Samoa's National flag: the red representing courage,
the blue freedom, and the white purity. The five stars
resemble the constellation of the Southern Cross.
During my time in Samoa, I have come to better appreciate how well this country has maintained some of its most ancient and sacred traditions, despite the influence of competing outside forces. Samoans are believed to have settled on these islands over 2,000 years ago! Throughout that long history, there were moments of peace, yet times of war, like when Tongans invaded the islands in the year 600 and occupied Samoa for hundreds of years! But those troubling events of the beginning eventually ended and led to more peaceful times. The big day for Samoa arrived on June 1, 1962, when they took a monumental and bold step into their future by becoming the first Pacific island to gain independence.Since that time, Samoa has had much growth and change, yet so much of what was then, still is now.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Samoa reflected back on its history to celebrate its 50 years of independence. In a country with just 180,000 people, the build-up to this celebration was one of great excitement where everyone seemed to have a role to play in marking the 50th birthday! It felt like the whole country rallied around the cause.
It started out with people attaching small Samoan flags to the exterior of their cars, and bus drivers doing the same to their buses. All businesses also seemed to have a Samoan flag hanging in their front window, or one of the commemorative “50th flags.” Many villages were stringing decorative carnival flags from power poles, and the government did the same in front of its office buildings. Other villages placed fire torches along the road which allowed the feeling of excitement to last through the night hours. The government invested a large sum of money on decorative street flags that had the logo for the 50th anniversary, a picture of one of the old boats that the Samoans first sailed on. These flags hung from nearly every light post throughout town, and a larger flag placed on the front of the parliament building.If all the flags and banners weren’t enough, there were t-shirts and ie lava lavas, special sales and big promotions by many businesses, including the telephone companies. Everyone wanted to contribute. Some people had painted signs for their front yards, or spray painted the number 50 on cement walls or walkways.
Perhaps one of the most talked about events leading up to the independence weekend was the UB40 concert, which was to be held in Apia Sports Park. Tickets were on sale at one of the stores in the capital for 30 tala; anyone who was anybody had a ticket or knew someone who had one! It was great business for the telephone company, Blue Sky, who were the lead sponsors of the event. Billboards announcing the concert were put in the villages on the outskirts of the capital, which seemed to add fuel to the conversation as buses drove by each day!
In the final days before the big event, every light post, power pole, road sign and guard rail leading into and throughout the capital got braided with palm fronds, and at all the intersections in town, baskets were woven from the palm branches and then the national flower, the Teuila, placed inside as a decorative bouquet. As I saw all of this unfolding, I realized Samoa wasn’t holding back on the amount of manpower they were willing to put forth to make the celebration one to remember. The final touches in decorations came by the city turning on the colorful lights that hang along Beach Road throughout the year and are only lit for special occasions.
My days were kept busy with final rehearsals with the Catholic youth marching band I have been working with. We had a handful of public performances we had been scheduled for and the students of the band grew more excited as the events drew closer. One of our first performances was a marching and concert band performance where guests had to buy a ticket to the “Corporate Table” event for 500 tala a table. This ticket included a full meal, including a size two pig per table, and beverages (some being alcoholic). This was the first time the band wore their new marching uniforms which had been made in New Zealand and flown over just in time for the big week!
Our second performance was marching at the parade on June 1st, the actual anniversary of Independence. Since the parade started early in the morning, groups had to arrive well before to get staged for the event, so this meant our band leaving the Catholic retreat center where we had been camping, at 3:00a.m. in the morning. Once at the parade staging grounds, we found ourselves still in the midst of pre-dawn darkness and standing shoulder to shoulder next to thousands of other Samoans who had signed up for the parade with nearly every organization, school or committee this country has ever known!
It was one huge mass of humanity, and it didn’t move for a long, long time.
Samoans are great at packing close to each other: they do it on the crowded buses, and when shoving their way forward in the “line” at the wharf to buy a ferry ticket. If it hadn’t been for this previous experience of being so close to your neighbor, I’m not sure they would have survived standing at the parade entrance for over 5 hours without food or water! It was so tight you could barely move an arm to wipe the sweat off your face which was caused by the intense heat from the sun once it rose.
As we stood there and listened to one long speech after another from the highest members of the government, everyone had the same idea to pass the time by sending a text message or getting online through their phone because all the phones were jammed and you couldn’t make a call or send a text message without half a dozen attempts first!
The parade took so long to get through because there were over 150 groups signed up to march, and some of those groups had over 1,000 people marching (mostly schools with large enrolments). We were number 81 in the line-up. Once we finally started to move at 11:45a.m. (we had lined up at 6:30a.m.) we had the honor of marching before dozens and dozens of heads of state, parliament members and ambassadors from around the world. There were dignitaries there from Pacific Islands such as Niue, Tonga, Vanuatu, Tokelau and the Solomons. There were guests there representing Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, Germany, France and The United States. It was a first for me to be able to march before such high public officials, and I’m sure a moment the Catholic youth won’t soon forget either.
That Friday afternoon, I met up with Saulo and Neueli, my friends and former students from my Peace Corps village. They had come into town to visit with me and enjoy the many Independence Day celebrations that were taking place. They seemed to have as much electricity running through them as the rest of the country did that day! We enjoyed walking around and smelling all the BBQ stands selling food, and listening to the music being pumped through big speakers in front of the government building. There were large Navy ships in Apia Harbor from Australia, New Zealand and the United States in conjunction with the celebrations. We walked over together and nearly got on board one of the boats before we found out we weren’t allowed to be in that vicinity…oops!
That evening we attended the much talked about UB40 concert, full of great Reggae music, which put the thousands in attendance in a great mood. The size of the stage, speakers, fancy lighting and smoke got the attention of Saulo and Neueli. When we entered into Apia Sports Park where the concert was held, I could hear Saulo counting the number of speakers under his breath! We met up with others from my Peace Corps village and for the second time that day, I found myself being packed into a human glob that allowed for little movement.
The evening finished off with a big fireworks show in Apia Harbor. Since I’ve been in Samoa the past two years, I haven’t seen fireworks since July of 2009. This time I was with Saulo and Neueli which made it really special, because I realized how accustomed I had become to seeing them throughout my life. I asked the boys if they had ever seen fireworks before and Saulo said only small ones in the village at Christmas time. It was fun watching the fireworks, but it was just as much fun listening to Saulo and Neueli’s expressions.
As the fireworks exploded, Saulo made a comment about all the smoke being created. He said something that about made me fall over! He said the smoke was going to burn a whole in the ozone. I had to stop for one second and think about what he said, but then remembered that I had taught a lesson back on Earth Day in April of 2010, over 14 months ago, where we talked about the harmful emissions that damage the ozone layer. We had made diagrams which then hung in my classroom all of last year. But I was so proud of Saulo for remembering something I thought he had long ago forgot about. It was another reminder to me of how I have no idea what impacts I’ve had on those I’ve met here in Samoa. It gave me another boost of confidence and reassurance that I have spent the last two years of my life here in Samoa well.
And so this blog turns back to Samoa, and about the 50 years it has celebrated. As I stood in that parade block with all those other Samoans on the morning of June 1st, I remember listening to the speeches being given by the Heads of Stateand wondering what my place is in Samoa; how were those speeches relevant to me, an “outsider,” an American. For a moment I felt like the anniversary day wasn’t at all relevant to me because this isn’t my country, my culture, my home, but then one of the people giving a speech mentioned the Peace Corps in their remarks and it clicked for me!
Yes, indeed there was a relevance to my being there and celebrating with the Samoans. When I chose to dedicate two years of my life by coming here to Samoa to serve as a teacher, learn their language, eat their food, dress in their clothes, visit, laugh and cry with them, I was becoming a part of that 50 year road map which led to this celebration, and which will someday lead to the 100th celebration! I am a part of Samoa’s past, present, and future. This is my home in so many ways, this is a place I take much pride in, the same pride that Samoa has for their country on this 50th anniversary!
One of the many posts in town that got decorated with palm fronds.
One of the band studetns trudging through the mud at marching rehearsal.
We had the band spell out "SAMOA" for our marching show. Here you can see the "SAM" For not having any yard markers or lines, they did a great job!
Spelling out "SAMOA" with the "OA" visibe in this shot.
Standing in front of the covernment building before one of our performances.
I was lucky to bump into my Peace Corps friends before the parade! Natalie is on my left, from Group 83 and Lilli on my right from my group, 82!
The United States Ambassador to Samoa and New Zealand, Mr. David Huebner, attending the formal ceremonies on June 1st.
The people wait, wait, and wait some more at the parade staging grounds! If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of Digicel and Blue Sky's phone networks jamming!
After meeting up with Neueli and Saulo in the capital on June 1st. Saulo was trying to make a statement with the girls with his new hat and shirt!
Saulo and Neueli after being denied access to the Navy ships in the background!
At the wharf.
Killing time before heading to the UB40 concert.
Saulo and Neueli walking to Apia park for the UB40 concert.
Inside Apia Sports Park waiting for the UB40 concert to begin.
The line of tents along Beach Road where vendors were. It smelled amazing with all the BBQ!
With Saulo and Neueli in front of government building.
With our bands drum major and the taupou!
Getting ready to march over to begin the last of our performances for the Independence Day celebrations!