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.


  1. You have raised an extremely important issue for any culture anywhere in the world. Please note that I included cultures all around the world specifically because, unless I misread your posting, you seem to feel that corporal punishment is a strictly a Samoan issue. When you refer to human rights/dignity in the USA, you do so only in racial terms and particularly pertaining to slavery. I have been a professional social worker in the States since shortly after the Peace Corps began (I was a senior in HS when President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924 to create the PC). As a child, I experienced and most of my friends experienced physical punishment at home and corporal punishment in schools that was sanctioned by the school administrators and our families. My initial social work work focused on child abuse. During those years, I developed what has been an increasingly focused approach to dealing with family dynamics and public values relating to child growth & development as well as experience-based learning.
    You are obviously well-intentioned and I want to encourage you to continue to explore your concern. Surely the PC has guidelines as to how a PCV should/shouldn't go about bringing change into the culture/beliefs of families and their communities. I am confident that you can successfully address your concerns and remain within the PC guidelines if you explore some literature on the topic and incorporate some of the recommended skills for interacting with children. You can set about to model positive behavior support methods and hope that when some adults observe your successes they will ask about what you are doing, or comment in some way so that you can have a reasoned, rational discussion on the topic. I want to encourage you to help others to observe alternative discipline techniques, then help them understand and become interested in attempting them. Supporting and encouraging other adults to modify their treatment of children will ultimately be more successful than any mandate that any government structure can impose. Overall, remember that most parents are motivated to teach their children desirable behaviors. They also want to instill respect in their children toward them as parents as well as toward other adults in the community. Physical punishment teaches children to try to not get caught and to fear the adults, not to respect them. Positive behavioral support teaches children that they are loved creates positive self-esteem and it instills a respect for adults and an intrinsic desire to do well.
    Best wishes to you.

  2. Thanks for the post. I agree with a lot of what you have said. PC unofficial policy, and don't quote me, on things like this is to lead by example.
    One thing that I've started doing in my classroom to quiet the kids down when they get rowdy (and this actually comes from good ol' Hartley Elementary where I went to school) is to put my hand in the air in a fist. When the kids see me, they put their hand in the air in a fist too and they cannot talk when their hand is in the air and they have to give me their attention. So far, it's doing the trick.

  3. Malo lava le soifua Samantha. Malo foi le galue mo se lumanai manuia a siou nuu pele o Samoa.

    It is a difficult situation to be in. As a New Zealand Samoan I was brought up in a church where corporal punishment was norm. But I was also raised in a home where my parents used a range of disciplinary tools, and hitting was only on the rare occasions. My people do need to see alternative ways of disciplining children, but there have always been a popular argument that there are instances where physical punishment is needed. I am not a proponent of it, but to ensure you this is an issue that exists outside of Samoa, NZ recently passed a law making it illegal for parents to use physical force on their children, despite public opinion being against the law. There are some people WITHIN the Samoan community who are trying to make cultural changes, but it's a long gradual process.

    Faafetai mo le avanoa.