Zumba, Remote Islands, and Price Wars: What could they have in common?

Note: This was written over the weekend, but I haven’t had a chance to post it until now.

Epic sky over Manono-tai.

I finished up my second full week of work and it’s gone by both quickly and slowly. Some days, as I waited for a certain document to be tracked down or tackled the monotonous task of uploading borrower profiles, seemed to last forever. Others whizzed by with the landscape of ‘Upolu as I followed loan officers on their collection routes. I feel like I’m getting into the swing of things, work-wise, although I’m still a bit pathetically lacking in the social realm of things. Still, work–the main purpose of my time here, after all–is definitely turning out to be an exciting journey. After a rain-filled weekend of huddling indoors watching movies while the sky emptied itself, I’d like to highlight some of the best parts of the last week.

Zumba in the office after work. There’s not much more to say than that! In case anyone is wondering what Zumba is, see the video above. After the surprise staff meeting at the end of the day on Friday (surprise only to me), there was a surprise Zumba session (again surprise only to me). Apparently Zumba as a fitness movement has been embraced pretty thoroughly in Samoa, and many companies and/or government branches have installed is as their official ‘get fit’ program.

There I was, typing away at my laptop, when suddenly it occurred to me that everyone around me is changing into athletic clothes. A quick inquiry confirmed my suspicion that I was left out of the loop–my coworkers are apologetic–but there’s no question that I will still participate, work clothes or no work clothes. They are surprised that I am slightly incredulous to find out that the planned activity is Zumba, as if I have been leading some kind of deficient life under a Zumba-less rock somewhere. Samoans do love to sing and dance, so I guess it makes sense that Zumba is popular, although I was intensely relieved not to be the only person nervously giggling at some of the pelvic thrusts included in the instructive videos. Still, I think the most enjoyable (and slightly surreal) aspect was that the session was led entirely by Tui, a broad-shouldered, beefy man who looks like he could do some serious damage on the rugby pitch, but also, as it turns out, kicks ass at Zumba.  What else could there possibly be??


You can take a girl out of America, but you can’t take the Sunday BBQ out of a girl…

The umu behind my house!

Back in the day, the umu was how all Samoans cooked their food. While that can still be true in more rural areas, the spread of the gas/electric stove has definitely reduced the need to fire one of these bad boys up just for dinner. Particularly in Apia, the umu is basically the Samoan equivalent of a Sunday barbeque–most families cook a large lunch and then take a nap before evening church services. Even families who don’t have an umu will get takeout from a restaurant.

Typically, men–who delegate to the younger boys–are in charge of the umu (further reinforcing the Sunday barbeque image). While cooking with hot rocks is definitely not unique to Samoa, Francis (one of the MacDonalds, who I’m staying with) tells me that he believes it’s unique amongst the Pacific islanders to do it above ground, as everyone else digs a hole in the ground to put the rocks in. He doesn’t understand why they do it that way because he claims the dirt ruins the taste of the food–but after nervously watching scaldingly hot rocks pushed around next to flip-flop clad feet, I can see at least one motivation for digging that hole.

Wait, what is an umu and how do the rocks get so hot? I better back up.

Ready to be fired up!

An umu is basically an outdoor Samoan oven/grill/stove/multipurpose cooking situation. I refer to it as a situation because oven/grill/stove seems to compare it to an appliance, which it’s really not. Its components include rocks, wood, coconut husks & shells, and giant leaves of an unknown source, possibly banana. Cooking utensils include wooden tongs, a long stick, and honestly not much else. The fire is built with the rocks surrounded by a pyramid of fuel. Coconut husks burn well, but I’m told that the shells burn the hottest, sometimes producing a blue flame. The fire is lit in the middle and the rocks sink to the ground as the fuel is eaten up.

Wooden tongs, basically just a length of wood notched and bent in half.

Once everything is basically burned down, the logs are removed from the sides and the rocks are spread out. Things that need the most cooking (breadfruit, taro, bananas) are placed in a layer directly on the rocks. Another layer of rocks is arranged on top of them, and the more delicate things (packets of young taro leaves with coconut cream) are put on top. You can also put pots or pans of other things in there–we had beef ribs and albacore mixed with coconut cream and chilis cooking on there as well. When all the food is in place, the giant leaves (banana? I honestly forgot to ask.) are used to cover the entire thing and seal all the heat and moisture in. Francis and Tony (a friend who is an expert umu-er) also threw a plastic tarp on top, although I’m guessing this is not strictly old-school traditional.

The fire is started...

It's getting HOT!

Mmm breadfruit and rocks...

After 45-60 minutes, all the layers are peeled back (the leaves are soaked by steam at this point!) and all you have to do is dig through the hot rocks without maiming yourself, then delicious Sunday lunch is served!

Lunch is steaming away!

Lunch is served!

It might not be pretty but it's delicious!

If you’re interested in more description about the actual food prep and seeing lots of pictures, mosey along here.

~200 Samoans down… ~199,800 to go!

The sign for SPBD's headquarters in Apia!

It’s totally unbelievable that I’ve only been in Samoa for one week. One measly week?? Are you sure that’s not two or three–especially judging by the number of mosquito bites I’ve acquired? When I first heard that I would be doing my Kiva Fellowship in a country with fewer than 200,000 people, I semi-jokingly vowed that I would meet everyone. After three days of shadowing loan officers into the field, it feels like I’m well on my way.

Those would be the "ferries" to get to Manono!

SPBD is the only microfinance institution (MFI) in Samoa. Their headquarters is in Apia, with a branch office on Savai’i island, and they have borrowers throughout the country. This includes Manono and Apolima, which are the smaller islands where there are no cars! You just take a boat across and walk everywhere. SPBD loans exclusively to women, although interestingly they do make exceptions for the fa’afafine–men who are Samoan drag queens of sorts, generally treated like a ‘third gender’. From what I can tell fa’afafine are generally well-accepted by society, although homosexuality is not. It’s an interesting phenomenon that’s not unique to Samoa, and I hope I learn more about it during my time here.

But I digress.

I’m going to share the nitty gritty of my MFI, which is probably most interesting to fellow KFs, so if you’d just like the fun details of my visits, skip down to the jump! First and foremost, borrowers cannot be formally employed to receive a loan from SPBD. Sounds harsh, but in fact according to the State Department, only 18% of Samoans are formally employed. Eighteen percent! SPBD organizes their borrowers into groups, which are part of centers. Any group will have 4-7 borrowers, and each center must have at least 2 groups. Centers are then divided up amongst the loan officers, who are called Center Managers (CMs). CMs visit centers once a week to collect repayments, accept deposits for savings accounts, fill out applications for new loans or new members, and answer questions. All members should be present at these meetings, although it’s generally okay if they must miss a meeting but send their payment with someone else.

What’s interesting about SPBD’s groups is that although the loans are individual loans, they use a group guarantee. Each member’s loans are not bound to their group-mates in any way except that they are responsible for covering each others’ missed payments. If the group cannot guarantee the loan, it falls on the center to find the money. CMs are instructed not to leave meetings until they receive full payment, which can result in some loooong meetings where everyone sort of stares at each other, coins and bills are shuffled around, money is finally brought from elsewhere, and the CM is then running late for the rest of their meetings.

Some of the centers I visited. I couldn't find all the villages on the map!

Over the last 3 days, I’ve attended meeting at 18 centers, as well as a few collections (situations where a center is no longer running but CMs must visit individual borrowers to collect repayment) with 5 different CMs. CMs leave the office in teams of 2 or 3 around 9:30am and don’t return until 4:30pm at the earliest, so I covered some good ground on ‘Upolu. Each center had 7-30 borrowers, which adds up to quite a few Samoan ladies!

READ ON, for the more interesting stuff!

Samoa: Definitely More Than a Cookie

You can walk along the seawall for almost the entire span of the harbor...

Wow! My first weekend in Samoa has been a sunny one, with blue skies and equator-strength sun streaming full force. I haven’t decided if the lower temperature of rainy days is worth the humidity and grey sky…my inclination is always towards sun but considering how intensely the heat slices you down, we’ll see how I feel in a month. The weekend was also full of firsts, starting with my first day of work with SPBD on Friday.

1)  First day of work–To be honest, it was disappointingly slow. I’m sure, or at least I hope, many of my fellow KF17ers can commiserate with getting super excited for your first day and then not doing too much. I showed up at 8:30, shockingly sweaty (lesson learned that taking a taxi to work is advisable in humid climates) and ready for duty. I waited about an hour for the Kiva Coordinator (who is the liaison between Kiva and the MFI) to show up, talked with her for awhile, met everyone in the office, and then sat there for about 6 hours. I alternated between trying to figure out how to make the time productive and just accepting the down time as a consequence of first days, Fridays, and ‘adjustment time.’ I definitely expect next week to be a little more active and am looking forward to shadowing loan officers out in the field!

2) First taro–Or TALO, as they call it here in Samoa! Yes, this is the key to the name of my blog. Taro root is definitely a staple here, and actually used to be the main export until a blight wiped out crops and forced diversification a couple decades ago. I ate a solid lunch of taro with a side of chicken cooked with taro leaves, which was fairly tasty. The taro was cut in half lengthwise and probably baked in an outdoor oven (umu) using hot rocks. I’ve eaten plenty of taro in my life but nothing like this–it was dense, dry, and not even purple! I really had to muscle it to break it apart. Many meals are eaten with your hands, so taro is broken into pieces and used like an edible spoon. Pictures to come.

The things that aren't coconut halves are breadfruit!

3) First breadfruit–The other staple of Samoa is a fruit that grows EVERYWHERE. I doubt if there is a family in Samoa that doesn’t have a breadfruit tree accessible to them. Calling it fruit is a slight misnomer to my Western mind, as breadfruit is not the least sweet. When boiled, it has the consistency of a potato, kind of, and is generally eaten with coconut cream. When baked, it’s a bit lighter and not so mealy. It honestly doesn’t have a taste that I could describe, as it’s quite bland. It does have an interesting look to it, and I think pictures are definitely better than words in this case–I don’t have a great picture right now but will attempt to document it more next time.

What other firsts could there possibly be??

Scattered Rains and Scattered Thoughts

Talofa lava! ‘O a mai ‘oe?

I’ve been in Apia for just over 24 hours now and it has been both overwhelming and slow. I don’t start in the office until tomorrow morning, and the time is passing quite slowly as I have already coated myself in the sticky layer of sweat that will be my companion until I leave. On the other hand, I am definitely not in Kansas anymore and it’s all getting real! If this post is somewhat scattered as a result, I apologize–I’m basically word-vomiting my first impressions.

Home sweet (sweaty) home, for now.

Currently I am renting a room from the MacDonalds, a Samoan family (don’t let the name confuse you!) in Vaiala village on the outskirts of Apia. The walk into town is a bit long at 35-40 minutes–although I can do most of it along the seawall, which gives me a nice breeze–and while most Samoans seem to take taxis everywhere despite the relatively close proximity of everything, I do prefer walking… I may look into other living options after this month, but for now I am lucky enough to have cold showers, a fan and a mosquito net to keep the humid, mosquito-filled nights pleasant. I suspect that I will come, as well, to love the acrid smoke of mosquito coils, as I was being served for dinner to my winged nemeses before coils were lit. I have the misfortune of being particularly tasty and I’m sure this battle will take up a good amount of energy through my four months here.

Let me start at the beginning…

Antarctica is Almost Close Enough to Touch…

Facing Antarctica??

…At least that’s how it feels to me. Dunedin, New Zealand–where I’m visiting my dear friend Kana from high school–is definitely the furthest south I’ve ever been. This has led to slight concerns regarding falling off the edge of the earth, as well as many confused attempts to epically gaze towards Antarctica while at the beach (difficulties stem from my horrendous sense of direction). I only spent a short time here, but we’ve definitely made the most of it and I think I’ve experienced a solid sampling of Kiwi culture. I hope to share with you some of my new fun facts!

Incredible Linguistic Tidbits:

  • Tramping–This means hiking, but sounds ever so much more awesome. Brings to my mind an image of Bigfoot wearing snowshoes tearing through the forest, which I like to compare to my own hiking style.
  • Stubbies–Kana has enlightened my life by introducing this new slang for rugby shorts. For the uninitiated, rugby shorts tend to be SHORT and well-fitting, particularly when worn by beefy rugby ‘blokes’. Given my strong familiarity with rugby shorts and the ridicule they generally receive in the states, I love seeing them worn everywhere and referred to as ‘stubbies.’

Beach cartwheels in my "sneans"

  • Sneans–Upon donning what I deem acceptable travel attire–sneakers and jeans–I was mocked for wearing ‘sneans.’ Apparently this is considered stereotypical American wear, although I’m not sure if the implied scorn is fair considering the evident popularity of jorts…

New Zealand has perfectly met three of my four expectations for it. It is definitely as rugby crazy as people say, full of sheep (nine for each person!) and heart-achingly beautiful. However, it is not home to hobbits, elves, or dwarves, AND most disappointingly, Dunedin does not appear to have any relation to the Dunedain. Sigh. To stem my disappointment, I plunged headlong into a two-day fact-finding mission.

What facts did I find?? (*NERD ALERT*)

Goodbye California, Talofa Samoa!

Well, not quite. I’ll be stopping over in New Zealand to visit my old friend from high school before I finally arrive in Apia, Samoa to begin my Kiva Fellowship. The top three reactions to my placement in the small island nation are:

  1. Where IS that??
  2. I hear the people are huge…
  3. Oh, like the cookie!

To clarify, Samoa is in the South Pacific, about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand.

Where is Samoa

I swear there's an island nation under that pin.

The people do, in fact, tend to be very large–which is helpful when playing rugby or football, as many, many Samoans do, quite successfully.

And lastly, I would argue that the cookie is like Samoa, not the other way around. Please note that they are also known as Caramel DeLites, which seems to me a more descriptive name that causes less confusion over the national identity of a people. Just a thought for the Girl Scouts to consider.

Now, many of you may be wondering: what is a Kiva Fellow and what do they do? Being fresh out of Kiva Fellows training, I should be able to explain this well. Let’s see…

  • Kiva is an organization that uses online crowd-funding to provide capital to microfinance institutions (MFIs) around the world. Basically, anyone can log onto Kiva’s website and view the information and plans of individuals who are taking out small loans. You can then choose to contribute $25 or more to help fund a loan–and when the loan gets paid back, you get paid back. Your money can then be re-invested or withdrawn. This an overly simplified description of a complex model, so you should find out more about how Kiva works.
  • Kiva Fellows come from a wide variety of backgrounds (finance, politics, education, human rights–to name a few) but share a common desire to spend 4 months or more living in a foreign country, where they may or may not speak the local language. Since Kiva can’t keep a large number of staff in the field, they utilize these foolhardy courageous and generous volunteers by placing them with a partner MFI to serve as Kiva’s presence.
  • Don’t let the word ‘volunteer’ fool you! Aside from the week of intensive training at Kiva HQ that turns us all into Kiva devotees and microfinance wizards, this group is a shockingly talented, well-traveled, full-of-work-experience bunch of people. I actually have no idea how I fit into this profile, but I’m extremely happy to be associated with them all. Fellows lend their diverse skill sets to their host MFIs to institute sustainable change in their operations–hopefully making life easier and more productive–and strengthen their partnerships with Kiva.

Each Kiva Fellow enters the field armed with a lengthy work plan, detailing the projects they will accomplish during their fellowship. Thank goodness for training because the deliverables that sounded like words in a foreign language now merely sound like a very busy and challenging 4 months! After months of lounging around NYC on my couch, I’m so excited and nervous to dive into some hard work on a tropical island. But first, New Zealand!

(Oh…what’s that you say? Curious about the name of this blog? Guess you’ll have to keep reading to find out!)