Friday, February 10, 2012

Sunday Sendoff

If there was ever a day that perplexed me in Samoa, it was Sunday. From my first weeks in the country, it had always proved to be a day that was both anticipated with excitement, yet dreaded like the plague. It was anticipated for the down time it provided: Samoa shuts down on Sundays, and thus everybody slows down, including me. It was a great day to write letters, catch up on reading, or just take a nap. As I came to know the kids better, many of them would wander up to my house in the afternoons to visit and hang out.

But on the other hand, I never felt completely comfortable with Sunday. In the beginning when I was homesick, it meant a whole day of sitting around, thinking of how much I wanted to be at home. Sundays also seemed to always be the hottest day of the week, but maybe I just never slowed down enough on the other days to realize how hot the rest of the week was. Nonetheless, Sunday was hot, and since it was mostly spent in the house, it meant a lot of sweating!

My last Sunday in Samoa was on December 11, 2011. The morning arrived like every other Sunday, with the smell of smoke in the air as every family prepared their umu (oven) for their Sunday toanai —the big feast followed by church service. Looking down over my village, the sight of thick smoke often made me wonder if there wasn’t a huge plume of smoke visible over all of Samoa from outer space. It was like a whole country sending up distress signals to someone from above.

After I had gotten dressed, I began walking over to the Catholic Church. I walked past my neighbor’s house and just like every week before, they asked me the rhetorical question, “Are you going to church?” Samoans always state the obvious, not to be flip, but just as their way of making small talk. I continued down the steep hill into the village as I noticed all the kids in their Sunday best. I came to love that walk over to the church. When I was homesick, I had started the tradition of humming my favorite church hymns on my way over, and this stuck as part of my Sunday ritual, even until that last Sunday. Since the mass at the Catholic Church was always in Samoan, I guess it was my way of offering up some songs in English.

I climbed up the steep cement steps to the threshold of the church and did a 90 degree turn to my right to look out over that beautiful ocean, for I anticipated that the following week, the scenery would be completely different. It grabbed a hold of me, and I sat down out front for a few minutes to take in the sights, sounds and emotions. A few minutes later I walked in and took my regular seat on the left side of pews, next to the older lady who always wore the “Samoa” barrette in her hair. A couple of my students from school who are altar boys came over and sat on the other side of me. They didn’t even say a word to me—they just looked at me with a smile of reassurance, and we both knew what the other was thinking—this was it!

Church began, and I tried my best to soak in the last hymns sung in their beautiful language. Although I didn’t understand all the verses, it never mattered. Music is a universal language.

The priest began the mass with the usual opening, but then took a moment to recognize me and remind the congregation that it was my last Sunday with them. Throughout the whole mass he included me in the prayers and made me feel welcomed, just as he had made me feel each and every week I was there. As church continued, I had to hold back tears, trying not to think of everything that was going to change, but instead just focusing on being with these people on that particular day.

In Samoa, it is always tradition for the priest, and other senior elders of the church to receive a flower ula (lei/necklace) just before the start of the Eucharistic prayer. For many weeks, I had received an ula as well, and my final Sunday was no different, when one of the ladies walked over and draped it over my shoulders.

At the end of church, the priest took a moment to speak about my two years in their village, and give a thank you to me. His thanks ended with an applause by the entire congregation. I had always felt a part of their faith community, and most especially on that last day.

Following church, I was invited to a huge feast that had been prepared by several families in the village. It was attended by all the women from the church committee, as well as all the matai (high chiefs) from the church, and of course Fr. Mikaele, our priest. I had heard a few rumors about the party for me in the days leading up to it, but I had no idea it was going to be as formal and elaborate as it was.

When I arrived at the open fale (house) and saw all the woven mats placed precisely around the perimeter, I knew we were going to have an Ava Ceremony. Ava Ceremonies are given on formal occasions for meetings of matai, or when welcoming or saying goodbye to someone in the village. In fact, my first ceremony was with all my other Peace Corps Volunteers, just a few hours after we arrived in the country back in 2009. On this Sunday in December, I was having my last.

I was invited to sit in the highest place of honor, where the priest normally would sit. Two years ago that all would have felt so uncomfortable, but on this occasion, I felt like one of them!

Soon after the Ava Ceremony had finished, the women started shuffling around outside the fale and I knew the food was about to arrive. The priest and myself were served first, with several plates of food placed before us. It was one of the biggest meals I had seen in Samoa. There was fish, lobster, chicken soup, chicken curry, fried chicken, hot dogs, pig and corn beef. There were bananas, breadfruit, taro, and palusami (made from the coconut milk and delicious). As soon as all of us were served, the prayer was said and then the women came to sit in front of us as they fanned our food to keep the flies away.

After our meal, I was given the chance to say a few words to everyone gathered. I began my remarks by addressing everyone present in order of their “ranking,” similar to how we would welcome the guest of honor first, at our ceremonies and gatherings. I gave them all thanks for welcoming me into their village, lives and church for the past two years. I thanked them for their prayers and told them they would be in mine. I never prepared any of my words ahead of time, but my language skills seemed to flow well in that moment while I was in the spotlight. After I had finished, one of their high chiefs gave a final thank you.

The afternoon kept me just as busy as the morning had. I attended afternoon church service at the other church in my village. Although I hadn’t attended that church as much, I was still very close to the pastor and his wife, and of course all the people who made up the congregation. After that service, I was again invited for a meal! By this time my stomach was stretching to its limits, but I ate quite a bit, knowing much of this food I may never eat again. The meal was followed by another round of thank you speeches from the high chiefs of that church, and another thank you by me.

The evening was spent walking through the village, while visiting more families and kids. That night, I did the majority of my packing to prepare to leave my house later in the week, but as I did, I was thinking back on that day I had lived. There I had been, a 27 year old, eating with high chiefs from a Pacific Island country, speaking their language, wearing their clothes, sitting in their highest place of honor. The following week I was going to be Joe Shmoe, but on that day, my last Sunday in Samoa, I had enjoyed feeling a bit like royalty.

The reflection of coconut trees in muddy water on my walk to church.

Men from the church, presenting pigs to the priest and high chiefs at the end of our meal.

With the pastor and high chiefs from the other church in my village.

Wearing my ula, which I had been given at church on my last Sunday in Samoa.

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