Friday, February 4, 2011

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.

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