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Making a Difference

Volunteering with the Peace Corps in Western Samoa

By Linda Osmundson

Harvest Coconuts in Samoa
Woman havesting coconuts in Samoa.

Like many college students, my 22-year-old son wanted to travel before he settled down to obligations and responsibilities. With no savings put aside, he knew it wouldn’t be easy. He studied his options and chose the Peace Corps.

When John’s assignment finally arrived — Western Samoa, a group of four Pacific islands — he packed his allotted 90 pounds of carefully selected necessities. Although an adventurer at heart, John questioned his decision once on board the jumbo jet: “Can I teach? Can I learn the language? Will the students accept me? Can I make a difference?

His first four weeks were spent in the home of a Samoan family on the island of Upolu. Five to 10 family members lived together in an open fale (faalay), a 25’ by 15’ polehouse without walls or separate rooms. His hosts insisted he sleep on one of their few luxuries — a feather mattress.

John and his Peace Corps team members followed local tradition for the village feast and killed four small piglets and cooked them along with taro, palisami (coconut cream wrapped in taro leaves, breadfruit, and fish). Then, along with the children in his adopted family, they served at the fiafia or village gathering.

After his training, John began teaching business, accounting, and English at a Catholic high school (grades 9-13) in a remote part of the island of Savaii. He lived in a small wooden house with one bedroom and a bathroom. A bicycle, furnished by the Peace Corps, was his only form of transportation.

At school, few students spoke English, even though the national school tests are written in English. The success rate of his rural students was extremely low: only about 5 percent continue their education beyond secondary school. In addition to teaching, Peace Corps volunteers must develop community projects to further aid their host country. John solicited funds from various organizations to build and equip a computer lab so students could train for better-paying jobs. Five computers, two printers, and a copy machine, along with money for building materials, carpenters, and electricians, arrived from Canada, the U.S., and New Zealand. John helped with the building project. He acted as athletic director, helped create costumes from potato sacks for local fiafias, and became known as one of the best Samoan dancers around.

Not quite having made the difference he desired, John volunteered for a third year when his 2-year assignment approached its end. He called his three years in Western Samoa “the best vacation I’ll ever work.”

Did he make a difference? One of his Samoan sisters asked him to be godfather for her son, Sioné Laitiiti — Little John.

LINDA OSMUNDSON lives in Ft. Collins, CO. Her son John taught at the Pacific Peoples Institute in New Zealand for two years, where he met his Western Samoan wife.

Related Topics
Volunteer Programs in Samoa
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The Real Peace Corps
Making the Most of the Peace Corps Experience

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