Thursday, January 10, 2013

When Do You Take a Stand?

When a boy comes to school with a black eye and a cut on his cheek, what would you, as a teacher, do? When a man is physically assaulting his wife outside of a night club, what would you, as a bystander, do?

These are two situations I found myself in while in Samoa. I’ll say it again: Samoa tested everything I had in me. Sometimes I acted nobly, like when I stepped between that drunken man and his wife and tried to get her in a cab. Other times, I listened to the powers that be, and did nothing, like when one of my students came to school with bruises from his father.  Snap decisions one makes in these situations cannot be controlled by society; it is completely up to the person in that moment. I can’t say how I acted in these situations was the smart thing to do or the right thing, but I would like to offer them for you to think about what you would do.

 (Also, these situations should in no way be taken to represent Samoa as a whole.)

 Outside of Club X can be quite the drunken scene late on a Friday or Saturday night. Well, on one of these nights, I decided, for better or worse, to wait for a friend outside the club. This one hour was quite eventful. I decided not to stand by my friend Sio, the bouncer, but to stand over to the side. This resulted in my getting harassed, which wasn’t unusual in Samoa. What was unusual was that I stopped holding my tongue. As readers of my blog know, corporal punishment is widely practiced in Samoa and Peace Corps’ response (unofficial and not worldwide, I’m sure) is to ‘lead by example,’ meaning we shouldn’t tell teachers or parents that beating kids is wrong, but that we should just not hit kids ourselves, and hopefully, through some sort of passive magic, people would do the same. I hope you too, reader, see the fault in that logic. Anyway, after nearly two years of rarely addressing corporal punishment directly (such as when I told one of my teachers not to hit kids with a stick or lecturing some of my students about why I don’t hit them) I was tired of ignoring these types of things. Well, standing alone outside of a club: probably not the best decision anywhere in the world. However, I felt like I could handle it. Besides, Sio was mere feet away. That did not stop one Samoan man from rolling a large rock at me to get my attention. Of course, after this he proceeded to harass me with catcalls. Another man saw what was going on and came over to talk to me. He was very polite. “Please, I know you’re a volunteer. Please forgive him. Don’t go back to your country with bad feelings about Samoa. Please forgive him.” My response was that I shouldn’t have to forgive a man for hitting me with a rock and sexually harassing me. He should learn to be respectful in the first place and forgiveness wouldn’t be necessary. This man, as good as his intentions probably were, wouldn’t leave me alone after that. He went on to quote Martin Luther King, which was comical when I asked him if he knew who King was. “I know he was African American.” But that was all. Finally, I was left alone to stand in “peace.” However, my moment of solitude was swept away when I noticed an older man harassing his younger wife. He was yelling at her, pushing her, grabbing her. He tore the strap on her dress leaving one of her breasts hanging out briefly before she realized her dress was ruined. I watched while no one did anything. Ahem, Sio, isn’t it your job to get that under control? As the man continued to abuse his wife, I couldn’t stand by and do nothing. I walked up to him. “Hey! Hey! Stop.” I put myself between him and his wife and tried to tell him, in Samoan, to stop. I said, “Is this how Samoan men treat their women?” “Yes!” the wife firmly replied. Once I stepped in, it got the attention of other bystanders and some white guys even stepped in and starting speaking to the man in Samoan too. This gave me the opportunity to put my arm around the woman, flag down a cab, and try to get her away from him. “Are you OK to go home? You know where you’re going? OK, I’m putting you in this cab and you’re going home without him.” After the door opened, though, her husband was right there. Sio, finally taking action himself, came over and pulled me away from them. “Sam, let it be. They always fight like this.” A US Navy man from Columbia who had talked to me earlier in the night came over too. “You need to be careful! If he had hit you, I would have had to hit him.” Shortly after, the man and his wife, meekly trying to keep her dress up with the broken strap, go into the club. I was visibly upset by all this. Sio came over to try to console me. “I’m sorry Sam. I know this doesn’t happen in America.” “No, it happens there too. But I wouldn’t have had to stop it. Somebody else would have stepped in too.” After that moment of excitement I walked back to the same spot I was standing before. And again, my presence drew a lot of attention. Eventually another man came over to ask if I was OK. Samoa has this saying about sisters being the pearl in their brothers’ eye. This man told me that and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way. But you’re my sister right now and so I’m going to stay here to make sure no one bothers you.” Which he did. He told me I just shouldn’t stand where I was standing. “But is it really a matter of where I’m standing? Don’t I have a right to stand wherever I want?” Eventually he was going to leave, but Sio had gone inside and since he seemed to be the only other person who would protect me if need be, I asked this man to wait at least until Sio came back so no one else would bother me. When Sio came back, he told me to go sit with Sio. Finally I listened. It was a night of standing up for others and having others stand up for me. I can’t say I tried to help that woman because I thought it was the right thing to do. I just knew that nobody else was helping, so I had too. I also thought that since I was a young white girl that the man would stop, out of shame or who knows. That was probably stupid; I could have taken a punch. But that didn’t cross my mind at all. But I ask, why was my involvement in that situation the only thing that got anyone else involved?

 Club X was the scene of a lot of drama. Don’t get me wrong; I love that place. This blog is not meant to glorify my actions; it’s also to say thanks to people who helped me. Another night outside of Club X I was extremely upset and crying, about what is no longer important. Who knows what I looked like or what people thought, but one woman came over to me to console me and to make sure I was alright. She stood with me for a while until other people I knew came over to me. There’s nothing wrong with asking if someone is OK when you see that they are visibly upset. Sometime just seeing that another person, whether or not you even know them, is helpful.

What do you do when a student comes to school with a black eye and a swollen face? I asked my other students what happened. “His dad hit him.” Later in the day I found out that not only did his father beat him, but that he used a thick stick to do it, a stick that the Samoan teachers and students cringed to hear was used. This was one of those situations where Peace Corps instructed us to stay out of it, for our own safety. But even back home, you do something about this. I didn’t know what to do, so I asked our Peace Corps nurse. She told me, of course, to stay out of it, but to keep an eye on the situation. My getting involved could make the situation worse. She also said to talk to my principal about doing something. I didn’t have to. Mesepa publicly asked the boy what happened. When he mentioned the stick, the students gasped. Mesepa said if it ever happened again, she would report the boy’s father to Samoa Victim Support and he would go to jail. Good for Mesepa; I have no doubt that she would do this since she reported a student’s family member the year before for sexual abuse. However, why wait until the next time for the boy to get beaten before doing anything? That being said, why didn’t I just report him to Victim Support?

Around the same time this happened, one of my best students came to me during morning assembly when all the students are outside marching and praying. She had been sweeping the cement floor, so she sort of had a pass. She came to me to tell me she might not be in school next term. She started crying. “My parents were fighting last night and my dad kicked my mom out of the house. We might move to Savaii after this term.” Samoan students never cry to their teachers about things like this. I was honored in a way that she felt comfortable enough to come to me with this. I told her that parents fight sometimes; all parents. “I bet after a few days your mom and dad will miss each other and you’ll go back to your house and it will be OK. Maybe you’ll go to Savaii for a while too, but I think you’ll be here for school next term.” I tried to console her the best I could. She said her dad was really drunk. I guess I didn’t really know what to say. Her and her mom did move back to their house and she finished the school year at Falefa. However, a week later, some of the students came to me with reports that other students were drinking behind the school that morning. I did some detective work to find out who it was and what they were drinking. Apparently it was two year-eight boys who were notorious troublemakers and my year-seven girl who had cried to me a week earlier. I called them in to talk to me too. Eventually they all lowered their eyes and nodded that yes, they were drinking. Unfortunately, my Samoan wasn’t good enough to give them a proper talking to, so I told Mesepa about what had happened. And luckily, that year-seven girl had good enough English that I could talk to her about why she shouldn’t drink. Two weeks later she was one of the five students I brought to Girls Leading Our World. Moral of the story: parents, don’t think your kids don’t see what you do.

For some reason, I have this notion that my presence alone can deflect problem situations. I was like this as a kid too. There was a night in Samoa when I was at a neighbor’s house vising the mother and kids. The father came home drunk, more drunk than I’d ever seen him. He started verbally harassing the mother and even asked if I knew if she’d been visiting any other men that day. He started putting lotion on his hands and then rubbed some on his kids’ arms. My thought here was, “He better not touch me with that.” He did. I pulled away and said, “Don’t touch me.” He backed off. Even though I knew I shouldn’t be there, I stuck around, worried that if I left that the kids might be in danger. I wanted to stay either until the kids went to bed or he went to bed. After maybe forty-five minutes more, it was clear that nobody felt like sleeping and the thought that my safety might be in danger wouldn’t leave my head, so I left their house. After that night I decided not to put myself in situations like that one anymore. I didn’t want to be the Peace Corps volunteer you hear about that gets kidnapped, or raped. My safety would come first.

Again, I want to say that these vignettes in no way stand for all of Samoa. As a matter of fact, one of the most physically imposing moments I encountered with a drunk male was with a tourist from New Zealand. After successfully welcoming the new group of volunteers with a fiafia party, we took them out to a nearby bar. Here, we all quickly realized there were two drunken New Zealanders who had had way more to drink than anyone else. Eventually one of these guys made his way into our group. He stood next to me and towered over me. I turned to him. “You need to get out of my space. You’re in my space and you need to go stand somewhere else. See, we’re all in a group here and you’re kind of ruining it.” He backed off. Kiri, one of the new girls said, “That was better than any skit we could have had in training.”

When a girl on a bus is being verbally harassed by another drunk passenger, what would you do? When your teacher is being embarrassed by a drunk man, what would you do? What if you are that girl and you are that teacher? And no one stands up for you?

Yes, you need to pick your battles. I think I tried to point that out with the previous stories. But what about when you’re on a bus and a girl, your Peace Corps volunteer, is being harassed by drunk men? Well, no one ever stood up for me in these moments and it would have been really nice if someone had. There was one time when I was the last person to get on a packed bus. A drunk old man sat across from me, near the bus driver. He even had a bottle of vodka in hand. “You’re pretty.” He wasn’t speaking quietly, and other people were even giggling. I just nodded and tried to focus elsewhere. “Pisikoa oe?” (“You’re a Peace Corps volunteer?”) “I love you. Nice body.” More giggles. Then when he realized I was ignoring him, he became more vocal. “Hey! Palagi!” His calls subsided for a while. But eventually he remembered I was there. He yelled at the top of his lungs, “Palagi! I love you!” Embarrassing as this was, and disrespectful too, no one said anything to him. On a different bus once I sat toward the back of the bus because a man got up to give me his seat. I usually never sat near the back of the bus because usually it was full of men and it was kind of like Peace Corps Samoa 101 to not, as a female, sit in the back of the bus. But this time I did. It resulted in me being harassed by yet another drunken man. It started with just him asking if I was OK, but the more this questioned is asked, the more annoyed you get with it. I just kept saying, “Yes, I’m fine.” He escalated, eventually trying to grab me, and making kissing noises toward me. Two of my students were in the seat across from me, which only made me more embarrassed. This guy was relentless though, and I eventually said, “You are being really disrespectful now and you need to stop.” A friend of mine from the village was standing next to me and wrote me messages on his phone, “Sorry about that guy. U OK?” After I again told the drunken man he needed to stop, he pretended to cry, which got a loud laugh from everyone on the bus. Only when he started grabbing another woman’s arm, did anyone finally say anything. She told him to stop too. But that was it. No one told him to leave me alone or be more respectful, which was really disappointing to me since it was one of my village busses and people knew who I was. And I was being disrespected in front of a few of my students. Maybe that’s why I was more vocal with him.

The point of this post is in no way to make Samoa or its people look bad. I would go back to Samoa tomorrow if I could. The point is to make you think about what you would do in a situation where a young girl is being harassed, or someone who doesn’t look like you, who isn’t “from around here” is visibly upset. Do you stand up for them? Ask if they’re ok, if they need help? Do you put your safety first? And when should you do that? Or do you turn a blind eye of purposeful ignorance?

1 comment:

  1. In pre-European times in Samoa, there were "safe houses" where only women of the village were able to enter. So when a women experienced domestic violence she could find sanctuary at the "safe house". Unfortunately, the missionaries replaced the "safe house" with the faifeau's house, which as you know, is a no-go zone for villagers. Thanks for the great read.