Ia Manuia le Iupeli Auro o le Malo o Samoa!

A hearty congratulations to Samoa–50 years ago, they became the first nation in the South Pacific to gain independence. And let me tell you, they are damn proud of it! (As they should be.) The ‘Golden Jubilee’ celebrations over the last few days have definitely put to shame any 4th of July that I’ve ever seen. It started with a ‘march past’ parade for government officials (translation: 6 hours of standing/sitting in the sun, enduring a 1+ hour prayer, watching schoolchildren pass out, and almost getting into a group rumble after SPBD decided to cut in line) that it seemed like almost the entire country participated in, included a UB40 concert that brought visitors in by the hundreds from American Samoa, ended in a dramatic fautasi race (long boat with like 60 men rowing) and generally swelled Apia’s population to a size that caused me, at times, to feel like I was in the middle of Times Square. A very small Times Square, to be sure, but still. Things I have learned over this 5-day national holiday/celebration:

  • ‘Island time’ holds fast even during official events. You will be expected to show up early to ‘get a good seat’, but they are not expected to start until at least an hour after the designated start time. This applied to waiting 1.5 hours for a fa’afafine pageant to start (Samoan drag show), showing up at 4am to meet my coworkers for the parade….while no one else got there until 5am, ‘lining up’ for a parade at 6 and not marching until 11:30, watching the 10pm fireworks at 11pm………..the list could go on.
  • FINALLY, how to properly wear a lavalava. Of course, the theory of it is easier than in practice….
  • Samoan pastors/government officials may be the most long-winded beings alive. Not even swooning schoolchildren can put them off their epic prayers/pronouncements.
  • The public arena is fair game for a ‘pants off dance off.’
  • How ‘ava (kava) tastes. Which, by the way, is EXACTLY how it looks. Like muddy water.
  • I love my country, but I have never experienced the pure pride and wholehearted joyfulness that I’ve seen in Samoans as they celebrate Samoa’s birth.

This will be a short entry because, of course, these are my last days in Samoa, so I will have a longer farewell post for you later this week. In the meantime, I will let pictures serve as the thousands of words that the Samoan independence celebration truly deserves. Continue on for pictures

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Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

Okay, so it might be driving instead of walking, and kilometer(s) instead of mile, but to continue in the trend of video blogs, I present you with a day in the life of a SPBD loan officer.

 

Not Glamorous, But it’s Life

What you think I’ve been doing for the last month.

What I actually do every day.

After a small break from blogging, I realized I’d better dust off my keyboard, lest I disappoint my faithful readers (hi dad!). The truth is, whether it’s a result of getting close to my 3-month mark, a continually stalled social life, or a focus on work in the office instead of the field, I just haven’t found much to be blog-worthy lately. My biggest recent triumph is that I found a rugby team to play with! Hopefully, I can put together something about rugby in Samoa, which is the only thing that really feels like home here. In the meantime, I thought I would write a little bit about (yawn) work, since I realized it’s a little bit unclear what I do here besides go joy-riding in yellow pick-up trucks, battle mosquitoes, and expend huge amounts of energy grieving over what to eat. Continue reading

Paradise Found: Savai’i

Too bad it rained the whole time. Last week, I finally made the trip over to Savai’i, which is the other main land mass of Samoa. It’s often referred to as ‘the big island,’ and the jaded metropolitan workers of Apia (hah) told me more than once that ‘it’s more laid back’ than ‘Upolu. Never having seen anything remotely approaching uptight-ness on ‘Upolu, I was pretty excited to experience Savai’i for myself. The first thing to note is that although Savai’i is, indeed, bigger than ‘Upolu, it has one-third the people and far fewer paved roads. I’m told that many people are originally from Savai’i but relocate to ‘Upolu for better work or school opportunities–so I guess the rural-urban shift does exist here, just on a considerably smaller scale. Savai’i is also supposed to be quite beautiful and a big tourist destination in Samoa. I was only there for a day and a half, and I can tell you that I would love to see more.

A sizable chunk of my work-plan with Kiva involves gathering video footage, and in one case, editing it. Considering it’s been oh-so-long since I took that film-making seminar in college (and debatable how much I learned from the pass/fail course), I figured I should get some practice in with my hapless blog readers before unleashing myself on the Kiva community. Thus, for this week, I present to you: video blog! I spent embarrassingly long throwing this together, and I still must apologize for the shaky footage and sudden cuts. I have nervous hands and ADD, sorry!

And just in case that amazing film wasn’t totally comprehensive somehow…some pictures to fill in the gaps.

Meet the Borrowers: So who takes out these loans anyway?

Just looking out the window on the drive to visit borrowers, no biggie...

“Do you have credit?”

“What?”

“Do you have credit on your phone?”

“Oh…yeah.”

“You might want to call your parents up and tell them goodbye.” Tui, one of SPBD’s Center Managers, informed me solemnly. “That guy,” he pointed at Peni, who was currently behind the wheel, “used to be a pilot.”

As I laughed along with the three Center Managers (loan officers), I double checked my seat belt and tried not to let the sheer terror show on my face. After a long day of borrower visits, it seemed I would meet my end at the hands of a previously normal-seeming, now maniacal Samoan (who is apparently, not actually an ex-pilot) bent on ending my existence by demolishing everything in his path, whether man, animal, or machine.

On the bright side, after being soaked through in sweat, whizzing down a windy, two-lane, oceanside road did create a nice breeze.

I spent last Wednesday out in the field conducting one of my Borrower Verifications. Almost every Kiva Fellow must complete 10 BVs (some have to do more!) during their time in the field. This basically entails interviews with borrowers to confirm their identities and loan information, and find out what they’ve done with their loan. The key thing is that the 10 borrowers are a random sample chosen by Kiva and all 10 borrowers must be visited, and pass their BV, for the MFI to pass overall. This helps Kiva guard against fraud and ensure that the correct policies are being implemented by their partners. It’s also a great excuse to get out and meet some borrowers!

In order for me to carry out my BVs, I have to tag along with one of the teams of CMs. As I previously mentioned, each team usually leaves the office around 9:30 and returns around 4:30, so that means that even if I just want to meet one borrower, I’m along for the ride for their whole route. I try to work in meeting other Kiva borrowers just to chat and possibly post updates for them on their borrower profiles, but the tight schedule and varying levels of helpfulness from CMs has left me with both amazing days and super boring ones. But will I tell you about the boring ones or the amazing ones?

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??

~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!