" must mean foreign, everything not Samoan. In which case, how did the rest of the world get off so lucky with having kids that apparently don't need to be hit? How did the inhabitants of this island in the middle of an ocean bear such children that are somehow more inherently inclined to be so rowdy and unruly as to warrant beatings?

And the way this "fa'apagi vs. fa'aSamoa" argument is presented seems to imply that it's just a cultural thing, it's just a difference, a difference that I, a palagi, should accept, like mean wearing lavalavas, or the unfailing church attendance, or the fact that a man with a machete shouldn't be perceived as an immediate threat; he's probably going to the plantation to get food for his family. Well, let me just give you a crash course in cultural relativism and universalism. Where's Martha Nussbaum with her article on female genital mutilation?! Or can I just get a copy of the paper I wrote in college in Ethical Theory and hand it out in pamphlet form?

But let's face it, the problem still remains that the kids don't know there is any other way and until they find that out, they're going to expect sasa and until a "po i lou nuku" (slap in your mouth) happens, they aren't going to know they're doing anything wrong.

Everything i've been taught in my life has been to not be an apathetic, silent witness. But now, when I've come to a place that has directly put me in the face of injustice, how can I just forget all that, just let it go? Everything I've learned has instilled in me to not have a silent voice. Even though it's the hardest test of my life, I don't intend to lose that voice.

Call me an idealist. But if I remember correctly, Gandhi said....and amazing quote that, no, I can't remember right now, that was something about one man making a difference. Martin Luther King often used this quote too. (Anybody know the one I mean?) It only takes one person.

Corporal punishment in schools is already illegal in Samoa, but clearly the law has not made an impact. And so too were slavery and segregation illegal, but we all know those two things didn't stop just because there was a law against them. The culture and attitudes need to change. We need to change "hearts and minds."

Religion is a huge thing here in Samoa; I think 90%, if not more is some sort of Christianity. But go back to Gandhi and Martin Luther King and say you did something to put you in comparison with them. It'd probably feel outrageous because they are almost like gods on a pedestal. You can't touch them. They faced injustice and they brought it down, peacefully. Christianity teaches you to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to live your life like He did. I can't say that I'd give anyone the shirt off my back, or wash the feet of the homeless, or die for anyone's sins, but I will try to walk in other footsteps. I see an injustice. Now I just have to do something about it, one stick at a time.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Tossing the blog over to you! If you have any questions about anything Peace Corps, Samoa, cultural, or whatever, shout it out!!! Post a comment and let me know and the next time I post a blog, I'll try to answer some of the questions.

In the meantime, here are a few fun pics!

Dear Lopati

Tafitoala's Hip Hop Crew with Lance and Saigi

Me and Rosanna
Host Sister in Falefa


Friday, February 4, 2011

The South Side -- A Home Away from Home

The South Side-- Makes me think of The Outsiders every time. Who knows, the EFKS and Catholic church could have a rumble one day. But who would be Ponyboy?

Tafitoala. I've talked about it many times and made references to it here and there. It was my training village and it is located on the south side of the island, just west of Cross Island Road. Basically, while in training, the twenty of us were split into four training villages, five pisikoas to a village. Tafitoala had Karen, Jenny, the two Mikes, and myself. Little did I know on my first day in the village when my family's bus pulled up with a handful of drunk men that this village would become a second home and that I would find so many great people there. This post is devoted to them.

Mika and Meke at Culture Day
 We'll start at the training fale. Our teacher was Lumafale. She was great. Tehre were two kids who lived at the training fale: Susanna (6 or 7) and Meke (5). Susanna was one of my famorites and Meke the monoki (monkey) was our mascot.

Then it was Karene's family. They own a faleoloa, the one nobody really goes to. Her host mom, we, the pisikoas, affectionately called Diva; it hapens withn you wear the flashiest sunglasses and dresses. Karene has two brothers in their twenties who I knew: Sese and Kusi (whose name is also the word for "two write" or "book," but ironically, Kusi is illiterate).


Tafitoala is located off the main road (the orad that goes around the island) so going down the village road, the next Peace Corps house was mine. My host mom was Tuputala, host-dad Fuga (he'd just recovered from a stroke when I moved in; he's also a matai, a village chief). My thirty-year old brother was Amigi, named after "the great Idi Amin" as I was introduced to him. Yep, that's the genocidal dictator of Uganda. My nearly forty year old brother was Moeva; he is a teacher at one of the other training villages, Fusi. His wife, my host-sister-in-law, was 27 year old Sialei. She was basically my go-to persion. They have three children: Falelua (7), Jessie (6) who I adore, and Tala (2). My relationship with Tala had quite the evolution. In the beginning, he always hit me or threw things at me. By the end of training, he had nothing but hugs. And this kid will siva (dance) on command. He's prety spectacular. And seeing him walk around with a machete was not uncommon (don't worry, it's really not that weird). One of my favorite memories from Tafi was a dance party I had with Falelua and Jessie one night. They also know my parents' names; I had a video (before my computer crashed) of Falelua saying, "Malo, Darren," and Jessie saying, "Malo, Deb." And one of my favorite accomplishments so far, was teaching the three of them to say, "Hey, dude," especially Tala since hse doesn't even speak that much Samoan yet.

Me and Sa in Mikaele's Fale

A little further down the road is Mikaele's family. They own the other faleoloa, the one to go to. His mom was Louina matua (kinda like Louina Sr.) and his dad was Uri. His host sister (23) was Louina laititi (little Louina) and she is hilarious! Her husband is Vavega (24). They have three kids: Vanessa (5 or 6), Sa (2), and a brand new baby boy who they named after Mikaele!! Mikaele also has a host sister named Faautu (17 or 18) and another named Masani (1). Their fale was the place to be Saturday and Tuesday nights; while the viallage played bingo next door (which is huge in Samoa), Mikaele, Mika, and I would usually play cards, drink cofee, and eat cookies. Outside of their fale was the popular ploace for boys to fagota i le auala--fish on the road--aka try to pick up girls. Theis alone was reason enough for Mika or Mikaele to always walk me the fifty yeards home after bingo.
Next to the bingo hall, lived Sene. She just lived with a host-mom, also named Sene. Her and Mikaele's family are closely related.

Backtracking a little, I also consider two other girls a part of my host-family. Sene (17) (different from the pisikoa Jenny) and Limu (22). Sene is Siale's little sister and I think Limu is a cousin.

Me and Lance

Around the corner of the road, across from the ocean and next to the EFKS (Congregational) church hall was Mika's family. I fell hook-line-and-sinker for this family. Avei is the mom and Yulio is the dad (possibly the hardest working matai in the village). Mika's host-brother wasw Saigi (19) and his host cousin was Lance or Lasi (18). These two are partners in crime; you hardly see one without the other. Honestly, for about a month and a half, I thought Saigi was Lance and vice versa. Leki (16?) is the second brother; I think I only ever met him once. Mika's host-sisters were Poulima (18), Oneata (14 or 15), ruta (10), and Laupama (!!!, 7).

And on the other side of the church hall, lives the faife'au (pastor). One of his daughters, Sera (21), also became our friend.

After the Sasa at Culture Day

Some brief glimpses into a few favorite moments from dear Tafi: the last day of teaching practium at the primary school, sivas in the church hall, blowing bubbles with Jessie, walking down the road and hearing, "Sema! Fa! Fa, Sema. Fa. Sema! Ia, Fa!," being the go-to person for the Samoan food prayer (Faafetai Iesu, foa'i mai mea ai, tausi ai matou le fanau. Amene), seeing Tala crash every dance there ever was, dance party with our host-moms at our farewell party, dancing and singing to "Faamalolosi" at our last siva, doing a sasa (another type of dance) at culture day, taking Ruta and Jessie to see "Harry Potter" with Mika, visiting for a family reunion at New Years and feeling like I'd gone home.

Mika, Sene, Poulima, Me, Faautu, Vanessa, and Mikaele

I've said it many times and I'll say it here, if I could've stayed in Tafitoala for these two years, I would have in a heart beat.

Here's to Tafitoala and to the friends I'm already dreading having to say goodbye to one day. "Nothing gold can stay."

A Silent Witness: Observations on Sasa

I'm not sure I can say anything new on this topic that I haven't already written in my journal somewhere, so for this post about child abuse in Samoa, I'll mostly quote from journal entries. But here's some background info. Sasa, or "to hit," a child can put you in jail where I come from. Here in Samoa, sasa is the disciplinary action of choice. Corporal punishment in schools has been ruled illegal. That, however, does not mean we pisikoa have not witnessed children being hit at school or beaten at home.

Some of these journal entries are pretty charged; these were moments when I seriously considered quitting, when Peace Corps didn't seem like it was right for me. Keep in mind, we've all had moments when we've wanted to go home; probably every Peace Corps around the world considers quitting at some point. And as a disclaimer once again to cover Peace Corps' butt, these are my thoughts and observations.

"No matter how true my story, I cannot save the children here, now." That is a loose quote from Anderson Cooper's memoir Dispatches from the Edge. It was almost nearly this quote alone that made me decide not to go to grad school for journalism. Keep this in mind while reading this post.

From entry dated November 22nd, 2010: (names will be changed for this blog post.)
Hearing the screams of a child as he gets hit kind of renders you numb. Last night...Child A screamed and cried like I'd never heard him before. Someone was hitting him. And I couldn't do anything about it because Peace Corps has taught us that that's Samoan culture and from observing, we've learned that because hitting is all the children know, that it's the only way to discipline them. And so we sit there and let the kids get hit, but I've never heard cries like A's last night...I realized I've become everything I've been against. I am a silent witness. My silence is complicity. My silence is approval. I've accepted cultural relativism when universalism should be applied. Peace Corps is teaching me passivity and apathy. Instead of continuing passivity though, I need to become even more passionate about what I'm against. America's got it right on the importance of not hitting a child. No child should scream like the screams I've heard.

The following day, Child B was hit in the back with a rock by another family member. I was in a car with another pisikoa and a member of my host family when B came running up to the car. I knew she'd been hit, and hard. Her face was flushed red, her cheeks wet with tears, and her breathing labored like I'd never heard. And Samoan kids are tough; they hardly ever cry. I was visibly upset by this one, and my host-family member asked me the common question: "Are you happy?" "Yes," I quietly choked out, while inside my heart was pounding. A child I'd truly come to love was in pain and I could do nothing to stop it.

From November 26th, 2010:
[Another pisikoa] said today how it's funny that Peace Corps are people who give a fuck, but we get here and we aren't supposed to give a fuck (about anything except teaching). Maybe I'm the one pisikoa who'll go home because she does give a fuck.

Even though I cannot directly tell someone not to hit a kid (Peace Corps has told us that is not why we are here...and there are tons of cultural issues it would raise), I can and will lead by example.

From January 31st, 2011:
And [my pule (principal)] even told the other teachers, and this is semi-quoting, there will be no more sasa of the children, no more abuse, because Sema, a palagi, is here. Has my presence alone already made such a difference?

From October 28th, 2010:
My one piece of advice to anyone considering the Peace Corps: if you want to change the world, the Peace Corps probably isn't for you. We don't and won't change the world, but our trade-off is that we might possibly give one person the opportunity to change their own.

Some of these moments made me seriously think I'd made a mistake by joining the Peace Corps. I wasn't changing the world, or saving lives. I'm teaching English. But what if because of me putting in extra time to help a year 8 student practice English, he or she does better on their national exam which determines which college (our equivalent of high school) they get into, and subsequently the university and they go on to do something to end beatings?! Maybe; it's probably all of our hopes to impact a child like that. The hope of every teacher probably. That you make a difference in one student's life and they go on to influence others (hopefully in a positive way). And here I'd like to throw in a huge thank-you to all my teachers. Job well done if I do say so myself.

However, sasa is a complex thing. Kids smack each other all the time. This was the first week of the new school year (we've finally begun what we came here to do!), which means it's a week of cleaning the school grounds, which has given me the opportunity to observe the kids. When they hit each other, it's not like they're bullying each other or starting a fight. It's more of a knock-it-off-smack. But sometimes a hair-pull will be too hard, or a hit upside the head seems completely unjustified and I'll say, "Aua. Soia." (Don't. Stop it.) Or I'll do a common Samoan lip sound that I've picked up as a new mannerism (it's somewhat like a "tsk") that you make with the corners of your lips against your teeth followed by a quick "a'e," which shows disapproval or anger.

And then there's the ponytail hit that some of the girls around my age do. Most Samoan girls wear their hair in a bun (I'm kind of a cultural faux-pas because I only do the bun when I'm really sweaty) and sometimes in a sort of you're-being-stupid-but-I-love-you-anyway way, they'll just knock the bun forward, which is usually folllowed by that lip sound and a smile from the girl who got the ponytail smack. This one seems more like a sign of affection. I've gotten it twice from two of the girls in Tafitoala, and it made me feel like I'd been accepted.

But don't think my acceptance of the hair-tap means I will let anyone hit me. One of my guy friends from Tafitoala once playfully hit my cheek--in a way that it didn't even hurt--(but as a friendship hiatus during college showed, one hit--or push-- is one too many with me), but to get my point across, I slapped his cheek. Hard. "Sole, that actually hurt." "Good, it was supposed to hurt. Don't ever hit me again." (One of my favorite Samoan words is "sole," which loosely translates to "dude," but I feel like it's often used as a term of endearment or affection.)

This would be a lovely transition into assimilation vs. integration, but that's another topic that kind of irks me, so we'll skip it for now.

I guess the moral of the story is that culture is a complex thing, and to a point relativism maybe should be applied, but the next time I see a kid in a completely unnecessary amount of pain because of an adult sasa, universalism will come into play. I didn't pay thousands of dollars to take Ethical Theory in college for nothing. And here's a shout-out to a professor who influenced me so that I can now use fancy words when I talk about right and wrong.

And to update the situation, I'm pretty sure I'm in the Peace Corps for the long haul. Differences will be made.

Minority Report

It's a four letter word. Well, it's really six letters, but it's come to be pretty offensive to some of us pisikoas.

Palagi. Pronounced puh-long-ee.

At first,hearing this word shouted  from multiple fales as you walked down the road really wasn't a big deal. To be blunt, palagi means "white person." For a while you can pretend it means "foreigner," but that isn't sa'o (true) once you find out Asians or Africans are called something different. For a while, I even liked to think it just meant someone who doesn't really know fa'a Samoa (the Samoan way), but this was clearly sese (wrong) when I moved to my new village and met a white Samoan. There is a little girl here, half Samoan, half "palagi" who has white skin, blonde hair, and brown eyes. She's maybe around kindergarden age and has spent her whole life here. They call her "palagi." This word clearly means "someone with white skin."

Maybe it's American (another overgeneralization) political correctness, but a few of us have come to dislike being called this word that is a huge racial overgeneralization. And yet, I remember a day back in training in Tafitoala when a car drove down our pretty secluded road with two white people in it. I said, "What are those palagis doing here?" It was honestly surprising to see someone white who wasn't a pisikoa. I hate to be called it, and yet, I still use it. I can call other white people "palagi" but I don't like to hear Samoans use it. Reminiscent of anything? The N-word, maybe? Which is kind of ironic because we've taught a few Samoans not to use that word to which they ask, "But it's OK for them to say it to each other? Because it's in their music."

One of the most disteressing things for me in Samoa is when I hear vast overgeneralizations about "palagis" or am told that I should teach people fa'a Palagi (the white way), as if I could speak for every culture of Caucasion descent.

Just today, I walked to the faleoloa (shop) and a little boy across the street yelled "palagi" at me the entire time. Sometimes my response to being called a palagi is, "O fea le palagi?" (Where is the palagi?) After I bought what I needed at the store, I alked over to the boy. "O ai lou igoa?" (What is your name?) He was too shy to respond now that I was only a few feet from him. "O lo'u igoa o Sema. Leai palagi. Sema. Fa." (My name is Sema. Not palagi. Sema. See yah.)

Even though I'm trying to get he kids not to call people palagi (I really don't think anyone means it in a derogatory way) and I am very adamantly against answering questions for all white people, being called palagi hasn't bothered me that much. Until one day, I went back to Tafitoala to visit for Tausaga Fou (New Years). It was early morning, which means my host family was awake and bustling while I was still moe umi (sleeping long), but really, how long can you sleep when you hear someone's name monotonously called for two minutes until they finally answer (other pisikoas know what I'm talking about here)? Relatives from overseas were visiting and I heard my host-mom talking about me in Samoan and saying "palagi" over and over. I just lived with you for two months and comptely fell in love with your village and now you start calling me palagi?! I have a name, you know it. Please use it.

Use "palagi" as a descriptor if you want, but don't use a cultural overgeneralization to replace my name.

P.S. Sema is pronounced Same-a.