Swearing-In (Written 12/14/05)
We have finally done it. After a year of paperwork that would overwhelm ordinary men and women, after a year of being poked and prodded and after 3 months of the most intense training I’ve ever had – you are looking at an official Peace Corps Volunteer! Yeah baby, yeah! The ceremony started at 10am and took place at the Millenia Hotel in Apia. The van took us over there and it was an odd feeling seeing our families from Falevao outside of Falevao. Luckily, not everyone from the village came to our ceremony but we were well represented. For me, I had my grandmother, mother and Isaia come – so it definitely felt like a family occasion. It seemed like as soon as we arrived the ceremony got started and we were officially off to the races. The welcome was done by our APCD (Assistant Peace Corps Director) and boss – Fata Esera Lafi. He switched between speaking in Samoan and English for us and the village people who were there. Then we had the opening prayer by Rev. Faatausau Onosemo, who is the pastor at the church in Falevao – luckily he spared us a long Samoan prayer, had to keep this ceremony kind of short. Then Kevin came up and basically gave a summary of all the things we’ve done over the past 10 weeks (Training Report) and said that we were well qualified to become Volunteers. Then our keynote address was given by Aeau Chris Hazelman, Director of Catholic Education in Samoa, and he said his speech in English which was a pleasant surprise for us. He told us of how Peace Corps has affected his life and the life of his family over the years and how grateful he is to have Peace Corps in Samoa. So that was great to hear someone from within the country who stood as an example of the good work that Peace Corps has done and will continue to do in Samoa. After that Kim Frola, our Country Director, gave a few brief remarks about our group and she said that the one thing that she’s noticed in her time with us is our enthusiasm – not only for the culture but also for integrating into the volunteer community. It’s good when the person from the top recognizes that you actually like being where you are! Then came the administration of the Oath which was done in both English and Samoan. The English version was first and was administered by the US Charge d’Affaires Tim Harley and the Samoan one was given by Fale, one of our trainers. So here is what we said to officially become Peace Corps Volunteers:
I, _______________ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps. So help me God.
And once that was done we were officially Peace Corps Volunteers! We went from PCT to PCV in the blink of an eye! J After the oath we were given our official Peace Corps ID cards and it felt like a graduation with us shaking the hand of Mr. Harley and the families coming up to give us flowery necklaces and taking pictures. Once we all had our cards, it was my turn to go up and give the speech on behalf of the group. So here’s what I said (be warned, it’s long!):
(In Samoan)We, the people of Group 75, would like to start by thanking everyone for attending this special event – from our Samoan family to our Peace Corps family, we would not be standing here today if not for the support you have given us over the past 10 weeks. On behalf of group 75, I would like to thank our Samoan families for accepting us into their lives for not only the 5 weeks we have currently lived with you but also for the 2 years you will be a part of our Samoan experience. We apologize to our families, especially our parents, for anything we have done wrong during our time with you. Whatever we have done wrong, please forgive us.
‘Ou te fiafia lava e ‘avea lo’u nei tagata, e fai ma sui o le Vaega 75 o Pisikoa, e momoli atu lā mātou fa’afetai tele iā te ‘outou uma, ‘ua mafai ‘ona ‘auai mai i lēnei sauniga fa’apitoa mo i mātou. ‘Āmata mai lava i ō mātou ‘āiga Sāmoa i Falevao, le mamalu i le ‘Ōfisa o Pisikoa, fa’apea ali’i ma tama’ita’i pisikoa. Mātou te talitonu, ‘ana lēai lā ‘outou lagolago mai i le sefulu vaiaso ‘ua te’a, semanū tātou te lē maua se sauniga fa’apēnei. Mātou te fa’afetai tele i ō mātou ‘āiga Sāmoa, ‘ona o le talia lelei o i mātou, e ‘avea o ni tagata moni o ō ‘outou ‘āiga. E lē gata i le lima vaiaso ‘ua tuana’i, a’o le lua tausaga ‘o le ‘ā mātou faigaluega ma nonofo ai i Sāmoa. Mātou te fa’amālūlū atu fo’i i ō mātou ‘āiga, ‘aemaise o ō mātou mātua, ‘o ā ni ō mātou sesē, ma ni fa’alētonu i lā tātou mafutaga, alofa, fa’amāgalo mai.
On behalf of Peace Corps Samoa Group 75, I would like to welcome you all to this momentous occasion – our swearing in ceremony. Before you today are 14 individuals with different motivations for being here, but with one goal in mind: to help the Samoan people. I will share with you some of our experiences from the last 10 weeks and hopefully give you a glimpse of what makes this group so special.
On Oct 9th, 14 Peace Corps trainees came together in Los Angeles, California filled with both anxiety and sorrow – we were about to leave the lives we had known in America to begin a new one in a place we had never been. Each of us came into this experience with different motivations – some wanting to save the world, follow in the footsteps of other Peace Corps volunteers they knew, some for religious reasons and others simply wanted to give back to the world. Even though we all flew in on Oct 9th we didn’t officially meet until the next day – but for those who answered their phone at 10pm that night, they heard the deep sexy voice of Robert Donahue (aka Bob) inviting everyone out for drinks. Even though he had never met any of us, Bob wanted to start getting to know everyone in the group as soon as possible. Little did we know at the time that he would set the group tone of wanting to learn more about other people as soon as possible. As I said before, we officially met the next day on the 10th and began our 3 days of staging. The group dynamic just seemed to click from the very beginning – from me bugging Bryan about Texas to Bob’s sexy bedtime voice – there was just something about each of us that allowed us to bond fairly quickly. At this time we would also like to thank our staging directors Robert and Griselda for alleviating a lot of our fears and anxieties before we left staging. They were the conduits through which a solid foundation was built between the 14 of us that has lasted to this day. They were also the last people we saw before getting on the plane – once we left them, it finally sunk in that we were actually going to start this new adventure. After countless times of telling people we were not going to Somalia, we were not joining the Marine Corps and hearing ‘What is the Peace Corps’ we were about to begin a journey that few Americans undertake in their lifetime.
The reality of our decision hit us once we stepped off the plane in Samoa at 2:45am on Oct 12. We were out of our comfort zone and right in middle of a country we knew little about. Dressed business casual, as ordered, we came into the airport and met Kim and Kevin for the first time – dressed business casual as well. We were very tired, as could be expected after a 10 hour flight, and were ready to go straight to bed with little to no fanfare. As soon as we stepped out of the airport we had our first encounter with ‘Milli Milli Millli Patia – Lua Patia –Hey Hey – Hey Ho – Tiger! – Buffalo’ from the current Peace Corps volunteers who were not dressed business casual and let me tell you at 2:45 in the morning it can be a pretty frightening sight. So we were whisked away on our first Samoan bus ride with the volunteers and it gave us an opportunity learn more about the cultural from their first hand experience but also get to know them from the very beginning of our journey. There are people we met on that first day – such as Beth, Lofi and Skye – that have been really helpful resources to us during our training and it all began on that night. The fun did not stop once the bus ride was over and we got some sleep, that same day we had our first Samoan event – the Ava ceremony. Such an important part of the Samoan culture was a foreign concept to us when we first arrived – from trying to memorize our first Samoan phrase “Lau Ava lea le Atua, Soifua”, to our first time seeing a FaleSamoa to our first taste of Ava – we were overwhelmed by the difference in culture and the idea that we were about to become a part of this society and perhaps come to understand this culture.
During those first few weeks in Samoa there were a lot of great moments such as Josh and Charles falling down the sea wall – resulting in Charles being the first one to get injured in Samoa, to the shower demonstrations by Leata and Silao which gave us practical demonstrations on how to shower with a LavaLava but the best moment was our first FiaFia. We had no idea what to expect and were pleasantly surprised by the welcome the current volunteers gave us. The overall experience at the FiaFia – from the dancing to hearing Fono’s lovely voice – was amazing, but again it was an opportunity to get to know the Peace Corps family that we are going to be a part of for two years that was the highlight of the night. Also, being so warmly received by the Volunteers was great because there’s always that chance that you won’t be accepted into the fold – so from the very beginning we felt like we were at least a part of some family that gave us a connection to Samoa.
Our true family connection to Samoa came when we headed to our training village of Falevao. There we ran into the culture shock of a lifetime. Peace Corps teaches by immersion into a culture and it was overwhelming the first time we came into the village – meeting new family members, moving into new places, having people stare at us as we ate and basically observing the Fa’aSamoa in action. The first few days were the toughest simply because many of us were not accustomed to living in such a small area where all your actions are observed and everyone knows your name. Everything from lotu, to Sunday malolo to family dynamics were so different from what we had known back in the states – but it was sink or swam and thankfully we all swam. For the next two years the family we have in Falevao will be our anchor to the Fa’aSamoa – we know that we can return there at anytime and be accepted with open arms, just like in America. Over the course of our training there have been ups and downs with our ‘Aiga Samoa but we know that they love us and that we are here to share our culture with them just as much as they are going to share their culture with us. By way of our volunteer visit, we also got to know specific members of our Peace Corps family better. When we are in a group setting such as the FiaFia or the Thanksgiving lunch, it’s hard to get to know a person in-depth, but the Volunteer visit allowed us to really get to see what a volunteer’s life is like on a daily basis. We learned that Peace Corps is doing a lot, in various areas of Upolu and Savaii, to help the country of Samoa and that soon we will be a part of this family helping to make this island a better place. We also learned that it will take more then the 10 weeks we have in training before we gain a good understanding of the culture and the language – school is a lot different from the reality.
During our 10 weeks of training we experienced many cultural events that not only enriched our experience but also gave us a better understanding of the Samoan way of life – specifically in the village. The first event was our Arbor Day in which we had the opportunity to experience what a village based Samoan family does on a typical day. For the men of the group, we went to the plantations and helped with a lot of the man duties around the house. For the women of the group, they created necklaces made out of flowers and weaved mats. Before, we had taken for granted the amount of hard work and dedication it takes to live daily in the village but not after Arbor Day. Our next cultural experience came when we went Palolo hunting – after much hype and prodding by Fale. Not only did we leave late at night but our families also made us special palolo buckets and catchers – it was definitely an event in the village. We had the opportunity to sleep under the stars on the beach – something you do not get to do to often in America. At 4am, with buckets and catchers in hand, we walked out into the ocean to try to catch some Palolo. After an hour of wading around in the water, the only thing we got from the sea were a whole bunch of coral cuts. It was then that I realized that our cultural experience in Samoa is what we make of it, sure we had big buckets but no catches but we did an activity that we could not even attempt in America and we were doing it with other Samoans who came to catch Palolo. Not to many people can say that. The next cultural event for us was cooking day, which just happened to occur on Thanksgiving, so it was the first American holiday we shared with the village. Like with Arbor Day, Cooking day was our chance to see how much work goes into making a traditional Sunday To’ona’i and we found out that there is a lot of manpower that goes into making an umu, scraping the taro, creating the palusami, and weaving the grass baskets. It was also a chance to find out who could and could not choke the chicken – unfortunately, Candice could not choke the chicken. Once again, I would like to say thank you to our Samoan families for providing us the food and resources needed to make our cooking day a success and thank you for allowing us to share the concept of Thanksgiving with you. It’s one of the few American holidays where we give thanks for what others have done for us and we could not be more thankful to you for all that you have given us and will continue to give to us. Cooking day also gave us an opportunity to be on the other side of a special meeting of the matai’s – serving food instead of receiving it. We had the opportunity to see what it is like waiting to eat after someone else has already finished, which is not a custom we are use to, and the process seems to make you hungrier. But it was a humbling experience and made us appreciate even more the amount of work that goes into these Samoan special occassions and we are always thankful of the effort that goes into them. And the last cultural experience I will talk about is the drop off – for weeks now we had heard that Samoans who had never met us would be helpful and friendly, but up until that point we had no actual experience to back up that claim. The drop off allowed us to see that Samoans are very friendly people – some of us even got tours of the villages we visited – and as Fale says ‘You’re never lost in Samoa’. So it was a great experience to be left to our own devices and given the confidence to know that we can make it here – after our 10 weeks of training, we will actually be able to live here and get around. That was something that seemed almost impossible back on Oct 10th, but our many cultural experiences in Samoa have given us a well rounded view of the Samoan lifestyle and how we need to adapt in order to be successful volunteers here for two years.
We have shared many moments together for the past 10 weeks – we have only just begun building relationships within the Samoan culture, the Peace Corps family and our own group which will last a life time. We have been sick together, we have cried together, we’ve gotten coral cuts together, played countless hours of suipi and hearts together, worn “interesting” and “unique” pulatasi’s together and had Chops Sticks together. For the past ten weeks we have had one shared experience, but starting taeao we begin our individual Peace Corps journies. ‘Aua ne’i galo Afi’a i si ona vau (Don’t forget Afi’a in his bush) which means don’t forget about the relationships that you have built over the past weeks during the times we are separated from each other. The experiences we have shared no one else will have – they are unique to us and us alone. Even though we have both a Samoan family and a Peace Corps family, the Group 75 family has bonds that neither of the other two families will have – let us keep them strong. Let us be each others support group when the times get tough and share in the joy when times are good. Seu le manu ae taga’i i le galu. (Grab the bird but look for the waves) This means that there will be many opportunities for bridging cultural differences during our two years in Samoa, but let us remain respectful of the culture that is already here. Even though we have gone through a rigorous 10 weeks of training let us remember that this is not our culture – it’s Leata’s culture, it’s the Samoans culture – and as much as we want to help them advance we have to be respectful of the way of life that has already been established. Which leads me to the next Samoan proverb, Fesili mulimai ia muamai. (Mulimai asks muamai first) which means we should listen to those who have come before us – the current Peace Corps volunteers and staff. While every Peace Corps experience is unique, the current volunteers have already been through a lot of what we are going to experience for the first 3, 6 and 12 months we are here – we should utilize the knowledge that they have to make our experience better and not follow the same cultural faux pas that they have either encountered or avoided. Let us also listen to what advice the staff gives because most of them have been here longer then any volunteer currently serving and they understand the culture better then us because most of them experience it every day of their life. By being respectful to them, we shall earn their respect and in the Fa’aSamoa respect is everything. Now that we are volunteers we will be uniting three different families under one roof – the current Peace Corps family, the Group 75 family and our Falevao family. As the wise Petrini once said Ua tasi lou tatou aluga. Ua tasi fo’i lo tatou ‘ie’afu. (We are on the same pillow. We are also under the same sheet) we are one family now and forever – never before and never again will there be a Peace Corps Samoa Group 75. We stand on the cusp of history in the making – let us stand as one helping each other and continuing to understand each other. We have been told many times that we might possibly be the best group to come through Samoa – now is the time to prove that statement correct. Let us embark on the road less traveled as one ‘aiga – striving to better understand ourselves and the culture we are now a part of.
But we would not be here today if not for the help of a great group of people. The training staff has provided us with the skills that we will need in order to survive our everyday life in Samoa. They have been there when we need a shoulder to cry on, an ear to talk to, someone to laugh with and just someone to simply be around. The training staff has been amazing to us these past 10 weeks and we would like to take this time to thank each of you personally. Thank you to Silao for the FiaFia and the Ava Chats, thank you to Kevin for making our Life & Work “insightful” and “relevant” to Samoa, thank you to Teuila for keeping us healthy even though our bodies were fighting against you, thank you to Leata for your motherly nature and your kind heart, thank you to Fale for you ‘Shut Up’ and your jovial personality, thank you to Fono for making sure we have a safe time in Samoa, thank you to Onafeia for your wise words, representing us at all our special occasions and your infectious smile and thank you Setu for driving us everywhere and just being an overall cool guy to hang out with and talk to. We would like to present each of you with a gift to show our appreciation. Thank you.
We then presented a slideshow for the trainers that gave a brief synopsis of the fun that we’ve had together over the past 10 weeks. Once the slideshow was over, we gave each of the trainers a card, a copy of the slideshow and a t-shirt that said “Peace Corps – Hard Core” from Group 75. After that, the pastor from the village closed the ceremony with a prayer and then we went to eat. Almost everyone in the group came up to me afterwards and said what a great speech it was – but the best comment came from Josh when he said “We couldn’t have picked a better representative”. That made me very proud to be a part of this group and happy that they gave me the honor of conveying our experience to the staff and our Falevao families.
So how does it feel to be an actual volunteer? It definitely feels like it’s the end of a chapter in my life and the beginning of a new one. The one thing I missed was the fact that neither of my American parents were here to share this moment with me – because I know they would be proud of me and what I’ve accomplished so far (which isn’t much, but you know parents!) So that was a bit of a bummer, but otherwise it was a great day of just soaking in the fact that we’re now Peace Corps Volunteers. We’ll never be able to say again ‘Man, I wish I would have done that’. That’s one more ‘I wish I would have done that’ that I don’t have to worry about.
Another exciting thing about today was the fact that we got our bikes today. These are some pretty sweet bikes (with requisite helmet) but I definitely realized that it has been a while since I’ve actually ridden a bike around. Not since my freshmen year of college have I actually been on a bike – but that’s definitely going to change over the next two years. While the transportation system here is pretty good, it doesn’t run all that well on Sunday and that will be a good time to put it to some good use. Like I said yesterday, there’s definitely a sense of closure happening and today it felt like everything came to a nice close with a little bow on top. Tomorrow we move to our sites – so the next time I write I’ll be sitting in my new Samoan apartment. See ya then!
12 Days of Homestay:
On the 2nd day of homestay, my family gave to me:
And pea soupo ma le mulipipi