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Friday, 22 January 2010

Volunteering Abroad: The Quiet Moments of Life in Samoa

Written by Elizabeth Gartley
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The Quiet Moments: Life in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer, life in a Samoan village, teaching in samoa, Elizabeth Gartley

I set my alarm for 6 a.m., but since the roosters wake earlier, I’m generally up by 5:30. After a year and half, my life as a Peace Corps volunteer in a Samoan village has in many ways become familiar and routine – but naturally, there are plenty of surprises always waiting to sneak up on me.

I roll out of bed, and with my eyes half open, I stumble outside to the toilet, croaking out, “Morning,” to my host mom, Malae, on my way. The sun is just starting to shine through the coconut and banana trees, and the chickens all cluck and complain as I walk through them to the outhouse.

The Quiet Moments: Life in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer, life in a Samoan village, teaching in samoa, Elizabeth Gartley

When I come back to the house, I fix a cup of instant coffee and gradually start coming back to life. Then I enjoy my breakfast of cornflakes with sweet Lady Finger bananas.

The Quiet Moments: Life in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer, life in a Samoan village, teaching in samoa, Elizabeth GartleyAround 7, I start for school on my bike. As I ride along, I pass local kids walking to school in their white and blue school uniforms, “Fa Lis!” (“Bye Liz!”) they call after me. I get the same greeting from a couple of villagers carrying a bucket of Samoan-style pancakes to sell at school and men heading out to taro plantations for the day.

I carry my bike into the school library, my classroom, when I arrive. My first class today is with Year 4 students, who are finishing drawing their posters in observation of the International Day of Peace. They work diligently in groups, and the posters show common themes of pretty flowers and trees and smiling people.

The Quiet Moments: Life in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer, life in a Samoan village, teaching in samoa, Elizabeth Gartley

At interval I join the other teachers in the staff room for a meal of impossibly bland Samoan curry and boiled taro with cold coconuts to drink. The other teachers like to tease me for being a picky and finicky eater because I refuse to eat the skin, fat or cartilage of my chicken or any other meat.

In the afternoon I have another class working on posters while I write lesson plans. Later on, the Year 7 students are working on their homework, defining English vocabulary words. In groups of two or three, they come into my classroom to ask me to define certain words. This becomes tedious very quickly, so I decide this would be the opportune time to teach them how to use a dictionary.

 

 


 

The Quiet Moments: Life in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer, life in a Samoan village, teaching in samoa, Elizabeth Gartley

I pick up the student dictionary on my desk and wander over to their classroom (their teacher, also the principal, is busy elsewhere). A group of half a dozen students or so huddles around the table as I demonstrate the process of looking up a new word: “observe,” find o-, then ob-, obs-, observe. And so on.

Near the end of the day, some of the Year 8 girls don’t have any schoolwork to do and come into my room to hang out with me. I have them help me make posters to explain the library’s book classification system, teaching them the difference between fiction and non-fiction classification as we go. My job is anything but glamorous, but I have learned to appreciate these quiet moments. My Samoan students never fail to be energetic and curious, and I can take quiet pleasure and joy from their enthusiasm in the simplest lessons or opportunities I can offer that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

At 2 o’clock one of the Year 7 boys clangs a rock against the empty gas-tank, which serves as a makeshift school bell. The kids all begin their exodus home for the afternoon. I hop on my bike and maneuver my way through them to a chorus of, “Fa Lis!” and, “Toe feiloai!” (“See you later!”)

The Quiet Moments: Life in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer, life in a Samoan village, teaching in samoa, Elizabeth Gartley

When I arrive home, I take a cold shower and then take my afternoon nap (part of my daily routine, this is very much the norm in Samoa).

The Quiet Moments: Life in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer, life in a Samoan village, teaching in samoa, Elizabeth GartleyLater in the afternoon, I take my nail polish remover with me to the front step of the house and carefully remove the pink polish from my toenails. Seven-year-old Fu’a, one of the gaggle of children of the household, watches intently. While Fu’a and I chat (she likes to quiz me on my Samoan vocabulary), I replace the pink with silver. Fu’a never takes her eyes off my pale white toes.

With a fresh coat of silver nail polish on my toes, I take my bottle of pink polish and tell Fu’a to give me her hands. She eagerly spreads her fingers out on the cement step and watches me tenderly paint each nail. “Oh, aulelei,” I say, “Very pretty.” When Fu’a smiles, her whole face smiles, her eyes close and turn into upside-down crescents.

I notice a cow wandering through our front yard with its tether trailing along beside it.

Since most people in Samoa (both Samoans and expats) tend to be bilingual, I’ve taken to speaking a kind of Samoan-English Creole.

“Who’s povi [cow] is that?” I ask Malae.

“That’s our povi,” she says with some chagrin.

 

 


 

The Quiet Moments: Life in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer, life in a Samoan village, teaching in samoa, Elizabeth Gartley

We wander outside to try to corral the wandering cow. I slowly walk behind her, and Malae nonchalantly walks alongside. The cow has clearly been through this before and snorts at me in such a manner as to remind me who’s bigger. The cow meanders across the road into some brush and banana trees. Undaunted, Malae and I follow. We slowly manage to coax her back towards our land, and by this time, thankfully, Fiu Tuugamau – Malae’s husband and my host father – comes home. With little trouble, Fiu ties up the cow to a nearby tree (he’ll return her to the cow pen later on).

I close most days sitting around the kava bowl with Fiu and his buddy, Amitua, the village handy-man. Kava is a common ceremonial drink consumed throughout the Pacific. Made from the root of a kind of pepper plant, kava is often consumed in social settings and can have a mild euphoric effect. Starting in the late afternoon and finishing the bowl after dark, Amitua slowly serves the kava cup by cup. The two men discuss local and national politics and gossip.

Maybe it’s just the kava talking, but I never tire of my quiet moments in Samoa.

 

The Quiet Moments: Life in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer in Samoa, Peace Corps volunteer, life in a Samoan village, teaching in samoa, Elizabeth Gartley

©Elizabeth Gartley

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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