MJ Live

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The 40th (Written 10/20/07)

The past 2 days have been a pretty exciting time in terms of the Peace Corps in Samoa. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Peace Corps being in Samoa (and since we're the only volunteer agency mentioned in the Samoan history museum, you know it's a pretty big deal).  So last week we had Group 79 come into the country. I had a diversity session with them on Wednesday and they seem like a pretty good group. This week we welcomed members of Peace Corps Samoa Groups 1 and 2 back to Samoa after being away for 40 years. This was also a special occasion for Chanel College, because some of the members of Group 1 were also teachers at Chanel College – Joe Wroblewski and Dave Willard (who also came with his wife who was a nurse at a Samoan hospital). So on Thursday morning, Joe and Dave came up to the school to see it for the first time in 40 years – I'm sure it was quite an amazing experience to return to a place you worked for 2 years. Joe had been in contact with Father Kevin (my principal) in the months prior to arriving in Samoa – so fortunately, it wasn't a huge surprise on the school. I was a bit nervous my self in anticipation of meeting these guys – it's kind of like meeting the forefathers of the US…those folks who were the first to step out on a limb and do something great for their country. Obviously, things have changed a great deal in Samoa since they left and I was interested in hearing how Chanel has changed in the 40 years the Peace Corps have been in this country. Chanel College, itself, is celebrating it's 45th anniversary this year as well – which means the school was only 5 years old when the first two volunteers came here. As I was saying, on Thursday morning, Joe and Dave came up to the school for a visit and we had the traditional Samoan ava ceremony for them.  The only change this time was when the students were serving the ava – they served Kevin, Joe, Dave and his wife first but then they mentioned my name and served me ava as well…which I was not expecting at all (usually when we have an ava ceremony, I'm close to it so that I can take pictures which meant I was close to where the ava was being served). So it was a big deal to the students and staff because I have never drank ava before in front of them and it had been a while since I drank ava myself. The kids got a kick out of seeing it, so it wasn't too bad. After the ceremony, Kevin gave a little intro to the students about the two volunteers and said how Michael (the volunteer before me) and myself were part of a Chanel-Peace Corps legacy that really made me feel like I was part of a long standing legacy. One of the good/bad parts about being a Peace Corps is that even though you are working for the US government, when you're working close to the ground like we are – you sometimes lose that perspective that you're actually part of a legacy stretching back 45 years (40 years in Samoa specifically).  After Kevin's intro Dave and Joe gave speeches to the school and let the students know how Chanel has changed (it use to be a boy's boarding school and a lot of the regular school grounds use to be filled with crops that the boys would tend to) and a lot of the students were surprised at how much things have changed in only 40 years. Joe then donated some books to the school library and then went on a tour of the school. Just a little FYI, when Joe and Dave were here the place where I am currently living was not built – so they stayed in areas which are now classrooms. Joe said that when he was leaving Samoa, they had just begun building the FaleSamoa where I live – so the FaleSamoa at Chanel is pretty old but durable.

So Thursday was a small glimpse at some of the older volunteers, but Friday was the full reveal. Friday morning, Peace Corps had a march in town to celebrate the 40th anniversary. The Prime Minister spoke and Kim (our country director/main boss) relayed a message from the Peace Corps Washington congratulating PC Samoa on 40 years of service. I was not able to attend the parade because A) I had to work and B) The fiafia was being held later on that night and someone needed to be at Chanel to make sure the decorations went well. So I stayed at school to make sure everything went smoothly and for the most part they did – since this was a big reunion/anniversary celebration/welcome fiafia, the decorations had to be a little bit more involved then usual. Instead of wrapping coconut leaves around just 2 polls like we normally do, we wrapped coconut leaves around all 6 poles in the FaleSamoa and the main pole in the entrance way to the Falesamoa (and by "we" I mean the students). Some of the students/staff even painted a Samoan Mat for us with the words "Welcome / Happy 40th Anniversary" which was unexpected on my part. Once the main decorations were done, it was just a matter of waiting on Peace Corps to show up and help setup the final pieces of the puzzle. The first set of volunteers showed up around 4pm and it was basically non-stop running around from that point. One of the unknown things about the fiafia (when you're just a trainee) is how much works goes into it behind the scenes (before and during) to make it a success. It's literally the little things that make the bigger things successful – I've learned that lesson very well over my past 3 fiafia's. Now usually, the fiafia is held on a Saturday but Group 79 is scheduled to travel to their training village – Lalomauga (which is located very close to my training village of Falevao) – on Saturday, so that's why it was being held on a Friday (and thus added to my stress level just a little bit). So slowly over the next few hours, more food and volunteers showed up and I was running all over the place getting things for folks and making sure everything was running well. The first of the 3 groups to arrive was Group 79 and for all of them it was their first time at my house – but for one of them, this will become their assignment once they are sworn in as volunteers…so the Peace Corps legacy will continue for at least 2 more years.

And that realization – that one of the new group will be replacing me – is funny to me because 2 years ago, I was in the same position. I came up to Chanel for the fiafia and was so oblivious to the possibility that I could actually be working here…and now I can't think of working anyplace else. My how things have changed. Anyway, about 30 minutes after Group 79 arrived then members of Groups 1 and 2 started showing up and that's really when it hit me that this was a big deal. Before it just felt like a big deal because a lot of people were making such a fuss about it, but now it felt like a big deal because we had double the amount of people we usually have at a fiafia. So after a bit of mingling, we had an ava ceremony to welcome Groups 1 and 2 back to Samoa. The current/new Peace Corps volunteers sat on the left side of the fale while the former volunteers sat on the right side of the fale. Stephanie (a VBD volunteer, Group 76) prepared the ava and we had two people serving the ava to the former volunteers.

After the ava ceremony, the room was transformed into it's traditional setup for the fiafia. Usually the new volunteers sit in the first row but this time they sat in the second row? Why? Because this time we had the Head of State come to our fiafia (I was told that we would have the Prime Minister, but I was happier to have the Head of State because he's actually a friend of the College and plays tennis here on Friday nights). So Kim, the Head of State and the US Charge' sat on the front row. We had all the usual parts of the fiafia (Sasa, slap dance, haka) but this time we threw in a slide show to show the former volunteers what the current volunteers in Samoa are doing. As always, the highlight of the night is the Siva Afi. We weren't able to get Hogan this time, but we got the next best thing. Remember, a few posts back I was talking about a student at Chanel named Nuuiva (she's also in one of my YouTube videos). Well she performed at our fiafia and was a hit. I didn't tell her before hand that the Head of State was going to be in attendance – didn't want to spook her. But he seemed quite impressed by her and after the siva afi, Kevin introduced her to the Head of State (I later learned that once she was done she was totally wiped out – I guess she was a bit overwhelmed by meeting the Head of State, who is like a Samoan King).  The last part of the night is always the Taupou, who is usually a female from the senior group and for this fiafia the senior group is us – Group 75 and our Taupou was Candice. She brought the sisters from St. Mary's to help her get ready and she did an amazing job. A lot of folks came up and slapped money on her and some of the sisters helped her show off her Maliue(sp?) which is the traditional Samoan woman's tattoo Candice got a few weeks back.

I think that this was the best Peace Corps fiafia I have had in Samoa – it went smoothly which is always a plus. I was running all over the place, but what would a fiafia be without me not trying to help out behind the scenes. After this fiafia, I don't know how you could possibly top it – so I won't! It was a great last fiafia. It's kind of funny – in the middle of the fiafia, I was so busy that I was just thinking about the current moment. But once everyone left and I was sitting in the Falesamoa with some of my students (who got the leftover food), that's when it hit me – this was my last fiafia. It was huge, no doubt – but this is the last one. I can remember how overwhelming the first one seemed and the last one seemed just as overwhelming, but in a different way. I was just glad to be able to provide a great atmosphere for the party and everyone went away happy – although oddly enough the best fiafia (which is this one) left me with the least amount of leftover food…so it wasn't all good in the end. :) Now the only question is – will I be coming back to Samoa in 40 years to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Peace Corps Samoa (if they're still here)? I'll come back at some point…hopefully it'll be a lot sooner the 40 years. Last night felt like a passing of the torch kinda deal – hopefully the next person can run with it better then I did. L8r.  


MOM said...

I hope you were able to take pictures and videos. I want to see Candice as Taupou.

Anonymous said...

The female tatoo for Samoan women is called a Malu. Thanks for the postings, I've been following your blog for a long time. I came to NZ in 1995 to study and stayed longer than expected and I can relate to some of the stuff you've been sharing on this blog. I once been taught by Peace Corps teachers at Sam Co back in 92 and 93. Hope you'll take a lot from your experience and thanks for helping the future of Samoa.

Anonymous said...

It was a lovely fiafia and ava ceremony, MJ. Thank you for all your hard work and for the work everyone put in to it.
Susan Picht/Seattle
Group II

Anonymous said...

Thanks for helping make the fiafia and ava ceremony such a special time for the returning volunteers. We are still marvelling at the biggest change...technology.

In 1967-69, we didn't have phones, we waited a couple weeks for letters, and we often didn't see the slides or prints we'd taken until much later (maybe even only when we got home) because the film went to Hawaii or beyond for processing!

Blogs, internet videos, cell phones and digital photos were not even in our imaginations. Now we can share your experiences as they happen.

Edie Cox Sternberg
Group 2